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Less than two weeks before the New Hampshire presidential primary, the Manchester Union-Leader publishes a letter to the editor alleging that leading Democratic candidate and Maine senator Edmund Muskie approved a racial slur of Americans of French-Canadian descent (an important voting bloc in New Hampshire), and notes: “We have always known that Senator Muskie was a hypocrite. But we never expected to have it so clearly revealed as in this letter sent to us from Florida.” The crudely written letter becomes widely known as the “Canuck letter.” The next day, the paper’s publisher, William Loeb, publishes an attack on Muskie’s wife. An angry Muskie denounces the letter and the editorial, calling Loeb a “gutless coward,” and in the process apparently bursts into tears. The media focuses on Muskie’s tears, and the “weakness” it implies. As a result, Muskie’s standing in the polls begins to slip, and when votes are cast in New Hampshire, Muskie receives only 48% of the vote, far less than predicted. The letter is later found to have been a “dirty trick” of the Nixon campaign committee (see October 10, 1972), with White House communications official Ken Clawson admitting to actually writing the letter (see October 10, 1972). (Bernstein and Woodward 10/10/1972; Spartacus Schoolnet 8/2007)
View from 1987 - In 1987, David Broder, the author of the Washington Post story on the incident, recalls: “In retrospect, though, there were a few problems with the Muskie story. First, it is unclear whether Muskie did cry.… Melting snow from his hatless head filled his eyes, he said, and made him wipe his face… the senator believes that he was damaged more by the press and television coverage of the event than by his own actions… 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 distant 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.… 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…. Unwittingly, I did my part in the work of the Nixon operatives in helping destroy the credibility of the Muskie candidacy.”
Media Expectations - Broder will admit that the story falls neatly into a storyline many in the media want to report: “the unraveling of a presidential front-runner’s campaign.” Muskie has shown frequent bouts of anger; according to Broder, many reporters are just waiting for something to trigger Muskie into an outburst that will damage his candidacy. For himself, Muskie will describe his emotional reaction: “I was just g_ddamned mad and choked up over my anger.… [I]t was a bad scene, whatever it was.” (Broder 2/1987)
Washington Post staff writer Marilyn Berger reports that the deputy director of White House communications, Ken W. Clawson, told her in regards to the infamous “Canuck letter” (see February 24-25, 1972) that sabotaged Democrat Edmund Muskie’s presidential campaign, “I wrote the letter.” Berger says the conversation took place on September 25, over drinks at her apartment.
Woodward Skeptical - Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward is initially dubious; Clawson, a former Post reporter, had joined the White House a mere three weeks before the letter was given to the Union-Leader. But Woodward remembers something a friend had told him about new White House aides being ordered to prove themselves by “screwing an enemy of the White House.” Perhaps the letter was Clawson’s rite of initiation, Woodward reasons. Berger says that Clawson saw nothing morally or ethically wrong with writing such a letter. “That’s politics, that’s the way things are,” he told her. Berger confirms the story during a hastily arranged lunch date with Clawson, but Clawson says he will deny it “on a stack of Bibles over his mother’s grave” if asked. In a phone call to Woodward, Clawson denies writing the letter, and claims that Berger is mistaken. (Bernstein and Woodward 1974, pp. 136-141)
Alleged Author Never Located - The conservative newspaper publisher who printed the letter, William Loeb of the Manchester Union-Leader, says that the letter’s purported author, “Paul Davenport,” has never been located, and though he believes the letter to be authentic, he is now investigating the particulars of the letter because of a letter he has received that alleged someone else was paid $1,000 to assist with the “Canuck hoax.” The editor of the Union-Leader, B. J. McQuaid, says cryptically that Clawson had been “useful” to the paper in connection with the letter. (Bernstein and Woodward 10/10/1972)
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