Russian meddling is the culmination of a style of politics launched during President Richard M. Nixon’s 1972 reelection 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.
Other Nixon staffers dreamed up underhanded methods of hurting the president’s opponents. Pat Buchanan, who was one of Nixon’s speechwriters, pitched the idea of having a gay rights group, the Black Panthers or Students for a Democratic Society “contribute a grand or so to the McCloskey campaign” to help characterize it as an extremist campaign. Roger Stone, then a young Nixon campaign staffer, took it on his own to send a donation in the name of the Young Socialist Alliance to Pete McCloskey, an antiwar Republican and California congressman who was running against the president in the primaries.
Espionage was another tactic. Stone later hired another operative to spy on the McGovern campaign in 1972, one of the campaign’s many secret operations that resulted in break-ins and wiretaps that targeted Nixon’s enemies. With the president repeatedly demanding more secret information on figures such as Democratic National Committee Chair Lawrence O’Brien, it was no surprise that several campaign officials fully embraced covert activities.
Nixon may have resigned in the wake of the Watergate investigations, but as the careers of Buchanan and Stone revealed, such tactics were central to the growing prominence, and electoral success, of the Republican Party. The men climbed party ranks, serving as two of the more notable links between Nixon and President Trump. Over the course of their careers, the seedy underbelly of the Republican Party’s electoral success became its embrace of the very same politics that led to Nixon’s resignation.
Since the Watergate era, other dirty tricks have defined the character of Republican presidential campaigns. Republican strategist Lee Atwater made a career out of spreading fabricated stories about Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush’s political opponents. During the 1988 presidential campaign, Atwater circulated a story that Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis had been treated for depression, suggesting that was the reason the Massachusetts governor refused to release his medical records. George W. Bush’s political adviser Karl Rove was allegedly responsible for rumors that Texas Gov. Ann Richards (D) was a lesbian during the 1994 gubernatorial campaign, and that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) had an African American “love child” during the 2000 Republican primaries.
Russian interference may have crossed a line for many Republicans, but the party’s embrace of the culture of Watergate opened the door to foreign influence. From Nixon’s dirty tricks to a president who openly questioned the authenticity of the first African American president’s birth certificate, the party created a culture in which a foreign power knew that it’s interference would be welcomed.
Analysis and coverage of Mueller’s investigation has often been colored by the unprecedented nature of the allegations surrounding the 2016 election. Last summer, former director of national intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. declared, “I have to say, though, that I think when you compare the two, that Watergate pales really in my view compared to what we’re confronting now.”
It’s still entirely possible that Clapper’s assessment may prove to be true. But we need to fully confront the past actions of Americans, including a president, who sought to subvert our democratic institutions. That culture, which lives on in the GOP today — just last week a Republican super PAC sent a mailer “thanking” Democratic congressional candidate Conor Lamb for opposing gun control to Democratic voters in an effort to hurt Lamb in a March 13th special election in Pennsylvania — has long benefited the party and created the environment in which foreign meddling was possible.