From the back of a flatbed truck on a snowy February morning in New Hampshire in 1972, Severin Beliveau witnessed a scene that shattered the presidential ambitions of Maine’s Edmund Muskie.

U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie, D-Maine, denounces Manchester Union Leader publisher William Loeb in front of the newspaper’s Manchester, N.H., building, Feb. 26, 1972. Muskie’s emotional speech came as he campaigned for the March 7 New Hampshire primary and the Democratic presidential nomination. Associated Press file

At that moment a half-century ago this month, Beliveau had no idea as he stood behind Muskie that the Rumford native’s campaign had just fallen victim to one of the most successful dirty tricks in the history of American politics.

Beliveau, an attorney who chaired the Maine Democratic Party, had no doubt at that time that Muskie — a Democrat, a Bates College graduate, a former governor, a renowned figure in the U.S. Senate and his party’s vice presidential nominee four years earlier — was powerful, articulate, tough and bright enough to hold the nation’s highest office.

But all it took to bring down Muskie’s campaign that year was a fake letter to the editor by an operative for President Richard Nixon and a newspaper publisher scurrilous enough to make hay with made-up allegations by a person who didn’t exist.

Instead of becoming the first Mainer since James Blaine in 1884 to become the presidential nominee of a major party, the incident torpedoed Muskie’s hopes and left Nixon facing the challenger he most wanted the Democrats to choose: George McGovern, a senator from South Dakota.

Nixon went on to crush McGovern at the polls in one of the largest landslides the nation has seen. Within two years, though, Nixon resigned from the office he’d won, brought down by the discovery of the tactics he’d used to win.

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The enduring image from Muskie’s failed campaign would be the proud Mainer standing on the bed of that semi, crying in the snow.

That it didn’t happen quite that way doesn’t seem to matter.

“It changed people’s minds about me, of what kind of guy I was,” Muskie later told campaign chronicler Theodore H. White. “They were looking for a strong, steady man and here I was weak.”

That moment in Manchester “shattered the calm, cool, reasoned image that was basic to Muskie’s voter appeal,” wrote Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward in their 1974 Watergate book “All the President’s Men.”

And with that, Muskie’s bid for the presidency fell apart because a New Hampshire newspaper, throwing journalistic ethics to the wind, used a sham letter created by Republican operatives to bludgeon New England’s favorite son.

THE CANUCK LETTER

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William Loeb’s infamous Manchester Union Leader, a daily newspaper devoted to its owner’s arch-conservative political agenda, received a handwritten letter several weeks before the primary.

Postmarked from Deerfield Beach, Florida, and signed by someone identifying himself as Paul Morrison, the letter claimed that a Muskie aide had slurred Franco-Americans as “Cannocks” with his boss nearby during the candidate’s appearance at a drug treatment center.

It insisted that Muskie laughed at the slur and added, “Come to New England and see.”

The Union Leader didn’t bother to check on the veracity of the charges or even whether Morrison existed before hyping the letter. Instead, it printed the letter on its editorial page.

And on its front page, Loeb wrote an editorial to accompany it.

“We have always known that Sen. Muskie was a hypocrite, but we never expected to have it so clearly revealed,” Loeb giddily thundered.

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For good measure, the paper threw in a snide reprint of a weeks-old tale from Women’s Wear Daily about Muskie’s wife inviting women reporters to swap dirty jokes with her.

U.S. Sen. George Mitchell said in an interview years later for the Muskie Archives at Bates College in Lewiston that the letter “had the intended effect” on the French community in Manchester.

“So there began to be a lot of pressure from New Hampshire Democrats who supported Senator Muskie, including those Americans of French Canadian descent, to say or do something to offset this, because his opposition was using it as a way to address the campaign,” Mitchell said.

The best option, campaign staffers said, was for Muskie to confront the issue head-on.

Former Maine state Rep. Neil Rolde, who worked on the campaign, told the Muskie Archives the plan to counteract the paper’s claim “was to get a whole bunch of Franco-Americans from Maine” and elsewhere to “stand with him in front of the Manchester Union Leader to show that he was not anti-French.”

Beliveau remembers a “very upset” Muskie saying beforehand that he intended to denounce Loeb as “the right-wing, irresponsible fascist that he is.”

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The Canuck letter Associated Press file

MUSKIE’S REACTION

As he stood on the flatbed of a truck outside the newspaper office in Manchester on Feb. 26, 1972, with snow falling, Muskie declared, “The letter is a lie.”

Muskie told a crowd of reporters and supporters gathered around him that Loeb “proved himself to be a gutless coward” by publishing the slur. He called Loeb a “mudslinging, vicious and gutless liar.”

“This man doesn’t walk, he crawls,” Muskie said. “It’s fortunate for him that he’s not on this platform beside me.”

He halted, clearly emotional.

“Here in northern New England, we respect each other,” Muskie told the throng. “That’s something I don’t extend to him.”

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Journalist David Broder led his account of the story for The Washington Post like this: “With tears streaming down his face and his voice choked with emotion, Senator Edmund S. Muskie (D-Maine) stood in the snow outside the Manchester Union Leader this morning and accused its publisher of making vicious attacks on him and his wife, Jane.”

