The Story That Still Nags at Me

We were so eager to show Edmund Muskie’s unstable side that we were used by Richard Nixon.

The snow was cascading down that Saturday morning in Manchester, New Hampshire, when Senator Ed- mund S. Muskie headed toward the offices of the Manchester Union Leader for his first scheduled event of the day. Like much in modern campaigning, this “event” was designed more for the press and cameras than for the citizenry. Fewer than a hundred hardy campaign workers and casual passersby, stamping their feet in the snow, joined the newspaper’s employees watching from windows.

Ed Muskie was the front-runner in the 1972 New Hampshire presidential primary, so when his press aides alerted reporters staying at the Sheraton Wayfarer in nearby Bedford that Muskie would go to the Union Leader to reply to attacks by publisher William Loeb, they were guaranteed that this was one “media event” that would draw heavy coverage.

Hands jammed into his overcoat pockets and his head bent against the snow, Muskie looked as if he might be having second thoughts. But for us reporters trailing him, the setting and tim- ing were perfect. It was early in the day; we would have plenty of time to file for the early Sunday deadlines. The event would be a natural lead-in to our Sunday wrap-up pieces that would summarize the New Hampshire situation nine days before the primary. Loeb had been giving Muskie the same brutal front-page editorial “treatment” he had given other moderates and liberals in both parties who appeared to threaten the publisher’s favored right-wing candidates. In confronting him, the senator from Maine was symbolically confronting the frustrations that had turned New Hampshire from an expected easy triumph into an exhausting, embittering struggle.

The human factor is always the least predict- able element in covering politics. That is why the beat is so fascinating. Under the pressure of cam- paigns for high office, people react in ways that are always revealing and often unexpected. In this case, Muskie’s strategists wanted him to show indignation and righteous wrath to regain the offensive in what they saw as an eroding effort to hold off the challenge of his major rival, Senator George McGovern. They focused on the impact of two Union Leader editorials: one concerned an alleged derogatory comment by Muskie about the important French-Canadian voting bloc, the other impugned the behavior and character of the candidate’s wife.

I described Muskie’s dramatic reaction:

With tears streaming down his face and his voice choked with emotion, Senator Ed- mund S. Muskie (D-Maine) stood in the snow outside the Manchester Union Leader this morning and accused its publisher of making vicious attacks on him and his wife, Jane.

The Democratic presidential candidate called publisher William Loeb “a gutless coward” for involving Mrs. Muskie in the campaign and said four times that Loeb had lied in charging that Muskie had con- doned a slur on Americans of French- Canadian descent.

In defending his wife, Muskie broke down three times in as many minutes— uttering a few words and then standing silent in the near blizzard, rubbing at his face, his shoulders heaving, while he attempted to regain his composure suffi- ciently to speak.

The story—accompanied by a photo—ran under a four-column headline as the off-lead of the Sunday Washington Post and continued for 23 paragraphs inside. David Nyhan’s story, which described Muskie as “weeping silently,” was played even more prominently on the front page of the Boston Globe. The New York Times ran a photograph on page one but relegated the story to page 54, perhaps because reporter James M. Naughton cast his story around Muskie’s denun- ciation of Loeb and mentioned the tears and broken speech only once, in the sixth paragraph. The Washington Star used a UPI story on page two that noted in the eighth paragraph that Muskie was “visibly shaken,” but offered no fur- ther details.

Saturday night, CBS News had an arresting clip of the event, which Roger Mudd introduced by saying that Muskie, after denouncing Loeb, “suddenly became emotional and found it dif- ficult to continue.” The screen was filled with Muskie’s face, his features contorted.

Watching it on a weekend visit home in Washington, political reporter Jack Germond, then with Gannett’s Washington bureau, instantly decided to fly back to New Hampshire because, he said, “I knew something was happening.”

Indeed it was. Within 24 hours, Muskie’s weep- ing became the focus of political talk, not just in New Hampshire, but everywhere the pattern of the developing presidential race was discussed. His tears were generally described as one of the contributing causes of his disappointing show- ing in the March 7 primary. Muskie beat McGovern by a margin of 46 to 37 percent, but his managers had publicized their goal of win- ning at least 50 percent of the New Hampshire Democratic vote. Underdog McGovern claimed that the results showed Muskie’s weakness and his own growing strength. Muskie never recovered from that Saturday in the snow.

