40 Years Since Muskie's Run
Senator Ed Muskie came the closest of any Mainer, save James G. Blaine and perhaps Hannibal Hamlin, of becoming President of the United States.
Instead, forty years ago today, a chain of events began that saw him lose his front-runner status in the 1972 Democratic Presidential Primary, lose the nomination to Senator George McGovern and would eventually see Richard Nixon re-elected for a second term.
It started with the “Canuck Letter,” a missive that later turned out to be a forgery by Nixon’s dirty tricks team, which accused Muskie of using what some consider an ethnic slur against people of French Canadian ancestry. The letter was reprinted in the Manchester Union Leader, alongside a front-page editorial by anti-Muskie publisher William Loeb accusing the senator of insulting Franco-Americans.
Loeb, who also had previously labeled the candidate “Moscow Muskie,” among other epithets, followed up the letter with another front-page piece depicting Muskie’s wife as an unladylike woman prone to drinking, smoking and using foul language.
Muskie decided to confront Loeb and eventually did so from the back of a flatbed trailer parked outside the newspapers’ offices. It was an emotional speech and Muskie’s voice cracked as he talked about his wife. Reporters, especially The Washington Post’s David Broder, seized on this this display as an example of Muskie cracking under pressure. They also made much of what were described then as tears but that some still insist were actually melting snowflakes on Muskie’s face.
The event was seen as evidence that Muskie was too thin-skinned and weak for the presidency and his campaign never recovered. He did worse than expected in New Hampshire (although he still won). McGovern gained momentum and eventually took the nomination.
Maine historian Paul Mills had a great piece in several Maine newspapers recently describing the event in detail.
Also worth reading is Broder’s retrospective on the incident, published fifteen years later and titled “The story that still nags at me.”
Here is a short clip of actual video from Muskie’s speech.