Muskie's Politics of Deceit
"BELIEVE MUSKIE," the campaign buttons proclaim. "Trust Muskie," read the bumper stickers. Indeed, in a campaign almost totally devoid of real debate over issues, the central theme Senator Edmund Muskie and his staff are striking is that Muskie is honest and can be trusted, no used-car salesman is this "man from Maine." Yet in the final 36 hours before the polls opened in New Hampshire last week. Muskie and his staff were involved in four separate but related incidents of deceit that transformed the placid New Hampshire campaign into a cesspool of low blows and innuendos. Three of these deceptions pertained to campaign financing, while the fourth was related to the war in Vietnam.
The issue of campaign financing has been a hot one ever since Senator George McGovern published a list of all his campaign contributors, and Muskie told New York Magazine reporter Richard Reeves that doing so would "force me out of the race. "McGovern has been hammering away at Muskie's reticence, wondering who is on this list who might prove so embarassing to the Maine Senator. In a typical encounter last Sunday evening, Muskie tried to skirt the issue. In his closing remarks in a debate at the University of New Hampshire, Muskie said, "I disclosed my sources two years before any of the other candidates. When they didn't follow suit, I decided we needed a policy that would apply to all the candidates, including the President, so I sponsored legislation that will go into effect April 7."
Muskie was referring to a report he filed at the end of 1970 with the Clerk of the House of Representatives detailing all campaign contributions he had received to that point: his implication was that McGovern's disclosure did not include contributions he received in 1970 and "before his announcement in 1971." Yet Muskie neglected to point out that he was running for the Senate in 1970, not the Presidency, and that the contributions he received then are mostly irrelevant to the current Presidential campaign. And as Frank Mankiewicz, McGovern's chief national political strategist, noted the next day, since the Muskie list included contributions from the National Committee for an Effective Congress and the Senate Democratic Campaign Fund, it had better be a list of contributors to his Senate campaign, or else something pretty irregular is going on.
Muskie's charge that McGovern did not reveal contributions received prior to his formal announcement in 1971 is equally flimsy. McGovern announced his candidacy on January 18, 1971 a full year ahead of Muskie and whatever money he received before then is so small as to be inconsequential. Now Muskie is saying that by disclosing his Senate contributors, he set the lead in honesty; his decision not to make his Presidential campaign sources public resulted only because other, unannounced, candidates had not followed suit in 1970. His slap at McGovern, and the basis upon which it is founded, seem aimed, clearly and simply, at deceiving voters.
JACK ENGLISH, Muskie's top political strategist, and Dick Stewart, his national press secretary, took the deceit a step further at a press conference following the debate when they tried to persuade newsmen that McGovern's list of contributors was incomplete. English told reporters that the Muskie staff knew of "several people" who had contributed $1000 or more to the McGovern campaign yet had not appeared on his disclosure list. Indeed, said English, he knew of several people who had contributed $1000 or more to both the Muskie and McGovern campaigns. But pressed by reporters to name the names-to name even one name-English and Stewart demurred.
Suddenly, McGovern appeared in another corner of the room, and the press shifted over to him. "He doesn't know what he's talking about," McGovern said of English's first allegation. To the contention that several people had contributed to both campaigns, McGovern replied, "I wish he (English) would tell us who they are so we could collect the money." English and Stewart had everything going for them except one thing: they had no evidence to back up their claims.
The lowest blow of all didn't come until the next day. Someone in Muskie's entourage leaked to the phalanx of reporters that follows the Maine Senator the interesting fact that the Muskie staff had letters from two well-known contributors to liberal causes, saying that each planned to contribute $1000 to both the Muskie and McGovern campaigns. Hearing this, the two philanthropists were outraged and denied the rumor. McGovern himself vehemently denied the claim, and Mankiewicz called the rumor "scandalous." Even Dick Stewart, in Muskie's press room, said that no one in the Muskie office had any knowledge of the letters; at the same time no one on Muskie's staff would either confirm nor deny that they had leaked the story. The leak exemplified the most vile kind of political ploy: a rumor for which no one will take credit channeled to the press. The word gets out, it gets into print, and yet no one-in this case in the Muskie Headquarters-is held accountable if it turns out to be a lie.
THE ISSUE OF the war provided yet another opportunity for deceit from Muskie's camp. In the debate Sunday night, Muskie carried the "I am a dovotoo" theme past the point of credulity. Responding to a question which asked why each candidate thought he was different from all others, Muskie said in effect that the three liberal Senators on the podium-himself. McGovern and Vance Hartke--all had held similar positions on the war because each had voted for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964. But what Muskie tactfully ignored is the fact that the other two Senators, particularly McGovern, have ardently opposed the war since its inception, while he curiously did not have the foresight to malign America's involvement until it had become a Republican war.
Furthermore, Muskie avoided mention of the fact, that he had been a strong proponent of the war during the Johnson Administration, and had even been the first speaker for the pro-war, pro-Administration Vietnam plank at the Chicago Democratic National Convention in 1968. All this didn't matter, Muskie tried to tell us: all three had voted for Tonkin, so all three stood similarly on the war.
This kind of chicanery didn't take with McGovern. He noted his own long-standing opposition to the war, and advised Muskie that the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution passed because the Johnson Administration had wrongly and intentionally told the Senate that American ships had been attacked. Whether this exchange between Muskie and McGovern had any effect on Tuesday's returns is not really important. What is important is that Muskie had the nerve to attempt this blatant bit of obfuscation.
WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO Muskie? Why has he, with his fabled Lincolnesque honesty, resorted to such tactics? It seems clear now that in the last few days before the voting in New Hampshire. Muskie and his staff were panicking. Reports of Muskie's decline in support, along with McGovern's surge and the constant, daily sniping by the Manchester Union Leader, combined to break the collective cool of the Muskie camp. Muskie himself appeared as if his nerves were shot. Plagued by poor scheduling, he looked and was tired. In the snowshoe parade held in his honor the Sunday before the balloting, he almost sleepwalked through the crowd, gesturing mechanically, with no expression on his face. A glimmer of recognition would cross his face only when he came across a familiar face, but the light passed quickly when he couldn't remember to whom the face belonged.
His staff, too, was nervous and irritable. They were continually clearing paths for the Senator where no paths were needed, tensely bossing people around, fiercely trying to keep people away from Muskie. In one 24-hour span, individual reporters were evicted from the Muskie press room, Muskie Headquarters, and an elevator in the Sheraton-Carpenter Hotel where Muskie was staying.
But another explanation for the new Muskie tactics is gaining currency: that the calm, soft-spoken advisors who have guided Muskie through 20 years of Maine politics are being phased out of the political side of the campaign by the tough, cigar-chomping con men who always flock to the Democratic frontrunner. This crowd of hustlers, so artfully described by Norman Mailer in his portrait of the Humphrey campaign in 1968, is increasingly in evidence around Muskie, 1972's premier candidate of the Establishment. It could be that the George Mitchell's and Dom Nicoll's who so expertly aided Muskie in Maine are being outmaneuvered by the pros from nice Democratic places like New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago.
Whatever the reason for the shift in tenor, though, Muskie will be hard put to maintain his reputation and integrity. Incidents such as these, combined with his refusal to disclose his campaign sources, indicate a record impressive only for its deception. Add to this the way Muskie has tried to pass of the New Hampshire. I could have gotten it up..." and the Honest Ed image crumbles further. One begins to wonder whether November's election could pit Tricky Dick against Trickler Ed, or vice versa. Either way, it isn't a very appealing choice.