Dirty Tricks

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In 1970 I was a campaign director in Wisconsin for the Republican gubernatorial candidate. The incumbent governor was not running for reelection, so the race was wide-open.

Wisconsin Republicans had close ties with the Nixon White House, mostly through John Mitchell, who had been bond counsel for the state and was well known by legislative leaders and the administration. It was not difficult, therefore, to arrange a presidential visit to Wisconsin on behalf of our candidate for governor.

In October of 1970 a visit was laid on. The President would come to Green Bay, do an airport appearance, and then go to the Brown County Arena for a big rally with Bart Starr (quarterback of the Green Bay Packers) and the candidate. And that’s what he did.

We found the westbound lane crammed. Not just the usual green trucks, but huge, clanking tanks and vans full of soldiers.

Part of the program was to be an airport “fence walk.” The President would walk the fence that separated the people from him while he shook hands and said a few words. We also arranged a stand-up microphone and PA system at the point where he got off the plane, so he could make a short speech before the fence walk.

A large crowd assembled at the airport and massed along the fence. The journalists were put in a “press pen,” literally a fenced pen just opposite where the microphone was placed. Corralled is what they were.

We noticed that next to the press pen along the fence was a space being kept open by security people, and just before Air Force One landed a straggly and scruffy mob of antiwar protesters marched into that area, guided and shepherded by advance men and deputies.

The protesters held up all kinds of antiwar signs, many obscene. And when the plane landed and taxied to the assigned space, they broke out into the popular antiwar chant—"one, two, three, four, we don’t want your f———— war.” It was loud, and it carried across the airport, where the good people of Green Bay were assembled with children and spouses. And it never stopped.

Air Force One rolled into position. Our candidate and the President came out of the plane and moved to the standing microphone. All the time the protesters kept on chanting, screaming, waving, and yelling. It was pandemonium, and the people along the fence were incensed, angry, shocked, ready to do battle.

The President got through his remarks and moved along the fence, shaking hands, touching people and muttering greetings. At the end of the fence was his limo and the cavalcade, and off they went.

A veteran and therefore cynical reporter from the Milwaukee Journal turned to me and said, “Isn’t it strange that a place was kept clear for these people; that they were right next to the media; and they were escorted in and out?”

“Well,” I replied, “it’s a free country and the deputies probably thought they would need protection. It’s nothing we in Wisconsin knew anything about.”

Three years later, when the Watergate episodes unraveled before the Ervin committee in Washington, I realized that I had been present at one of the prime examples of “dirty tricks,” up close and ugly, all intended to build sympathy for the President’s Vietnam policy.