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Potted history: Why the winter of 2012 feels like the summer of '73

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Richard Nixon

Here in Alberta's icy capital, the winter of 2012 is starting to feel like the summer of '73.

If you're an Alberta Progressive Conservative, this is not a good thing.

Let me explain. In the spring and summer of 1972, Richard Nixon, a Republican, was running for re-election as president of the United States.

On June 17, 1972, five men were arrested in the wee hours breaking into the offices of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate Hotel in Washington.

On Nov. 11, 1972, Nixon was re-elected by a crushing landslide that swept away his peacenik Democratic opponent, Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota. McGovern died at 90 in Sioux Falls, S.D., just 40 days ago.

But it turned out that those five fellows at the Watergate had something to do with Nixon's campaign strategy. The rest, as they say, is history.

And so the summer of '73 became the Summer of Watergate. Like the proverbial Chinese water torture, barely a day passed without a scandalous new story on the front pages that connected the dots back to that "third-rate burglary,” as Ronald Ziegler, Nixon's press secretary, bitterly characterized the incident at the Watergate.

Even here in Canada, the grim parade of stories had their cumulative effect, the results of which -- with 20/20 hindsight -- now seem inevitable.

There was speculation not long after Nixon was finally driven from office in August 1974, and has been ever since, that the removal of this Republican, who on his domestic record was surprisingly liberal, had the hallmarks of a coup.

Fast forward to 2012, with Alison Redford, a surprisingly Progressive Conservative on some counts unexpectedly chosen as the leader of that party in the fall of 2011, securely re-elected as the Premier of Alberta in the spring with a comfortable 61-seat majority in the Legislature.

But the election was not as comfortable a one as her party's seat total suggests. Redford's principal opposition came from the market-fundamentalist Wildrose Party, which draws inspiration and ideas from the American right all the way back to Nixon's Southern Strategy, which was only laid to rest south of the Medicine Line earlier this month by demographics and President Barack Obama.

As Alberta's spring election campaign progressed, it increasingly appeared that the Wildrose Party was in a position to form a majority government, but at the last minute -- frightened by the outbursts of some Wildrose candidates who drew attention to just how far to the right their party stood -- voters flowed back to Redford's comfortably familiar PCs.

Wildrose strategists, tied to the Republican-inspired federal Conservatives of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, were shocked at first by the way their victory had turned to ashes, but quickly regrouped.

Off the record, they admit frankly their strategy from now to election day 2016 will be to relentlessly paint the Redford Conservatives as corrupt -- a tactic that worked for them during the campaign, only faltering in its last hours. It worked because the arrogance and entitlement of a party in power for more than 40 years gave the accusations a whiff of authenticity.

Wildrose strategist Tom Flanagan, who is no dummy no matter what you think of his views, says there will be no far-right bozo eruptions next time to save the day for the Tories. "The lesson for the future," he recently told the Globe and Mail, "message discipline."

The aggressive Wildrose tactics, combined with a new drumbeat of little scandals reported principally by CBC Edmonton's investigative reporting team led by journalist Charles Rusnell, who seems to have become modern Alberta’s answer to the Washington Post's Watergate reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, has in the words of blogger Dave Cournoyer "stunned the Tories into a stammer."

Their responses to the series of accusations and scandals emanating from the CBC sound rattled and lame. Cabinet members run from interviews with the media, then have public temper tantrums when the stories don't go their way.

The PCs' unwillingness to have a thorough public air-clearing over accusations that physicians were intimidated, that public employees improperly donated public funds to the Conservative party, that one of those public employees was the premier's sister, that outrageous expenses were incurred by health officials and no one blinked, and now that the premier herself may have had a role in selecting a law firm where her ex-husband worked for a potentially enormously lucrative government contract add up to a destructive drip, drip, drip of revelations.

Premier Redford sounded persuasive to me when she stood up in the Legislature to deny the latest allegations she was in a conflict of interest when she, or someone, chose her ex's law firm to litigate the government's fight with Big Tobacco -- which, as alert readers will recall, has a committed friend and advocate in Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith.

Premier Redford stated yesterday: "When the decision was made by the government of Alberta as to who to retain on this file, I was not the justice minister, I was not a member of cabinet, I was an MLA running to be the leader of this party."

But the drumbeat of corrosive accusations, even when they are effectively parried, is having its toll -- and that is what so strongly reminds me in the winter of 2012 of the summer of ’73.

Will Redford, too progressive on too many files for the comfort of the people with their hands on the levers, be hounded from office as Nixon was?

Are some of the people doing the hounding, inside and outside Wildrose ranks, former Conservatives who have benefited from the same too-comfortable way political business has been conducted for too long in Alberta?

Just asking.

Regardless of the answers, Redford is going to have to sharpen up her game if she wishes to survive.

She might look to the sage advice of Mark Twain, the 19th-century American author who counselled those who find themselves in situations like hers to tell the truth: "It will confound your enemies and astound your friends."

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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