Dirty tricks

From Academic Kids

In politics, dirty tricks refers to duplicitous, slanderous, and downright illegal tactics employed by politicians (or their underlings) to win elections and/or destroy opponents. The entire Watergate scandal can best be described as a series of dirty tricks. It is also sometimes used as a synonym for covert operations (as in 'dirty tricks department').

As the Watergate scandal unfolded in 1973 and 1974, voters were mesmerized by the endless series of shenanigans encapsulated in the term "dirty tricks." False rumors were spread about initial Democratic frontrunner Senator Ed Muskie and his wife Jane, which undermined his legitimacy as candidate and led to ill-considered emotional confrontations and his eventual withdrawal. The office of the psychiatrist of war critic and ex-Defense Department consultant Daniel Ellsberg was burglarized to get negative information about Ellsberg. Most dramatically of all, the Watergate building office of Democratic National Committee Chair Lawrence O'Brien (then a former Postmaster General, later an NBA Basketball Commissioner) was burglarized in the hope of finding negative information about Democratic plans.

President Nixon ordered his aides to compile an "Enemies List" of his most prominent critics, so that the Internal Revenue Service and other governmental agencies could harass them. Nixon ordered that all his conversations be taped, so that he could have material for his memoirs and he could structure the record of history because he would be the only person in the room with knowledge of the taping. Ironically, the tapes led to Nixon's downfall, because they documented the long series of dirty tricks more than the greatness to which Nixon aspired.

The Watergate scandal turned out to be a boon to the Democratic Party. Democrats swept elections among swing voters from 1973 through 1976, in large part due to the revulsion among Nixon "law and order" voters about the atmosphere of "dirty tricks" illegality within which the Nixon Administration acted. The Democrats may have taken false comfort from Watergate-inspired victories, however, as the 1976 election proved to be a high-water mark never again equaled for the Democratic Party nationally and in the vast majority of the states.

Nixon aide Donald Segretti, who coined the term, ultimately was one of the many Nixon aides convicted and imprisoned. Others included John Ehrlichman, H. R. Haldeman, G. Gordon Liddy, and Chuck Colson. Colson "found God" in prison and went on to become a major religious leader for the cause of restorative justice.

The dirty tricks of the Watergate era set a standard of illegality in political campaigns that has never been equaled on a national scale, although other negative campaigns, for example, 1988 and 2004, may have been more vicious.


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