People watch part of Maine statesman Edmund Muskie’s acceptance speech for the Democratic nomination for vice president in 1968, during a program Thursday at the Muskie Archives at Bates College. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)

LEWISTON — Half a century after they labored on the vice presidential campaign of U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine, some of his former staffers gathered Thursday at Bates College to share memories and ponder what has happened to the nation in the intervening decades.

For them, it is a given that America is not what it could have been.

Muskie stepped onto the national stage in the fall of 1968, chosen by Democratic presidential nominee Hubert H. Humphrey to serve as his vice president during a year of tumult, a time of riots, war and the assassinations of both Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.

Donald Nicoll, who managed Muskie’s campaign, called the eight-week effort that ended in defeat “a great adventure.”

For Joel Goldstein, a vice presidential scholar, Muskie was “one of the 20th century’s most illustrious citizens,” and his 1968 campaign a model for what it will take “to rebuild our constitutional democracy.”

In an era where, Goldstein said, “demagogues pollute civic discourse,” Muskie’s steady decency, his willingness to tell people “what he thought, not what they wanted to hear” and his personal values show another, better path for the country he loved.

Eliot Cutler, an assistant press secretary for Muskie at the time, called Muskie “the best preacher ever,” reaching his audiences by “touching their hearts and stoking their souls.”

At a time when the divides in American society seemed enormous, Muskie never stopped “reaching out to both sides” to try to calm the clashes, remembered Charles Micoleau, who worked on the campaign in Maine and later served as Muskie’s chief aide.

He said he learned in that campaign that one man can “make a difference” as he contemplated how America might have changed had Humphrey topped Nixon on Election Day.

“What a difference it would have made,” Micoleau said.

It is not clear why Humphrey reached out to Muskie during the chaotic convention in Chicago late that summer, asking him to take on the role with only a few hours’ notice with “the acrid odor of tear gas” in the air from the riots outside, Nicoll said.

Nicoll said he suspected that Muskie’s selection may have had its roots on the day King died on a hotel balcony in Tennessee.

That evening, Muskie and Humphrey both attended a fundraising dinner for Democrats in Washington, emceed by “a good ol’ boy” from Georgia who kept making jokes after news of King’s death seeped into the hall, Nicoll said.

He said Muskie “got up, moved him aside, asked for a moment of silence” and then sent everyone home, Nicoll said.

Muskie spent the rest of the evening with Humphrey at the vice president’s house in the nation’s capital, Nicoll said — and never told him what they discussed there.

Nicoll said, though, he is sure that evening — when Muskie showed both his command and his sensitivity — “was one of the things that tipped the balance” when Humphrey weighed whom to pick as his running mate at the party’s raucous convention in Chicago a few months later.

For Muskie, the campaign lasted eight weeks.

Flying around the country on a Boeing 727 called Down East Yankee, Muskie visited more than 100 communities in 33 states, sometimes making as many as half a dozen stops a day. His first stop, perhaps fitting, was at the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas.

Almost nobody thought that Humphrey, President Lyndon Johnson’s No. 2, had a chance in his race against Republican Richard Nixon and independent George Wallace, the racist governor of Alabama.

But Muskie, a 1936 Bates College graduate from Rumford and a former governor, helped turn the tide, his former aides recalled.

Mostly deployed in big-city ethnic neighborhoods where Wallace had made inroads into traditional Democratic strongholds, Cutler said Muskie’s mission was to help retrieve those voters for Humphrey.

Jane Fenderson Cabot, who traveled on the plane as a researcher and assistant, remembered one of  those stops in Cleveland in a place chock-full of first- and second-generation Polish immigrants.

Muskie and the audience sang “Sto lat” together, a traditional Polish song to express wishes for a long, happy life, she said.

“I was extremely moved,” Cabot said.

Harold Pachios, who supervised Muskie’s advance teams, saw something similar outside Detroit in a community where everyone spoke Polish. The air crackled with excitement, he said, when they saw Muskie.

Goldstein said another incident in the campaign exemplified Muskie’s approach — and earned him his first big jolt of press coverage.

At the end of September, at a college in Pennsylvania, anti-war hecklers were out in force as the Democrat began to speak. Muskie stopped to address them and then invited the demonstrators to send one of their number up on stage to air his views.

Rick Brody took up the challenge.

“You guys say we are dirty and unwashed,” the long-haired Brody told the crowd, with Muskie at his side. “We are the true Americans. We want America to stand for what the Constitution stands for, which is everybody equal under the law.”

“The reason I am out here in the streets is because no one listened to us in Chicago.”

Then Muskie took his turn.

The Maine senator told about the journey that brought his 17-year-old father from Czarist Russia to Rumford “to find the very things that Rick Brody says you are protesting to find.”

He lived long enough to see his son become the first Polish-American governor.

“Now, that may not justify the American system to you,” he told Brody, “but it sure did to him.”

The event created “an electric atmosphere,” Cabot said, a moment when Muskie’s commitment to “rational discussion of the issues” captured the public’s attention and helped spur the Democratic campaign.

“It was an extraordinary experience for all of us,” Cutler said.

Though Muskie headed into the 1972 presidential race as the Democratic front-runner, his campaign collapsed after one of Nixon’s dirty tricks attacked the senator’s wife and left Muskie in what some said were tears.

So Muskie never got the chance to take on Nixon, never had the opportunity to compete for the presidency.

But Cutler said Muskie used the “newfound respect” to deploy his considerable legislative skills to overhaul America’s environmental laws.

The prestige Muskie had after his 1968 campaign became “a real driving force, a hammer pounding the Clean Air Act through the committee and the Senate” in 1970. The Clean Water Act, which restored America’s lakes and rivers, including the Androscoggin River that he grew up beside, followed in 1972.

Cutler said as he looked around the room at the Muskie Archives, he saw many friends from those days who had joined the panelists to remember the man who had played an oversized role in their lives and in the country’s history.

“We are the lucky ones who are still  here,” he said. “It shaped all of us.”

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A 1968 campaign button for Democrats Hubert Humphrey and Edmund Muskie on display at the Muskie Archives at Bates College. (Steve Collins/Sun Journal)

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