The New York Times said Muskie was “weeping silently.”

Beliveau said he stood right behind Muskie on that stage.

“Of course, the question is: Did he cry? Oh, there’s a sadness. No, yeah. One or the other. I don’t know,” he said. He doubts Muskie cried but added that the senator was clearly emotional.

Rep. Rolde said that “what was happening, of course, was there was a snowstorm, and the snow was coming right down in their faces, so everybody looked like they were crying.”

“I mean, the water just dripping down, their eyes all squinched up,” he said.

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Standing right below Muskie at the event, a United Press International reporter, John Milne, had as good a view as anyone.

Milne later told WMUR-TV that he “did not see tears,” just a bit of choking up and some fury by Muskie at Loeb and his paper.

Muskie told White for his “The Making of the President” 1972 book about the campaign that he’d been traveling extensively in the days before the story broke, leaving him exhausted.

“I’m tough physically,” he told White, “but no one could do that. It was a bitch of a day.”

Muskie told the journalist he never should have given the speech in Manchester.

“I was just so g*****d mad and choked up over my anger,” Muskie said.

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But, he told another journalist, Jules Witcover, “There were no tears.”

Even so, Muskie’s address seemed so bizarre that some of his aides thought somebody might have slipped LSD into the coffee he drank before taking the stage, former staffer Martin Walker wrote in The Guardian in 1996.

A CIA officer, Miles Copeland, wrote in his 1978 memoir that some of his friends at the intelligence agency were convinced that a Nixon operative, probably one of the ex-CIA men who worked for the president’s reelection committee, slipped LSD into Muskie’s drink “before he played that famous weeping scene.”

Whatever the reason for Muskie’s emotional scene, the Union Leader loved it.

Its headline the next day, in giant, 84-point type, read “MUSKIE CALLS LOEB A LIAR.”

The paper never let up, pounding the proud Mainer for his weakness, his supposed dislike of Franco Americans and his temper. The paper kept the issue fresh right up to Election Day.

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Nobody ever found the alleged letter writer despite hordes of reporters descending on everyone named Morrison in Florida. Loeb at one point insisted his paper would run the man’s picture and story, but it never did.

WINNING NEW HAMPSHIRE, BUT LOSING THE WAR

Some said that the letter didn’t matter much, that its impact on the primary barely registered.

But that’s not how Muskie’s campaign workers saw it at the time.

Ginger Jordan-Hillier, campaign worker, remembered “going door-to-door” in the French section of Manchester “and actually getting a door slammed in my face because, you know, because Muskie had called the French people Canucks.”

Tom Allen, who later became a congressman from Maine, recalled in an oral history for the Muskie Archives that “just before the primary I was out there going through some street, some place in Manchester and I came across a group of kids probably 10 or 11.”

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They asked him which candidate he worked for. Allen answered Muskie.

“And they said, ‘Oh, Muskie hates Frenchmen,’” Allen said. “I remember being astonished that an 11-year-old boy would say that.”

That the supposed slur cost Muskie some votes seemed to those on the ground in New Hampshire to be a given.

Milne said that in the end, McGovern’s tallies in the French wards of Manchester proved closer to Muskie’s “than anybody ever expected it would be,” a consequence of both the Canuck letter and the way the Union-Leader “made a big deal” over Muskie’s reaction to it as evidence of his supposed instability.

However unethical the newspaper’s action had been, in the final analysis, “You know, it worked,” as Milne summed it up.

“That was the beginning of the decline,” Beliveau said.

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Even so, Muskie won the primary by a wide margin, but nowhere near as big a landslide as insiders had predicted, creating a sense among reporters and political professionals that Muskie was weaker than anticipated and that McGovern could snatch the nomination.

Bumper stickers popped up in Florida that read, “Vote for Muskie or he’ll cry.”

Scott Hutchinson, Muskie’s campaign treasurer, told the Muskie Archives that after New Hampshire, the campaign “went downhill, a lot of support seemed to dry up, and a lot of enthusiasm went out of it, too. Why? I don’t know.”

He added, though, that it became a crazy election anyway as the Watergate scandal slowly came into focus.

“There was a lot of, a lot of things that went on that I don’t, you know, in retrospect as I look back, you wonder just what was going on in the Nixon era,” Hutchinson said. “They certainly pulled a lot of things against Ed Muskie that were not ethical and very negative political schemes.”

In the end, Nixon racked up one of the biggest victories in American history that November, cruising easily to reelection against McGovern.

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THE STORY BEHIND THE LETTER

After everything that’s happened in the past half-century, some would say it is almost quaint that a handwritten letter from a fake person could push a presidential contender toward oblivion and help reelect a man who resigned less than two years later to avoid impeachment for his wrongdoing, accepting a pardon to avoid possible criminal charges.

But that’s reality, however bizarre.

It still isn’t clear, even after all this time, who put pen to paper and mailed the letter to Manchester.

A Nixon aide, Boston lawyer Ken Clawson, told a Washington Post reporter that he wrote it. But he later denied it and nobody ever got to the bottom of it, though the FBI, federal prosecutors, congressional investigators and journalists tried without success.

