Edmund S. Muskie, the former governor of Maine, senator and secretary of state, who died last week at the age of 81, was an apostle of civility and a politician of rare vision, who battled constantly with his own temperament and the temper of his times.
He was the No. 2 man with Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota on the 1968 Democratic ticket -- perhaps the only ticket in my time on which both men clearly could have been and should have been president. Instead, we got Richard Nixon -- some consolation prize!
The obituaries of Muskie were appreciative but barely did justice to the clarity with which he addressed two overriding national issues decades before most other politicians came to grips with them.
As chairman of the Senate's intergovernmental relations subcommittee -- a backwater assignment if ever there was one -- he made it the forum in the 1960s for that favorite issue of the 1990s, downsizing the federal government and shifting power and responsibility to the states.
That was hardly the mind-set of most Democrats in the era of the Great Society, but Muskie and a handful of others insisted that as the scope of governmental responsibilities widened, the constitutional relationship between the states and Washington needed protecting. Muskie was not averse to activist government; he wrote much of the new environmental protection legislation enacted in the next decade. But he was wise enough to see that many of the new domestic initiatives needed to be tailored to the varying conditions of the 50 states. As later events proved, he was right.
Muskie's second great insight was that Congress needed to put its fiscal house in order. This goal has yet to be achieved, but he was working on it 20 years before the authors of the Republican Contract With America took the issue to the country.
With the leadership of Muskie and conscientious Republicans like then-Sen. Henry Bellmon of Oklahoma, the effort quickly moved beyond partisanship and led to the creation of the congressional budget process -- now the centerpiece of each year's legislative work. Muskie was the first chairman of the Senate Budget Committee and was instrumental in keeping the deficits minuscule by today's standards.
All of this -- plus a leadership role on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- made Muskie a natural for national office. He was the favorite for the nomination in 1972, but the nation and the Democratic Party were being ripped apart by controversy over the Vietnam War. Muskie -- an instinctive moderate who moved in small steps from support of the war to opposition -- was unable to satisfy those who insisted that their position, whatever it was, was the only morally permissible one.
As if that were not enough, Nixon and Spiro Agnew set out in the 1970 midterm campaign to convince the country that Democrats were guilty of "appeasement" of communism abroad and of crime at home. Muskie rebuked them in an election-eve television address, as applicable today as it was then, contrasting "the politics of fear and the politics of trust."
But the man who preached reasonableness and reconciliation was himself a man whose emotions were easily provoked. And in the 1972 New Hampshire primary, when Nixon operatives baited him (as we later learned) by planting in the compliant Manchester Union Leader a forged letter accusing him of prejudice, Muskie lost his composure, alternately raging and weeping in frustration, while denouncing the newspaper. The scene raised questions about his stability, and his campaign slid downhill.
As a reporter on the scene, who still has a guilty conscience about unwittingly helping the Nixon saboteurs do their work by publicizing Muskie's emotional reaction to their libel, I was saddened that footage of that awful breakdown in the blizzard was being replayed more often than anything else in the TV obituaries.
I prefer to remember him on a summer night in 1983, in a big circus tent on the lawn of a state park outside Portland, Maine, when he joined the local symphony orchestra as the narrator in Aaron Copland's "Lincoln Portrait," entertaining the nation's governors, who were in town for their annual meeting.
Muskie's admirers always compared "Big Ed" to "Honest Abe," not just because of his height and shambling gait and innate candor and endless stock of humorous tales, but because -- like Lincoln -- he could weep at injustice and still proclaim his faith in the bonds of trust that hold Americans together. That night, hearing that fine deep voice of Muskie's intone Lincoln's magnificent words of reconciliation at the Gettysburg battlefield, many of us wept -- as we do now at his death.