In retrospect, though, there were a few pro- blems with the Muskie story. First, it is unclear whether Muskie did cry. He insists he never shed the tears we thought we saw. Melting snow from his hatless head filled his eyes, he said, and made him wipe his face. While admitting that exhaus- tion and emotion got the better of him that mor- ning, the senator believes that he was damaged more by the press and television coverage of the event than by his own actions.

Second, it is now clear that the incident should have been placed in a different context: Muskie was victimized by the classic dirty trick that had been engineered by agents of the distant and detached President Nixon. The Loeb editorial that had brought Muskie out in the snowstorm had been based on a letter forged by a White House staff member intent on destroying Muskie’s credibility. But we didn’t know that and we didn’t work hard enough to find out.

Mt. Muskie

To understand how such slip-ups happen, one should understand the work habits and psychology of reporters. It is not an accident that we refer to “news stories” as the basic ingredient of the news. Reporters are essentially storytellers in the narrative tradition. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we constantly devise the scripts we think appropriate for the events we cover.

Explicitly in my mind and, I think, implicitlyin the Post story I wrote from Manchester, there was a specific context into which the Muskie per- formance fit: the unraveling of a presidential front-runner’s campaign.

The fourth paragraph of my story said Muskie’s appearance at the Union Leader “was designed to counter a threat to his support in the March 7 presidential primary from the voters who had read the Union Leader’s charge Thursday that Muskie was unsympathetic to Franco- Americans”

But that was only part of the threat. 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 oppo- nent 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 op- position” 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 conversations of 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 bland paragraph suggested. At one school, a teenager who asked an uncomfortable question was in- terrogated by the senator as if he were a pro- secutor trying to shake the alibi of an accused wife-killer.

Lou Cannon witnessed those high school blowups and gained further insight into the state of Muskie’s temper when he was invited to join in a friendly poker game aboard a Muskie charter. As Cannon described in his book,Reporting: An Inside View, “On the first hand Muskie was dealt four cards to an inside straight and threw down his hand with an oath when he failed to make the straight on the fifth card. I liked Muskie just fine, but I made a personal decision right then that he seemed a little temperamental to be president of the United States”

Cannon asked the right question:

What does a political reporter do with this 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 d riectly for journalistic purposes.

What we tend to do is to store such incidents in our minds and then use them to interpret ma- jor incidents when they occur.

Such was the case with Muskie’s emotional display in Manchester. One reason Jack Germond reacted as swiftly and surely as he did to the television pictures of the scene was that he had been present—as I was—at an off-the-record ses- sion almost a year before, where a group of political reporters had dinner and a long even- ing of discussion with Muskie. What all of us remember about the evening was that much of the time Muskie was in a bellowing rage, brought on by persistent efforts to draw him forth on the Vietnam war.

We all suspected that under the calm, placid, reflective face that Muskie liked to show the world, there was a volcano waiting to erupt. So we treated Manchester as a political Mt. St. Helen’s explosion, an event that would per- manently alter the shape of “Mt. Muskie”

It was not an accident that in the fifth paragraph of my story, I wrote: “The 60 to 70 newsmen and supporters huddled in the snowstorm to hear the senator’s speech watched with surprise as the normally disciplined Muskie let his anger and his frustration show:’

Nor was it unplanned that after clearly identifying Loeb as a harsh critic of the senator and the chief supporter of his rival, Sam Yorty, I still gave front-page prominence to the publisher’s response: “I think Senator Muskie’s excited and near-hysterical performance this morning again indicates he’s not the man that many of us want to have his finger on the nuclear button”

It was the temper-tantrum theme that Muskie’s political foes such as Senator Robert Dole, then the Republican national chairman, used in their second-day comments that built the momentum for the story and kept it bubbling in the press.

A bad scene

With the advantage of hindsight, I think I was correct to treat the Manchester incident as a ma- jor event and to put it in the context of a high- risk, go-for-broke campaign strategy by an ex- hausted, emotional candidate who was unable to sustain the pace. Muskie himself said as much after the campaign in an interview with Theodore H. White for The Making of the President 1972:

That previous week, I’d been down to Florida, then I flew to Idaho, then I flew to California, then I flew back to Washington to vote in the Senate, and I flew back to California, and then I flew into Manchester and I was hit with this “Canuck” story. I’m tough physically, but no one could do that—it was a bitch of a day. The staff thought I should go down to the Union Leader to reply to that story. If I was going to do it again, I’d look for a campaign manager, a genius, a schedule- maker who has veto power over a candidate’s own decisions. You got to have a czar. For Christ’s sake, you got to pace yourself. I was just goddamned mad and choked up over my anger.

