Vietnam, McGovern and firefighters vied with Watergate on the Post front page

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On June 18, 1972, the story that set the clock ticking on the presidency of Richard M. Nixon appeared on the front page of The Washington Post. The headline was “5 Held in Plot to Bug Democrats’ Office Here.”

But there were nine other stories on the front page that day, each in its own way an example of “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

The day’s two top stories were at the top of A1, under the main headline “Both Sides Claim Victory in N. Vietnam Offensive.”

Laurence Stern’s lead story from Saigon — “Analysts Measure Hanoi’s Goals and Results” — included a quote from US military adviser Gen. James F. Hollingsworth describing the success of South Vietnamese forces in the recent battle of An Loc as “the greatest victory in the history of warfare.”

Accompanying that story was a news analysis by Murray Marder headlined “Diplomats Feel ‘Something is Afoot’ to End War.” Presidential Adviser Henry A. Kissinger expressed his desire for “a serious negotiation leading to a rapid end of the war.”

Halfway down the page was a wire service story noting that the last US Army ground brigade would soon be pulled from Vietnam, nearly completing the process of “Vietnamization” of the war.

In other news, airline pilots around the world were being urged by their unions to stop flying for 24 hours, bringing attention to an issue they felt endangered more than their livelihood. Jack Eisen’s story — headlined “Appeals Court Delays Ruling on Pilot Strike” — explained why: “The pilots are pushing for stringent international sanctions against hijacking,” Eisen wrote.

It was a presidential election year. As the final Democratic primary neared, George McGovern was in the lead, but he’d been tripped up in earlier primearies by Edmund S. Muskie. “Showdown in New York” was the headline of Stephen Isaacs’s story. McGovern was expected to win the state’s primary, but perhaps not by enough over challenger Muskie.

McGovern’s campaign manager, Gary Hartpredicted his candidate would receive at least 200 of the state’s 278 delegates.

Maryland’s delegation to the upcoming national convention in Miami was the subject of Richard M. Cohen’s front-page story , “Women, Blacks Youth Fight Democrats.”

A Marylander named Nancy Dutton was among Democrats who had filed challenges to the composition of Maryland’s delegation. Too many were old white guys, she said.

Dutton argued that the slate of 53 delegates should more closely represent the state’s Democratic voters, with more African Americans, more women and younger people.

Wrote Cohen: “Regardless of the fate of the challengers, 41 of the 53 Maryland delegates will be bound under state law to George C. Wallacethe winner of the May 16 primary and the candidate who swept six of the eight congressional districts.”

Across the page from that story was one by Mike Causey headlined “Nader Blasts Civil Service as Arrogant.” Consumer crusader Ralph Nader had just released a 500-page report titled “The Spoiled System.” Compiled by a team headed by 30-year-old Harvard Law graduate Robert Vaughnthe report likened the federal bureaucracy to “a giant pool of quicksand which permits the mediocre to rise, and either sinks or soils many dedicated professionals.”

Among the report’s recommendations was the creation of an employee rights and accountability board.

Accountability was the subject of the story “DC Budget Reforms Are Announced” by Kirk Scharfenberg. District Mayor Walter E. Washington promised that the city would more carefully track how the federal money it received was spent. In budget hearings earlier in the year, Sen. Daniel K. Inouye claimed the District had overspent $5.2 million and said the mayor could go to jail for violating the federal antideficiency act. The city denied most of the charges, but promised to monitor expenditures.

June 18, 1972, was a Sunday, the day. The Post typically launches its longer series. On this day, reporter Herbert H. Denton began his multipart examination of the volunteer firefighters of Prince George’s County. The headline: “Firemen Find Empire is Going Up in Smoke.”

Denton recounted the rise of the volunteer units, most of which were organized in the early 20th century. “The fire companies had then, and many still preserve now, the aura of blue collar men’s clubs with pool tables and recreational halls,” he wrote.

There were 900 volunteer firemen, 37 volunteer fire companies and 45 volunteer firehouses. County executive William W. Gullett was finally starting to exercise the oversight he had been granted in 1970.

One issue was that most of the companies’ equipment — more fire engines, it was claimed, than all but New York, Chicago and Los Angeles — was paid for by the county but owned by the volunteer units. There were no uniform county qualifications to be a volunteer firefighter. And at a 1968 fire at a Bowie restaurant — Mr. Kelly’s (no relation) — 13 companies had responded.

It was, a disapproving county fire inspector told The Post, “the free enterprise system of firefighting.”

Even so, none of the companies were able to set up a hose relay system from the nearest hydrant, a mile away. Mr. Kelly’s had been burned to the ground.

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