Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Gene McCarthy and Rumors in the Bars

In 1964 I was rounding out nine years as an operative (publicist, researcher, speech-writer) of the Minnesota Republican party and preparing to return to my Chicago hometown to take a job at The Quaker Oats Company. On tap for the state GOP that year was to find a way to sell Barry Goldwater to a state where Hubert Humphrey was running for vice president…and to defeat Gene McCarthy who was running for his second term in the Senate. Awed by the task, I was very happy to leave the land of 10,000 lakes, particularly where it involved running a candidate against McCarthy who was a friend of mine.

Before I left, the party hired a strategist from out-of-state to fill my shoes. I must say I was not impressed when I met him, tall with burning eyes that seemed to have glimpsed the third ring of hell. I hung around for a couple of weeks before I started at Quaker, long enough to sit with the party elders and review a proposed budget this guy developed for the year. One line on the budget caught my attention: Rumors in the bars…$15,000.

When he came in to justify the budget, it was just before lunch. I asked him, “what’s this: rumors in the bars? $15,000.” He answered: List it as an item any way you want to, but an indispensable part of the campaign should be rumors in the bars.

As it turned out, our headquarters was just upstairs of a bar and we went there for a beer and a sandwich.

“The thing works like this,” he said. We were standing at a crowded bar, with salesmen and business types catching a sandwich and a cold one before returning to the fray. He caught the bartender’s eye and ordered two beers and sandwiches for us. As the barkeep brought the lunch, this guy turned to me and in a voice that was not necessarily loud but distinct so that it was a tone higher than the rumble over the bar, said:

“Yes, it’s a damned shame about Gene McCarthy. Here’s a guy in the prime of life.”

I noticed the bartender was listening as he stepped to the cash register to make change. Then this guy said:

“How old would he be—McCarthy?”

I knew. I said: “he’s 48.”

“Forty-eight. What a tragedy.”

Several people perked up and studied him as he shook his head. “Forty-eight is just getting started in life. He’s got a wife and kids. Forty-eight. Forty-eight.”

He stared at his beer for a long time, then poured it in his glass and said, with an eerie finality: “Well, that’s how life is, isn’t it?”

The bartender was going to ask him but the guy sitting next to us beat him to it. “What’s wrong with McCarthy. Is he sick or something?”

He said, “You’ve seen, I’m sure, how pale he is. Pale. Seems every day he’s paler.”

The guy sitting next said, “well, yeah. Is he sick or something.”

“That’s how leukemia is,” he said. “One day you’re a six-foot-four-inch former baseball player, hockey player, elected to Congress and then the Senate and the next day—.” He brought his fist down on the bar. “The next day—that’s it.”

By then there was a stirring at the bar. One guy said, “I hear that if you get it early--.”

“Oh sure,” said my guy. “If you get it early. Sure. That’s right. Get it early. And maybe they have. Who knows?”

We ate our lunch and he said: “That’s what I want to do. Rumors in the bars. Each field representative would have a budget to do this kind of thing. It’s not totally determinative but it’s significant.”

You know, I said, maybe it’s a good thing I’m getting out of this business. I think it’s awful.

He gave me a knowing look and said, “yeah, isn’t it?”

Before I left, I told the party godfathers it was a bad idea. Then I left the state. About two months later, in reading The Minneapolis Star, I saw an article where McCarthy was heatedly denying he was fatally ill with leukemia. But the story stayed with him for years. When I next saw him, several years down the road, I asked him what started the rumor about his leukemia.

“A real mystery,” he said. “It started the summer of 1964. Then I came down with a cold. I stayed home in order to rest up for the campaign. By the time I got back, it was going full-force. It’s never really gone away—the rumor, I mean, not the leukemia. Obviously I never had leukemia. I told him that I was present at the creation. No, I didn’t start it but I was there when it was born. And I told him it was a $15,000 investment in a new type of communication: rumors in the bars.

I should never have told him that because he never entirely disabused himself that I didn’t do it. But he didn’t worry too much because he was safely reelected. And so far as we know, the bartender and the guy who started the rumor might well have passed away. Anyhow, McCarthy died last week at age 89 from old age, Parkinson’s and many assorted ills. But not leukemia.

But the same guy must have been working both sides of the street, who knows? There was a rumor, for instance, that Mamie Eisenhower was a drunk. She really had an ear infection that caused her to seem wobbly and off-balance on occasion. What about the rumor that George W. Bush used improper influence to get in the National Guard? Dan Rather fell for that one. There was a rumor that his father was carrying on with a woman on his staff named Jennifer Fitzgerald—which made the rounds until they published her photograph. There was the rumor that Adlai Stevenson, the former governor of Illinois, liked guys. No, just the opposite: a divorced man, he was very close to a number of women including Joan Fontaine.

Then there was the rumor that Nixon was tricky. No, that one was on the level.

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