United States Senator Edmund Sixtus Muskie (1914-1996), the 1968 Democratic vice-presidential nominee and briefly a presidential candidate in 1972, was one of the key congressional leaders in formulating national policy on urban affairs and the environment during the 1960s and 1970s.
Edmund S. Muskie was born on March 28, 1914, to Stephen and Josephine Muskie in Rumford, Maine. Stephen Muskie was born Stepen Marciszewski in Poland in 1882, then a province of the Russian Empire. Because young Poles were frequently conscripted into Czarist armies, Stephen's parents arranged for him to be apprenticed to a tailor when he was 12 years old and for his emigration from Poland when he was 17 years old.
After three years in England Stephen Marciszewski arrived in the United States in 1903, settled in Dickson City, Pennsylvania, and changed his name to Muskie. He married Josephine Czarnecka of Buffalo in 1911. While on their honeymoon in Maine, the couple decided to settle in Rumford. Edmund, the second of six children, was born there three years later.
The Muskies were one of only three Polish families in the western Maine paper mill town of Rumford, and young Edmund was frequently the subject of schoolyard taunts for his ancestry, his religion, and, he found later, his father's politics, as the elder Muskie was one of the few Democrats in the town. Nevertheless, Muskie excelled in high school and earned a small scholarship at nearby Bates College. He graduated with a B.A. from Bates in 1936 and a law degree from Cornell University in 1939.
Winning as a Democrat in Maine
Muskie began practicing law in 1940 in Waterville, Maine, but his career was interrupted by naval service during World War II. When he returned home he decided to run for the Maine legislature in 1946 as a Democrat. Muskie's political affiliation was not particularly surprising; Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal greatly influenced Muskie politically. New Deal legislation helped provide funds for his education and promoted the causes he supported.
His political allegiance, however sensible personally, nevertheless seemed to be a liability in an overwhelmingly Republican state. But Muskie accepted the challenge. When asked by a reporter during the campaign why he was a Democrat in Maine, he wryly replied, "Well if I lived down South I'd probably be a Republican. Somebody has to do it."
Muskie was the surprise winner in the 1946 legislative race, served three terms in the state legislature, and in 1954 became Maine's first Democratic governor in 20 years and only the second in the century. Muskie's personal popularity helped reestablish the Democratic Party as a force in Maine politics. His promotion of economic development, fiscal conservatism, and cooperation with the Republican-dominated state legislature appealed to the state's voters, many of whom split their tickets to become "Muskie Republicans." In 1958, when Muskie became the state's first Democrat elected to the U.S. Senate in nearly a century, other Democrats were elected governor and to the U.S. Congress in two of Maine's three congressional districts. Muskie was reelected to the Senate in 1964, 1970, and 1976.
A Liberal, Hard-Working Senator
Senator Muskie soon developed a reputation as an expert in writing and enacting legislation. His willingness to modify proposals to gain bipartisan support, a skill acquired during his years as Maine's governor, made Muskie one of the most effective and respected members of the Senate. As chairman of the Housing Subcommittee of the Senate Banking and Currency Committee, Muskie was responsible for much of the national legislation associated with urban affairs, including creation of the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1965 and the Model Cities Act of 1966.
Muskie was an ardent defender of the environment, a concern reflected in ten major bills he sponsored between 1963 and 1976. Those measures included the 1965 Water Quality Act, the 1967 Air Quality Act, and the 1970 National Air Quality Act which required pollution-free automobiles by 1975. Muskie was a key supporter of the Environmental Protection Agency, established in 1970.
Muskie's legislative successes also included the 1970 Securities Investor Protection Act, which insured investors against brokerage house failures, and the 1972 Truth-in-Government Act, which created an independent board authorized to make available to the public government documents which did not compromise national security. In 1973 he was Senate floor manager of the War Powers Act, which passed over President Richard Nixon's veto. The act clearly defined presidential and congressional authority in war-making decisions. Muskie-supported increases in social security benefits, continued federal aid to education, civil rights measures, a national draft lottery, and the vote for 18-year-olds. Although an early supporter of American involvement in the Vietnam War, by 1969 he had become one of its leading critics.
