Mar 6, 2007

When Muskie cried

Tomorrow is the 35th anniversary of the New Hampshire primary that saw Edmund Muskie go from frontrunner to also ran, after he possibly cried in a reaction to a race-baiting letter and an attack on his wife published in the Manchester Union Leader.
Standing on a flatbed truck in a snowstorm before the offices of the Manchester. N.H., Union Leader, Muskie defended his wife Jane against a snide bit of gossip about her in the newspaper. Its editor, the vitriolic, archconservative William Loeb, had reprinted a Newsweek item (itself a condensation of a story in Women's Wear Daily) detailing Mrs. Muskie's alleged penchant for predinner cocktails and an incident in which she supposedly asked reporters if they knew any dirty jokes. Muskie was particularly angered by the headline Loeb put on the Union Leader item: BIG DADDY'S JANE. As the Senator later complained:

"It made her sound like a moll."

In a voice choked with emotion, Muskie began to weep as he announced the title to the crowd. "This man doesn't walk, he crawls," sobbed Muskie. He tried to regain his composure, then said loudly: "He's talking about my wife." Muskie calmed himself; unfortunately for him, however, his breakdown was caught by CBS-TV cameras and shown round the country.

The moment of weakness left many voters wondering about Muskie's ability to stand up under stress. His aides were troubled by the performance, and one official of the Democratic National Committee observed: "You have Nixon in China meeting with the Communist leaders and you have Muskie having that difficulty in New Hampshire. I imagine the contrast would be somewhat harmful."

Expectably, there was some gleefully negative reaction in both parties. Washington Democratic Senator Henry Jackson asked: "If he's like that with Loeb, what would he do with Brezhnev?" Added Republican National Chairman Robert Dole: "I don't blame Muskie for crying. If I had to run against Richard Nixon, I'd do a lot of crying too."

Muskie's weeping visage was on the front pages of newspapers across the country. CBS ran a close up of Muskie's "contorted" face. And, even though he won the primary, his campaign was over. And the thing was, Muskie always claimed that he hadn't cried. He said his face was wet with snow. And the race-baiting letter? It was a forgery. A Nixonian dirty trick.

David Broder, who covered the story at the time, says Muskie's breakdown was part of a script that the media were covering.
For weeks,the Post's coverage had emphasized that the senator, who was running even with President Nixon in the polls and well ahead of any opponent for the nomination, had chosen a high-risk, early-knockout strategy. He would run in all the early primaries in an effort to "collapse the opposition' and nail down the nomination by April 25, when Massachusetts and Pennsylvania completed the run of the first six contests.

Another theme was clearer in the conversationsof the journalists on the scene than in the copy we were filing. That was the possibility that Muskie might crack under the strain of his schedule and the tension of the most important election in his career. Deep down in a February 14 story, I alluded to this: "If sensitivity is the measure of insecurity, there is plenty of evidence that the Muskie camp feels some pressure from McGovern's campaign. . . . Several times this week, Muskie reacted with anger to questions from high school students he charged were "planted' by the McGovern camp.'

The scenes were uglier than that blandparagraph suggested. At one school, a teenager who asked an uncomfortable question was interrogated by the senator as if he were a prosecutor trying to shake the alibi of an accused wife-killer.


What does a political reporter do withthis kind of insight? As in this instance, it is rarely written as a hard news story the first time the thought arises. Most reporters have a healthy reluctance to play amateur psychiatrist. Often, the incidents are trivial in themselves. Sometimes, as with the poker game, they occur in semiprivate settings, which many reporters--myself included-- feel uncomfortable in exploiting directly for journalistic purposes.

What we tend to do is to store such incidentsin our minds and then use them to interpret major incidents when they occur.
With a year and a half of electioneering to go and a 24-hour news cycle, one wonders which scripts will be played out in this campaign? Just for starters, we've got:

  • The Social Cons v. Giuliani and/or McCain.
  • The Mormon question.
  • Giuliani's (and Gingrich's) messy personal lives.
  • Obama: Is he black enough?
  • Hillary, the schemer.

Any one of these factors may get itself blown up to a campaign-ending incident. And as the longest campaign in the history of the world continues, more scripts will be put forth. It's gonna be a bumpy ride.

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