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Jane Gray Muskie, 77; Senator's Wife Figured in Key Moment of '72 Primary

December 29, 2004|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Jane Gray Muskie, the widow of Sen. Edmund Muskie, whose 1972 presidential campaign faltered after he appeared to weep while denouncing newspaper attacks against her, has died. She was 77.

Muskie died Saturday at her home in Bethesda, Md., of Alzheimer's disease. Her husband died of a heart attack in 1996.

The incident that derailed the senator's bid for the Democratic presidential nomination -- regarded as a historic example of how a presidential candidate could at one time be undone by displaying emotion -- occurred before the New Hampshire primary. The conservative Manchester Union Leader and its publisher William Loeb had accused Sen. Muskie of making ethnic slurs and said his wife, in an article reprinted from Newsweek and the Wall Street Journal, had used colorful language in the campaign. The Union Leader headlined the item about Jane Muskie: "Big Daddy's Jane."

"By attacking me and my wife," the senator said of Loeb in a speech atop a flatbed truck outside the newspaper, "he has proved himself to be a gutless coward."

The liberal candidate denied referring to French-Canadians as "Canucks" and vehemently defended his wife, choking up several times.

The Washington Post asserted that Muskie cried during the speech, and Republicans seized on the report to float claims that Muskie was emotionally unstable and unfit to be leader of the free world. Other news media, including the New York Times and Associated Press (whose report was printed by the Los Angeles Times) repeated the story that Muskie broke into tears.

Muskie insisted until his death, with support from many reporters and other observers, that the shiny liquid seen on his face was not tears but melting snowflakes.

Nevertheless, the campaign was doomed. Democratic rival and then-Sen. George McGovern won the nomination, and lost the general election to incumbent Republican President Richard M. Nixon.

Ironically, tears visibly streamed down the face of President Bush during a 1999 CNN interview when the then-Texas governor spoke of Texas A&M students who were killed as they set up logs for a bonfire. Times had changed.

"Now it's quite acceptable for a man to show his emotions," Jane Muskie told The Times in 1986. "President Reagan does it all the time."

She said the remarks prompting the news story that upset her husband were made on a press bus filled with women reporters traveling in New Hampshire. In an unguarded moment, she said in the 1986 Times interview, she referred to liquor as "booze," called her husband "Big Daddy," and suggested to pass the time, "Let's tell dirty jokes."

"I know those remarks were taken out of context," she said in the interview. "They should never have been reported. But since they were, I don't feel apologetic about them.... It is something that will live with us until we die and we accept that. I'm not happy driving through Manchester, N.H., even today."

A native of Waterville, Maine, Jane Gray married Muskie, 12 years her senior, in 1948, two years after he had been elected to the Maine House of Representatives. She was 19 and working in a Waterville dress shop when she met him at an American Veterans of World War II party. As local Amvets commander, the lawyer and politician invited several people to his house afterward, and asked his future wife for their first date when he drove her home.

She campaigned with him and supported him through terms in the Maine Legislature, as Maine governor and U.S. senator, when he ran unsuccessfully for vice president with Hubert Humphrey in 1968, and during his appointment as secretary of State under President Jimmy Carter.

"Most of my married life has been political," she once told The Times.

In 1986, Jane Muskie and Abigail McCarthy, the wife of another failed presidential candidate, Sen. Eugene McCarthy, wrote the novel "One Woman Lost" about a political wife battling corruption and terrorism.

Muskie, who had five children, will be buried next to her husband in Arlington National Cemetery.

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