Remembering David S. Broder and Edmund Muskie

Archivist's Note: This post was written by Joel K. Goldstein, the Vincent C. Immel Professor of Law at Saint Louis University School of Law. Dr. Goldstein is a highly respected scholar of the Vice Presidency, Presidency, and Constitutional Law, having written widely in all three areas. In 2008, he was a scholar-in-residence at the Muskie Archives and Special Collections Library, where he did research for forthcoming books on the Vice Presidency and Senator Edmund S. Muskie.

David S. Broder, the eminent political reporter and columnist died on March 9, 2011, after a career stretching more than one-half century and including countless stories. Few were more significant than his story in the Washington Post on February 27, 1972 which played a part in unraveling the 1972 presidential campaign of Edmund S. Muskie. Broder’s article described at length an episode when Muskie reportedly cried during a public speech while defending himself and his wife, Jane, from vicious newspaper attacks by William Loeb, the ultra conservative publisher of the Manchester Union Leader shortly before the 1972 New Hampshire presidential primary.

Broder’s account was contested—others gave less prominence to the alleged tears or claimed Broder mistook melting snow for tears –but his stature in the journalistic community was such that many of his colleagues adopted Broder’s version of the events, to Muskie’s detriment.

Loeb had capped an unrelenting series of attacks on Muskie (who he called “Moscow Muskie”) by publishing a nasty editorial in which he claimed that Muskie had laughed upon hearing a disparaging reference about French-Canadians. Loeb had also run an item accusing Jane Muskie of using foul language and mocked her in a headline as “Big Daddy’s Jane.” In fact, the “Canuck” letter was part of Richard Nixon’s campaign’s dirty tricks against Muskie. Faunce Pendexter, a prominent journalist in Maine, thought Loeb’s editorial was the most “disgusting” editorial he had ever seen.

The night before the fateful speech, a furious Muskie told aides he wanted to speak the following day on a flatbed truck outside the newspaper’s office to tell Loeb what he thought of him. Campaign strategists thought Muskie needed to rebut the “Canuck” allegation especially since French-Canadians represented the largest voting bloc in New Hampshire, about 17% of the population and 40-50% of Democratic primary voters. Campaign chair Berl Bernhard approved the arrangements which he thought would provide favorable television coverage.

Of course, ethnic slurs were anathema to Muskie. As a child, he had been the target of familiar slurs directed at Polish-Americans; as a public figure, he had frequently denounced racial and ethnic bigotry. Racial and ethnic slurs were inconsistent with Muskie’s ideal of America, a point he had made repeatedly during his 1968 vice-presidential campaign when the candidacies of George Wallace and Richard Nixon, in different ways, had exploited such prejudices to appeal to some voters.

The conditions surrounding the event on Saturday, February 26, 1972 were not auspicious. Muskie had been campaigning in Florida and had left its warmth to travel to New Hampshire on a snowy winter day. Intense campaigning had left Muskie fatigued, a condition which Bernhard recalled often made him more crotchety. Alice Lander recalls that Muskie was not feeling well that day.

Standing atop the truck in Manchester, New Hampshire, outside the Union-Leader office, his bare head covered with snow, Muskie spoke to an audience of 200 amidst a snow storm. Broder described the weather as a “near blizzard.” Muskie denounced the “Canuck” allegation as a lie and denounced Loeb as a “gutless coward.” As he moved to respond to Loeb’s insults about Jane Muskie, Muskie became more emotional. Tony Podesta, then a young campaign aide, recalled that Muskie’s “voice cracked and he stopped for a moment” before completing his remarks.” "He's talking about my wife," Muskie said as he regained composure, Time Magazine later reported.

After the event, Muskie told Podesta that he should not have “broken down like that” but Podesta and later political consultant Robert Squier minimized the significance of the event and told Muskie it was helpful in demonstrating his human side. Bernhard, too, thought the episode would show Muskie as a caring, compassionate person. They were wrong. Muskie supporters, wise men Averill Harriman and Clark Clifford, immediately understood the impact of the incident. Harriman told Bernhard the campaign was over and Clifford told Bernhard he should resign for having let the incident occur.

Some newspapers downplayed the “crying” incident. James M. Naughton’s front page story in the New York Times, “Muskie Denies an Ethnic Slur,” focused on Muskie’s reply to the forged letter alleging the ethnic slur rather than his show of emotion in defending his wife. Naughton did not mention Muskie’s tears until the sixth paragraph of his story and then in passing in a single sentence. His colleague, Douglas Kneeland, later recalled that Naughton always insisted that melting snow, not tears, produced the moisture on Muskie’s face. The Chicago Tribune did not focus on the crying allegation, simply describing Muskie as “visibly shaken and tearful” in the eighth paragraph of a page 12 story.

