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Edmund Muskie, Joe Biden, and Political Illusions, a personal narrative
July 10, 2019
by William P. Meyers

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Why I Presume Joe Biden Will Fail

There were 20 Democratic Party 2020 Presidential Primary candidates on stage at the recent debates. The leading candidate in the polls is Joe Biden. There are many other would-be candidates that did not make the threshold for being in the debates. This is the biggest pool of candidates since 1972. There were 15 declared candidates in 1972. I have memories of 1972 that I will share because I think they are relevant today.

In 1972 I turned 17, but I was just 16 years old when the jockeying began. I was living in Jacksonville, Florida. I had been raised in a racist, patriarchal, military, religiously conservative family. Back then that means we were Democrats. But (I like to think it was intelligence, but it was also rebelling against my parents) I was rapidly turning into a liberal, as were many southern Democrats, particularly young people.

In the summer of 1971 I decided to support Birch Bayh, but he dropped out of the race. By then at my high school support had solidified around two candidates: one was George McGovern, who would eventually become the nominee and lose to incumbent President Richard Nixon. The other was George Wallace, a well-known racist with populist program. There was very little support for Edmund Muskie, the alleged frontrunner who had been on the losing ticket as VP in 1968. I liked Muskie, but it was cooler to support McGovern.

My high school had an assembly where some of us gave speeches for the various candidates. I was assigned John Lindsay, the mayor of New York City. I worked hard on my speech. I don't know how the delivery came off. Thankfully, back then, there were not even video cameras, much swarms of cell phones to record with. I almost convinced myself to support Lindsay.

You have probably never read a book called Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 by Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. Thompson was not a doctor, he was a drug addict who covered the campaign for Rolling Stone Magazine. For a political book it was quite popular at the time. In it Thompson describes what I call the Muskie Death Train. Some idiot on Muskie's staff convinced him to imitate President Harry Truman by doing a train whistle stop tour of Florida, giving speeches from the back of the train.

The tour started in Jacksonville, my home town. It so happens that the sons of one of the most powerful Democrats in Florida, Frederick Schultz, went to my high school. He was supporting Muskie and arranged to allow any Senior student off who wanted to go to the Muskie launch. Let's see, Muskie or classes? A bunch of us went, maybe twenty or thirty. I remember noting at the time that none of us was actually supporting Muskie. But who knows, maybe a good speech would change that.

We milled around for a while at the back of the train. Who else was there? One union guy with a Muskie sign. The cameras from the local TV stations and a couple of reporters.

Muskie came out and gave a speech. I listened. I was not moved. I went back to school. No one who went changed their mind about who to support.

The War in Vietnam was still raging. People were marching in the streets, against the draft, for civil rights, for this and that. In Iowa Muskie won the caucuses, but George McGovern made a strong showing. Muskie barely won the New Hampshire primary.

Muskie won a few states before his final collapse. George Wallace won Florida and several other states. A black woman, Shirley Chisholm, won three states. But in the end it was a battle between Hubert Humphrey representing the centrists and McGovern representing the left. McGovern won, but was slaughtered by Richard Nixon. Who would have won anyway, but had to resign because of his initiating and then covering up the Watergate burglary.

What I learned at the age of 17 is that political illusions can be propped up by small numbers of people and chance events. Those illusions can disappear overnight. Muskie did have real support, he had some positives, but he could not excite people. His basic mistake was trying to defend the Establishment when the People were tired of the bullshit.

Sound familiar?

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