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I thought I saw a Nixon dirty trick, but it turned out to be the story of a remarkable activist

Updated: May 15

By Rocky Barker

In 2009 I reported on the Watergate connection of Walt Minnick who was then an Idaho Democratic Congressman. Minnick worked in the White House under Richard Nixon in an office next to Plumbers G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt.

In the course of the story, I cross two personal connections. A Nixon speechwriter John Andrews and the former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, who Minnick worked with in the Nixon White House, were my camp counselors at a ranch in Colorado. My bunkmate was Hank Haldeman, son of Nixon’s chief of staff, who was found guilty and imprisoned for 18 months.

Andrews, a conservative Republican, played a key role in the story by confirming Minnick’s memory of events.

I long believed I too had a connection with the Watergate scandal, though only as an observer. I thought I was a witness to a Nixon “dirty trick” played on then Democratic front runner Ed Muskie.

I learned in 2012 the real story. I reflect on it 52 years after the Watergate break-in.

On March 25, 1972, I was a freshman at Northland College, in Ashland, Wisconsin, active in local environmental politics. I went to a meeting of the Wisconsin Resource Conservation Council in Madison, as a representative of a group aimed at stopping a huge Navy submarine communications project.

The Democratic Primary was coming up and the meeting attracted most of the major candidates; Washington Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson, New York Mayor John Lindsay, Minnesota Sen. Hubert Humphrey and Muskie. Martin Hanson, a Wisconsin conservation legend took me under his wing and introduced me to all of them. It was the start of a long relationship that led me to a friendship with Sen. Gaylord Nelson and many others in the conservation community.

I sat in the back of the room where I could smoke, something you could still do in those days in public buildings. I bummed a filterless Lucky Strike from a man with a day-old beard sitting next to me who looked nothing like the well-dressed conservationists.

All of the candidates had spoken except for Muskie. He got up to warm applause. My smoking buddy put his Lucky out on the floor. Then he said to no one in particular, “time to go to work.”

He grabbed a sign, which  I didn’t see before, from under his chair. It said  “Welfare Mothers Against Muskie.” He was joined by another dozen or so people who seemingly, on queue, jumped up and began yelling and chanting at Muskie. Chippewa activist Eddie Benton, a speaker at the conference, joined the protesters.

Muskie frowned tightly, clearly showing an unusual stress. “Why are you singling me out,” he asked the crowd, which conveniently had local television media on hand. "I've done more for welfare mothers than anyone else up here."

Sen. Edmund Muskie

The welfare mothers protest was reported as a straight news story in the New York Times the next day. But later after reading All the President’s Men, I thought it had been organized by the Nixon campaign.

The Nixon campaign carried out several deceptive acts against Muskie, who was the most serious threat to Nixon’s re-election. Many were coordinated by a young California lawyer named Donald Segretti, who in 1974, pleaded guilty to three counts of distributing illegal campaign literature and served four months in prison.

I spoke to Segretti, then an attorney in California in 2009. He remembered that he was in Madison that day, March 25, staying at the Park Hotel next to the Capitol. But he had nothing to do with the “welfare mothers” demonstration, he said. But he saw it as I did, right out of the campaign's playbook. He pointed to Nixon’s White House aide Charles Colson as the possible perpetrator.

“It sounds like something Colson might have done,” Segretti said.

After Colson died I thought I would never figure it out. But several years later I saw the Mar. 26, 1972 issue of the Wisconsin State Journal. The story, written by Steven L. Raymer, who went on to be a photojournalist for National Geographic and who taught journalism at the University of Indiana, described the event much as I remembered it.

It included a picture of Maureen Arcand making demands to Muskie. It also included comments by Corinne Caire of Madison.

"What about us?" Caire said in the story. "We're tired of getting kicked in the ass by everybody around here." As Muskie snuck out a side door she yelled: "Dirty dog!"

I reached Arcand by telephone in 2012. She died at 86 in 2015.

"That sounds like Corrine," Arcand said her voice, strong despite the cerebral palsy she has suffered through since birth. She's had retired after raising six children by herself and a long career of activism for people on welfare and people with disabilities.

She also served on the Dane County Commission in her 60s. She has been honored for her years of selfless service repeatedly. "Maureen has fought for positive social change and inspired many of her fellow Wisconsinites for years," said Rep. Tammy Baldwin, a Wisconsin U.S. Senator.

As an retired reporter, I pull on the strings of past stories every once in a while, to see where they have gone and whether a new story has arisen. This story began before my career but turned out to have a hero I would have never known if I had not chased it to the end.

But it ended with a definitive answer from the woman at its center.

Maureen Arcand

“I can assure you we would never have let ourselves be used by the Republicans,” Arcand said.

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