Campaigns for Vice President and President
Although Edmund Muskie officially campaigned for the presidency only once—in 1972—the Maine senator was promoted for national office as early as 1960. Muskie was already known among Democratic Party activists outside Maine because of his election victories through the 1950s in an overwhelmingly Republican state. His Polish ancestry, once considered a liability in Maine, made him a popular lecture circuit speaker among ethnic groups and with Democratic candidates in large, vote-rich, Northeastern states such as New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Massachusetts. In 1960 Muskie was briefly mentioned as a possible vice-presidential candidate. In 1964 President Lyndon Johnson fueled speculation that Muskie might be his vice-presidential choice until he selected Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey. Finally, in 1968, Vice-President Humphrey, the Democratic presidential nominee, selected Muskie as his running mate. Although the GOP nominees, former Vice-President Richard Nixon and Maryland Governor Spiro Agnew, easily defeated the Democrats, Muskie's impressive campaign performance propelled him into national prominence. Muskie was famous for this response during the campaign: "In Maine, we have a saying that you don't say anything that doesn't improve on silence."
On January 4, 1972, Edmund S. Muskie officially announced his candidacy for the presidency. After winning the New Hampshire and Illinois primaries but losing in Florida, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts, Muskie withdrew from the race in April 1972. As the party's acknowledged frontrunner, his staff had become overconfident and conducted a vague and cautious campaign. But Muskie was also the victim of the Nixon administration's "dirty tricks" campaign which attempted to discredit his presidential bid by distributing phony Muskie press releases and campaign literature, heckling the senator's speeches, and disrupting campaign communications.
Muskie did not react well to Nixon's "dirty tricks." In response to printed accusations that his wife had behaved in a drunken and unladylike manner, and that he had used a derogatory word "canuck" to describe French Canadians, Muskie became very emotional. Reporters on the scene maintained that Muskie was crying, although he always denied this—claiming that snowflakes gave the appearance of tears. He was out of the race by April. Muskie later said that that incident "changed people's minds about me, about what kind of guy I was. They were looking for a strong, steady man, and there I was, weak."
Muskie did not again campaign for national office. However, he remained one of the Democratic Party spokesmen and in 1976 was considered a possible vice-presidential running mate for Democratic presidential nominee Jimmy Carter. In 1980 Edmund S. Muskie resigned his U.S. Senate seat to become secretary of state in the Carter administration, where he worked to negotiate the release of 52 American hostages held 14 months in Teheran, Iran. Muskie retired from public life in 1981 and returned to Maine. He was called back to public service in 1986 by President Reagan to serve on a three-man committee charged with investigating the role of the Reagan administration in the Iran-Contra scandal. When the report came out in 1987, it was highly critical of President Reagan.
After he retired from political life, Muskie practiced law, dividing his time between Washington D.C. and Maine. On March 26, 1996, Edward Muskie died of a heart attack. In reaction, President Clinton said that Muskie was "a dedicated legislator and a caring public servant."
Further Reading on Edmund Sixtus Muskie
Muskie (1971) by Theo Lippman, Jr. and Donald C. Hansen; Muskie of Maine (1972) by David Nevin; Muskie also wrote an autobiography, Journeys (1972); also, Theodore H. White's, The Making of the President, 1968 (1969) and The Making of the President, 1972 (1973); for a discussion of Muskie as a target of the Nixon White House see Theodore White, Breach of Faith (1975); Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, All the President's Men (1974); and John W. Dean, Blind Ambition: The White House Years (1976); Muskie's legislative achievements are discussed in U.S. Congress, Senate, Biographical Directory of the American Congress, 1774-1971 (1971), Robert Sobel, ed.; and his brief term as secretary of state is outlined in Hamilton Jordan's, Crisis: The Last Year of the Carter Presidency (1982).