Maines Main Man

updated 04/08/1996 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/08/1996 AT 01:00 AM EDT

THE IMAGE IS INDELIBLE EVEN NOW: On a snowy day in 1972, Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine, front-runner in the New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary, stood in front of the offices of The Union Leader in Manchester and called its publisher "a gutless coward" for printing scurrilous rumors that Muskie's wife, Jane, drank too much and told dirty jokes. Then the craggy, 6'4" politician appeared to weep in frustration and anger. That pivotal moment "changed people's minds about me," Muskie said later. "They were looking for a strong, steady man, and here I was, weak."

He was not, of course. Known for his unflinching honesty and a short fuse, Muskie remained true to his party and principles until his death on March 26 at age 81. Eight days earlier he had undergone surgery to clear a blocked leg artery, after which he suffered a heart attack and then multiple organ failure. Says George McGovern, who won the presidential nomination Muskie had coveted: "He had absolute personal integrity. I don't remember one demeaning statement he made about anybody, especially me." Noted President Clinton: "[He] spoke from the heart. Generations to come will benefit from his commitment to protecting the land."

As a senator, Muskie helped draft the 1963 Clean Air Act and the 1965 Water Quality Act. They were natural causes for an outdoorsman who loved to fish and hunt in his native state, where he'd grown up in the mill town of Rumford, one of six children of a Polish immigrant tailor. Muskie married Jane Gray, and they had five children. During 35 years in politics, he served two terms as Maine's governor, 21 years in the U.S. Senate, was Hubert Humphrey's 1968 running mate and, briefly, Jimmy Carter's Secretary of State, helping negotiate for the 1981 release of America's hostages in Iran. "He was always careful," said Carter last week, "to credit others for this achievement."

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