Ed Muskie's favorite joke

March 27, 1996|By Theo Lippman Jr.

THE 1968 PRESIDENTIAL campaign was unusual -- unique -- in that the vice-presidential candidates got almost as much attention as the presidential candidates at times. Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine was the Democratic running mate of Vice President Hubert Humphrey. The Republican opposite number to Senator Muskie was, of course, our own governor, Spiro T. Agnew, assisting Richard Nixon.

From the night Senator Muskie was nominated to be the Democratic vice-presidential candidate in bloody, tear-gassed Chicago that August, to Election Day morning on a golf course in Kennebunkport, Maine, on a warm, bright perfect New England autumn day, I covered the Muskie campaign for The Sun.

The only week of the campaign that I was not on Muskie's plane, I was on Agnew's. I was in Detroit when he made his famous remark: ''To some extent I would have to say this: If you've seen one city slum you've seen them all.''

A muzzled Agnew

Agnew was ridiculed for that and other remarks during the campaign -- to the point that some commentators even predicted that the contrast between Muskie and Agnew would tilt the election to Hubert Humphrey and Muskie against Richard Nixon and Agnew. Bill Mauldin captured that sentiment in a cartoon for the Chicago Sun-Times. Titled ''Running Mates'' it showed a track meet with Muskie carrying Humphrey in his arms and Nixon carrying a muzzled Agnew over his shoulder.

Other reporters came and went on the Muskie campaign plane, but I believe George Herman of CBS and I were the only ones there for the duration.

So except for Herman, I heard Ed Muskie tell his favorite joke more times than anybody. It is embedded in my consciousness. Whenever I think of him, I will think of that joke. I will never forget it. He was making half a dozen speeches a day, and he told the joke at least once a day.

It was a perfect joke for him. He was a politically liberal Democrat in sophisticated ''inside-the-beltway'' Washington, but essentially he was a down-to-earth, personally and philosophically conservative, low-key Maine Yankee. The joke conveyed that.

''A Texan was driving through Maine,'' Senator Muskie began, ''and saw a farmer working in his field. He stopped his gas guzzler and asked, 'How big is your farm?'

''The farmer replied, 'Well, it begins down there by the bridge, runs along the stream to that clump of birches, then back behind the barn to the road there, then along the road to where it meets the highway, then down here.'

'' 'Well,' the Texan said with a smirk, 'that's not very big is it? On my ranch down in Texas, I can get in my car after breakfast and drive until dinnertime and still be on my property. Now, what do you think of that?'

''And the farmer said, 'I had a car like that once.' "

Theo Lippman Jr. is a former editorial writer and columnist for The Sun and co-author with Donald C. Hansen of ''Muskie.''

Pub Date: 3/27/96

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