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Kennedy, Muskie, Jackson Eyed
Long before the Watergate scandal, President Richard M. Nixon demonstrated an aptitude for political mischief, according to newly transcribed tape recordings from the Nixon White House.
For example, as 1971 came to a close, Nixon expressed concern that the chief obstacle to his reelection in November 1972 was Sen. Edmund S. Muskie of Maine, who had emerged as the leading Democratic contender.
Brainstorming in the Oval Office with his top political aide, Charles W. Colson, on Dec. 23, 1971, Nixon wondered aloud whether Muskie could be weakened by a strong challenge from another Democrat. "Should something be done to finance one of the Democratic candidates?" he asked Colson.
When Colson suggested Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) might fit the bill, Nixon warmed to the idea.
"Yeah. Put this down: I would say, a postcard mailing to all Democrats in New Hampshire," where the first presidential primary would take place in little over two months. "‚'Write in Ted Kennedy,'‚" Nixon dictated. "Get every Democrat in the state."
Colson estimated the anonymous postcard campaign touting Kennedy as a write-in candidate could be undertaken for "just a few thousand dollars."
Three weeks later, on Jan. 12, 1972, Nixon and Colson again conferred on the Muskie threat.
"We got to get Muskie, you know, out on the limb on some of these critical issues," Nixon said. This time the president was looking ahead to the critical Florida primary.
"Now, get a massive mailing in Florida that he's against [FBI Director] J. Edgar Hoover, a massive mailing that he's for busing," Nixon urged. "Put the necessary funds into getting mailings to every Democrat that he is for busing, that he is against Hoover and he's against the space shuttle." These mailings, Nixon added, would be deceptively arranged "on the basis that it came from [Muskie], see?" — in an effort to baffle voters about Muskie's real positions.
The secret Kennedy write-in project was undertaken first, sowing confusion and mutual suspicion among the Democrats. On Feb. 22, 1972, Kennedy — in an effort to reassert his non-candidacy — asked that his name be removed from the Wisconsin and Oregon ballots. When the March 7 primary was held in New Hampshire, Kennedy received only 954 write-in votes, but the Democratic race was in turmoil.
As for the Florida primary, Muskie's candidacy had already taken a nose dive after a mediocre showing in New Hampshire, so Nixon's mass mailing became irrelevant.
Nixon's 1972 reelection campaign became infamous for a variety of "dirty tricks" intended to disrupt the political opposition, and it was in that climate that the Watergate bugging attempt transpired. The tapes show Nixon calculating how to divide and conquer the Democrats more than a year before the election.
For example, on Oct. 6, 1971, Harry Dent, a White House political aide, told Nixon he had been talking to John Rollins, a Delaware businessman and major GOP contributor. Rollins had an unusual idea he was willing to bankroll, Dent said.
Nixon coyly indicated that he was aware of the scheme. Rollins "should not talk to me," Nixon said. "He mentioned it a little bit. I mustn't know one thing about it." Later in the conversation, without offering specifics, the president assured Dent, "It can be done."
The mystery is somewhat clarified in a tape recording three weeks later, on Oct. 29, when Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman asked Nixon if Rollins had discussed secretly funding an independent black candidacy to pull votes away from the Democrats.
"Oh, yeah," Nixon responded.
As Haldeman explained, Rollins proposed running "newspaper ads for a committee to elect Jesse Jackson." Republican operatives would then send campaign contributions to Jackson in an effort to make him believe there was a grass-roots movement for his candidacy.
Rollins "says what we do is, we get our people out, we get these old $1 bills — you don't want to get the new, shiny ones — with the old ones, it looks like people have been saving it all their lives," Haldeman continued. "And so we plug those in, you know, a dollar apiece, you know, and from 4 [thousand] or 5,000 people, scattered around.
"You do that two or three times and Jackson will start thinking people really want him to be president. ... And after his ego is going, then you can't turn him off."
It is unclear whether the White House scheme to encourage a black candidacy in 1972 was ever put into effect.
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