The man who showed his emotion too soon

March 29, 1996|By JACK W. GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- For all of Sen. Edmund Muskie's considerable accomplishments, his death brought renewed reminiscences of his unsuccessful presidential bid in 1972 and the single incident to which its outcome was often attributed.

News reports captured Mr. Muskie standing outside the Manchester Union Leader in a snowstorm during the 1972 New Hampshire primary and momentarily losing his composure over personal attacks in the newspaper on his wife, Jane. Debatable even today is whether, as many wrote, Mr. Muskie had wept, or whether it was melted snow rather than tears that trickled down his cheek as he spoke in mixed anger and sorrow.

The senator told author Theodore H. White that the episode ''changed people's minds about me.'' . . . They were looking for a strong, steady man, and here I was weak.'' If ever there was a misreading of a man, that was it.

Mr. Muskie was figuratively as well as physically a tower of strength, a man of dogged convictions whose resolution was generally so firm that any suggestion that he might be indecisive could draw from his usually reserved demeanor a paroxysm of denial and protest.

Political reporters interrogated Mr. Muskie relentlessly on the one issue about which he was uncharacteristically indecisive -- the Vietnam war. He had publicly supported President Lyndon Johnson's Vietnam policy when he was Hubert Humphrey's running mate in 1968, but he eventually turned critic. Still he had difficulty as a presidential candidate in 1972 articulating what he would do about the war.

This problem -- as much as or more than the famous scene outside the newspaper -- persuaded voters to abandon him. After a winning but disappointing showing in New Hampshire, he plunged to fourth place in the Florida and Wisconsin primaries as Sen. George McGovern swept to the Democratic nomination.

Senator Muskie's lack of clear articulation on Vietnam was particularly damaging to him because the war at that time was at the center of American politics. Democratic liberals were leading anti-war demonstrations, and new nomination procedures were giving greater influence to their voices and votes. Mr. Muskie's late enlistment in the anti-war cause, as opposed to Mr. McGovern's long history in it, eventually undid Senator Muskie.

Crying in the snow

Yet his ''crying in the snow'' likely will remain the one image most Americans of the time will remember of the man. This is a considerable irony in light of the experience 16 years later of another Democratic presidential candidate, Gov. Michael Dukakis.

Asked in a debate whether, if his wife Kitty were ''raped and murdered,'' he would ''favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer,'' Mr. Dukakis replied with a stone-cold lack of emotion. His answer that he had always been against the death penalty was widely criticized for its blandness and impersonal quality.

Perhaps the difference was that Governor Dukakis already had a reputation as a mechanical man of little emotion. His response missed a golden political opportunity to demonstrate an understandable human reaction. But more than that probably was the attitude of the time toward people in public life.

As his friend, former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, said the other day, Mr. Muskie ran at a time when reserve was expected of candidates. Had the New Hampshire episode occurred today, Mr. Muskie might have been widely commended for his behavior.

Four years ago, nominee Bill Clinton in debate with the more reserved President Bush won many voters by letting a questioner know that he ''felt her pain.'' When she asked ''how you can honestly find a cure for the economic problems of the common people if you have no experience in what's ailing them,'' Mr. Bush was nonplused but Mr. Clinton was ready with a reply based on what he had seen happen to real people in Arkansas.

If Ed Muskie had been running for president today wearing his heart on his sleeve, it would probably have helped him. But that was a different time.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 3/29/96

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