What Might Have Been, What Wonderfully Was

At the dedication of the Muskie Archives in 1986, former President Jimmy Carter gave thanks “to Bates for the life and career of Edmund Muskie.”

By Jim Carignan ’61

In the months since Ed Muskie’s death, many have spoken knowledgeably and eloquently about Muskie’s formidable career of national public service. The thoughts shared here are about another Muskie — the person in the sunset of his life: reflective, satisfied that he had fought the good fight well (and even won a few encounters), and optimistic about the future. He was a man who never stopped looking ahead.Back in 1968, I remember being proud that a Bates alumnus had conducted himself so well in a tumultuous presidential campaign. Muskie and Humphrey very nearly won that race, and had they won, there would in all likelihood have been no bombing of Cambodia, no Kent State, and certainly no Watergate — threshold moments that turned America in a perilous direction.

Again, in 1972, hopes soared as Muskie seemed destined to win the presidency, but it was not to be. A feeling persists that the nation lost a significant opportunity for a brighter future when Muskie’s march to the White House got waylaid on that flatbed truck in Manchester, New Hampshire.

Muskie believed passionately that government could work to improve the quality of life forĀ all. In that sense, he was a profound egalitarian — deeply committed to the concept of equity at the heart of American democracy. To remain true to that purpose, he knew the state needed politicians and public servants of high intellect and character to respond to the call to serve.

Late in life, he often sought to sow the seeds of that calling in young people. While others took their considerable accomplishments into a quiet retirement, Ed Muskie continued to work tirelessly for a brighter future.

For example, each summer for the past eight years Bates has sponsored the Summer Scholars program. For two weeks, high-school students from rural Maine and inner cities come to the Muskie Archives to study “America From Kennedy to Carter,” the years of Muskie’s ascendancy on the national scene. Their research is rooted in Muskie’s voluminous papers in Muskie Archives.

The highlight was always the final luncheon, which Muskie himself always attended. The students could ask him any questions they wished, and those sessions were quite lively, going on for nearly three hours.

In recent years, when Muskie’s health was not robust and our invitations were consciously crafted to make it easy and graceful to decline, he insisted on coming to meet with the Summer Scholars. One year, when Muskie wasn’t feeling well, we didn’t invite him. The phone rang one day, and Ed, with characteristic bluntness, announced that he had not received the annual invitation. Of course he wanted to come to talk with the students!

Each June for the last three years, Muskie came to the archives for the annual President’s dinner, an evening program that honored the Edmund S. Muskie Fellows, approximately 120 of the best and brightest young adults of the former Soviet Union, who were studying law, business, and economics in the United States. Muskie relished those visits. This last year he spoke for half an hour, without notes, in a careful, poignant way. He reminisced about growing up in Rumford, his years at Bates, and his vision of a more free, equal, and environmentally improved world. He said his vision had been nurtured by great teachers who taught him the value of discipline, by books that opened new worlds to him, and by the people he always remained open to.

I once asked Muskie what he thought was his greatest contribution. We talked about his environmental legislation, the budget work, the Model Cities program. He mentioned his efforts, back in the forties and fifties, to resurrect the Democratic Party in Maine (he liked being governor of Maine best). But no single aspect of his career jumped out as the most significant.

As we drove along the Maine Turnpike, the conversation turned to the way he conducted himself in political life. He said he always tried to define the problem or issue first, then he would employ all his abilities to come up with the best resolution. Then he would fight hard for his position, no matter what the political consequence. He turned to me and said that he always found Maine people willing to give him a fair hearing when he behaved that way, even when his position contradicted what his Maine constituents believed.

Of course, what Muskie described was his greatness: the integrity that was his signature, the incisive mind that so many unprepared opponents came to respect, the persuasiveness (which he learned at Bates), the patience — always in uneasy tension with his passion and persistence — and his democratic respect for his fellow citizens. Ed Muskie always gave his best.

[Photo: Jim Carignan and Muskie]

Muskie always tried to cultivate the virtuous side of his fellow human beings,” writes Jim Carignan ’61, shown with Muskie in 1988

We mustn’t forget his wonderful sense of humor. I recall him questioning the dean of the faculty at a Trustee meeting about the faculty’s efforts to teach sound writing. He was concerned whether students had opportunities to write and rewrite. He recalled how important that was in his own training at Bates. He paused and, with a twinkle in his eye, went on to say, “But I realize the faculty can only do so much.” He made his point by telling a story about his mentor and debate coach, Brooks Quimby — and about himself.Quimby always asked his debaters to given him written copies of their opening speeches. He would then routinely cut them to pieces with his red pencil and demand they be rewritten, no matter how much effort went into their preparation. One time, as Muskie told it, he received his draft back with Quimby’s red-penciled criticisms. Muskie did what every professor fears: He merely retyped the original submission without any corrections. The next day Quimby returned the second submission to Muskie with the comment that it was much improved over the first draft.

Muskie relished the story, yet he told it in deep respect for a teacher who taught him the virtue of rigorous intellectual and analytical attention to argument.

Muskie showed that making connections with people, an ability born out of his respect for the human condition, is necessary for effective public-policy making. He showed us that humility is the prerequisite for greatness. He always tried to cultivate the virtuous side of his fellow human beings. By doing that, he proved that one person can make the world a better place.

Jim Carignan ’61 is dean of the College and associate professor of history.