The key was the “Canuck letter” Muskie men- tioned in the interview with White. It was a curious document, which had appeared two days earlier along with a front-page editorial, signed by Loeb and headlined, “Senator Muskie Insults Franco-Americans.” With the bold-faced type and capital letters Loeb used to hammer home his message, the editorial concluded: “We have always known that Senator Muskie was a hypocrite But we never expected to have it so clearly revealed as in this letter sent to us from Florida .”

Along with the editorial was a photocopy of a hand-printed letter with many misspellings, in an almost childlike hand, sent to Loeb by a Paul Morrison and postmarked Deerfield Beach, Florida. It said the writer had encountered Muskie and his party in Florida, and that Muskie had been asked how he could know much about the problems of blacks, since there were so few of them in Maine “A man with the senator said, `No, not blacks, but we have Cannocks; ” accord- ing to the letter. Muskie, it said, laughed at the remark and invited the questioner to ” `come to New England and see’ ”

Loeb’s editorial comment was that if Morrison “hadn’t taken the trouble to write about his experience… no one in New Hampshire would know of the derogatory remarks emanating from the Muskie camp about the Franco-Americans in New Hampshire and Maine—remarks which the senator found amusing.”

Since French Canadians are a major Demo- cratic voting bloc in New Hampshire, particularly in Manchester, and since “Canuck” (as it is usual- ly spelled) is an offensive epithet, it was not sur- prising that Muskies phone canvassers quickly found a negative reaction to the senator and pressed him strongly to denounce the Union Leader editorial as a lie.

Muskie did not need much urging. Like many other Democrats, he regarded the Union Leaderand its publisher as one of the most flagrantly slanted opinion-mongers in the business. Among other things, Loeb and his paper had labeled the senior senator from Maine and 1968 Democratic vice presidential candidate “Moscow Muskie,” “Flip-Flop Muskie,” and “a phony.”

Far worse, in Muskie’s eyes, was Loeb’s deci- sion to reprint, as another front-page editorial, a bitchy portrayal of his wife, Jane, that had originally appeared in Women’s Wear Daily and was picked up in edited form by Newsweek. The article depicted her smoking, drinking, cussing, and generally behaving in a way conservative New Hampshire voters might not think becoming in a prospective First Lady. Muskie decided to hit back at Loeb.

At that point, some of the internal dynamics of the press took over the operation. One of the central paradoxes in any journalist’s life is that we crave novelty, but live in a world where routine is vital. Freshness and surprise are built into the definition of news; the unusual, the unexpected and, best of all, the unprecedented are what we seek. But we know the world is full of repetition, because the daily routine of our own organiza- tions is rigid and unvarying: deadlines must be met so that presses may roll and papers be delivered on time Hence, the requirement for those who are seeking to “make news” is itself paradoxical: They must, ideally, do something unusual, unexpected, or unprecedented. But they must do it in a time, place, and manner that fit the unvarying routine of the news organizations.

The Muskie appearance at the Union Leader met both needs. It is unusual for a candidate to denounce the publisher of the leading newspaper in a state where he is campaigning. The normal rule in political campaigns is to ignore such at- tacks, or deal with their instigators at arm’s length, through a letter to the editor or a rebuttal from the press secretary; “you don’t get into a fight with anyone who buys ink by the barrel,” as the saying goes. Muskie’s denunciation came at a time when Loeb had more than a week before the primary to reply. And the picture of a major presidential candidate delivering his denunciation on the doorstep of the newspaper—rather than from a distance—was also unusual enough to guarantee attention.

Still, the question is: Did we see what we thought we saw? Years later Muskie told me:

I arrived in Manchester tired, nearly ex- hausted. The staff said that I had an op- portunity to make a point about Loeb, who was personally unpopular with Democrats in the state. So I yielded.

I did not cry. I know it is not easy to distinguish between anger on the verge of tears and crying, but there was no flow of tears …. There was melting snow. But I choked up in my anger, and it was a bad scene, whatever it was. Interestingly, the first reaction I heard that day was positive, that I had confronted Loeb and told him what I thought. Only later did I hear the reaction that it was a sign of weakness on my part, that it was disturbing people. Eventually, the reaction was devastating.

