The pivotal moment in Ed Muskie’s long political career never happened, say some who were there.
It was a snowy February morning shortly before the 1972 New Hampshire primary, and Democratic front-runner Muskie was in Manchester denouncing the conservative Union Leader newspaper for running an attack on his wife.
Television footage shows clearly that Muskie choked up. But whether he cried, as news organizations including Time magazine, The New York Times and The Associated Press reported, is still debated.
Boston Globe reporter John Milne, then New Hampshire bureau chief for United Press International, said Tuesday that unlike most of the horde of reporters present, he, AP reporter Joe Zellner and the late Richard Strout of the Christian Science Monitor and The New Republic were standing right next to the flatbed truck from which Muskie spoke.
“I was right at Muskie’s shoes, so at the time he sort of chokes up, I’m doing the old wire service thing of watching carefully for tears because I know it’s important for us to say, ‘Did he cry or didn’t he?”’ Milne recalled. “And I don’t think he did.”
Others who were there are equally insistent that Muskie did indeed cry.
Zellner could not be located Tuesday. But Charles Brereton, author of a history of the New Hampshire primary, said Zellner, in trying to reconcile the differing accounts, learned that Muskie’s own campaign apparently contributed to the belief that Muskie shed tears.
“I was told by a couple of correspondents that they asked a Muskie aide if he was crying and they were told yes. It was going to be a plus to show him human in that way,” Brereton quoted Zellner as saying in his book, “First in the Nation.”
Early on, there were signs the incident would benefit Muskie, Brereton wrote. But Muskie’s performance soon was cited as evidence he was unstable.
Mark Kuhn, a professor of communications at the University of New Hampshire, said whether Muskie shed tears is largely beside the point. What did Muskie in, Kuhn said, was the perception that he was out of control.
Politicians, including presidents, actually cry, or become teary-eyed and emotional, fairly frequently, Kuhn said. He cited President Reagan in a speech about the Challenger explosion and President Bush talking about his decision to send U.S. troops into the Gulf War.
Kuhn said the public accepts that sort of “empathetic” crying: “In a sense, they’re crying for all of us as opposed to crying for themselves.”