Muskie -- 'Sitting in a spaceship looking at the world'

Heavy with fatigue, th secretary of state stumbled into his empty town house, laid down his briefing papers, and glumly thought of dinner. With his family at home on vacation in Maine and he in Washington, Secretary of State Edmund S. Muskie was cooking for himself. A TV dinner. After that, there was the two-inch pile of briefing papers to plow through.

According to family members, this was a typical down-beat ending to Mr. Muskie's first long and arduous days as secretary of state.

Indeed, if you focused exclusively on the former senator's early, complaints about his new job, you might be led to believe that he hated it. There was the endless stream of foreign ministers and ambassadors from more than 100 countries to contend with, complex negotiation over the placing of a comma, and rarely enough time to stop and think.

About a month ago, a widely read press report indicated that Mr. Muskie was tired of his new job and would quit as secretary of state even if President Carter was re-elected. Mr. Muskie and his spokesmen denied the report, but it left an impression that is erroneous.

Despite all his complaints -- and he actually has fewer of them now than he did earlier on -- Mr. Muskie is thriving at his new job.

With a little less than six months in office, Mr. Muskie clearly believes that he can accomplish things as a diplomat. But he also thinks that as a veteran politician he can explain the mysteries of foreign affairs to the American people in ways they will understand. On most days, he works from early in the morning until late at night at his dual task: not only conducting diplomacy but also explaining it.

On a recent clear, autumn day, Ed Muskie boarded a small TriStar executive jet to fly to Chicago for a series of speeches and other public appearances. In the course of more than an hour-long interview with this reporter aboard the plane, the secretary fo state seemed slightly amused at Republican Party critics who have accused him of defending the Carter administration's foreign policy in a partisan way during the presidential election campaign.

Mr. Muskie thinks that there are foreign policy issues that clearly divide this administration from its adversaries and that the secretary of state should not hesitate to talk about those differences while public attention is at a peak. He thinks that having a politician as secretary of state can be a good thing, and points out that it was once not so unusual. During the nation's first 100 years, many secretaries of state came from the US Senate.

Mr. Muskie sees his new job as a place where he can grow and test himself. At the Senate, he seems to have been getting into a bit of a rut. But he sometimes gives the impression that he still cannot quite believe that he is secretary of state. Not so many years ago, he says, he never would have imagined in his wildest dreams that he would be holding the nation's top diplomatic job.

"There's no job I'd rather have," he says, adding: "You have the feeling you're sitting on a spaceship, looking at the whole world. . . . It's a 24 -hour-a-day job."

A typical day for Ed Muskie begins when he rises around 5 a.m. He works out for about half an hour on an exercise machine. He does some reading and gets to his office on the seventh floor of the huge state department building between 7 and 7:30 a.m. He usually returns home about 12 hours later, but the day does not end there. He almost always has more reading to do. If you add it up, it frequently comes to a 14- to 15-hour workday. According to his wife, Jane, Mr. Muskie often "falls asleep with some big black briefing book on his chest."

"I'm working harder but enjoying it mre," Muskie likes to say.

His relaxation consists largely of occasional trips to Maine, where, at his summer home, he does some of the gardening.

Secretary Muskie does not look or sound like most people's idea of a traditional diplomat. But he does share a certain caution with many diplomats. He avoids quick and easy answers. He turns questions over in his mind before answering, giving each one careful consideration.

When Mr. Muskie ran for president in 1972, he was often accused of indecision. But aides say that he is a man of reflection rather than indecision. Despite his reputed temper, he is also a patient man. When he does grow impatient, according to one aide, it is more often with himself than with others. He is also a very private, introspective man, but one who is convinced of the values of public debate.

If there is any sign of indecisiveness in Mr. Muskie's physical appearance, it is in his big hands. As he speaks, his left hand flutters constantly along the rim of the airplane window, perhaps betraying a sensitivity that cannot be seen in his rough-hewn, granitelike face. Standing at a height of 6 feet 4, with that face which is as rugged as the coastline of his native Maine, Mr. Muskie is an imposing figure. Someone once said that he could intimidate Mt. Rushmore.

But State Department officials who work directly with Mr. Muskie say that they have rarely seen any sign of his famous temper. Friends and family members say that he does occasionally explode in anger but that once he does so, that's the end of it. He does not hold a grudge. And, they say, he has never let his temper affect his judgment on public issues.

"It's always been exaggerted," Mr. Muskie says of his temper. "But whatever it is, it's still there. . . . I can moderate it, I can use it, I can lose it."

