It’s an unspoken rule in the presidential playbook. Be firm, show emotion, but don’t cry.
Just last month, Candidate Gingrich exhibited it with his denunciation of the media in a debate that became the key to his unexpected South Carolina triumph.
Four years ago, Hillary Clinton also showed how it was done. With her, it was at a Portsmouth café the day before the New Hampshire primary she seemed certain to lose that she turned her fortunes around. Ever so close to the brink of crying but short of actual tears, she came forth with her famous, “I just don’t want to see us fall backwards,” lament.
Often, when in a race for the White House emotions like this are displayed it’s sometimes referred to by reference to Maine’s Edmund Muskie. As Maureen Dowd observed about the 2008 Clinton episode, “Here was Hillary doing the Muskie.”
Now, on the 40th anniversary of one of the most pronounced moments in Presidential Politics, it’s a fitting occasion to take a close look at it.
It’s February 1972. Since July of 1969 Sen. Muskie has been the prohibitive front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. The prevailing wisdom of the time had a few weeks earlier been expressed by CBS’s Eric Severeid, then the dean of network news commentators. “Unless this man steps on a land mine he will be nominated,” Severeid intoned.
Gallup polls had also shown Muskie as the only candidate either leading or running even in a matchup with Republican President Nixon, then seeking re-election.
Crucial to sustaining Muskie’s momentum was the New Hampshire primary, then scheduled for early March. The Maine Senator had near favorite-son status in a state that was only 45 minutes from Muskie’s native Rumford. Expectations were that he would win two to one over all opponents combined in the primary. His state coordinator, Maria Carrier, thus vowed that he would win at least 50 percent or she would shoot herself.
Less than two weeks before the Granite State balloting, the state’s largest newspaper, William Loeb’s Manchester Union Leader published two pieces that seized the attention of the Muskie campaign.
The first was a front page editorial titled, “Senator Muskie Insults Franco-Americans.“ Loeb went on to accuse Muskie of condoning the use of “Canuck,“ a term sometimes asserted to be a derogatory designation for French Canadians, 40 percent of the voting block among New Hampshire Democrats.
The editorial was based on the so-called “Canuck” letter purportedly sent to the Union Leader by a Paul Morrison. In it, “Morrison” wrote that a Muskie aide in Florida had said that “we don’t have blacks [in Maine] but we have Cannocks” (sic.). To this Muskie was quoted as laughingly replying, “Come to New England and see.” (Authorship of the letter was never conclusively determined, though it was later by some attributed to Ken Clawson, a White House communications director.)
The next day, Loeb reprinted a brief two month old Newsweek item on Muskie’s wife, Jane. It contained innuendo that Mrs. Muskie had a proclivity to tell dirty jokes, for pre-dinner cocktails and for sneak smoking cigarettes.
The mutual animosity between Muskie and Loeb had deep roots. It dated back to 1957, after Loeb successfully kept a Peyton Place movie film crew from shooting in New Hampshire. When Muskie, then Maine’s governor, refused to block 20th Century-Fox’s filming the somewhat carnally suggestive picture in Camden, Loeb fiercely denounced him.
The “Canuck” and Jane Muskie write ups were thus the final straw for Muskie. In a campaign where Muskie was sometimes portrayed as lacking “fire” or passion, both Muskie and most of his leading staff – including Deputy manager George Mitchell – advised the Senator to take on Loeb to show, in Mitchell’s words “a fighting Ed Muskie.”
Muskie proceeded to take on Loeb the day after the Union Leader’s unflattering write-up on his wife. Mounting a flat-bed truck that had been wheeled into position in front of the newspaper’s downtown offices, Muskie proceeded first with an extemporaneous refutation of the Canuck letter.
Muskie then reserved his greatest ire for the attack on Jane.
It was this point Muskie, after calling Loeb a “gutless coward” and warning that “it’s fortunate for him he’s not on this platform beside me” that he passionately praised Mrs. Muskie as a “good woman.” Muskie then paused for nearly half a minute, heaving his shoulders, rubbing his nose, obviously shaken and unable to speak. The large, wet heavy snow flakes dropping – and melting – on his face during this uncomfortable time were to some observers commingled with tears. Syndicated columnist David Broder and a Time magazine write-up were among those that so reported the event. “Crying out loud” was the caption below a Time photo of Muskie, for example.
Without tears, the Muskie presentation might well – like the “Hillary moment” of 2008 – have had the desired effect of galvanizing support and sympathy for the presidential candidate. But with the perception – even if not justified – that tears had in fact flowed, Muskie appeared personally weak, and unnecessarily troubled and vulnerable.
(Not all of Muskie’s leading supporters had before the event thought that confronting Loeb was a good idea. Maine’s Severin Beliveau recalled for this columnist a few days ago that he was among those that tried to talk Muskie out of it. Beliveau noted, for example, that Franco-Americans such as himself were not offended by the “Canuck” expression. It’s one that had long been associated with a popular Vancouver hockey team, for example.)
In the March 7th voting, Muskie was the nominal victor. But his tepid 47 percent showing that was just nine points ahead of second place finisher, George McGovern, in the multi-candidate field was well below expectations. Though state coordinator Carrier did not follow through with her promised suicide, the set back so close to Muskie’s home turf was one from which the campaign never recovered and within a few weeks he dropped out of the race.
The sustaining lesson from Muskie’s indelible moment and its enduring epitaph?
There is no crying in presidential politics.
Paul H. Mills is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses
and historical understanding of Maine’s political scene.
He can be reached by e-mail: [email protected]