6 Crazy Things That Happened During the 1972 New Hampshire Primaries

Senator George McGovern (right) and running mate Senator Thomas Eagleton // Getty
Senator George McGovern (right) and running mate Senator Thomas Eagleton // Getty / Senator George McGovern (right) and running mate Senator Thomas Eagleton // Getty

The political world has once again invaded New Hampshire, the second state to hold primary elections and the frequent site of campaign endings and comebacks. As colorful as this cycle has been, it would take a lot of Donald Trump Twitter feuds or rediscovered Bernie Sanders spoken-word reggae records to make either party’s primary as bizarre and nasty as the one the Democrats endured in the Granite State in 1972.

Two candidates campaigned in the state, senators George McGovern of South Dakota and Edmund Muskie of Maine, who was the Democrats’ vice presidential candidate in the last election and the frontrunner. Using the then-novel tactic of dedicating most of his resources to early-voting states, McGovern had a surprisingly strong showing in the Iowa caucuses, gaining 22.6 percent of the vote to Muskie’s 35.5. In a common dynamic, one candidate, McGovern, was cheered by liberals and activists while another, Muskie, was favored to win blue-collar, timecard-punching Democrats. But not everything about the primary was common. Here are six crazy things that happened.

1. McGovern Intercepted Factory Workers before Their Shifts.

Known for his impassioned speeches against the Vietnam War, McGovern had a reputation as a “peace candidate.” To broaden his support to blue-collar voters, he campaigned outside New Hampshire’s shoe, textile, and electronics factories. Gary Hart, his campaign manager and a future senator (who would go on to his own presidential primary debacle), recalls that McGovern and his staff arrived as early as 5:30 in the frigid morning, greeting the first shift. According to Hart’s book, Right from the Start: A Chronicle of the McGovern Campaign, the senator shook hands and robotically reiterated two sentences to each incoming worker: “Hello, I’m George McGovern. I’m running for president and I’d like your help.” They would repeat the routine when shifts changed in the afternoon.

2. A (Likely) Fake Letter to a Newspaper Claimed Muskie’s Staff Used a Racial Slur.

New Hampshire’s largest newspaper, the Manchester Union Leader practiced “a style of knife-and-kill journalism that went out of fashion a century ago,” writes political reporter Theodore H. White in his book The Making of the President 1972. Publisher William Loeb was a staunch conservative who often put editorials on the front page and savaged Democrats and moderate Republicans. (John F. Kennedy was “the No. 1 liar in the U.S.A.” and Dwight Eisenhower a “stinking hypocrite.”)

The Union Leader received a handwritten letter, full of spelling errors and supposedly written by Paul Morrison of Deerfield Beach, Florida. “Morrison” said he approached Muskie at a campaign event and asked how the senator could understand the problems of African-Americans given the ethnic makeup of Maine. A staffer supposedly said, “[W]e don’t have blacks but we have Cannocks [sic],” meaning Canuck, a slur for people of Canadian (particularly French-Canadian) ancestry. Muskie, the letter claimed, laughed and said, “Come to New England and see.” On February 24, the newspaper published the letter with an introduction announcing, “We have always known that Senator Muskie was a hypocrite. But we never expected to have it so clearly revealed.” It torpedoed Muskie’s standing among New Hampshire’s large Canadian-American population.

The letter was actually written by Ken W. Clawson, President Richard Nixon’s deputy director of communications, as part of a stealth campaign against Nixon’s political adversaries. In All the President’s Men, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein claim that Clawson, though married, had badgered their coworker, Washington Post staff writer Marilyn Berger, for a date. Invited up to her apartment for a single drink, Clawson allegedly bragged that he’d written “the Canuck letter.” He would deny it to Woodward and Bernstein when they readied a bombshell report on Nixon’s “dirty tricks” in October of that year.

3. The Paper Then Went After Muskie’s Wife.

The following day, under the headline “Big Daddy’s Jane,” the Union Leader published accusations that Muskie’s wife, Jane, drank, smoked and used off-color language on the campaign bus. According to The Boys on the Bus: Riding With the Campaign Press Corps by Timothy Crouse, reports of Jane Muskie’s consumption habits and potty mouth were first mentioned in Women’s Wear Daily and then repeated in Newsweek and the Union Leader, becoming more vicious with every iteration.

4. Muskie Broke Down in Front of the Newspaper’s Offices.

In a now-infamous scene, Muskie appeared in front of the paper’s headquarters as snowflakes fell on February 26, speaking from the back of a rented flatbed truck. “By attacking me and by attacking my wife, [Loeb] has proved himself to be a gutless coward,” he declared. “Maybe I said all I should on that. It’s fortunate for him that he is not on this platform beside me. A good woman…”

Several newspapers reported that Muskie then began crying. He later said the facial dampness was due to melting snow. “Whether it was a choke, or a cry, or a sobbing — there was Edmund Muskie,” wrote White in The Making of the President, 1972, “a week before the primary, front page on the nation’s newspapers and carried on television, with snow falling on his curly hair … his voice breaking, emotion sweeping him.”

After the election, the senator blamed the hectic campaign schedule that had been peppered with flights to Washington for votes. “I’m tough physically but no one could do that,” he told White. “It changed people’s minds about me, what kind of guy I was. They were looking for a strong, steady man and here I was, weak.” His campaign never recovered.

5. Hunter S. Thompson Jokingly Accused Muskie of Being High on Psychedelics.

Hunter S. Thompson, covering the campaign for Rolling Stone, used the flatbed breakdown as a jumping-off point for a satirical article alleging that the senator was addicted to the psychedelic drug ibogaine. Thompson had a particular loathing for Muskie, likening him to a “vicious 200-pound water rat.” Thompson reported the “addiction” in April to see if his fellows in the press would run with it.

6. A Reporter Cussed Out Muskie and His Staff.

Even though he left with more of the state’s delegates than McGovern, the New Hampshire vote was seen as a setback for Muskie. As the frontrunner and senator from a neighboring state, he was expected to win heavily. The next day, Muskie held a press conference in “the dingy ballroom” of a Manchester hotel, recalls Crouse in The Boys on the Bus. Of course, reporters shelled him with questions about how the underwhelming results would affect his prospects.

“I can’t tell you that,” said the frustrated senator, who would bow out in April. “You’ll tell me and you’ll tell the rest of the country because you interpret this victory. The press conference today is my only chance to interpret it, but you’ll probably even misinterpret that.”

After the conference, Martin Nolan of the Boston Globe accosted Muskie and his aides in a profanity-laced tirade (for which he later apologized). “I’ve taken three and a half years of this kind of s--- from Nixon and those people,” he shouted, “and I’m not gonna take it from you pricks.”

Muskie, probably feeling like the Rodney Dangerfield of politics at that point, responded “Well, Marty, I guess you’re right.”