“If you have a job and you want to get it done, and you don’t care how it’s done, send Paul Corbin out to do it.”
– Helen Keyes, A Kennedy campaigner.
It was Presidential debate night, on October 28th, 1980. Only six years had passed since a United States President had stood down from office in disgrace, for the first and only time in its history. Many of Nixon’s top staffers would end up behind bars. The waters of US politics were now murkier than ever. The smell of scandal was the last thing either candidate going into the 1980 debate could afford to become associated with.
As debate night approached, Reagan was leading in most polls by an average of three percentage points. A healthy lead, but not substantial enough to ensure a victory, as Carter regained popularity following a disastrous year. After the debate, Reagan extended his lead to take a 9 percentage point victory at the election, carrying 44 states. But all was not squeaky clean in the Reagan camp. Somehow, the Reagan team of David Stockman, Frank Hodsoll and James Baker had gotten their hands on President Carter’s briefing papers and notes of preparation for the debate, stolen from the White House. Scandal ensued.
The Reagan administration did not divulge the fact that they had access to Carter’s papers, until the story leaked in 1983. The scandal remained in the public eye, leading to an investigation by U.S. House Committee on Post Office and Civil Service’s Subcommittee on Human Resources. The investigation interviewed David Stockman, who insisted that the briefing papers only mentioned issues to discuss, rather than question and answer tactics and so weren’t of any value. Frank Hodsoll however insisted the papers did contain question and answer tactics. The investigation uncovered much evidence of vast wrongdoing, yet concluded that contradictions in the statements of key Reagan staff were the result of:
“…the professed lack of memory or knowledge on the part of those in possession of the documents”
– The case was never brought to a resolution, and no one knows who handed those documents to the Reagan team – though Baker told the investigation that William Casey (Reagan’s campaign manager) had first handed him the documents – But one name sticks out as the original source: Paul Corbin.
In his book, ‘Rendezvous with Destiny‘, Craig Shirley asserts that Corbin – a Democratic Aide to Ted Kennedy’s primary challenge against Carter – handed the documents to the Reagan camp as revenge for perceived ill-treatment of Kennedy by Carter during the Primaries. If true, it wouldn’t be the first time Corbin had a decisive hand in shaping an election from behind the curtain, in defence of a Kennedy.
Twenty years before the Carter-Reagan debates, Robert Kennedy asked all to live according to the Ancient Greek wish to ‘tame the savageness of man, and make gentle the life of this world‘, but throughout the late ’50s and into ’60’s RFK had no time to make gentle the life of US politics. In 1960, ex-Communist Party member and ex-con man Paul Corbin had been brought in by Robert Kennedy to aide the Kennedy campaign primarily in West Virginia, a state split between Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey for the necessary delegates.
The Kennedy camp – especially Bobby and Kenny O’Donnell – were growing tired of Humphrey refusing to condemn anti-Catholic sentiment in the state (a tactic Humphrey thought may win over undecided voters), using it to his advantage over the Catholic Kennedys. The goal now was to paint Humphrey as a bigot, to push liberal democrats into voting Kennedy. Suddenly, within days of Corbin being brought in, viciously anti-Catholic literature was being handed out in West Virginia, urging Catholic households never to elect an ‘agent of the Pope in Rome‘ and attributed – falsely – to the Humphrey campaign. A tactic that made Humphrey look out-dated, bigoted, and unprepared for the future of a changing Democrat Party. In his biography of Robert Kennedy, Evan Thomas calls Corbin ‘the immediate suspect‘ in the affair. The tactic – along with many others – worked. Jack Kennedy took West Virginia in the primary. Corbin had a big hand in shaping the narrative in West Virginia, through some incredibly dirty tactics, in his new found personal mission of protecting and advancing the Kennedys.
Evan Thomas notes that when Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara a few years later told RFK that he wanted Corbin to take a lie detector test over another matter, Kennedy laughed, telling the Secretary:
“Lie detector? He’d break the machine.”
– The Kennedy campaign was filled with dirty tricks leading up to the convention, not just from Corbin. At the Convention, Lyndon Johnson’s team were enraged to find their phone lines had been cut, a crime they blamed on the Kennedys. Later, when Johnson was President, Corbin was working in New Hampshire producing Kennedy-for-VP literature for the ’64 election, without running it by the President, or anyone else. Johnson was furious and demanded Corbin be fired from the DNC (a position Robert Kennedy gave him upon becoming Attorney General). RFK refused, insisting that Corbin was harmless, though Johnson had him fired anyway.
It seemed the RFK and Corbin relationship was strong, despite protests across the Democrat Party. Indeed, Joe Dolan – a Kennedy aide – referred to Corbin as ‘Robert Kennedy’s dark side‘. Back in early ’60s, the FBI released a report into Corbin’s suspected Communist ties (and conversely, his business dealings with staunch anti-Communist Joseph McCarthy) noting:
“The Attorney General seems to have completely overboard in trying to defend Corbin. He has suppressed any and all references to our report detailing Corbin’s Communist activity.”
– This is a big claim. One suspects RFK – by the time he was Attorney General – believed he owed a great deal to Corbin, which implies Corbin had a greater hand in securing the Presidency for JFK than we might ever know.
RFK’s fierce loyalty to Corbin was matched only by Corbin’s loyalty to the Kennedys, going so far as to convert to Catholicism in order that Robert and Ethel Kennedy could become his Godparents. Though even this may have had a political calculation, because at the time of Corbin’s conversion to Catholicism, he was being investigated by the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities, chaired by Congressman Francis Walter – a devout Catholic.
By 1980, both Jack Kennedy and Robert Kennedy had been cruelly slain by the bullets of single assassins, the dream of a Robert Kennedy Presidency – a dream Corbin had desired and fought for, for so many years – never had the chance to be realised, and Corbin had been out of politics for some years. Now was Ted Kennedy’s opportunity. Corbin was no Carter fan, but even if he had have been, his loyalty remained to the Kennedys, and so he worked behind the scenes to replace Carter with Kennedy. When that attempt failed, and angry at the Carter campaign’s negative treatment of Kennedy (ironically), Corbin began passing intelligence – according to a 1990 article in The Milwaukee Sentinel – on the Democrats to Reagan’s campaign manager William Casey; the man that Jim Baker had claimed passed him the Carter debate preparation papers.
He’d been a conman in the 1940s running an advertising scam, he’d helped to win West Virginia for JFK in the 1960 Primary, he’d been handed a high office at the DNC, the FBI had investigated him for ‘unAmerican activities’ for his days in the Community Party which Robert Kennedy worked to suppress, he’d done business with McCarthy, LBJ had personally ensured he was fired from the DNC, and he’d perhaps been responsible for the political scandal of 1980, aiding the election of a Republican. When he died in 1990, he was on the payroll of Merchandise Mart in Chicago; a business purchased by Joseph Kennedy in the 1940s.
The underhanded and devious brilliance of Paul Corbin’s political activities were driven by one obsession: The Kennedys. And they certainly benefited from his tactics. It’s unclear when this became such an obsession for him, when the Kennedys became Corbin’s first love, a love that he would dedicate his life to progressing, but it’s clear that by 1980 Corbin was woven so deeply into the Kennedy fabric, he was willing to create the scandal of the 1980s, to embarrass Carter, to propel Reagan to a landslide, and to leave his own unmistakable imprint on US history.