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The Edmund Muskie Brand of Leadership

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Political leadership matters, but it seems a vanishing commodity. These days statesmanship is a disappearing art, compromise a lost disposition, and political courage rarely demonstrated. So the centennial of the birth of Edmund S. Muskie on March 28 offers an opportunity to remember a great political leader of the second half of the 20th century and the model of leadership he practiced.

From 1955 to 1981, Muskie served two terms as Maine's governor, 21 years as a United States Senator, nine months as Secretary of State. He was the vice-presidential candidate on Hubert Humphrey's unsuccessful 1968 ticket. His legislative credits included the Clean Air, Clean Water, Intergovernmental Relations, Model Cities and Budget Reform acts to name a few.

But a resume does not make a leader, and Muskie's impressive legislative output simply provided evidence of his leadership without itself being the measure of the man. Muskie, as a legislator and national figure, practiced a brand of political leadership that coupled a unique level of skill with a genuine commitment to a politics of democratic process.

As a senator, he was not oriented to ideological position-taking, but to a process of legislation that gave priority to passing workable laws. Making speeches or issuing press releases was and is a lot easier than crafting laws, but Muskie saw those activities as the beginning, not the end, of his legislative duty. Instead, Muskie devoted enormous amounts of time to studying issues, listening to witnesses at hearings, and talking to his colleagues in an effort to reach agreement on sensible legislation to advance the public good. The committees Muskie led deliberated extensively. Good ideas came from both sides of the aisle in a process that sought data, depended on rational discourse and valued consensus and compromise. It was time-consuming, especially for Muskie as chair. The Clean Water Act of 1972 followed weeks of hearings and dozens of markup sessions and conference meetings. Muskie and his colleagues actually wrote and discussed legislative provisions, rather than leaving all the heavy lifting to staff.

Legislation Muskie generated came to the floor with a huge presumption of validity. Transformative though it was, the Clean Air Act passed the Senate unanimously. The Senate overrode President Richard M. Nixon's veto of the Clean Water Act of 1972, 52 to 12. The Model Cities Act, which seemed a lost cause before Muskie was drafted as its leader, passed 53-22. Other senators knew that Muskie-generated legislation was the product of a data driven, deliberative and inclusive process.

Muskie's legislative leadership made him widely-admired by insiders, but he was relatively unknown nationally when Humphrey chose him as his running mate in August, 1968. The nation was badly divided over Vietnam, and over racial, generational and cultural tensions. Two national candidates, Nixon and George C. Wallace, and their respective running mates, Spiro T. Agnew and General Curtis Lemay, exacerbated those divisions by their rhetoric.

Muskie's campaign stood out. Muskie's speeches constituted a national civics lesson. He addressed substantive issues, but also provided thoughtful discussions on bedrock American ideals -- making the American Dream reality, the nurturing power of freedom, pluralism as a source of national strength, a robust vision of American democracy.

Muskie displayed his leadership not simply in the values he expressed, but in his conduct as a candidate. Whereas office-seekers tend to pander to the preferences of their audiences, Muskie often sought to persuade listeners of the merit of views antithetical to their own. On the third day of his campaign, he told civic leaders in St. Louis that young people had "honest doubts" about the fairness of the system through which his listeners had profited and encouraged his audience to take the concerns of youth seriously. A month later, he told a private audience in Syracuse that "a lot of the inequities of our political institutions are your fault and mine" and implored them to be open to the protests of young people. These were not conventional messages to professional gatherings in a time of generational divide.

Yet, just as often he told campus audiences things they did not care to hear, that he favored a draft lottery which would expose them to military service rather than a volunteer army which would impose that obligation disproportionately on the poor or that their common practice of critiquing the existing system was insufficient unless they also worked to improve it.

When Muskie met with blue collar workers who were troubled by racial integration, he insisted that America was based on pluralism, diversity and trust. When he spoke to bankers in Chicago he encouraged them to commit resources to building an America in which diverse people could live together.

Candidate Muskie was a listener as well as a teacher. He demonstrated that most vividly in late September, 1968 in Washington, Pennsylvania when anti-war protesters heckled him. Muskie invited his critics to send one of their group to speak for ten minutes after which time he would address the audience. A widely circulated photograph of the event shows the 54-year-old Muskie listening intently to his youthful critic.

Muskie believed campaigns were democratic exercises in which candidates and voters engaged in real dialogue, directly and through intermediaries. Whereas opposing candidates questioned the patriotism of those criticizing governmental policies, Muskie championed the right, indeed the duty, of citizens to hold government accountable through constructive dissent. He conducted regular press conferences.

Unfortunately, in many circles, Muskie is best remembered for his disastrous 1972 presidential race when he went from front runner in March to sidelined in April. There were many reasons for the demise of Muskie's campaign. But Muskie's failure as a candidate for the presidential nomination does not detract from the exemplary leadership he provided.

Nor do changed circumstances render his leadership qualities obsolete. To be sure, Muskie operated in a quite different political universe. Campaign fundraising did not consume legislators' time and interfere with their performance of their public trusts. Big money had not had its pernicious effect on our democracy, ideology did not dominate politics, and senators worked full weeks and tried to improve legislation, not obstruct it.

These systemic problems would complicate the work of a modern day Muskie. Surely, political reform is needed to create a more productive system to serve pressing needs. Yet these defects also present a challenge for contemporary leaders to combat, and they might do so by imitating the example of political leadership Edmund Muskie set.