On Sunday, May 18, at 2p.m., author James Witherell will be at the Bethel Inn to present a free program and to sign copies of his new book, “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine, 1914-1960.” The event is being sponsored by the Bethel Historical Society as part of its 2014 lecture series. Witherell’s insightful and well-researched biography is the first on Muskie to appear in the past two decades and captures in intimate detail how the man who would craft the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act and become the architect of America’s environmental protections was shaped by formative influences, and how he shaped himself.
The arc of Edmund “Ed” Muskie’s life from modest beginnings to future greatness was singular and unpredictable – an American story that looks plausible only in hindsight. Commemorating the hundredth anniversary of Muskie’s birth in Rumford on March 28, 1914, the book chronicles his life and career through his two terms as Maine’s governor. It reveals how he was shaped by his Polish heritage – he spoke only Polish until age 4 – and his Rumford boyhood to be a Democratic governor in a Republican state and then the father of the modern-day environmental movement. Jim Witherell – Rumford-born like Muskie – is also the author of “L.L. BEAN: THE MAN AND HIS COMPANY” (Tilbury House, 2011).
One of six children of a Polish immigrant tailor and a Polish-American mother, Muskie was trained by his father to take over the family’s tailor shop, but he seemed nevertheless to have understood from boyhood that he had another destiny to fulfill. He overcame his shyness by force of will to become a champion debater in high school, and then scraped his way through college and law school in the Great Depression, never sure in late summer whether he could pay for the fall term.
According to author Witherell, Muskie was a Roman Catholic among Protestants and a Democrat in a state so dominated by Republicans that, he used to joke, the Democrats in Maine could caucus in a phone booth. Muskie’s desire for higher office in postwar Maine seemed unrealistic to contemporary observers, yet he became the state’s first Democratic governor in twenty years – and only the second since World War I – while rebuilding Maine’s Democratic Party along the way. Craggy, plain-spoken, physically imposing with his lanky six-foot-four frame, Ed Muskie was often called Lincolnesque, an adjective that stuck because it fit so well, though he came to hate it. He was gruff, funny, and self-deprecating – quick to anger in the face of unreasonableness but just as quick to forgive – and so obviously honest and well-intended that his popularity soared during his years as governor, and, as a result, he became the first-ever Democratic U.S. senator elected in Maine.