Thank You, Senator Muskie
Edmund S. Muskie is the recipient of the thirtieth annual Down East Environmental Award.
Fifty years ago Maine sent former Governor Edmund S. Muskie (1914-1996) to the U.S. Senate, and over the next two decades he changed our world - for the better. A Rumford native who grew up on the banks of the most polluted river in Maine, Muskie wrote the most important environmental legislation of the century, including the landmark Clean Air and Clean Water acts, and forged the bipartisan coalitions needed to pass them into law. He helped create the modern environmental movement by giving activists the legal tools they needed to force polluters to obey the law. For those accomplishments and many others, the editors of Down East are proud to award the thirtieth annual Down East Environmental Award to the late Edmund S. Muskie.
Back in 1958 Mainers sent Edmund S. Muskie to the U.S. Senate, and the world hasn't been the same since. Literally every breath we take and every glass of water we drink is better than it would have been if Mr. Muskie hadn't gone to Washington. His supporters say Muskie helped create the modern environmental movement, shifting its focus from merely conserving wild lands to cleaning up the nation's air, land, and water. Anyone looking at the U.S. Senate today would be hard-pressed to find his equal.
Yet there is an entire generation of twenty-something Mainers who know little or nothing about the man who wrote and persuaded Congress to pass the landmark Clean Air Act of 1970 and Clean Water Act of 1972, among many other pieces of environmental legislation. Muskie doesn't have a huge park named after him or a statue in a Portland square. The Muskie Archives and Special Collections Library at Bates College is a place of quiet scholarship. There isn't even a definitive biography of the man. Possibly the most public remembrance of him is the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine - and that think tank narrowly escaped being dissolved and folded into the university last year.
"I gave a lecture about Ed at Bowdoin College [in Brunswick] recently, and it struck me that I'd be speaking to young people who not only weren't alive during Muskie's time in the Senate, but also whose parents probably hadn't been born when he was elected governor," says Muskie's longtime chief of staff and confidant, Don Nicoll. But then it took more than a century before Civil War hero and Maine Governor Joshua Chamberlain gained his current popularity as a major historical figure. "Ed still has time," Nicoll says.
Those who carry on his fight remember him best. "The memory of Ed Muskie sets a very high bar," muses Brownie Carson, longtime executive director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. "Now, almost forty years later, when we're working on cleaning up the Androscoggin or sitting in a hearing about another water-quality permit, Muskie's vision continues to serve as an inspiration to us and every group that cares about the Maine environment."
"Before Muskie's subcommittee on air and water pollution was created in 1963, the word `environment' wasn't even in the national vernacular," points out Leon G. Billings, who served as the subcommittee's staff director for twelve years under Muskie. "Neither was the word `ecology.' So when Muskie embarked on his crusade to direct attention to controlling the pollution of our air, water, and land, he started something entirely new."
Edmund Sixtus Muskie was born in Rumford in 1914, the second child of a Polish immigrant tailor, Stephen Marciszewski, who had Americanized his name to Muskie after arriving in the United States in 1903, and his wife, Josephine Czarnecka. Rumford was a rawboned, recently built mill town at a time when papermaking was one of the dirtiest industries in the country.
"Muskie's interest in the environment started in his youth," explains Nicoll. "His father took him hunting and fishing throughout western Maine. Of course he lived right by the Androscoggin River where the heaviest pollution started because of the outflow of waste and chemicals from the mills in Rumford. Plus you also had the air emissions of the sulfite papermaking process."
Muskie won a small scholarship to Bates College in Lewiston and went on to earn a law degree from Cornell University in 1939 before opening a practice in Waterville. Following service in the navy during World War II, he returned and promptly ran for the Maine legislature - as a Democrat, of all things, in a state that had been solidly Republican for more than fifty years. The GOP had such a tight grip on Maine politics that many Democrats registered as Republicans just so they could vote in the Republican primary, then the only election that mattered.
