Then-Sen. Joe Biden with friend and mentor Sen. Edmund Muskie, D-Maine, at March 1974 water pollution control hearings at the Sheraton Hotel in Waikiki, Hawaii. From left to right is Biden, the manager of a hotel, Muskie and the late Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye. Biden's ties to Muskie and former Maine Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell helped set his course to the presidency. Credit: Courtesy of the Edmund S. Muskie Archives and Special Collections Library

President-elect Joe Biden’s interactions as a senator with Maine colleagues Edmund Muskie and George Mitchell helped shape a career that was reflected in his Saturday victory speech aimed at uniting a fractured nation.

As one of the youngest U.S. senators in history to be sworn into office in January 1973 at age 30, the Democrat from Delaware faced a nation divided by a fractious 1972 election in which incumbent Republican Richard Nixon won in a landslide. Watergate hearings began shortly after he was sworn in.

An upside for Biden was when he became a member of what is now known as the Senate environmental committee, where he worked with Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie, the champion of the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.

It was a fortuitous alliance that helped shape his focus on the environment and the ability to compromise that he rode to victory last week over President Donald Trump in the culmination of the former vice president’s 47-year career. The 77-year-old will be the oldest president to assume office and has listed climate as one of his key areas of focus.

“You can trace Biden’s interest in climate change back to those days with Ed Muskie,” said Charlie Micoleau, a former chief of staff for Muskie in the early 1970s who is now a senior counsel at the law firm Curtis Thaxter in Portland.

Micoleau characterized the committee as being “greatly partisan” at a time when there was a Republican president and a Congress controlled by Democrats. Still, Republicans were essential to the way Muskie worked in the Senate, Micoleau said.

“I think that was where Biden was first exposed to the importance of trying to work together in order to find common ground,” he said. “He learned a lot of that from mentors like Muskie.”

Micoleau said Muskie, along with then-Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield of Montana, also were instrumental in convincing Biden to enter the Senate after his wife and daughter were killed in a car accident just after his election in 1972, which Biden referenced in a 2017 commencement speech at Colby College.

President-elect Joe Biden tells a story during an interview-style speaking engagement at Merrill Auditorium in Portland with former Maine U.S. Senator George Mitchell in this 2018 file photo. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Biden also received sage advice from Mitchell. In his 2015 memoir “The Negotiator,” he discussed a 1990 vote to amend key parts of the Clean Air Act. According to Mitchell, who was Senate majority leader at the time, Biden planned to vote for an amendment proposed by Sen. Robert Byrd, D-West Virginia, a political titan. It proposed special aid to coal miners who could have lost their jobs if Congress passed the legislation.

President George H.W. Bush opposed the Byrd amendment, and said he would veto the entire bill if it were included because it was too costly, according to The New York Times. Mitchell explained that to Biden, who wanted reassurance it was really the case. After White House chief of staff John Sununu talked to Biden, he became the deciding voice in a 50 to 49 vote against Byrd’s legislation.

After the vote, Biden addressed the Senate to explain his decision, saying he would like to help the coal miners, but if Byrd’s bill was a deal buster and would kill the clean air bill, he could not support it. Mitchell walked across the chamber to Biden, grabbed his arm and pulled him close.

“Joe, you’ve got guts,” Mitchell recalled saying.

Mitchell wrote that Byrd later had the vote tally sheet framed and hung it next to the door leading into his Appropriations Committee office so anyone entering would be reminded of the vote. Biden later told the story jokingly 20 years later at Byrd’s funeral in 2010.

Biden, along with former Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and Rep. John Baldacci, D-Maine, also spoke at Muskie’s funeral in 1996. He joked about Muskie’s legendary temper.

“While he exhibited the gravitas — the character and substance — that might be expected of a man whose full given name was Edmund Sixtus Muskie, he was a very human, very good-humored man — most of the time,” Biden said in his tribute to his friend and mentor.

State Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, an intern in Muskie’s office in 1973, sees more parallels between Muskie and Biden. Both stumbled badly in New Hampshire during their primaries. Biden lost the New Hampshire primary to Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Muskie won his primary, but it proved to be his downfall.

A couple weeks before the New Hampshire primary in 1972, a forged letter later found to be written by Nixon supporters was published by the New Hampshire Union Leader. Known as the “Canuck letter,” it implied that Muskie was prejudiced against Americans of French-Canadian descent. The archconservative newspaper wrote an editorial criticizing Muskie’s wife.

Muskie held a press conference in front of the newspaper’s Manchester offices during a snowstorm and appeared to be crying, though it could have been snow on his face. He won narrowly but was seen as a weak candidate afterward. Sen. George McGovern, D-South Dakota, replaced him as the favorite for the nomination, which the progressive won before being soundly defeated by Nixon.

“Biden was fighting off a whole bunch of people in the [2020] primary that were more liberal than he was,” Diamond said. “The same thing happened when Muskie faltered and McGovern took over but lost.”

Micoleau said the comparison of the two elections may be more relevant to the future debate that is going to take place in the Republican and Democratic parties as they deal with constituencies who feel they haven’t been heard by parties. He said Biden had the chance to witness what happened in the Nixon and McGovern election and can learn from that.

“There is a continuity to American politics,” Micoleau said. “The history of moderation in a country as diverse as ours is still an important one.”

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