On Ed Muskie’s 100th birthday, six things everyone should know
The late Edmund Muskie ’36 was born 100 years ago — March 28, 1914, to be exact.
With help from the Edmund S. Muskie Archives and Special Collections Library, we celebrate this statesman’s 100th birthday by offering six things everyone should know about our 1936 alumnus and long-serving Maine governor, U.S. senator and U.S. secretary of state.
Among various Muskie remembrances this month was Muskie Archives director Pat Webber’s appearance on Maine public radio’s Maine Calling for “Remembering Ed Muskie.”
Here are six things to remember about Edmund Sixtus Muskie:
1. He was from a Maine family that was sending its first children to college
Ed Muskie was the son of Poland-born Stephen Marciszewski, who changed his name to Muskie when he emigrated to the U.S., and Josephine Cznarnecka, the daughter of a Polish-American family in Buffalo, N.Y.
Muskie’s father, a master tailor who owned a shop in Rumford, was outspoken in his support of Democratic Party ideology even though it conflicted with many of his customers’ Republican beliefs.
2. Politics and the role of government were on his mind at Bates
Muskie, then known as “Eddie,” lived in Roger Williams Hall and then in Parker Hall. He was president of his class, a standout debater, and graduated cum laude in 1936.
His honors thesis in history and government made two points: (1) the U.S. needed a comprehensive national system of social security, including health, unemployment and old-age insurance, and (2) the U.S. Constitution needed to be amended to give Congress the power to check the Supreme Court’s power of judicial review, since the court had shown its propensity to strike down similar New Deal legislation earlier in the 1930s.
With the Depression a vivid reality, Muskie wrote that “the individual, without aid, cannot protect himself against the inevitable hazards which are his destiny as a member of our modern order.”
3. He revived Maine’s Democratic Party
In 1954, Maine Democrats were looking for a candidate to run for governor, and they recruited Muskie — but only after all other potential candidates declined.
A Democrat hadn’t been governor in nearly 20 years, and only one had been elected in the preceding 40 years.
Muskie was a weak candidate in more ways than one: He was still recovering from the physical and financial effects of a broken back suffered in 1953.
But Muskie won, thanks to hard campaigning, support from savvy advisers like Frank Coffin ’40 (above) and Don Nicoll, and an intimate knowledge of the state gained during his direction of the Office of Price Stabilization. The win gained national attention, and he appeared on a new morning TV show: NBC’s Today.
Although Maine remained a bastion of Republican politics through much of his career, Muskie nevertheless garnered 60 percent or more of the popular vote in each of his four senatorial elections.
4. He was called “Mr. Clean”
Muskie was the grandfather of modern environmental legislation. As a senator, he sponsored both the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, which fundamentally established our federal government’s duties to preserve and protect the environment.
On the floor of the Senate after Muskie’s death in 1996, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Montana, said that “because of the work of Ed Muskie, our children are growing up in a more healthy and beautiful America.”
5. He was targeted by Nixon’s “dirty tricks” in 1972
A front-runner for the 1972 presidential nomination, Muskie and his campaign were targeted by Nixon’s Committee for the Reelection of the President and its program of “dirty tricks.” That included the so-called “Canuck Letter” — a forged letter published in the Manchester Union Leader that accused Muskie of making derogatory remarks about Maine’s French-Canadian citizens.
It is thought that Muskie’s campaign floundered in New Hampshire after he reportedly teared up while delivering a withering criticism of the conservative Union Leader, which had published an unscrupulous attack on Muskie’s wife, Jane.
In her 2003 autobiography, Madeleine Albright, who worked for the 1972 Muskie campaign and later as a Senate staffer, said that “today a male politician who cried while defending his wife would probably go up in the polls.”
6. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom
In 1981, President Jimmy Carter awarded Muskie the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian award.
Years later, in his eulogy of Muskie, Carter said that of all the people he’d ever known, Muskie was the most qualified person to serve as president. However, he added, “I don’t believe that many presidents in history have contributed as much to the quality of life of people in our nation and around the world.”
Muskie once said that “there are only two types of politics. They are not radical or reactionary, or conservative and liberal, or even Democratic or Republican. They are only the politics of fear, and the politics of trust.”
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