Sunday, March 4, 2012

When the Wheels Came Off for Ed Muskie

"It changed people's minds about me, of what kind of a guy I was. They were looking for a strong, steady man and here I was weak. I doubt whether I'm a candidate who could ever have won in this country this year. I'm a man for a country looking for a healer, not a country in protest."

Ed Muskie
As quoted by Theodore H. White in "The Making of the President 1972"

Accounts of the Watergate scandal and the Nixon presidency provide ample evidence of how the most prominent candidates for the Democrats' presidential nomination self–destructed, one by one, in 1972.

Or, at least, that is how it seemed at the time.

As we learned later, those apparent implosions were helped along considerably by Nixon's "dirty tricks" gang, the ones who saw to it that Nixon would run against the weakest possible foe that fall, George McGovern.

In hindsight, their pattern of complicity was all too obvious — as soon as one Democrat would emerge as the new front–runner, something would happen and his campaign would be, essentially, over — but it wasn't nearly as clear to see then as it seems to be today.

I suppose that is testimony to the initial effectiveness of the Committee to Re–Elect the President (or CREEP, as it was unofficially known) in its attempts to deflect investigations that never got off track for too long.

Even today, though, some people won't acknowledge what even the blind should be able to see — that, with perhaps one exception, the big names who stumbled on the '72 campaign trail probably would not have stumbled and paid such heavy prices without the Republicans' behind–the–scenes assistance.

Anyway, I guess the first real casualty in the political war of 1972 was mortally wounded on this day.

His name was Ed Muskie, and he was a senator from Maine. In recent years, Democrats have carried Maine in presidential elections, they have won gubernatorial elections and they hold both House seats, but, in Muskie's day, the state was true to its Republican roots.

Muskie was the first Democrat Maine sent to the U.S. Senate in nearly half a century, and, in the cauldron of 1968, he was seen as a principled man, an almost Lincolnesque figure, who always sought to do the right thing. He was chosen to be Hubert Humphrey's running mate, and he was a breath of fresh air for a party that had grown increasingly stale.

The Humphrey–Muskie ticket lost a squeaker to the Nixon–Agnew ticket, but Muskie's stock was rapidly rising in Democratic circles and, by 1972, he was the front–runner for the party's presidential nomination.

I suppose there are numerous comparisons to be made between the Muskie campaign of 1972 and the other big–name presidential hopefuls who crashed and burned during the primary season. Did his own actions contribute to his fall from grace?

I can't say that I definitively know the answer to that today. I certainly didn't know the answer at the time. But one thing I did know then was that Muskie had help — courtesy of the conservative Manchester (N.H.) Union Leader.

On Feb. 24, 1972, the Union Leader published a letter to the editor that alleged that Muskie, in a conversation with staffers in Florida, laughed when one referred to French–Canadians as "Canucks" — a derogatory term that was widely used in Muskie's home state.

Since a portion of New Hampshire's population was of French–Canadian descent, the impression was that such a revelation could hurt Muskie in the March 7 primary.

(That letter was later revealed to be a fake, authored by someone in Nixon's campaign.)

A few days later, the Union Leader published an article alleging that Muskie's wife had been drinking and using similar offensive terms during Muskie's presidential campaign. It reinforced a growing perception that Muskie was prejudiced.

On Saturday, March 4, three days before the New Hampshire primary, Muskie appeared in front of the Union Leader's offices and publicly called the newspaper's publisher a liar.

"By attacking me, by attacking my wife, he has proved himself to be a gutless coward," Muskie said, acknowledging that "it's fortunate for him he's not on this platform beside me."

Sixteen years later, such a spirited defense of one's spouse probably would have served Michael Dukakis well when he was asked in a debate with George H.W. Bush what his response would be if his wife was raped and murdered.

But, in 1972, it was seen as a moment of weakness because Muskie was reported to have cried while speaking.

There was always considerable doubt about what really happened. Snow was falling while Muskie was speaking and what was taken for tears by some observers was said by others to be snow flakes glistening on Muskie's cheeks as they melted in the fading light of the day.

But the general impression was that Muskie had been crying, that he had shown weakness at a time when voters were looking for strength in their leaders, and it doomed his candidacy.

(As far as Muskie was concerned, my memory is that he vehemently denied the allegation that he cried, but his comment to Theodore White, which is cited at the start of this post, implied otherwise.)

It is mostly forgotten now that Muskie won the New Hampshire primary, receiving 46% of the vote. McGovern finished second with 37%.

But that was below expectations, and, like Lyndon Johnson four years earlier, his performance was judged against those expectations, not by the outcome.

In 1972, the momentum was with McGovern after the New Hampshire primary, as it had been with Gene McCarthy in 1968, and Muskie's campaign collapsed.

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