, Salem, MA


October 30, 2010

The Muskie moment: Fighting fear, restoring a shared sense of purpose

LEWISTON, Maine — Almost finished. Just a few days to go. The clatter and clutter of an American election — a vitally important, perhaps historic midterm election — are about to end. Nobody, except perhaps the odd candidate on a pre-election surge, wishes this campaign were even a day longer.

We've had these kinds of elections before — raucous, riveting campaigns where great issues and the direction of the country seemed to rest in the balance. And we've had angry, acidic campaigns before, as well — campaigns where great ideas had a hearing but where, when the shouting, the accusing and the name-calling were over, the country was in great need of healing.

Which brings us to Maine, four decades ago. It was the Nixon era and almost nothing about it prompts nostalgia even today, as the 1970s, which Tom Wolfe described as the "Me Decade," remain enveloped in a mist of malignant memories.

Forty years ago this week, the country was wrapping up a bitter midterm election campaign, and the night before the polls opened, Democratic Sen. Edmund S. Muskie gave a remarkable address. Though this speech today is hardly remembered outside the Muskie Archives here at Bates College, his alma mater, we need to hear and heed it today.

"There has been name-calling and deception of almost unprecedented volume," Muskie said. "Honorable men have been slandered. Faithful servants of the country have had their motives questioned and their patriotism doubted."

Muskie's speech was, to be sure, partisan. Richard M. Nixon and his vice president, Spiro T. Agnew, had charged the Democrats with contributing to the breakdown of law and order and had questioned their patriotism because they questioned the war in Vietnam. And Muskie, fresh off an impressive but unsuccessful campaign for vice president two years earlier, was considered a potential Democratic nominee to face Nixon in 1972.

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