Despite those political obstacles, Muskie won, and went on to serve three terms in the legislature as he and a core group of fellow war veterans worked to rebuild the Democratic Party in Maine. In 1954 he beat an incumbent to become Maine's second Democratic governor in a century. Nicoll, of Portland, says Muskie's experience dealing with an overwhelmingly Republican legislature taught him the importance of bipartisanship, lessons that would serve him well when he moved on to the U.S. Senate in 1958, again by beating an incumbent.
All of Muskie's early victories came at a time when ballots in Maine still carried the "Big Box," the square at the top that allowed citizens to vote a straight ticket, all Republican or all Democrat. It was a measure of how much Mainers liked the tall, gangly lawyer that they were willing to split their votes for him.
And he was a likeable man, one who came across especially well on television with his long jaw and country-boy grin and deep, melodious voice. His wife, Jane, a former model and Waterville native, was a tireless campaigner and a strong-willed adviser in her own right. Together they had five children.
Muskie's early Senate experience was not auspicious. In his first month in Washington, he managed to rile the Democratic majority leader (and future president), Lyndon Baines Johnson, by refusing to commit to supporting a rules change that Johnson sought. In fact, when the measure reached the Senate floor, Muskie voted in favor of an alternate version proposed by Senator Hubert Humphrey.
"Johnson was not amused," Nicoll recalls dryly. He retaliated by putting Muskie on three dead-end committees - Banking and Currency, Public Works, and Government Operations. "None of them had leaders who were likely to give this upstart from Maine much leeway," Nicoll says. "Yet Muskie turned each of the committees into major legislative platforms for his ideas."
He got his bully pulpit for environmental issues in 1963, when he was appointed chair of a newly formed Public Works subcommittee on air and water pollution. Over the next thirteen years he successfully sponsored ten major environmental bills, including the landmark Clean Air and Clean Water acts. He was one of the major figures responsible for the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. Along the way, he found time to help create the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1965, sponsor the Model Cities Act of 1966 and the 1970 Securities Investor Protection Act, serve as Senate floor manager for the War Powers Act, and run as Hubert Humphrey's vice-presidential teammate in the 1968 presidential election. In 1972 he was the leading early candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination before a combination of overconfidence and Richard Nixon's "dirty tricks" squad ended his campaign. He returned to the Senate until 1980, when President Jimmy Carter chose him as Secretary of State in the last year of his presidency. It remains the highest public office ever held by a Polish-American.
Perhaps understandably, Leon G. Billings judges Muskie's environmental contributions as his major accomplishments. "Before Ed Muskie, there was no national environmental policy; there was no national environmental movement; there was no national environmental consciousness," he maintains in an essay he wrote for the Edmund S. Muskie Foundation. He considers Muskie nothing less than the father of the modern environmental movement.
"Muskie came to Washington as a conservationist," Billings says today from his home in Delaware. "He became an environmentalist as his interest grew. There were no environmental groups then, just some scattered individuals trying to fix local problems."
Billings makes a distinction between "movement environmentalists," or activists, and political environmentalists. "The movement environmentalists wanted to do things about the world around them," he explains. "The political environmentalists like Muskie wanted to give them the political and legal framework to do that. Muskie's success in providing that legal framework made it possible to have a cleaner environment today."
Today Billings considers the 1970 Clean Air Act Muskie's outstanding achievement, in particular the provision that gave citizens standing in federal courts to bring pollution lawsuits. "It meant regular people could sue to enforce the standards and deadlines established in the law," Billings says.
"Muskie wrote the citizen suit provision because he understood that politics could interfere with government enforcing the law," says Brownie Carson. Over the years since, the principle has allowed organizations such as the Natural Resources Council to force both government and polluters to obey the law.
"The environmental movement in the 1950s and 1960s was focused primarily on conservation, saving something that already existed with national parks and wilderness areas," Nicoll explains. "There was very limited attention paid to pollution controls." Then the heavily polluted Cuyahoga River in Ohio burst into flames one bright June day in 1969. "Muskie took hold of that and used it to make pollution controls a federal priority," Nicoll notes. "He made it into a bipartisan effort in the Senate."
