THE WAY THE STORIES READ at the time, she had buckled. The administration had turned on the juice, leaned a bit heavy, sent in Mondale - My God, not Mondale! - and Muriel Humphrey had folded. She had voted the way her husband would not have wanted her to vote, they said, and she did it because she was either duped or pressured. They never considered for a moment that she might have a mind of her own. She was not supposed to. She is a widow.
Now, of course, she is retiring from the Senate, having refused to seek a full term on her own. Also retiring, but not voluntarily, is the widow of James Allen, Maryon, who was defeated in the Albama Democratic primary. Without the two widows, the Senate probably will once again become an all-male body.
The reason I bring this up is that another widow is being sent to Congress. She is Beverly Byron, the widow of Rep. Goodloe Byroon who died last week of a heart attack at the age of 49. His widow was named the next day to succeed him as the Democratic candidate for Congress. Her as the Democratic candidate for Congress. Her sole opponent is Melvin Perkins, a certified pauper, assailant of a woman bus driver and denizen of a skid row hotel in Baltimore. Mrs. Byron, in effect, has been appointed to Congress, her primary qualification, it seems, being her tragic widowhood.
The time has probably come to pause and to say that this is not a column about Beverly Bryon or Muriel Humphrey or any of the women who have been named to replace their late husbands in political office. It is, instead, a column about widowhood as a political phenomenon, how it has become accepted as a substitute for political experience or ambition - something that calls for a suspension of all the political rules. In the case of Mrs. Byron, for instance, she neither appeared before the body of Democrats who named her to replace her husband, nor was asked any questions by them. Her widowhood seemed to say it all.
There is probably some good in all this. In the first place, without the so-called widow's mandate, there would have been precious few women in Congress over the years. Of the 95 who served in either house from 1919 to 1975, fully 40 percent were named to replace their late husbands.
Some of them have turned out to be eminently qualified. Margaret Chase Smith, for instance, went on to create a strong independent career for herself. Maureen Neuberger, who replaced her husband in the Senate, was generally thought to be his equal, and currently Lindy Boggs has proved herself a congresswoman in her own right.
You could argue that any way in which women enter the political system is a good way and you could argue further that widows are qualified to succeed their husbands, particularly when it comes to interim appointments. They hold the staff together; they finish the work started by their late husbands; they know his ideas, his aspirations, his ideals. It is a romantic notion, probably true much of the time.
But there is also something in all this that reflects a male view of widowhood - a notion that the widows are in some sort of political neutral corner. They are a given place to go until the real candidates are chosen, wonderful vehicles for treading water, for ducking the hard ones, and, in effect, doing nothing. It would be wonderful to say that this is a mistaken notion were it not for the fact that most of the political widows play their roles as expected. They serve their terms, say a fleet goodbye and leave with a proper curtsy.
No matter. What you have here is a view of women as an extension of men. You get the notion that they are perceived as clones of their husbands - they are thought to have no mind of their own, have never formulated their own views, and will vote as their husbands would have. It is almost medieval in thought. It is this perception of Mrs. Humphrey that caused a fuss when she voted as Hubert might not have. In fact, the argument was carried to such an extreme that letters of the late Hubert Humphrey were trotted out to prove his intentions. Trouble was, Hubert was no longer the senator. Muriel was.
Anyway, you can't help but feel that some of the same thinking went into the selection of Mrs. Byron.She was asked nothing of her views, nothing of her programs, nothing at all. She may or may not be qualified, whatever that means and however that is judged. What is clear, though, is that once again an exception has been made for women on the basis of sex, this time to their advantage, this time chivalrously, this time for what some people would say are all the right reasons. It doesn't matter. It matters that Mrs. Byron, like the other widows, will be going to Congress for the wrong reasons - not for what she can do but for what she is.
It's thinking like that that has kept women out of Congress for years.