Ed Muskie must be rolling over in his grave.

The longtime icon of Maine and national politics, whose lofty titles ranged from governor to U.S. senator to secretary of state, may well have become Maine’s first and only president but for what may (or may not) have happened on the stormy afternoon of Feb. 26, 1972, in Manchester, N.H.

Muskie cried. Or, as he later insisted, snowflakes melted on his admittedly red-hot cheeks.

Didn’t matter.

One minute, an angry Muskie was standing on the steps of the Manchester Union Leader denouncing William Loeb, its ultra-conservative publisher, for smearing the good names of both Muskie and his wife, Jane, in a front-page editorial. The next, the Democratic presidential front-runner’s alleged tears were front-page news across the country.

Hello public ridicule. Goodbye presidency.

“I did not cry. I know it is not easy to distinguish between anger on the verge of tears and crying, but there was no flow of tears,” Muskie, years later, told David Broder of the Washington Post. “There was melting snow. But I choked up in my anger, and it was a bad scene, whatever it was. … Eventually, the reaction was devastating.” Which brings us, almost four decades later, to soon-to-be U.S. House Speaker John Boehner.

In a segment broadcast Sunday on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” Boehner broke down in tears not once, not twice, but four times: once on Election Night, once in the well of the House of Representatives and twice during his series of interviews with an unabashedly amazed correspondent Leslie Stahl.

He cried about schoolchildren.

“I can’t go to a school anymore. … I used to go to a lot of schools. … And you see all these little kids running around. … Can’t talk about it,” Boehner said, struggling mightily to get out the words.

“Why?” asked Stahl.

“Making sure that these kids have a shot at the American Dream, like I did,” sobbed Boehner. “It’s important.”

He cried when his wife, Debbie, told Stahl she’s “real proud of him.”

“You know what’s happening over here?” Stahl asked the Missus, motioning toward Boehner as he reached for his handkerchief. “Oh, yeah,” said Debbie Boehner.

“No, no, my nose is running,” said a watery-eyed Boehner.

“That wasn’t a nose running,” said his wife.

Was it the start of a Muskie-like political meltdown? Hardly.

To be sure, Boehner’s tears raised an eyebrow here and there.

Monday morning on the CBS show “The View,” Joy Behar called him the “Weeper of the House.” Co-host Barbara Walters agreed, asserting, “This guy has an emotional problem.”

Beyond that, it’s all good. In fact, those who see Boehner daily around the Capitol will tell you that he cries all the time — even during floor debates.

So what’s going on here? Was Ed Muskie, snowflakes or no snowflakes, merely ahead of his time? Is John Boehner, tissue at the ready, the new John Wayne?

“It’s clearly acceptable now,” said Severin Beliveau, a prominent Augusta attorney and lobbyist who was a campaign aide to Muskie in 1972 and stood directly behind him that day in Manchester. “Matter of fact, it’s probably a sign that you’re sensitive and caring. All those issues which were liabilities years ago are now viewed as signs of strength.”

Beliveau, who to this day can’t say with certainty whether Muskie cried in Manchester, may be on to something.

Fox News Channel’s Glenn Beck, after all, has made a fortune getting all verklempt over America and how much he fears for it. (Which might explain why, in a video that went viral last year, Beck was seen having Vicks VapoRub smeared under his eyes just before a photo shoot.)

So, to better prepare us for the months ahead, I made a few calls this week to Augusta, where there’s plenty to cry about these days.

My question: Will Maine’s Republican leaders follow Beck’s and Speaker Boehner’s lead and, when the going gets tough, turn on the waterworks?

“Something chokes up everyone,” noted House Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, who readily admits that he fought back a lump in his throat during his swearing-in speech, when he got to the part about “my wife being my rock for 42 years.”

That said, Nutting predicted he’ll have an easier time keeping an even emotional keel than Boehner apparently does.

Meaning?

“There won’t be much crying or sobbing at the front of the (House) chamber,” he promised.

Bless him.

The jury is still out on Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, who didn’t return calls asking about his crying threshold. (Rumor has it, however, that Raye’s “White Lightning” Mustard, one of several produced by his family-owned business, will bring tears to just about anyone’s eyes.)

That leaves Gov.-elect Paul LePage, who showed us during the campaign that he has the anger thing down pat.

LePage spokesman Dan Demeritt, brave man, agreed Monday to ask the new boss where he stands on, gulp, public weeping.

(Demeritt, it turns out, can’t get through the end of the movie “Armageddon” without shedding a tear for Bruce Willis. Ditto, by the way, for me and Kevin Costner’s father-son scene in “Field of Dreams.”)

Alas, Demeritt called back Tuesday to report he’d come up dry.

“I’ve got nothing for you,” Demeritt said. When he asked LePage for his thoughts on red-eyed men in high places, “he looked at me … and then he got back to work.”

Get that man some VapoRub.

 

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

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