Twentyyears ago this week, Edmund S. Muskie of Maine, then a U.S. senator, made one of the remarkable speeches of this era -- a speech that is as pertinent to the campaign just ending as to the 1970 contest in which it was given. The contrast he drew between "the politics of fear and the politics of trust" is, unfortunately, tilted even more in the wrong direction today.
The 1970 campaign was an ugly affair. Republicans, intent on improving their position in Congress and the state capitols, confronted an untimely economic downturn. So they ginned up a "law and order" message suggesting that Democrats were soft on crime and unwilling to deal with even violent forms of anti-Vietnam War dissent.
Vice President Spiro Agnew laid down most of the heavy artillery, but toward the end, President Nixon joined the fray personally. And on election eve, the Republicans purchased 15 minutes on all three television networks to present a tape of a stump speech Nixon had made in Phoenix a few days earlier. He assailed the Democrats' "creeping permissiveness" and the actions of anti-war protesters he characterized as "thugs and hoodlums."
The late Averell Harriman quickly rounded up money to buy air time for a Democratic response immediately following Nixon. Muskie, the 1968 vice presidential candidate, was chosen to give it. Richard Goodwin, the party's best speech writer, worked on the script. And Robert Squier, then a young media consultant, filmed it at Muskie's home on the Maine coast.
The reaction was so powerful -- and the election results so favorable to the Democrats -- that Muskie instantly became the favorite for the 1972 nomination, a status he was unable to sustain once the primaries began.
At lunch the other day, the man who established the Democratic Party as a force in Maine politics, wrote many of the basic environmental laws and served, finally, as secretary of state, unhesitatingly called the Nov. 2, l970, speech "the high point of my political life."
But in the next breath he said, "Of course, the problem I was addressing has just gotten worse. I was really talking about negative campaigning, and it has gotten so pervasive, even I am completely turned off by this stuff."
He is far from alone. At the start of this year, I warned you readers that I was going to become "a crank" about the degradation of campaigns by the quick-hit attack commercials and a nag to my journalistic colleagues about the need to police the exaggerations, distortions and plain lies such ads often contain.
Your letters said, "Pour it on." And the newspaper response has been extremely heartening. In a large majority of the states this fall, newspapers have stepped up to the responsibility of dissecting each new political ad as it goes on the air, saying plainly and forcefully what is true and what is false in it. Some TV stations have started doing the same thing.
As a result, voters have been better informed this year than ever before. In a small but significant number of cases, the perpetrators of these attack-ads clearly have paid a political price for their dirty tricks.
Nonetheless, negative, distorted ads still fill the air, because too many candidates and consultants, Democrats and Republicans alike, remain convinced that "they work." That is why Muskie's 1970 words are more relevant than ever.
"In the heat of our campaigns," he began, "we have all become accustomed to a little anger and exaggeration. Yet, on the whole, our political process has served us well, presenting for your judgment a range of answers to the country's problems and a choice between men who seek the honor of public service... .
"But in these elections of 1970, something has gone wrong. There has been name-calling and deception of almost unprecedented volume. Honorable men have been slandered. Faithful servants of the country have had their motives questioned and their patriotism doubted... .
"The danger from this assault is not that a few more Democrats might be defeated -- the country can survive that. The true danger is that the American people will have been deprived of that public debate, that opportunity for fair judgment, which is the heartbeat of the democratic process. And that is something the country cannot afford... .
"There are only two kinds of politics," he concluded. "They are not radical and reactionary, or conservative and liberal, or even Democratic and Republican. There are only the politics of fear and the politics of trust."
At lunch the other day, Muskie said that despite what has happened in the past 20 years, "I still believe with Adlai Stevenson that you can win elections by talking sense to the American people."
Many newspapers made serious, substantial efforts this year to get campaigns out of the gutter. But as we look toward 1992 and another presidential contest, we are a long, long way from having convinced the candidates and political consultants that they should try to "talk sense to the American people." Muskie can't stomach mudball politics, and the country should not be asked to tolerate it either.