Jim Naughton, who covered the story for theTimes, told me that he was standing at Muskie’s feet, “looking up directly into his face… and I swear to this moment I’m not sure if he was in tears.”

Neither then nor later did I have much doubt about what I wrote. I was standing there and had recorded the statement. But did I check with Muskie to ask if he had wept? I did not. I did follow him to a nearby hotel, where he filmed a brief interview with a Boston television station. Standing in the improvised hotel room studio, watching the interview, I remember thinking that I had never seen Muskie so ravaged and worn. I certainly had the opportunity there to ask him. But whether from sympathy or timidity, I did not walk over to him and say, “Well, senator, what the hell happened up there? Have you flipped out—or what?” Instead, I included in my story the next day a comment Muskie made in his interview:

Muskie told an interviewer after his speech that he felt that in reprinting the item [fromWomen’s Wear Daily and Newsweek] Loeb was “just deliberately slurring …a good woman … deliberately cutting down her character just to get to me. I guess the full realization of what he’d done just hit me this morning, suddenly, and I couldn’t go on.”

But as far as I can recall, there was no internal questioning of the accuracy of the story then, or later, at the Post. Still, it nags at me as few other stories I have written.

Systematic sabotage

What Muskie did not know, and what I cer- tainly did not know at the time, was that there was another set of facts that would have put the incident into a very different context. Those facts related to a series of actions, ordered and coor- dinated by the Nixon White House and designed to harass, to vex, and to embarrass the front- running Democrat who was judged a serious threat to Nixon’s re-election. The “Canuck letter” was part of that plot.

Had those facts been known, I might have described Muskie in different terms: not as a vic- tim of his over-ambitious campaign strategy and his too-human temperament, but as the victim of a fraud, managed by operatives of a frightenened and unscrupulous president. That story surely would have had a different impact.

Given Loeb’s history, there was ample reason for skepticism about the origins of the “Canuck letter” Indeed, in my story about the Manchester incident, I devoted seven paragraphs to that subject, noting that “the Deerfield Beach telephone company does not list a Paul Morrison among the 15 Morrisons in its directory,” and noting that Loeb, while promising “a very interesting follow- up” on the letter, had not yet produced the author.

The story also quoted at length the senator and others who were with him in Florida that any such thing happened. But regret- tably, none of us reporting the story pursued the mystery of authorship. We were in New Hampshire, tracking the candidates through the final week of the primary campaign. Paul Morrison, if he existed, was one thousand miles to the south. And the story, in our eyes, was not the provoca- tion but the reaction.

It was not until seven months later, when Nix- on was sailing toward a landslide victory over McGovern and Muskie was back tending to his Senate business, that the mystery began to unravel. Marilyn Berger, then a colleague at thePost, told me that Ken W. Clawson, a formerPost reporter who had gone to work at the White House as deputy director of information, had told her that he was the author of “the Canuck letter.”

I urged Berger to tell her story to Carl Bern- stein and Bob Woodward, and on October 10 they described “the Canuck letter” as part of a “massive campaign of political spying and sabotage conducted on behalf’ of the reelection effort by White House and Nixon campaign of- ficials. As Woodward and Bernstein spelled it out in their stories and book, All the President’s Men,there was a trail of incidents going back to mid-1971 suggesting, in Muskie’s words, that “somebody was out to ambush us.” Letters at- tacking other Democrats were sent out on fac- similes of Muskie’s Senate stationery. Sensitive polling data disappeared from his headquarters. Phony campaign flyers were distributed in his name. Harassing phone calls were made to voters by people purporting to be Muskie campaign workers. On and on the list went, making it clear that Muskie was the victim of systematic sabotage.

Had Muskie made such charges the previous winter without proof, he would likely have been judged paranoid or a cry-baby by most reporters. Had he been able at the time to provide the proof, the political history of the year would undoubted- ly have been very different.

The coverage of the incident shows that when a reporter’s information is incomplete, there is a great risk of misleading the reader. I put the Man- chester speech into the context—accurately, I believe—of a campaign and a personality that were accessible to journalistic view. I did not put it into the context of campaign sabotage. Unwit- tingly, I did my part in the work of the Nixon operatives in helping destroy the credibility of the Muskie candidacy.

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David Broder

David Broder was an author and journalist who wrote for the Washington Post for more than 40 years. He died in 2011.