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Hatchet Man

A “hatchet man” is an operative in charge of doing political dirty work — or dirty tricks — both during a campaign and sometimes as part of normal government functions.

This individual might be responsible for attacking or undermining political opponents through negative campaigning, spreading rumors, or engaging in character assassination.

The role of the hatchet man is often carried out behind the scenes, though some might operate more openly.

The word was popularized during the Watergate scandal.

Several of Richard Nixon’s aides, notably Charles Colson and H.R. Haldeman, were known as the president’s hatchet men, charged with taking care of his dirty work as part of the White House “plumbers.”

As the New York Times reported, Colson “caught the president’s eye” and rose in the administration quickly, thanks to his apparent ruthlessness.

His “instinct for the political jugular and his ability to get things done made him a lightning rod for my own frustrations,” Nixon wrote in his memoir, RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon. In 1970, the president made him his “political point man” for “imaginative dirty tricks.

When I complained to Colson, I felt confident that something would be done,” Nixon wrote. “I was rarely disappointed.”

Colson hired E. Howard Hunt, a former CIA operative, to spy on Nixon’s political opponents.

He also admitted to conspiring to destroy the reputation of Daniel Ellsberg, the former National Security Council member who leaked the Pentagon papers.

He served time in jail, where he said he had experienced a religious awakening, eventually becoming an evangelical leader and forging  a coalition of Republican protestants and Catholics.

Origin of “Hatchet Man”

The origin of the term dates back to the 14th century, when “hatchet man” referred to an executioner.

In later years, it came to symbolize someone who does the “dirty work” for another.

In the realm of politics, it took on a metaphorical meaning and began to be used to describe individuals who execute political attacks.

A hatchet man’s tactics might include digging up compromising information, constructing narratives to tarnish an opponent’s reputation, or delivering pointed public criticisms.

These tactics might be viewed as necessary by some political figures and their followers, especially in highly competitive and polarized political environments.

Others, however, view the actions of a hatchet man as ethically dubious and damaging to the overall political discourse.

The role of the hatchet man can be seen throughout history in various political systems and cultures.

Whether officially recognized or operating in secrecy, the hatchet man plays a strategic role in many political campaigns and power struggles.

Use of “Hatchet Man” in a sentence

  • In the heated political campaign, the party’s well-known hatchet man was called upon to launch aggressive attacks against the opposition, digging up dirt and exploiting any perceived weaknesses.
  • The senator’s reputation as a hatchet man began to overshadow his legislative achievements, causing some within his own party to distance themselves from his abrasive tactics.
  • While some politicians shun the label, others embrace the role of the hatchet man, seeing it as a necessary function in the cutthroat world of political competition, where winning often requires aggressive and relentless criticism of opponents.