Reporters saw tears. Campaign aides said it was melted snow. While they disagreed over what exactly happened that February day in 1972, all now agree that Edmund S. Muskie's emotional outburst that snowy morning helped to ruin his presidential bid.
Earlier that year, the Maine senator was the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. A two-term governor of Maine before joining the Senate, Muskie gained national recognition as the vice presidential candidate in Hubert Humphrey's unsuccessful 1968 presidential race. And with a 6-foot-4-inch frame, he had an imposing and intellectual presence that drew comparisons to Abraham Lincoln. "We thought he was the only one that could most easily beat Nixon," says Barry Wanger, Muskie's New Hampshire press secretary.
And then came what Muskie himself later called "a watershed incident." A few weeks before the New Hampshire primary, William Loeb, the influential, conservative publisher of the Manchester Union Leader newspaper, ran two scathing pieces. An editorial accused Muskie of using an ethnic slur against French-Americans, a large voting bloc. Loeb published as evidence a letter from a Florida man that would later be determined a hoax planted by the Nixon White House. The next day Loeb implied that Muskie's wife took an unladylike pleasure in drinking and telling jokes.
Exhausted by the campaign but furious over the accusations, Muskie organized a press conference in front of the Union Leader offices. During a morning snowstorm, with shoulders heaving and voice breaking, Muskie called Loeb a "gutless coward" for attacking his wife. Muskie denied that he cried at that press conference. Any water on Muskie's face was melted snow, aides would say, but the damage was done. National newspaper reporters wrote that he wept, and many voters wondered if Muskie had the strength and composure to run the nation. Muskie would go on to win the New Hampshire primary, but it was Sen. George McGovern's strong performance that made headlines. For Muskie, it was the beginning of the end.
Coming in fourth in the Florida primary in March sealed Muskie's fate, and he withdrew the following month. McGovern would go on to take the Democratic nomination, only to lose in a landslide to Nixon that November.
In 1972, Sen. Thomas Eagleton lasted 18 days as Sen. George McGovern's running mate after admitting he had received electroshock therapy for depression. "It seemed a foregone conclusion to people that such a person could never be a heartbeat from the presidency," says Paul Applebaum, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University. Party pressure forced Eagleton out; he was replaced by R. Sargent Shriver, a former ambassador to France. McGovern's fans blamed Eagleton for his 49-state loss to Richard M. Nixon.