Remembering Secretary Muskie

WHEN Edmund S. Muskie died on March 26, the tributes spoke warmly and accurately of his service as a United States senator and, especially, of his contributions to cleaner air and water. His shorter but equally distinguished service as secretary of state is also worthy of tribute.

From May 5, 1980 until Jan. 20, 1981, it was my privilege to serve as his undersecretary of state for political affairs.

Senator (he preferred being called Senator) Muskie came to the Department of State at a difficult time. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, highly respected in the department, had resigned over the rescue attempt in the Iranian desert. Fifty-two US diplomats remained hostage. Relations with the Soviet Union were tense; the Washington debate over Russian policy was unresolved. State Department personnel wondered about the new boss coming from that other government on "the Hill."

The new secretary quickly dispelled doubts. In his first meeting, jokes obviously honed by years on the campaign trail in Maine relieved the tension. After being sworn in, Muskie called for a series of meetings with officers responsible for various geographic areas. He wanted to hear their views on current policies. Bureaucratically skeptical, many officers first wanted to know "where he was coming from." They soon found out he really did want to hear other views; some of the freshest discussions of policy issues resulted.

Muskie's domestic political roots were part of his everyday life. His heart was always in Maine, where he had been governor and legislator. Veterans of his political campaign and Senate staffs like Leon Billings, now in the Maryland legislature, came with him to the department. He used to say that "the role of secretary of state was politics on a global scale." Ties to Senate colleagues remained close but were tempered by a recognition that his role as a policymaker in the executive branch carried different responsibilities.

He found the same tensions that had plagued some of his predecessors. President Carter assured his new secretary of state that he would be the primary spokesperson on foreign policy. But Carter diluted the charge by stating that Muskie would understand that he would, from time to time, want others to speak out for him.

Shortly after he took office, we saw one of the rare flashes of a Muskie temper about which we had heard reports. He was to give his first major speech on Soviet-US relations. As we sat with him in a staff meeting that morning, an assistant brought a wire-service item about a background briefing given by a White House official on how the speech should be interpreted. His color rising, he left to phone the official. We never heard of any further efforts to give advance "interpretation" to a Muskie speech.

The Iranian hostage crisis hung like a sword over him throughout his brief term, but he sought and seized opportunities that might break the impasse. When a new Iranian premier was appointed in April 1980, Muskie wrote to him. Despite some advice to the contrary, he publicly addressed the new government in Tehran. His gesture was seen by the Iranians as a sign that negotiations might be possible, and they began seriously shortly thereafter. The hostages were released as he was making his final exit from the department, but, even then, politics plagued his achievement. The new Reagan team refused his request to use the State Department auditorium to brief the press on the Algerian agreement that resolved the crisis.

Those of us who had the opportunity to work with Secretary Muskie were indeed privileged. We were associated for all too short a time with one who embodied the finest traditions of political courage and public service.

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