Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Muskie: a granite note of authority

As a boy, he took his once-a-week bath from water heated on top of the wood-burning kitchen stove. His father, the polish tailor of Rumford, Maine, was christened Marciszewski, but the immigration official made it "Muskie" on the admission form. The boy grew to be 6 feet, 4 inches -- big and rangy as a Maine moose, an animal noted for its varying moods.

Edmund S. Muskie, after 22 years in the US Senate -- in which he has once run for vice-president (with Hubert H. Humphrey, 1968) and once unsuccessfully for the presidential nomination (1972) -- is normally mild, mellow, and genial, but there is a hot temper and emotionalism underneath. Sometimes it comes to the surface.

About these ads

When Dick Stewart, formerly of the Boston Globe and later Mr. Muskie's press agent, was traveling with the senator, there was a clash. The senator, poking his finger toward Mr. Stewart's chest cried, "You can't intimidate me!" Mr. Stewart shot right back, "You can't intimidate me, either!" This was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Before Mr. Stewart took the job he inquired, "If I come with you are you going to 'blow' in public?" Not in public, replied the senator.

He wasn't quite accurate. On the top of a flatbed truck on Feb. 26, 1972 -- before the office of the Manchester (New Hampshire) Union Leader, with heavy snow coming down -- Mr. Muskie turned on the publisher. He was wrapped in scarf and overcoat but bareheaded. The paper charged that he had used the word "Canuck" to defame French-Canadians, and it carried a critical article about the senator's wife Jane (the couple have five children).

The senator started with several epithets delivered in a controlled tone as the melting snow streaked his cheeks. When he turned to defend his wife, he choked and had to be prompted three times. Below him two home-made signs "nous aimons Muskie" wagged in embarrassment.

A newspaper reporter, standing just beneath the truck wrote in his account that "it was one of the strangest incidents in the history of American presidential politics." New York Times political correspondent R. W. Apple wrote , March 5, 1972, that "professionals across the country were appalled" at the episode. Senator Muskie soon lost his place as front-runner.

Still the Democratic leadership thought enough of Mr. Muskie to choose him to reply twice on radio to President Nixon, and once to President Ford after the latter's State of the Union speech.

"He does not flash and zip his political commercials at you," wrote a Canadian reporter, under title "Mister Sincerity."

In fact, Mr. Muskie has become something of a folk figure. He is normally easygoing, but there is a granite note of authority underneath as when, once, he faced down a heckler, and an awed secretary muttered, "He's got a glare that would shut up Mt. Rushmore!"

About these ads

President Carter announced Mr. Muskie's appointment April 29 in the White House press room after which the senator answered questions. "You've left a little ambivalence about your position," complained one reporter.

"If so it is a successful press conference," responded the tall senator with a Cheshire cat grin.

The presidential structure is so arranged as virtually to guarantee an institutional clash. The secretary of state advises the President on foreign affairs, but there is the recently established "assistant for national security affairs" who keeps the White House informed on "security."

During the Nixon years, energetic Security Affairs Adviser Henry A. Kissinger edged out mild-mannered Secretary of State William P. Rodgers. Hawkish Security Affairs Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski remains in office while "dovish" Secretary of State Cyrus Vance resigns. "Zbig" as he is sometimes termed, briefs President Carter daily.

Enter a fellow-Pole, Mr. Muskie. Those who know the senator regard him as one of the most formidable men to hold the foreign affairs job since bearded Charles Evans Hughes.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.