A new biography of the late Edmund Muskie is everything you wanted to know about Maine’s former governor and senator, and then some — informative, thorough, sometimes fascinating, often entertaining.
James Witherall’s book, “Ed Muskie, Made in Maine, 1914-1960,” is a good read and a book I savored, perhaps because Muskie touched my life in quite a few ways.
Witherell grew up in Muskie’s home town of Rumford, giving the author a real sense of where the man came from. Witherall also loves history and writing and was willing to do the tremendous amount of research to capture Maine’s most famous politician in a way no one else has done — even Muskie in his own autobiography.
Witherell tells us about Muskie’s temper and lots more in some really good stories. The stories end in 1960 as Muskie exited the Blaine House and headed to the U.S. Senate, but you will find many clues in the book about how he grew from being a shy gangling kid to become a great speaker and widely respected political leader in Washington, D.C.
Muskie was indeed made in Maine.
I thought I knew a lot about Muskie until I read this book. I certainly knew he had a temper.
Muskie was a well-respected and accomplished U.S. senator when newly elected Congressman David Emery and I arrived in Washington, D.C., in 1974. We were both 26 years old. I had managed Emery’s unlikely victory over incumbent Congressman Peter Kyros.
Emery was a Republican, while Muskie was a Democrat, but the senator took Emery under his wing and helped him in every way possible. Maine’s delegation of two senators and two representatives is small and has developed, over the years, a reputation for working together. But I was very surprised at how helpful Muskie was to Emery.
We were once invited to a meeting in Muskie’s secret office in the Capitol building, with a group of high ranking members of the military, when I witnessed Muskie’s temper. He blew up at the military brass, uttered a few cuss words, shouted demands and gave them a lot of angry looks. I couldn’t believe it.
After the military guys left the room, however, Muskie turned to Emery with a smile on his face and was as nice as could be. I knew right then that he knew how to use that reputation of a temper to his advantage effectively.
It’s amazing to read Witherell’s detailed account about the various political issues that dominated Muskie’s days as governor. Many are the very same issues we wrestle with today.
In the fall of 1955, for example, Muskie declared war on drunken driving, reckless driving and excessive speed. “In the previous 35 days there had been 38 fatalities on Maine’s roads,” reports Witherell.
We have, fortunately, made progress on many of the issues that dominated Muskie’s time in office. I was astonished to learn that, in 1957, Muskie signed “a bill that tightened the nine-hour workday law for women.”
At that time employers were forbidden to work women more than nine hours a day. The new law “forbid women to accept employment under such conditions.”
I read with some sadness how much better things once worked at the State House than they do today. For example, Muskie initiated weekly meetings with legislative leaders of both parties. He described them as “opportunities to explore our thinking and clarify the issues so there might be better understanding of the other fellow’s position.” That sure doesn’t happen today.
Toward the end of the 1950s, Muskie created a speech that resonated and gained lots of attention nationwide, about “convictions and politics.” Three of his key suggestions:
• Profit from those who disagree with you. Avoiding yes-men constitutes one of the important techniques and tools in the art of politics.
• Seek advice and counsel. Having obtained the facts, surround yourself with those whose experience and judgment will enable you to weigh them.
• Get the facts and all points of view, be thorough, be a good listener, be decisive and don’t antagonize.
These suggestions are great advice for today’s politicians, or anybody else, don’t you think? For sure, today’s politicians need to read this Muskie biography, published by Tilbury House. I’d recommend it to anyone who seeks to understand how a man with such a humble beginning in a Maine mill town could win the respect and admiration of an entire nation and do so very much for his state and country.