Mr. Muskie can be combative when he is taking on hecklers, as he has had to do in the course of two recent public appearnces. It is not the temper, however , but the moderate, dignified side of Mr. Muskie that the public sees for the most part. And according to a White House official, it is that measured side of Mr. Muskie which has given him more credibility at the moment than any other high-ranking official in the Carter administration.

"I'll never be a diplomat," Mr. Muskie says, adding that he does not believe that diplomacy should be the monopoly of some "mystic priesthood" of specialists who keep themselves aloof from the people.

His protestations to the contrary, Mr. Muskie may be the consummate diplomat in one sense: As governor of the state of Maine and later as its senator, one of his specialties was taking diverse views and blending them into a consensus. As a Democrat in the once solidly Republican Maine, he had to learn to talk effectively to his Republican opponents and to take account of their views. He needed Republican cooperation to run the state.

Mr. Muskie thinks that the State Department has been too often cut off not only from the public but also from other institutions of government. One of his tasks, he often says, is to "bring the State Department back into the government." He sees a need for diplomacy both at home and abroad.

In his overseas diplomacy, Mr. Muskie has done little so far to distinguish his approach from that of his predecessor, Cyrus R. VAnce, a man whose views he apparently shares to a great extent.The last six months of any administrative term is hardly the time for innovation. Mr. Muskie thinks nonetheless that he has accomplished a few things, mostly in the area of lowering tensions between the United States and its allies and the US and its adversaries.

One of his first priorities was to bring about a greater harmony of views between the US and its leading allies.

"You don't hear as much about alliance disarray as you did before, do you?" Secretary Muskie says. He has made great efforts to consult frequently with foreign ministers of the allied nations.

He thinks that it was partly thanks to his efforts that the nine members of the European Community "moderated" their Mideast initiative of earlier this year so that it would not detract from the American-sponsored Camp David peace process.

He takes some of the credit for "de-dramatizing" the Iranian hostage issue at one point so that it could not be so easily manipulated by the Iranians. He played a leading role in resuming communications with the Soviet Union after their disruption as a result of the Soviet invasin of Afghanistan. He is a leader in the push for ratification of the SALT II treaty with the Soviets.

In Mr. Muskie's view, the US must learn to avoid the extremes of being overly optimistic or overly pessimistic when it comes to its place in the world and its relative standing vis-a-vis the Soviet Union. He thinks that Americans have a tendency to speak either in "apocalyptic terms or in overly optimistic terms" about the world.

"Sometimes we expect too much, and, as a result, we try too little," he says.

To the pessimists, he says, "The world today is really not all that bad."

"We just hear more about it," he continues, because of television and rapid communications.

This does not mean that the secretary of state is complacent about the way things are going. When it comes to the Soviets, he is for firmness but is opposed to alarmism. When it comes to American attitudes in general, he has long been concerned about a certain erosion of public confidence which he thinks the nation suffered largely as a result of the Vietnam war.As he sees it, Watergate intensified that erosion, and there is no easy answer to rebuilding trust and confidence.

"There has been a growing distrust of politics and government," he says. "You don't have that feeling of comity that we once had. . . . It's an intangible thing . . . something like trust. . . . We have got to recapture it.'

As one of his former aides put it, Mr. Muskie found a sense of place and community in Maine that he feels much of the rest of the country, at least, has lost. But for Mr. Muskie, one of the greatest strengths of the US is that it remains a land of opportunity. As he put it in his book "Journeys" nearly a decade ago: "Our example was best set not by attempts to impose our system on others but by offering the model of a people living in reasonable harmony, which was reassuring to others who found in it hope and a chance for their own improvement. It was hope that brought 40 million immigrants on a journey to this country, and hope that animated the nation itself.

"The basic forces that create history -- and that will have an even greater impact in the years ahead -- are the elemental needs and emotions of hunger, hatred, love, fear, and frustration. These are the forces that move the vast majority of people on this planet. It will not be sophisticated considerations, power diplomacy, chess games, or cold-war relationships that determine people's attitudes about war and peace or drive them toward either."

Secretary Muskie's belief that the US is a land of opportunity derives as much as anything else from personal experience. His immigrant father's success in building a new life for a wife and six children in the grimy, paper mill town of Rumford, Maine, helped to forge that belief.

