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Opinion

Opinion

Muskie’s plea for civility worth repeating

October 31, 2010

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— Almost finished. Just a few days to go. The clatter and clutter of an American election — a vitally important, perhaps historic midterm election — are about to end. Nobody, except perhaps the odd candidate on a pre-election surge, wishes this campaign were even a day longer.

We’ve had these kinds of elections before — raucous, riveting campaigns where great issues and the direction of the country seemed to rest in the balance. And we’ve had angry, acidic campaigns before, as well — campaigns where great ideas had a hearing but where, when the shouting, the accusing and the name-calling were over, the country was in great need of healing.

Which brings us to Maine, four decades ago. It was the Nixon era and almost nothing about it prompts nostalgia even today, as the 1970s, which Tom Wolfe described as the “Me Decade,” remain enveloped in a mist of malignant memories.

Another bitter midterm

Forty years ago this week, the country was wrapping up a bitter midterm election campaign, and the night before the polls opened, Democratic Sen. Edmund S. Muskie gave a remarkable address. Though this speech today is hardly remembered outside the Muskie Archives here at Bates College, his alma mater, we need to hear and heed it today.

“There has been name-calling and deception of almost unprecedented volume,” Muskie said. “Honorable men have been slandered. Faithful servants of the country have had their motives questioned and their patriotism doubted.”

Muskie’s speech was, to be sure, partisan. Richard M. Nixon and his vice president, Spiro T. Agnew, had charged the Democrats with contributing to the breakdown of law and order and had questioned their patriotism because they questioned the war in Vietnam. And Muskie, fresh off an impressive but unsuccessful campaign for vice president two years earlier, was considered a potential Democratic nominee to face Nixon in 1972.

But the former governor of Maine was appealing for more than votes in his 14 minutes and 30 seconds of national television time that night. Possessed of a volcanic private temper but a soothing public manner, Muskie was appealing for a less pugilistic politics, and though he would have a distinguished Senate career and later serve as secretary of state, this may have been his finest hour.

“This was regarded as a very important speech,” said Joel Goldstein, a St. Louis University professor who is writing a biography of Muskie, “because in it he spoke for civility at a time when personal attack politics was on the rise.”

Appeal to change debate

Muskie talked of a “torrent of falsehood and insinuation.” He noted that neither Republicans nor Democrats had been able to quell the violence coursing through American streets. He criticized the notion that “men who have courageously pursued their convictions ... in the service of the republic in war and in peace — that these men actually favor violence ... and champion the wrongdoer.” He exclaimed: “That is a lie.”

But the centerpiece of the Muskie address was an appeal for a different kind of American debate.

“We can work to restore a sense of shared purpose, and of great enterprise,” he said. “We can bring back the belief not only in a better and more noble future, but in our own power to make it so. Our country is wounded and confused — but it is also charged with greatness and with the possibility of greatness. We cannot realize that possibility if we are afraid ... or if we consume our energies in hostility and accusation.”

The irony is that Muskie himself would fall victim to the sort of politics he so ardently abhorred. Some 14 months later he stood on a flatbed truck in front of the conservative Manchester Union Leader to defend his wife against charges leveled by the newspaper’s combative publisher, William Loeb.

“This man doesn’t walk, he crawls,” Muskie said of Loeb, perhaps crying, perhaps only letting a New Hampshire snow squall give him the appearance of crying. The incident prompted suggestions that Muskie was weak — and that when the voting was over a man who lived next door to New Hampshire was regarded as the loser of the 1972 New Hampshire primary even though he finished first and took 46 percent of the vote.

The 1970 Muskie speech grew out of Democrats’ worries that Nixon’s attacks had gone unanswered. Supporters of 1968 presidential candidates Eugene J. McCarthy and the late Robert F. Kennedy suggested Muskie respond. A group led by former New York Gov. W. Averell Harriman hastily raised $150,000 to buy nationwide television time.

“Muskie came out of the 1968 campaign looking like the next president,” said Eliot Cutler, a longtime Muskie aide now running an Independent campaign for governor in Maine. “People thought of him as Lincolnesque, because of being tall and craggy and having a certain aura. He was the natural person to respond.”

So George J. Mitchell, a Muskie confidant who later became Senate majority leader, asked Richard N. Goodwin, former speechwriter for Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, to draft a speech. Goodwin, then living on a farm in mountainous western Maine, spoke with Muskie, who from a restaurant pay phone set out the topic and tone he envisioned. Goodwin wrote into the night, then got into his Jeep, drove the speech to the Fenway Motor Inn in Waterville and rapped on the senator’s door a half hour after sunrise.

“As tired as I was,” he said the other day, “I stayed up — so the Muskie staff couldn’t change it.”

Tranquil backdrop

Muskie couldn’t record the broadcast from his home in Kennebunk, which wasn’t winterized. It turned out that the tranquil setting at Cape Elizabeth, outside Portland — in the home of Gus Barber, a Maine businessman known for popularizing mass-produced chicken nuggets and stuffed chicken breasts — was an essential part of the address’s appeal, for it provided a vivid contrast with the fevered election-eve presentation of the Nixon camp.

“The Republican film was full of shouting crowds and Nixon’s free-swinging oratorical thrusts,” The New York Times reported the next morning. “Sen. Muskie spoke in measured tones from an armchair in a living room setting, rarely raising his voice.”

Toward the end of his remarks, Muskie summarized his appeal for a new political tone. “We cannot realize (our sense of) possibility if we are afraid ... or if we consume our energies in hostility and accusation.”

Worth thinking about today. Worth repeating today.

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