For those of us who enjoy Maine history, the Edmund S. Muskie Archives at Bates College are a valuable resource (www.digilib.bates.edu). As you probably guessed, the oral histories in the archives trace the legendary career of Senator Ed Muskie, who was also a former Governor, Vice Presidential candidate and Secretary of State. But for his dust up with reporters in New Hampshire, (following a Nixon “dirty trick”) he likely might have been elected President of the United States, if not in 1972, then perhaps in 1976.
The Archives also trace Maine’s development from a single-party, Republican state prior to 1954, to a viable “two-party democracy” thereafter. Approximately 300 people have been interviewed, with colorful stories not only about Muskie, but about the cities, towns and people that Muskie served. (See Note 1 below for a partial list.)
The archives are a “way back machine” into the past, showing how Maine’s legal and political community developed. The best way to explore the archives’ magic is through the oral histories.
This article focuses on an interview given by my beloved uncle, Jere (pronounced “Jerry”) Clifford, a veteran Maine lawyer who recently passed away at the age of 84. He gave his interview on May 12, 1999. The interview is funny, enlightening and sheds a great deal of light on my hometown, Lewiston. It contains great stories about the wacky and not so wacky legal and political characters Uncle Jere and Muskie had to deal with at mid century.
As most will agree, Jere was a very humble, funny and extremely kind guy. (Full disclosure: he, along with my dad, although nominal Democrats, were actually right wing “nut jobs” who voted for Goldwater, Nixon and Reagan.) Jere started practicing law in 1950 at the ripe old age of 23, after graduating from Tufts and BU Law School. In the 1950s, Jere served as a rising star alderman in Lewiston. Afterwards, for the remainder of his career, he represented the City, as Lewiston Corporation Counsel.
As an ambitious, young, Democratic politician in the 1950s, Jere was “present at the creation” of Maine’s Democratic Party, during Muskie’s 1954 and 1956 gubernatorial campaigns. Muskie very much needed the Democratic dominated mill towns such as Lewiston, Waterville and Biddeford. Muskie relied on foot soldiers like Jere.
One of Jere’s themes was that Muskie built on the foundations of the legendary Louis Brann, a Lewiston Democrat who won the Blaine House during the Great Depression, breaking up nearly a century of Republican rule. Try as they might, infamous (and notorious) Lewiston politicians such as “Mr. Democrat,” (Louis Jalbert) and Ernest Malenfant, were unable to follow in that proud tradition. Nevertheless, they are the true stars of this history. (Let’s just say Lewiston has produced some real doozies.)
Jere also reviewed Lewiston’s Catholic heritage, the tumultuous and violent strikes at the textile and shoe mills in the 30s, and what it was like to be a young kid during the Depression. He also talked about what it was like to enlist in the Navy at the latter part of World War II. (See Author’s Note 2 for more.)
The world Jere described was sunnier than the world that exists now. Back then, Lewiston was busy and bustling – no malls and no television. People worked very hard. Houses were meticulously maintained. Jere, as a boy and in high school, listened to “the Shadow” and the Jack Benny, Fred Allen, and Jack Armstrong radio shows. There was full employment in the mills.
Jere alluded to the great “melting pot” in Lewiston, with Yankee Protestants arriving first, the Irish later, and then tens of thousands of French Canadians. Jere understood Lewiston’s heyday to be around the time of the Civil War. The great mills survived for a hundred years, before eventually dying out.
A good part of Jere’s professional life was heroically spent trying to fight this economic ebb tide. He became instrumental in the creation of the Lewiston Development Corporation, which attempted to attract new industries to town, to replace the decline of the mills. Geiger Brothers was the first success story, and is still doing well today. As Bates Mill started to shut, the Development Corporation actually bought the buildings from the mill and leased them back to the company, as well as other entrepreneurs in the area.
Jere reminisced about his early years as a campaigner, going door to door, and plotting strategy. Later on, Jere helped his kid brother Bill become District Attorney and later, state senator. After that, another of his many younger brothers, Bob, became an alderman, mayor and state senator, before his appointment to the bench.
Jere echoed a constant theme that I’ve heard from him many times since: Practicing law today is not as much fun as it was early on. It’s now “too competitive” and too “bottom line oriented.” Jere also talked about working with my grandfather, Bill Clifford, who first started practicing law in 1915 (also not a very bottom line oriented guy). Together, father and son practiced law, mostly insurance defense, in the 50s and 60s. My grandfather was, by then, a true warhorse, in his seventies.
Jere’s best days included the leisurely summers of his youth, when the entire family of eight children, plus aunts and uncles, would gather at Pine Point to play cards, listen to the radio and play baseball every day.
Bottom line: There are at least 300 amazing stories in the archives. Check them out.
Author’s Note 1
Many notable Maine lawyers and citizens have also given histories. They include Chief Justice Daniel Wathen, Tom Allen, Elmer Violette, Lewis Skolnik, Earle Shettleworth, Neil Rolde, Larry Raymond, Harold Pachios, John Orestis, Ned, Martha and Jay Muskie, and Senator Muskie himself.
George Mitchell is featured prominently, as well as Frank Coffin. Both were key aides to Senator Muskie back in the day. Chief Justice McKusick, Judge Lipez and Elliott Cutler are also featured, as well as Governors Curtis, Baldacci and Brennan.
Author’s Note 2
This second Note is exclusively for “Kennedy lovers” and/or “Kennedy haters.”
1. My uncle Jere’s interview references his 1945 service with the V12 Naval Officer Training School at Bates. It does not reveal that one of his classmates was Robert F. Kennedy. As a charter member of the Barry Goldwater fan club, Jere could fairly be accused of bias. Regardless, he was less than impressed with “RFK” as a very young man. Young RFK was arrogant, spoiled and loathed by his Navy trainee classmates at Bates.
2. Jere’s maternal grandfather (my great-grandfather) Michael Sughrue, actually prosecuted Boston’s Mayor, John Fitzgerald, JFK’s grandfather. He charged Fitzgerald with corruption when he became Suffolk County District Attorney, during the Wilson administration. If that prosecution had succeeded, it is likely the Kennedy dynasty would never have existed. Thus, because of the lack of legal skill of one of my ancestors, JFK was elected president. A good account of the trial is found in the Kennedys and Fitzgeralds by Doris Kearns Goodwin.
3. I attended college with RFK’s son, Chris, who is an extremely nice guy. Uncle Jere could say what he would, but Ethel and Bobby raised nice kids.
4. I also volunteered on Joe Kennedy’s first congressional race in the early 80s (mainly as a way to meet “hot Kennedy chicks”). I was not given a coveted seat as Chief Legislative Aide, and remain bitter to this day.