Broder treated the tears quite differently. He began his front page story “With tears streaming down his face and his voice choked with emotion…” Broder then reported that Muskie broke down three times in three minutes and described in detail Muskie’s physical reaction as he tried to regain his composure. Many others adopted Broder’s version.

Muskie won the New Hampshire primary about ten days later, 46% to 37% for Senator George McGovern, his nearest rival. But since he failed to meet expectations his win was reported and perceived as a loss. The Manchester incident eroded the “Trust Muskie” theme upon which Muskie’s campaign was centered. Critics claimed the episode made him look emotional and weak, not the strong, steady figure his campaign sought to portray. “If he's like that with Loeb, what would he do with Brezhnev?" asked Senator Henry Jackson, one of Muskie’s campaign rivals. Muskie fared less well in the following few primaries and soon suspended active campaigning. Neither the Manchester moment nor Broder’s account were the sole or even primary reasons for the collapse of Muskie’s campaign. But they didn’t help.

Broder had seen evidence of Muskie’s temper and thought Muskie’s ability to deal with stress was an issue worth pursuing. He viewed the Manchester event in that context and many of his colleagues followed his lead.

Muskie later denied that he had actually cried although he readily confessed to choking up in his anger. Broder did not ask Muskie at the time whether he had cried or to explain his reaction but instead relied on his interpretation of what he had seen.

Later that fall, Broder learned that a colleague on the Washington Post claimed that White House aide Ken Clawson had bragged to her that he had written the “Canuck” letter. Broder persuaded her to relay that information to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and they reported that information in an October, 1972 story of the dirty tricks of the Nixon campaign. The episode played a prominent part in the film version of Woodward and Bernstein’s best seller, “All the President’s Men.”

Indeed, the “Canuck” letter was part of the plot by the Nixon White House and the Committee to Re-elect the President (appropriately known as CREEP) to sabotage the Muskie campaign to eliminate Nixon’s most formidable election opponent. Replying to that letter was what brought an exhausted Muskie to Loeb’s doorstep on a miserable day when he should have been at home getting some much needed rest. Broder came to regret that he had unknowingly aided the Nixon strategy by focusing on Muskie’s emotional reaction. Fifteen years later, Broder wrote his confessional in the Washington Monthly in a February, 1987 story titled “The Story That Still Nags at Me—Edmund S. Muskie.”

Nine years after that, Broder invoked the tears metaphor in his tribute to Muskie five days after his death (“Muskie: Reason to Weep,” Washington Post, March 31, 1996). This time Broder began by describing Muskie as “an apostle of civility and a politician of rare vision who battled constantly with his own temperament and the temper of his times.” Broder praised Muskie for his appreciation of federalism and his recognition that Congress needed to reform its processes to improve government.

In that column, Broder recalled the Manchester event of nearly a quarter century earlier as one in which Muskie was “alternately raging and weeping” but regretted his role in unknowingly helping the Nixonians execute their plot and lamented the media’s focus on those few seconds in Muskie’s career. Broder preferred to recall Muskie in more Lincolnesque terms, as a man who “could weep at injustice” but retain his belief in trust as the bond which made America one.

In 2008, Muskie’s Manchester moment was recalled when Senator Hillary Clinton became emotional during a New Hampshire campaign appearance. This time, the show of emotion seemed to help the candidate and Clinton scored a surprise upset of then Senator Barack Obama in the New Hampshire primary.

Perhaps the American public had achieved a better understanding by 2008 of the fact that tears are not a sign of weakness in public officials or private persons. Such a recognition would be all to the good.

Yet we still have not overcome the tendency to remember some of our public figures simply based on the dramatic, but fleeting, events which occur under the bright lights of a national campaign or crisis. In so doing, we often allow the superficial to obscure the significant.

It doesn’t matter whether Muskie cried or not 39 years ago in a New Hampshire snowstorm during a few moments of an 82 year life. What matters, as Broder came to recognize, were Muskie’s unique talents and contributions and his deep understanding of and commitment to American ideals, all of which made Muskie one of the great political figures of the 20th century.

(Some of the information for this essay comes from the Edmund S. Muskie Oral History Project at the Edmund S. Muskie Archives, Bates College. See, e..g., Berl Bernhard, http://digilib.bates.edu/collect/muskieor/index/assoc/HASH01b9.dir/doc.pdf, Doug Kneeland, http://digilib.bates.edu/collect/muskieor/index/assoc/HASH0192/23bbb2cd....,
Alice Lander, http://digilib.bates.edu/collect/muskieor/index/assoc/HASHd895.dir/doc.pdf, Faunce Pendexter, http://digilib.bates.edu/collect/muskieor/index/assoc/HASHd6e8.dir/doc.pdf,
and Tony Podesta, http://digilib.bates.edu/collect/muskieor/index/assoc/HASHacdd.dir/doc.pdf.)