This week, a leaked memo revealed that the Prime Minister’s Office had asked ministerial aids to create a list of “bureaucrats that can’t take no (or yes) for an answer” as well as “friends and enemy stakeholders” for the benefit of new cabinet ministers.
Under questioning from Postmedia News, out-shuffled minister Peter Kent had this to say: “That was the nomenclature used by Nixon. His political horizon was divided very starkly into friends and enemies. The use of the word ‘enemies list,’ for those of us of a certain generation, it evokes nothing less than thoughts of Nixon and Watergate.”
Kent wasn’t criticizing the PMO for briefing incoming ministers, he was simply taking issue with the language. Nobody wants to hear the kind of talk that lumps their chief in with the likes of Richard Nixon. But then, no one would go so far as to suggest that the prime minister of Canada bears any resemblance to the notorious Tricky Dick, that sneaking, snooping, secretive, dirty-tricks-playing 1970s U.S. president who was forced to resign after it was revealed that he had repeatedly lied to and deceived the American people.
It seems lately that whenever a breath of scandal touches the Conservative Party someone invokes Nixon and Watergate. When it was revealed that Harper’s PMO considered using a confidential Conservative Party fund to broker a deal that would end the Senate’s potentially damaging Duffy enquiry, critics leapt to compare that act to Nixon’s use of secret “slush-funds” to reward his friends. But there’s no comparison: the Conservatives never did foot that bill – when they discovered it was for $90,000 instead of the $30,000 they expected, they balked and let private money handle it.
Members of Nixon’s re-election campaign coined the term “dirty tricks” to refer to pranks played on Democrats to discredit them in the public eye. During the 1972 election campaign, Nixon supporters or hirelings pretending to be Democrats appeared at an Ed Muskie rally carrying signs that read, “If you like Hitler, you’ll love Wallace. Vote Muskie!” A plane flew over the Democratic Convention dragging a sign reading, “Peace Pot Promiscuity-Vote McGovern.”
So, of course, when the PMO sent its interns (very poorly) disguised as protestors to disrupt a Justin Trudeau speech and photo-op on Parliament Hill, opponents of the Conservatives came out howling “dirty tricks” – as if creating a phony protest bore any similarity to those old Watergate-era antics.
The Nixon crew was famous for its snooping on Americans, and for unwarranted smears against political adversaries.
So naturally when Vic Toews – another cabinet minister doing the exit-shuffle this week – introduced a bill to allow warrantless wiretapping and Internet surveillance, enemies of the Harper Conservatives had to trot out the Nixon comparison. Of course nobody paid them any mind since, as Toews pointed out, they all side with the child-pornographers.
Nixon was reputed to be obsessive about controlling the media message, and sometimes his methods could be downright underhanded. During the presidential primaries, someone from the White House sent a letter to the editor of the Manchester Union-Leader suggesting that Muskie approved of a “racist slur against Americans of French Canadian descent.” The sender masked his identity, presenting himself as a member of the public.
But who will suggest that there is any comparison between that kind of manipulation and the PMO’s anonymous “leaking” of its slant on Justin Trudeau and his lucrative speaking tours? There is a world of difference between hiding behind an assumed name in order to discredit an opponent and masquerading as a news source for the same purpose.
As far back as 1946, when Nixon was running for Congress, he used anonymous calls to voters asking if they were aware that his opponent was a communist. This is understood to be a forerunner of today’s push-polling, that clever trick of pretending to be a pollster to plant an idea in voters’ minds.
You may recall that the Conservatives used a push-poll in Saskatchewan in a campaign to manipulate public opinion on electoral riding boundaries. They also used one to spread the false news that Liberal Irwin Cotler was about to retire. But is it fair to call this Nixonian? After all, nobody got called a communist.
Richard Nixon was guided by a fiercely partisan us-and-them mentality. He operated in secret. He authorized spying on Americans. He used secret Republican funds administered by his top advisors to manipulate the media and make scandals disappear. He used dirty political tricks and misleading phone calls to dupe voters, smear opponents, and skew elections.
How could anyone compare this man to Stephen Harper?
Al Pope won the Canadian Community Newspaper Award for best columnist in 2013. He also won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in B.C./Yukon in 2010 and 2002.