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EDMUND MUSKIE, 1914-1996 // A quiet man who cared

Published Jul. 6, 2006

Edmund Muskie, for years one of the Senate's most respected and innovative members and secretary of state in the final months of the Carter administration, died Tuesday after suffering a heart attack.

He would have been 82 Thursday.

The Maine Democrat was perhaps best known because of his campaign for an office that he never held: the presidency. While seeking votes in the 1972 New Hampshire primary, he reacted angrily while standing in the back of a flatbed truck in a snowstorm _ tears apparently running down his cheeks _ to a newspaper story containing insults about his wife.

The incident "changed people's minds about me, of what kind of guy I was," Muskie later told author Theodore H. White.

"They were looking for a strong, steady man and here I was weak." Whether Muskie actually had shed tears was hotly debated. But his campaign took a downward turn, and Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota won the nomination.

Muskie caught people's imagination by inviting hecklers onto the stage with him. People compared the 6-foot-4-inch Muskie with Abraham Lincoln so often he grew to hate the adjective "Lincolnesque."

He tended to be soft-spoken, reserved and taciturn. "When you have nothing to say, don't try to improve on silence," he liked to say.

Yet when aroused by an issue, he could be a passionate and eloquent speaker, particularly in Senate debates.

"He is one of the few men I have seen who could literally pull a bill through the Senate with his arguments," former Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, D-Mont., once said.

Reacting to the news, President Clinton, citing Muskie's caring and dedication to public service, said he was "a leader in the best sense. He spoke from his heart and acted with conviction."

Muskie, the first Democrat in Maine's history to be popularly elected to the Senate, was nearing the end of his fourth six-year term when President Carter asked him to become secretary of state.

The opening occurred on April 28, 1980, when Cyrus Vance resigned in protest over Carter's orders to go ahead with the ill-fated military effort to rescue U.S. hostages in Iran. Vance considered it a rash move that could endanger the hostages' lives.

"His coolness under pressure and his sound judgment helped him play a crucial role in bringing all the American hostages home from Iran to safety and freedom, and he was always careful to give credit to others for this achievement," Carter said of Muskie.

Leon Billings, Muskie's chief Senate aide who accompanied him to the State Department as executive assistant, said that Muskie changed the policy in dealing with the hostage crisis. He switched it "from constant attention to the hostage issue to more or less putting it on the back burner," Billings said. "We took the advice of our Iranian experts who said as long as you keep the issue up front the Iranians won't settle. They will settle in their own time and that is what happened."

Muskie's cautiousness _ wanting to know every side of a question before making a decision _ was both a strength and a weakness. His Senate colleagues tended to trust him when he took a strong position because they knew that he had explored all sides of an issue.

But his caution also sometimes hurt him politically. He was slow in moving toward opposition to the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War _ a factor in the 1972 presidential campaign. McGovern had based his winning candidacy on opposition to the war.

Edmund Sixtus Muskie _ his middle name was the name of five popes _ was born in the textile mill town of Rumford, Maine, on March 28, 1914. He was the second of six children. His father, born Stephen Marciszewski, fled his home in Russian-occupied Poland at 17 to escape being drafted into the czarist army.

Immigration officers at Ellis Island shortened the name to Muskie.

Young Muskie worked his way through Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, where he graduated with Phi Beta Kappa honors.

He obtained a law degree from Cornell University. Enlisting in the Navy in World War II, Muskie served on destroyer escorts in the Pacific and Atlantic before being discharged as a lieutenant in 1945.

In 1946, he was elected to the Maine House.

In 1954, he became Maine's first Roman Catholic governor. In 1958, he became a U.S. senator.

There, he did work that resulted in a series of clean air and clean water laws, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and Muskie's becoming known as "Mr. Environment."

In 1968, when then-Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey won the Democratic presidential nomination, he chose Muskie as his running mate.

By early 1972, he was the clear front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination.

But then his troubles began. His staff overbooked him on travel and speeches. Muskie, who had never had much stamina after breaking his back in a nasty fall in his Waterville home in 1953, was constantly fatigued. What had served him well in 1968 _ a centrist position, a soft-spoken campaign style and a certain fuzziness on the issues _ proved disastrous in 1972.

In 1976, Muskie was re-elected handily to the Senate for what turned out to be his final term. After stepping down as secretary of state, he was named head of the Washington office of Chadbourne and Parke, a New York law firm specializing in international law.

He is survived by his wife, the former Jane Gray, whom he married in 1948, five children and seven grandchildren.

_ Information from the New York Times and the Washington Post was used in this report.