July 13, 2020

President Ed Muskie, 1972-1980 — What if?

There’s a new type of history, according to The New York Times.

It’s called “counterfactualism.”

“What if?” is another way of saying the same thing.

The Times cited an incident involving Annie Oakley, the Wild West sharpshooter, and Kaiser Wilhelm II as an example of counterfactual history. Oakley had been out drinking the night before her 1889 show in Berlin. Annie’s signature trick shot was blasting a cigarette from the lips of an audience volunteer.

According to the Times, the German audience “gasped” in astonishment when young Kaiser Wilhelm bounded onto the stage and offered himself up as the hung-over “Little Miss Deadeye’s” shooting dummy.

“A puff of ashes flew into the air. The Kaiser, who had assumed the throne only a few months earlier, was unscathed. But what if her bullet had been off the mark?

“Would [Wilhelm’s] successor have pursued the policies that led to World War I?” the Times rhapsodized.

This type of game-playing, it was reported, has become something of a rage among historians, who seem increasingly bored with reality — where the ending of any episode never varies no matter how hard you dig into the past. What follows is my own descent into the murky world of counterfactualism.

No Mainer has become president of the United States. But three came close. James G. Blaine lost the 1884 presidential election to Grover Cleveland by 62,683 votes out of nearly 10 million cast. Hannibal Hamlin, who was Abraham Lincoln’s first-term vice president, would have assumed the presidency upon Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 had he not been taken off the Republican Party’s 1864 national ticket and been replaced by Southerner Andrew Johnson as a gesture of reconciliation to the defeated Confederacy.

The remainder of this column deals with counterfactual assumptions as to how a successful, two-term presidency by Edmund S. Muskie in the years 1972-1980 would have changed America and the state of Maine. My conspirator in this fanciful exercise was Leon Billings, a Maryland legislator who served as Muskie’s Senate and U.S. State Department chief of staff.

First of all, there would have been no Watergate scandal. That covert operation grew out of concern in the Nixon White House that Ted Kennedy or Ed Muskie would reunite the FDR Democratic coalition and turn “Tricky Dick” into a one-term president.

“Muskie ran his campaign based on Marquess of Queensberry rules. They were into dirty tricks and political sabotage,” said Billings. The White House plumbers helped re-elect Nixon, but were his ultimate unraveling.

“You can pretty much trace the decline among Americans in their respect for governance to Watergate. If a president of Muskie’s ethical stature, who truly believed in bipartisanship and integrity in government, had served two terms during that period we might have delayed the current levels of public cynicism for a decade or more,” said Billings.

Billings thinks Muskie, who saw firsthand during his 1968 vice-presidential candidacy with Hubert Humphrey how Vietnam had divided the country, would have “come to an earlier closure on the war” than Nixon. The former aide doubts Muskie would have made Jimmy Carter’s miscalculation of bringing the shah of Iran to the United States for medical treatment, an incident that led to the hostage crisis and an oil embargo.

“We’re talking about a guy who had by this time compiled a 30-year career in high political office. He had a substantial view of world and American history, and was the epitomy of caution,” said Billings.

One important issue Muskie advanced even while losing was environmental protection. Confronted with the possibility of Muskie as the 1972 Democratic nominee, Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency. With Muskie out of the picture, Billings pointed out, Nixon vetoed the Clean Water Act, the first significant environmental bill to come out of Congress, which coincidentally was written by Muskie.

Would Muskie have gone to China? Billings concedes Nixon was “uniquely positioned” to make that bold move. The U.S. Supreme Court would have a decidedly different philosophical tilt today had Muskie been the one nominating judges, Billings noted.

A successful Muskie presidency would have changed the national Democratic Party. Muskie signaled that intention in a groundbreaking speech to New York’s Liberal Party in 1970. In that address, the Maine senator scolded liberals for believing that federal appropriations were the solution for all the country’s social and economic problems. As the Senate’s first Budget Committee chairman, Muskie argued for a balanced federal budget back when most Democrats were scornful of the idea.

Billings said a successful Muskie presidency would have left a big imprint on the state. Muskie saw himself as a national senator, so it’s not probable he would have spent his political capital channeling federal pork to Maine as Lyndon Johnson did for Texas during the previous decade, the aide said. There probably would have been no nuclear aircraft carrier contracts for BIW.

“But there would be a pride in the politics of a Muskie presidency that still would be echoing throughout Maine,” Billings said.

And perhaps, a completely different political landscape.

A 1970s presidency would have drawn a generation of Maine Democrats to Muskie’s “Camelot North” White House scene. Rather than running for governor and losing in 1972, George Mitchell more likely would have begun his national career a decade earlier in the Muskie Cabinet, thereby positioning himself for his own White House bid in the 1980s or early 1990s.

We might be talking, I think, about Jim Longley Sr., Bill Cohen, Olympia Snowe and Angus King as significant Democratic political figures had history been a little kinder to Big Ed.

Such are the rules of counterfactualism. — WASHINGTON John Day’s e-mail address is zanadume@aol.com

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