One of the ironies of Muskie's career is the river in Maine that turned him into an environmentalist. Despite decades of regulatory efforts, lawsuits, and bitter enmity between environmental organizations and paper mills, the Androscoggin River remains the most polluted waterway in the state. That said, it is far cleaner than the open sewer that flowed past Muskie's childhood home. Today the upper reaches of the river above Rumford have gained cachet as the state's newest fishing hotspot [Down East, May 2007]. The lower stretches, especially where it flows through Lewiston and Auburn, still have room for improvement. The Department of Environmental Protection recently approved new discharge permits for Rumford's paper mills that include even tighter pollution controls.
Both Nicoll and Billings say that Muskie's ability to build bridges across the Senate aisle was key to his success. "Muskie had a style that in my experience was unique among liberals," Billings offers. "Many liberals wanted to get in, push legislation through no matter what, and get out fast. Muskie's view was if you took your time and thought through the issue and accommodated your colleagues to the extent you could, you'd end up with a more effective product with a lot of support. So he took lots and lots of time."
"When he was a student at Bates College he was on the debate team," Nicoll explains. "His professor taught the students that debate was not about winning, it was about persuasion. That was something Ed absorbed, and it was the way he operated."
"Few people remember that one of Muskie's major allies on the Clean Water Act was Senator James Buckley, the conservative from New York who was the brother of the late William F. Buckley," Billings notes. "He helped get that bill passed because Muskie persuaded him it was needed and it was the right thing to do."
Muskie's patience and attention to detail were legendary. "He was the consummate careful lawyer who first focused on what he was trying to accomplish and second on understanding all the facts, testing all the options, before you make a decision," Nicoll recalls. "As a staff member you worked hard to cover all your bases on an issue, yet he would always find the one flaw and confront you with it."
Muskie retired from public life in 1981 and split his time between Washington and a home on Kennebunk Beach. He died on March 26, 1996.
Asked to name the modern version of Ed Muskie, Brownie Carson hesitates before finally mentioning Al Gore, who hasn't been in public service since the 2000 presidential race. "We need another Ed Muskie in the Senate," Carson says, "a lot of them."
Muskie's oldest son, Stephen, doesn't recall the senator as a man who brought his work home with him, but who nevertheless imbued him with a sensitivity to the outdoors. "He passed it on more or less indirectly," says Stephen, speaking from his home in Virginia. "He would take me duck hunting on Merrymeeting Bay or fishing at the Megantic Fish and Game Club.
Whenever we went to Rumford, he would talk about what a polluted mess the Androscoggin had been and how the state and federal governments got involved in cleaning it up. He was always very proud of the fact that he was involved in turning those things around, and that he made Maine a better place for it."
Ed Muskie twice came within reach of the presidency, once as Hubert Humphrey's vice presidential running mate in 1968 and again as a presidential hopeful himself during the 1972 primary season. Before he choked up while defending his wrongly accused wife in a New Hampshire snowstorm, he was the candidate Richard M. Nixon feared the most. But what would have happened if Muskie had turned the tables, shown reporters that the lies about his wife's alleged drinking and fondness for off-color jokes were part of Nixon's dirty tricks campaign, and gone on to win the election?
"The war in Vietnam would have ended a lot sooner," Muskie's former chief of staff, Don Nicoll, says. "We would have seen much faster progress in solving our air and water pollution problems."
Muskie scholar Joel Goldstein of the St. Louis University School of Law believes President Muskie "would have worked in a much more collegial and bipartisan fashion with Congress to make headway on a range of domestic issues, and he would have consulted with Congress regarding international matters rather than conducting business in the imperial manner of Nixon." The Watergate burglary and its aftermath would have been a minor footnote in American political history, and "some of the efforts to legislate reforms to curtail presidential power probably would have lost, or not have gained, steam without the constant example of Nixon's misdeeds to fuel them," Goldstein concludes.
Reagan likely would have been an also-ran in President Muskie's world after losing the 1976 election, Goldstein says. Jimmy Carter would never have left Georgia. "The problem with Iran would definitely have been handled much differently," Nicoll offers, referring to the hostage crisis that made Carter a one-term president and ushered Reagan into the White House in 1981. "And that would have echoed down to the present day, I think."
- By: Jeff Clark