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Sunday, November 18, 2007

Born Yesterday

by digby

Robert Novak has thrown a bomb (a twofer) into the Democratic primary and is getting the predictable result.

I think this is probably a good juncture to take an important little trip down memory lane. It's 1972, and Richard Nixon has surveyed the field and wants to run against the so-called peacenik George McGovern. Edmund Muskie of Maine is leading the pack in the primaries, until one day he melts down his entire campaign on the steps of the Manchester Union Leader.

There have been many interesting recountings of this episode, most notably in "All The president's Men" but none so revealing as the one by David Broder in 1987, called "The Story That Still Nags Me."

The human factor is always the least predictable element in covering politics. That is why the beat is so fascinating. Under the pressure of campaigns for high office, people react in ways that are always revealing and often unexpected. In this case, Muskie's strategists wanted him to show indignation and righteous wrath to regain the offensive in what they saw as an eroding effort to hold off the challenge of his major rival, Senator George McGovern. They focused on the impact of two Union Leader editorials: one concerned an alleged derogatory comment by Muskie about the important French-Canadian voting bloc, the other impugned the behavior and character of the candidate's wife.

I described Muskie's dramatic reaction:

"With tears streaming down his face and his voice choked with emotion, Senator Edmund S. Muskie (D-Maine) stood in the snow outside the Manchester Union Leader this morning and accused its publisher of making vicious attacks on him and his wife, Jane."

The Democratic presidential candidate called publisher William Loeb "a gutless coward' for involving Mrs. Muskie in the campaign and said four times that Loeb had lied in charging that Muskie had condoned a slur on Americans of French-Canadian descent.

In defending his wife, Muskie broke down three times in as many minutes-- uttering a few words and then standing silent in the near blizzard, rubbing at his face, his shoulders heaving, while he attempted to regain his composure sufficiently to speak.


Within 24 hours, Muskie's weeping became the focus of political talk, not just in New Hampshire, but everywhere the pattern of the developing presidential race was discussed. His tears were generally described as one of the contributing causes of his disappointing showing in the March 7 primary...

In retrospect, though, there were a few problems with the Muskie story. First, it is unclear whether Muskie did cry. He insists he never shed the tears we thought we saw. Melting snow from his hatless head filled his eyes, he said, and made him wipe his face. While admitting that exhaustion and emotion got the better of him that morning, the senator believes that he was damaged more by the press and television coverage of the event than by his own actions.

Second, it is now clear that the incident should have been placed in a different context: Muskie was victimized by the classic dirty trick that had been engineered by agents of the distent and detached President Nixon. The Loeb editorial that had brought Muskie out in the snowstorm had been based on a letter forged by a White House staff member intent on destroying Muskie's credibility. But we didn't know that and we didn't work hard enough to find out.

He goes on to explain that part of the reason was that he had already come to the conclusion that Muskie was an unstable hot head who may have been unsuited to be president.

What does a political reporter do with this kind of insight? As in this instance, it is rarely written as a hard news story the first time the thought arises. Most reporters have a healthy reluctance to play amateur psychiatrist. Often, the incidents are trivial in themselves. Sometimes, as with the poker game, they occur in semiprivate settings, which many reporters--myself included-- feel uncomfortable in exploiting directly for journalistic purposes.

What we tend to do is to store such incidents in our minds and then use them to interpret major incidents when they occur.

So, when Muskie got angry on the steps that day, Broder and the rest of the press corps described him as having a sort of breakdown. But when Broder thought about it later in 1987, he realized he couldn't actually be sure that what he saw was crying.
And it was certainly the "crying" that did Muskie in. (Much as the press characterizing certain behaviors as "screaming" and "sighing" have done-in others.)

Broder writes, "as far as I can recall, there was no internal questioning of the accuracy of the story then, or later, at the Post. Still, it nags at me as few other stories I have written."

That's very big of him considering the full extent of what he learned a short time later:

Systematic sabotage

What Muskie did not know, and what I certainly did not know at the time, was that there was another set of facts that would have put the incident into a very different context. Those facts related to a series of actions, ordered and coordinated by the Nixon White House and designed to harass, to vex, and to embarrass the front running Democrat who was judged a serious threat to Nixon's re-election. The "Canuck letter' was part of that plot.

Had those facts been known, I might have described Muskie in different terms: not as a victim of his over-ambitious campaign strategy and his too-human temperament, but as the victim of a fraud, managed by operatives of a frightened and unscrupulous president. That story surely would have had a different impact.

Given Loeb's history, there was ample reason for skepticism about the origins of the "Canuck letter.' Indeed, in my story about the Manchester incident, I devoted seven paragraphs to that subject, noting that "the Deerfield Beach telephone company does not list a Paul Morrison among the 15 Morrisons in its directory,' and noting that Loeb, while promising "a very interesting followup' on the letter, had not yet produced the author.

The story also quoted at length the denials of the senator and others who were with him in Florida that any such thing happened. But regrettably, none of us reporting the story pursued the mystery of authorship. We were in New Hampshire, tracking the candidates through the final week of the primary campaign. Paul Morrison, if he existed, was one thousand miles to the south. And the story, in our eyes, was not the provocation but the reaction.

It was not until seven months later, when Nixonwas sailing toward a landslide victory over McGovern and Muskie was back tending to his Senate business, that the mystery began to unravel. Marilyn Berger, then a colleague at the Post, told me that Ken W. Clawson, a former Post reporter who had gone to work at the White House as deputy director of information, had told her that he was the author of "the Canuck letter.'


The coverage of the incident shows that when a reporter's information is incomplete, there is a great risk of misleading the reader. I put the Manchester speech into the context--accurately, I believe--of a campaign and a personality that were accessible to journalistic view. I did not put it into the context of campaign sabotage.

Unwittingly, I did my part in the work of the Nixon operatives in helping destroy the credibility of the Muskie candidacy.

Well, he can take some comfort that he wasn't alone, but it's not like it was the last time it happened. They may have been slightly chastened for a time, but the modern conservative movement's political arm comes directly out of the Nixon school. Bill Clinton and Al Gore were nearly destroyed by the same tactics, a bit more refined. But by that point the press shamelessly worked hand in glove with Republicans, often in the open, fully aware that they were helping them --- Broder included.

After years of this sort of politics, from Atwater to Rove, from Willie Horton to Swift Boats, it would be nice to think the mainstream media have learned from the past and will ensure that things like this are adequately examined within the context of history and not just the heat of the moment. But that's clearly too much to hope for.

Robert Novak was once a real journalist but after the events of the past few years, it's safe to say that he no longer can be considered anything but a Republican operative, specifically a Rove acolyte who basically works for him. He has more than proven his loyalty. This rumor, especially coming from him, should never have seen the light of day. MSNBC is running with the story like it's 9/11. It remains to be seen if it has any legs among the rest of the mainstream press. But I think it's fair to say that they will, at the very least, "store such incidents in [their] minds and then use them to interpret major incidents when they occur."

We don't know exactly what happened here,of course, but Democratic campaigns should know better that to ever use Robert Novak to try to score points either way. His item, (just like Rove's from earlier in the week) was a twofer, virtually designed to make both candidates look bad --- and, frankly, both of their responses only reaffirmed that impression.

The Democratic campaigns need to remember that they are battling not only the Republicans but the entire Village press. This little episode was badly handled and I would hope they get smart very quickly or they are going to making it much worse for themselves --- and the country.


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