Special counsel Robert Mueller’s recent indictments of 13 Russian nationals have justifiably led many Americans to become anxious about our democratic system and the influence fake media campaigns can have in elections. This type of meddling is not new. But in the past, such manipulation came not from an international foe, but the White House itself.
Russian meddling is the culmination of a style of politics launched during President Richard Nixon’s 1972 re-election campaign. Nixon’s administration ushered in a Watergate culture in which winning, not governance, was the end goal of politics. The Watergate investigation ousted a president but not this Nixonian approach of divisive, win-at-all-costs campaigning. And while the technology has changed since the Watergate era, the tactics have largely remained the same.
In the weeks preceding the 1972 New Hampshire Democratic primary, Nixon and White House special counsel Charles Colson hatched a plan to weaken the candidate polling best against the president: Sen. Edmund Muskie, D-Maine.
They deviously tried to pull support from Muskie by encouraging a write-in campaign for another New England Democrat, Edward Kennedy. The White House had spied on Kennedy since 1969 and now sought to use his popularity among Democrats to diminish the vote totals of actual candidates on the ballot. Nixon ordered Colson to get money from White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman to arrange “a postcard mailing to all Democrats in New Hampshire: ‘Write in for Ted Kennedy, the man you could elect.’ ”
It wasn’t long before New Hampshire Democrats received a letter from a fake organization called “United Democrats for Kennedy” stating that “this year you can change America’s course.” The letter acknowledged that Kennedy was not an active candidate but insisted that “Senator Kennedy will answer our call.”
As his orders to Colson show, Nixon was at the center of this dirty tricks campaign. He devised specific plots to attack his enemies, creating a climate of corruption that led to Watergate. The fake mailers were merely the tip of the iceberg as the administration sought ways to attack its enemies.
In certain instances, the White House even attempted to use the federal government to harass foes. Throughout 1971 and 1972, Nixon and his closest advisers increasingly pressured the Internal Revenue Service to target people on their enemies list, including initiating audits against hundreds of antiwar activists and Democratic Party officials. Administration officials who were morally opposed to Nixon’s plan ultimately blocked its implementation, but the attempt exposed Nixon’s desire to win by any means necessary.
While Nixon is typically remembered as keeping a certain level of distance from his campaign’s high jinks, White House aide Dwight Chapin later recalled that Nixon was present when Haldeman asked Chapin, “Do you know anyone who does Tuck-type stuff?” Dick Tuck was a Democratic consultant and renowned dirty trickster who had built his reputation in political circles by pulling pranks that targeted Nixon throughout the 1960s. At one Nixon rally, Tuck had an African-American woman walk around with a T-shirt that read “Nixon’s the One” to alienate the white Southern Democrats Nixon was attempting to bring into his coalition.
As a result, Chapin hired his former fraternity brother Donald Segretti, who later served four months in prison for his actions. Segretti went beyond Tuck-style pranks. Using funds supplied by a White House lawyer, he sent several other fake mailers during the primaries, including a letter on Muskie’s campaign’s stationary that accused his Democratic rivals of sexual misconduct. One of Segretti’s news releases alleged that Democratic congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman to run for president, had spent time in a mental institution.