Forget “Deep Throat.”
Washington is convulsed by a new whodunit. An author with the pen name “Anonymous” has written a best seller titled “Primary Colors.” It’s about a fictional — oh, sure — skirt-chasing governor with a dragon-lady wife and bimbo mistress who overcomes lies about his Vietnam-era activities to be elected president of the United States. Certain conversations between the make-believe candidate and his staff are said to be so close to the actual private utterances of Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign gang that everybody in the president’s inner circle — except Vince Foster — is suspected of being “Anonymous.”
Sarah Booth Conroy, a Washington Post staff writer, says there’s a “deja vu” lilt to the current uproar. In 1880, another anonymous author penned a sensational novel about a Washington socialite who falls recklessly in love with a crooked politician. The thinly disguised villain of that earlier fiction, “Democracy, an American Novel,” was presumed to be James G. Blaine, the former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives from Maine whose presidential campaign was derailed by allegations he accepted bribes from a railroad lobbyist.
I pondered this question. Imagine a new “Anonymous” surfaces in Maine with a thinly disguised work of fiction that blows the cover off state politics.
Who would be the leading suspect?
Who among us possesses the inside sources and literary skills to produce a titillating book about the political princes and princesses of our state?
I’d finger Professor Christian P. Potholm of Bowdoin College. This is a man who has journeyed to darkest Africa and eaten disgusting things to chronicle the lifestyles of tribal societies. This is a man who has successfully worked both sides — and the middle — of Maine’s three-tiered political infrastructure, while lesser figures lost their heads merely switching parties.
During the early 1970s, Potholm helped elect his Bowdoin College jock house fraternity brother, Republican Sen. William S. Cohen, to the House of Representatives and U.S. Senate. In the 1980s, he did business with Democratic Gov. Joseph E. Brennan. Come the 1990s, Potholm was brainstorming for independent Gov. Angus King and strategizing the Maine Won’t Discriminate side of the state’s gay rights referendum.
In a new book, “Just Do It, Political Participation in the 1990s,” Potholm confesses, “I relish the idea of being in the back room, calling the shots far out of the limelight. I would rather be thought of as a slightly evil but powerful genius than a benign co-worker.”
Frankly, that’s the way most of us see him. Potholm’s book is a great read for people thirsty for the nuts and bolts of Maine politics. The professor’s persuasive conclusion that George Bush’s choice of Dan Quayle as running mate in 1988 actually was a brilliant act of political strategy, which won the White House, rather than the blunder portrayed in the media, is worth the price of the book.
I’ve known Potholm for a quarter of a century and consider him a good friend. That doesn’t mean I haven’t burned his tail feathers on a few occasions. The most memorable feather dusting involved his exploits as the controversial “Wizard.”
The year was 1974. Liberal ex-Marine Harry Richardson was battling conservative opera-lover Jim Erwin for the GOP gubernatorial primary, which the independent James B. Longley rendered totally worthless. I got a call one night from Marshal Stern, a now-deceased Bangor lawyer with Democratic ties. Stern figured Erwin would be an easier fall opponent for his buddy, George J. Mitchell, the Democratic nominee.
“A friend of mine found a briefcase. It’s got some stuff that might interest you,” Stern said.
I never saw the briefcase. I did get a confidential manual authored by Potholm and Mike Harkins that outlined Richardson’s strategy for derailing Erwin. Potholm and Harkins, who lives in Delaware, referred to each other as “Wizard I” and “Wizard II” throughout the document.
The manual contained numerous less than flattering references to other GOP political figures, including Margaret Chase Smith.
I wrote a column about the so-called “Wizard papers” which included some of the putdowns. Back then, I lacked the killer instinct that later came to epitomize my career and did not disclose the name of the Republican candidate who commissioned the document. There were a half-dozen GOP Blaine House wannabes.
During a Portland talk show appearance, Richardson was repeatedly asked if he paid for the “Wizard papers.” The steamed-up Richardson stormed out of the radio station and held a press conference, accusing me of stealing internal campaign documents.
The press conference was a debacle. Richardson was taking credit for a blunder no one knew for sure he committed. The confession that he hired “Wizard I and II” drew statewide attention to an incident that otherwise would have been ignored outside the Bangor Daily News readership area.
Two years later I was standing in the lobby of the Kemper Auditorium in Kansas City, Mo., site of the 1976 Republican National Convention.
The elevator doors opened.
I was confronted by a red-faced Mike Harkins, who had risen above his “Wizard” humiliation to become Delaware secretary of state.
“Day, you SOB! That briefcase was my wife’s Christmas present. I want it back,” he said.