Barry Wanger

Doom can occur in blink of an eye

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Barry Wanger
November 30, 2007

Today the Globe op-ed page begins a series that will appear over the next several weeks on pivotal moments in New Hampshire presidential primary history.

WHILE followers of Senator Hillary Clinton rejoice in the latest poll results showing her with a strong lead in the New Hampshire presidential primary, it is much too early to declare victory.

The situation can change quickly and dramatically at any moment.

Just ask those of us who stood near Senator Edmund S. Muskie, as he stood on a flatbed truck in front of the Manchester Union-Leader on a snowy winter day in the 1972 primary in an event that changed the course of the campaign and, arguably, kept President Richard M. Nixon in the White House.

It was Feb. 26 - less than two weeks before the primary and we were at a choreographed visit outside the newspaper. We were concerned. The onetime clear front-runner was dropping quickly in the polls - from 71 percent to 54 percent in just one week as voters started focusing on the election and Senator George McGovern's campaign began picking up immense momentum through a strong grassroots effort.

Muskie's senior campaign staff had been talking for weeks about the senator's inability to connect with voters on an emotional level. Most of his speeches were solid but dry, nothing like his speech about a month before in which he talked passionately about racism.

So, when the ultra-conservative Union-Leader printed a front-page editorial on Feb. 24 charging him inaccurately with making a derogatory remark about Franco-Americans, we viewed it as an opportunity to correct the libelous charge, prevent erosion from supporters in the state's large Franco-American population, and reignite the campaign with a blast at the newspaper's publisher and some fiery remarks about racism.

It did not work out exactly as planned.

While the senator, who was widely known for having a bit of a temper, was not pleased with the editorial attacking him, we were not prepared for his anger at an editorial that appeared in the Union-Leader on Feb. 25, the same day he returned to New Hampshire from a campaign visit in Florida, the next important primary after the Granite State's.

The editorial, over the three-column headline "Big Daddy's Jane," criticized the senator's wife, Jane, and reprinted a gossipy item that ran in Newsweek a few months earlier about how she allegedly told reporters "let's tell dirty jokes" and "pass me my purse - I haven't had my morning cigarette yet." The candidate did not think that was funny.

"I've been in politics," Muskie told the assembled crowd of some 100 people. "I'm no child. What really got me was this editorial attacking my wife. This man (Loeb) doesn't walk, he crawls," the senator charged. A good woman. . ."

And then it happened . . . the famous "crying" incident.

Did he weep or break down, as was widely reported? No way. I was standing less than 10 feet away and was watching intently.

Did he shed a tear or two in frustration and anger? Very possibly. Was wet stuff falling down his Lincolnesque face? Sure. It was snowing and he wasn't wearing a hat. It was also Saturday, a slow news day, only 11 days before the election, and it certainly was different than his normal stump speech.

Some of us on the campaign staff thought he scored a home run. He was passionate and human, such a contrast from the cold fish in the White House. Man, were we wrong. Maybe we were naive, but we were surprised the next morning when the story hit the front pages of The Washington Post and The Boston Globe, among others.

The Post wrote: "Muskie stood in the snow. . . choked and weeping, all his years of self-discipline shattered. . .." The liberal New Republic later said he "broke down" and the conservative National Review said he "blew his top" and "broke into tears." Loeb called it a "near hysterical performance." It was pack journalism at its worst.

The impact was immediate. A poll we took in Florida the next week showed more voters were concerned about the crying incident than his stand on school busing, a particular hot issue that year. Remember, this was an era in which men weren't supposed to cry, particularly in public and especially if they were running for president of the United States.

By Election Day, we were down to 46 percent, still the winner (McGovern was second with 37 percent), but the politicos and media had been saying all along we needed to do better than 50 percent to win.

Campaign funds immediately slowed to a trickle and Muskie was widely perceived to be a loser. Unfortunately, it was the country that lost.

Barry Wanger, who was Senator Muskie's New Hampshire press secretary, is president of Wanger Associates, a public-relations agency in Newton.

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