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Mark Shields: Sen. Ed Muskie of Maine Was a Masterful Legislator

In 1976, Rep. Bill Cohen, who was a rising young Republican star, seriously considered running for the Senate against three-term incumbent Sen. Ed Muskie, who was the first Democrat in Maine history whom voters had ever elected to the Senate.

Cohen had encouraging poll numbers and significant pledges of support. Two years later, he would win the first of his three Senate terms, before leaving to become defense secretary in President Bill Clinton’s second term. But in 1976, Cohen chose not to challenge Muskie (who, that November, easily won a fourth term). This is how Cohen later explained his decision: “I knew that ... even if I were to win — which was always in doubt — the state of Maine and this country would not have been well-served. He was by far a superior man, and history has proven that to be the case.” You don’t often hear senators or defense secretaries talking that way about a rival.

The case for Muskie is indeed a strong one. Before he became a senator in 1959, there were no national laws to protect the nation’s air or its water. There was no national environmental movement. America’s air was unhealthy, and America’s water was polluted. Before Muskie, nearly three-fourths of U.S. rivers were unswimmable and unfishable. The Great Lakes, truly the greatest freshwater blessing on the planet, were dying. In too many places, the foul air was a threat to the lungs of a child and to the life of a community.

Because of the political and public consensus Muskie was able to forge and the laws he was able to craft, all of that was changed in less than two decades. The Great Lakes were saved. Ninety-five percent of the lead was removed from our air, and two-thirds of U.S. rivers were made swimmable and fishable. What a legacy — to leave your country healthier, safer and more responsible.

How did Muskie do it? He had a first-rate intellect, but so do many people. He would consistently out-work, out-reason and, if necessary, out-wait any opposition. “If you want to be heard,” he said, “you must be willing to listen.” This helped him win the cooperation and support of important Republican colleagues, including Sens. Howard Baker of Tennessee, James Buckley of New York and John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky.

For example, in writing the Clean Water Act of 1972, Muskie’s committee held 33 days of hearings and took testimony from 171 witnesses. His committee met 45 times to consider and vote upon the provisions of the law, and after Senate passage, Muskie led 39 conferences with the House of Representatives to resolve remaining differences. So persistent and so persuasive was Muskie that when President Richard Nixon vetoed the bill, the Senate unanimously followed Muskie’s lead and overrode Nixon’s veto by a 74-0 vote.

His effectiveness was probably composed of 90 percent preparation and 10 percent inspiration. Nobody knew the subject better, which made him a master legislator but turned out to be a handicap for him as a presidential candidate, where the capacity to distill, even simplify, complex issues into understandable and popular shorthand is so frequently rewarded. Muskie’s compulsive thoroughness was derided as indecisiveness.

About Ed Muskie, who was born the son of a Polish immigrant father exactly a century ago and who almost certainly would have been a better president than he was a candidate, let it be said: He invariably knew what he was talking about; he didn’t say it if he didn’t believe it; and he left his country much better than he found it.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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