Edmund Sixtus Muskie The man from Maine: Presidential also-ran will be remembered as a great senator.

March 27, 1996

POLITICAL HISTORIANS have relegated Sen. Edmund S. Muskie of Maine, who died yesterday, to some footnotes in presidential election lore. He was the Democratic vice presidential candidate in 1968 who had higher approval ratings than his running mate, Hubert Humphrey. And he was the front-runner for the 1972 presidential nomination who blew it by breaking down and crying in the New Hampshire primary.

He may or may not in fact have been a better top-of-the-ticket choice for the Democrats in 1968; the same criticisms directed at Mr. Humphrey because he was the presidential candidate would have battered down Senator Muskie's popularity had he been the presidential candidate. And he may or may not have actually cried in 1972; he said what the cameras caught was a melting snowflake on his cheek.

This focus misses the essential point about Edmund Muskie. He was a man of the Senate and a man of Maine. He was widely respected in the Senate for his skill, progressive views, intelligence and integrity. President Lyndon Johnson said he was "one of the few liberals who's a match for the Southern legislative craftsmen."

Among the fruits of his craftsmanship and liberalism were the principal environmental laws of his era: the Clean Air Act and the Water Quality Act. Though he was from a small town in a mostly rural state, he was also one of the principal architects of many urban aid programs, such as the Model Cities Act.

After his failed presidential bid, he returned to his Senate duties, then became Jimmy Carter's secretary of state. He probably regretted missing out on the presidency. "I enjoyed executive responsibilities as governor and secretary of state," he later mused.

No one can say what kind of president such a liberal would have made in the troubled 1970s. One thing is for sure: This highly moral, honest, religious and decent Maine Yankee (and son of a Polish immigrant) would never have stooped to a "Watergate" and been run out of office.

Another New Englander once wrote, "For of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: It might have been!" And yet, what was in Edmund Muskie's life and career was quite good, indeed.

Pub Date: 3/27/96

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