What isn’t in doubt is that Nixon ran a widespread campaign of dirty tricks against his opponents to damage their campaigns and keep them from mounting a serious challenge to him.

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Nixon had barely taken the oath of office for a second term before prosecutors indicted a Beverly Hills lawyer named Donald Segretti for forging fake letters aimed at hurting Muskie and helping reelect the president.

Many have accused Segretti of writing the Canuck letter, probably in concert with Clawson, but nobody appears to have nailed it down firmly. Segretti, a California lawyer, did not respond to requests for clarification.

In the end, Segretti pleaded guilty as investigators uncovered a range of dirty tricks tied to Nixon’s campaign, a small piece of the Watergate scandal that forced Nixon to resign in 1974 rather than face virtually certain impeachment and conviction.

Segretti was just one of many players caught committing crimes on Nixon’s behalf, including far more significant figures, such as the U.S. attorney general, the White House chief of staff and Nixon himself, though he was never charged because his successor, Gerald Ford, pardoned him.

The same day that Edmund Muskie spoke outside a New Hampshire newspaper, President Richard Nixon and Premier Chou En-Lai greeted a young girl at Hangzhou’s West Lake Park in China. Richard Nixon Presidential Library

NIXON’S REACTION

Whether Nixon ever knew who wrote the letter is unclear.

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In a White House conversation in 1973 captured by Nixon’s secret tape recording system, the president called the Canuck letter “chicken s**t” and lumped it in with other dirty tricks by his campaign as “that kind of crap.”

He knew, as many records and recordings make clear, that his operatives were engaged in skullduggery large and small to help his reelection bid. But whether he was immersed in enough of the details to have heard about the Canuck letter in detail is uncertain.

One of his top aides, though, did record a brief mention of Nixon’s reaction to the news of Muskie’s alleged tears in New Hampshire.

While accompanying Nixon on his historic trip to China at the time, the president’s chief of staff, H.R Haldeman, noted in his journal on Feb. 27, 1972, that he had read some news “about Muskie, which was rather fascinating regarding his breaking down in New Hampshire.”

He mentioned as well that Nixon “was intrigued with that, but we couldn’t get into it much” since they were hustling to reach an airport.

After he’d learned of the Nixon campaign’s role in the letter, Muskie denounced it, noting that even in politics, there are rules. In a 1972 interview with United Press International, Muskie castigated Nixon’s campaign as “the most cynical, ruthless corruption of the political process I can recall.”

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“In that Canuck letter thing, I was hit from the blind side,” he told Witcover in 1973. “You can’t take a two-by-four into the ring with you.”

Muskie’s New Hampshire coordinator, Tony Podesta, told Witcover that even if Segretti wrote the letter “what we did was worse than anything they did to us.”

“They provided the trigger and we proceeded to shoot ourselves,” he said.

NO SECOND THOUGHTS BY LOEB

Loeb never apologized for making hay with the fake letter. And the Union Leader doesn’t appear to have ever issued a correction for running it or relying on it for an attack on Muskie.

Loeb, who died in 1981, did, however, offer criticisms of Muskie’s response.

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According to his obituary in The Washington Post, Loeb said that “Muskie should have paid absolutely no attention to me. But no — they made it seem like he was Eliza crossing the ice,” a reference to a famous scene in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

In a 1980 interview with Detroit Free Press, Loeb insisted that “as far as we’re concerned, it was a genuine letter” even though his own reporter sought in vain to find Morrison in Florida after critics insisted he didn’t exist.

Loeb, though, never gave a hint he’d done anything wrong.

He said Watergate investigators on Capitol Hill “ran around trying to prove we took part in dirty tricks,” but were never able to do so.

Loeb said that he didn’t think he treated Muskie unfairly.

“He hung himself by becoming so emotional over our alleged attack on his wife,” he said.

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“As a matter of fact, looking at it, I think it was one of those fortuitous things that saved the nation a lot of trouble because I really think the man, temperamentally, is not fit to be secretary of state. I think he’d be even more dangerous as president of the United States.”

U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine stands in front of the Manchester Union Leader in Manchester, N.H., on Feb. 26, 1972. Associated Press file

COULD MUSKIE HAVE WON IN 1972?

Mitchell once pondered the question of whether Muskie could have won the presidency if opponents hadn’t resorted to dirty tricks.

“Had they never occurred, would Senator Muskie have won? I don’t think anyone can make that assertion with certainty or with any high degree of confidence. At the same time, they clearly had a hugely negative effect.”

The only sure thing is that a political dirty trick, unprofessional journalism, some badly timed anger and possibly some tears sidelined Muskie just as he was heading for a big win on an open road to the Democratic presidential nomination.

Muskie later said he couldn’t have won the election during such a tumultuous year anyway.

“I’m a man for a country looking for a healer, not a country in protest,” he said. “I wasn’t a protest candidate.”

In any case, whatever chance Muskie had for victory died on that snowy day 50 years ago this month.

There hasn’t been a Mainer since who has even tried to win a major party’s backing for a presidential run.

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