September 28, 2023

Dubious Moments in Primary History: “New Hampshire – 1972: ‘The Canuck Letter’”

There’s no crying in baseball, as Tom Hanks once said, and since there’s no baseball in Maine (excepting, of course, the great Irv Ray), Maine Senator Edmund Muskie apparently never got the memo.

The 1972 Presidential Race and possibly the course of history turned on March 7, 1972, when Democratic Presidential front-runner Ed Muskie held a press conference in front of the Manchester Union Leader in Manchester, New Hampshire where his emotions got the best of him and the press took his candidacy out behind the barn and shot it in the back of the head like a sick old dog.

Muskie was there that day to defend himself against a letter that had been published in the Union Leader on February 24 claiming that Muskie had made an insensitive allusion to our Canadian brothers and sisters to the north, and their Franco-American brethren in the United States. The letter’s writer–one “Paul Morrison of Deerfield Beach, Florida”–claimed to have asked Muskie and his staff how the Senator could understand the concerns of African-Americans when his own state was as white as a Pat Boone concert. According to the writer, a staffer got a chuckle out of Muskie when he said, “Not blacks, but we have Cannocks (sp).”

The Union Leader publisher, William Loeb, was no friend of the Muskie campaign, and may or may not have known that the letter was most likely a forgery. Loeb had once called the Senator, “Moscow Muskie” and had allegedly made unflattering remarks about Mrs. Muskie, “Paul Morrison” was never found, and it was discovered during the Watergate investigation that the letter was likely the product of the Creative Services division of CREEP–Nixon’s delightfully named “Committee to Re-Elect the President”. Polls taken the previous year showed Muskie beating Nixon by eight points in the 1972 election.

On a snowy Saturday morning in March the candidate gathered before the press to deny the incident described in the letter and to assail Loeb and the Union Leader for its hand in the affair. The moment quickly degenerated into an embarrassing spectacle for a man already suspected as being perhaps too temperamental to be the leader of the United States of America. Muskie railed against the newspaper and Loeb, calling the publisher “a gutless coward” for bringing Mrs. Muskie into the fray. His voice began to crack and newspapers and television reporters would later describe the Senator “weeping silently” and “tears streaming down his face”. Veteran political reporter David Broder wrote, “Muskie broke down three times in as many minutes–uttering a few words, and then standing silent…while he attempted to regain his composure sufficiently to speak.”

Muskie attempted to defend himself, saying that his voice was cracking from anger, and that the “tears” were actually snowflakes melting on his face. But the damage was done, and the man who had only four years before come within a few hundred thousand votes of becoming Vice President of the United States, and who was already favored to defeat Richard Nixon in the fall election, was finished as a contender for the Presidency.