And Mr. Muskie's interest in foreign affairs came in part from his father, Stephen, a tailor who left Poland at the age of 17 to escape conscription in the czarist army. Stephen Marciszewski taught himself to read and write English. When he applied for American citizenship, he changed his name to Muskie.

Secretary Muskie's early experience in Maine was not always pleasant, however. There was widespread prejudice in the state against East Europeans when he was growing up. The young Muskie was shy, and sensitive to the jeers he received at school.

Thanks to encouragement from a high school English teacher, the scholarly and withdrawn boy got into debating, and that helped him to combat his shyness.

In the end, Maine gave Mr. Muskie a great deal. In their book "Muskie," Theo Lippmann Jr. and Donald E. Hansen say that through his life in Maine, as well as through his later political career, Mr. Muskie developed a devotion to "old traditions, institutions and values -- family, church, party, government, citizen army; trust, cooperation, compromise."

"For better or worse," the two authors say, Mr. Muskie is "the legatee of a slow maturation in the town-meeting and bitter-winters environment of poor, little, sturdy Maine."

Because many of Muskie's ideas about foreign policy appeared similar to those of Mr. Vance, his appointment as secretary of state served to help reassure America's allies that there would be no lurching in directins set out by Mr. Carter's national-security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski. Mr. Brzezinski is widely regarded in Europe as an impulsive man who is to much of a "hard-liner" in his attitude toward the dealings with the Soviet Union.

It is now apparent, however, that the appointment of Mr. Muskie did not end the rivalry that has been rampant in the Carter administration between the State Department and the National Security Council staff, which is headed by Mr. Brzezinski. President Carter's own ambivalence and hesitations tend to encourage such a split. Despite Mr. Muskie's oftstated desire to be the principal spokesman on foreign affairs, the President continues to let Mr. Brzezinski speak out publicly from time to time on his behalf.

Both Brzezinski and Muskie tend to minimize any differences they may have whenever they are asked about reported disagreements.

"Muskie's too busy being secretary of state to get preoccupied with all that, " one of his aides says.

Mr. Muskie does not like placing political labels on other people or on himself. When asked recently by a newspaper columnist whether he was a liberal or a conservative, he declared that he was a centrist. He would certainly object to efforts that are made to place him to one political side or another in relationship to Brzezinski. One of his biographers, David Nevin, described him as "an idealist who approaches his ends in practical ways."

One reason he is enjoying his work as secretary of state is that he was ready for a change. As chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, Mr. Muskie was engaged in constant battle with his fellow senators.

"Do you think I want to be the Senate accountant for the rest of my life?" he once remarked to a Senate aide.

"By comparison with what he was doing in the Senate, he's absolutely ecstatic over this job," Jane Muskie says. "He really loved the US Senate, but he was at the point where the Senate was getting a little boring. He was tired of fighting over the budget. The other senators were all for the budget in principle -- but not when it came to their own projects."

The job of secretary of state has offered a new challenge to Mr. Muskie's restless mind. Foreign affairs was always his first love, but when he first got to the Senate, he managed to offend Lyndon B. Johnson, who was then Senate majority leader. Mr. Johnson saw to it that Muskie was kept off the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The new senator got stuck with what one aide describes as "two dogs of subcommittees" -- Intergovernmental Relations and Environmental Pollution. He did pioneering work on both of them. Now, he has got his chance to immerse himself in foreign affairs.

Whether or not Mr. Muskie makes a major contribution as secretary of state remains very much to be seen, and depends, of course, on whether President Carter is re-elected.

In the business of bureaucratic infighting, Brzezinski retains a number of advantages. He is the first man to brief the President each day. And some politically oriented White House officials seem to think that the tough-sounding Brzezinski may be more in tune with the public attitudes toward the Soviet Union than was Secretary Vance or is Secretary Muskie.

Like Mr. Vance, Mr. Muskie is a lawyer, a pragmatist, and a problem-solver. Despite tough rhetoric emanating from the White House, Mr. Muskie's instinct is to look for openings that might lead to negotiation with the Soviets. While Brzezinski is quick to form an opinion or make a proposal, Mr. Muskie is a man who likes to question and reflect before he leaps.He is constantly asking, "What will the consequences be?"

Charles Micoleau, former administrative assistant to Mr. Muskie in the Senate , says that Mr. Muskie takes a "long, almost Oriental view toward many things . . . he's always asking, 'Why is this such a good idea?' What will be taken as vacillation and an unnecessary refusal to commit is just a matter of Mr. Muskie's patience and his sense of timing. . . . He's best when he's focused on the long haul."

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