Given the strains, fractures and frailties that seem increasingly to rend the marriages of official Washington, Jane Muskie stands out as an all but endangered species: a happy, successful political wife. It pleases her to buy her husband’s clothes, to help calibrate his schedule, to bow to the demands of his engulfing public life. “Being 53,” she concedes, “I might have some feelings about not having pursued a career. But I’ve always been so busy. Ed’s jobs and his way of life have always included me, so I never felt left out. Not that I haven’t spent a lot of time waiting for him to come home, but I never felt I needed a career of my own.”
Yet when she calls herself “a typical housewife,” it rings less than wholly true. The pictures on these pages—Jane under the hair dryer, Jane vacuuming the living room, Jane still abed while her husband tries on the shoes she bought for him the day before—suggest a small-town girl transplanted to the big time. It is not a pose; the pictures are among hundreds taken by the Muskies’ photographer son Steve, 31, and they make a singularly consistent portrait. But Jane Muskie has also proved to be among the nation’s most effective public women, whether on the stump for her husband in Maine or, as she was last week, by his side at the summit in Venice. In her 32 years as Edmund Muskie’s wife—26 of them in public life—Jane Gray Muskie has helped to rewrite the script for political spouses, taking a front-lines role in every campaign since his first run for the Maine statehouse in 1954, when she worked during a pregnancy—and eventually miscarried. In the 1960s, when he emerged as a contender for the Presidency, she became one of the first candidate’s wives to take on her own schedule of speech-making and campaigning in her husband’s behalf.
“Jane is an unsung heroine—the sustaining force in his career,” says the Boston Globe’s Dick Stewart, press secretary of Muskie’s 1972 presidential campaign. One of Stewart’s most vivid memories of Jane recalls the day she was overcome with altitude sickness during a whistle-stop in Denver. “I think I am going to faint,” he remembers her telling the assembled crowd, which fell to a hush. “But before I do I’d like to say a word about my husband.”
The Secretary of State calls her “Mommy.” “They have their moments like everyone else,” says Joanne Hoffman, a longtime friend of the family’s in Washington. “But they have a very special, close relationship. He likes to come home and sit down and have a drink with the family around him. He doesn’t like to be alone. It is touching after all these years.” The Muskies, who still attend Mass at least once a week, paid a price for their extraordinary bond in the 1972 New Hampshire primary when an attack on Jane in the infamous Manchester Union Leader reduced the candidate to tears before news cameras. The political apocrypha has it that Muskie’s campaign was discredited in that moment. “When he was appointed Secretary of State and reporters were going over our background,” Jane recalls, “I said to him, ‘Oh my God, won’t they ever forget that?’ He said, ‘No, they won’t.’ Every time I go through Manchester, I look the other way.”
Muskie’s appetite for politics did not suffer from his presidential defeat, and Jane’s first prospect of more time with him came only this year, when he hinted broadly that he would not seek reelection in 1984 (he is now 66). “Ed has always put the kids first,” says the mother of their five children. “He really has. I don’t think that one of our children feels that he or she is not No. 1. However, it’s been at the expense of my husband—and me too.” Jane will not say she was ecstatic when he was appointed Secretary of State, but she wasn’t surprised. On the afternoon of April 28 the White House had been asking Jane’s help in reaching Muskie, who was out of town on a speaking trip. Then she heard on the radio that Cyrus Vance had resigned, and she recalls, “I dropped one of my best blue-and-white plates and said, ‘Oh my God’—I knew, I just knew.” President Carter did not talk to Muskie until 11:30 that night. Reluctant to wake Jane up, he waited until the next morning to call her with the news.
His elevation has been a mixed blessing in the Muskie household. “The Secretary of State job meant a $9,000 cut in pay [to $63,000],” Jane notes, “plus giving up honoraria from speeches, which can amount to $25,000 a year.” The senator, who was still wearing clothes bought for the 1968 campaign, needed a new wardrobe for the job. Last year the Muskies traded in their six-bedroom home for a smaller one to raise cash for college tuitions. Martha, 21, just got her B.A. from the University of Maine and is returning for grad school in sociology next fall; Melinda, 23, the wife of a fisherman in Kennebunkport, is studying merchandising at Westbrook College; and Ned, 18, plans to attend Duke next year. Steve and Ellen, 29, who is married to a mechanic and works in a suburban Virginia grocery store, are out on their own. Jane reportedly worries less about the financial problems than her husband does. “We’ll get by,” she says.
The change has also cut down on the family’s privacy and leisure time together. Martha was placed under guard after receiving phone threats from putative Iranian nationalists. The Secretary must now don a bathing suit for his previously nude showers outdoors at their summer home in Maine (there are women in his security detail). And Jane has had to curtail Steve’s photographic access to his father in the interest of what free time remains to him. “It’s terrible to do this to your own kids,” she says, “but I told Steve, ‘I love you, but I don’t love your profession today.’ I would like to have him visit, but not dragging the cameras behind him.”
Jane has embarked on a new project of her own recently: researching a novel on Washington with Abigail McCarthy, ex-wife of presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy. But her priorities are clear. She is outspokenly unhappy about missing the usual family summer in Maine this year, and about Muskie’s dawn-to-midnight hours at State. “The executive branch goes to work much earlier than the legislative,” she remarks. One evening after a string of late nights recently, she called him at the office to warn: “You know, it’s not impossible that this job may just kill you.” The Secretary told her not to worry—”I’m loving every minute of it.” And that, she says, was all she wanted to hear. “When people come to know my husband,” Jane says, “they’ll know him as a person of reason and concern, a good man who is hoping to contribute to the peace of the world. If I can help him in any small way, that’s what I want to do.”