Is 80 today. His friends gave him a birthday...

ED MUSKIE

March 28, 1994|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

ED MUSKIE is 80 today. His friends gave him a birthday roast in Washington two weeks early. As speakers made needling comments about him, he replied, "That is a lie, and the American people know it is a lie."

That's a reprise of what was probably his finest hour. In 1970, President Nixon made a nationally-televised speech attacking Democratic congressional candidates for being "pro-criminal." Democrats chose Muskie, their 1968 vice presidential nominee, to respond. He said of Nixon's charge, "That is a lie, and the American people know it is a lie."

Very effective. Muskie, a Maine senator, was soon the front-runner for the 1972 presidential nomination. By the end of 1971, he led all Democrats in a Gallup Poll. No other candidate came close.

By February of 1972, a few weeks before the New Hampshire primary, Muskie and Richard Nixon were dead even in a trial heat. And then, as every political trivia junkie knows, Muskie cried.

What happened was, the Manchester Union Leader, an even more outrageously provocative and irresponsible newspaper then than now, printed some untrue and critical editorials about Ed Muskie and his wife Jane. Muskie went to the paper's plant to respond to the publisher and editorial writer, William Loeb. There, standing on a flatbed truck in a snowfall, he called Loeb "a gutless coward, a liar," and continued, "that man doesn't walk, he crawls. It's fortunate for him that he is not on this platform beside me."

Bruce Winters, reporting the story for The Sun wrote, "Then he began another sentence. 'A good woman. . .' He never completed it, turning away as the tears streamed down his cheek."

At his roast, Muskie said he didn't cry. He said that was melting snow trickling down his cheeks. That has been his story all along. After he dropped out of the race in 1972, he told journalists he "choked up" with anger but did not cry.

Maybe, but it looked like crying to the crowd and, more importantly, on the tube. That night on every network news show, Americans saw (1) Richard Nixon chatting confidently with Premier Chou En-lai in China, and (2) Ed Muskie crying as a result of a tiff with a small town newspaper bully.

What a comparison! Democrats started thinking about a Plan B to beat Nixon. Candidate Muskie was dead and buried within a month.

Too bad, I always thought. I always thought Muskie would have made a fine president. He was intelligent. Honest. Thoughtful. Decent. Patriotic. He just wasn't a good New Age campaigner. He cried, or choked, out of exhaustion, as a look at his schedule that week would show -- one event after another, one long plane ride after another.

I think history will remember him as the first Democrat to fall victim to the all-out, run-in-every-primary new style of campaigning that dominated the presidential nomination process that year for the first time -- and has ever since.

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