Thursday, January 19, 2006

It was Winter 1958 at the Longworth House Office Building

Then, as there were only two House Office Buildings, it was known as the “new” one—but it wasn’t very new, built in 1935. I landed there after managing communications in a very, very close special congressional election in Minnesota in the dead of winter. Things were at a low ebb for Republicans, let me tell you, in that state dominated by Hubert Humphrey and his hand-picked governor, Orville Freeman. We had to run in the southeastern sector of the state, dairy farm country, where, on Christmas Eve, 1957 as we were stumping, Ike’s secretary of agriculture, Ezra Taft Benson announced he was slashing dairy supports. Humphrey campaigned against us, singing out a song of vituperation: “Ike likes his prices flexible, Ike likes `em limp, even if the farmers gotta starve and scrimp!”

We were running a dairy farmer which is probably the only reason we won—by the narrowest margin in the district’s history: 411 votes. So my green congressman and I (a green press secretary) arrived in the House to take possession of suite 1218 in the “new” H.O.B. Some fairly big names were on our floor including Gerald R. Ford, Republican of Michigan, who was on defense appropriations. A few weeks later we were rolling out the press and media (using the House’s special TV studio in the basement). That’s where I got to meet another staffer, somewhat younger than I. It interested both of us that we were from Illinois—me working for a Minnesota congressman and he for an Ohio one (David Dennison). Once in a while we’d have coffee. Then one day he popped in and said he was going back to Illinois. Why? He grinned. Believe it or not I’m gonna run for Congress. Really? What district? The 13th, Evanston, Wilmette which circles around to Schaumburg. But, he said, I’m really leaving because I want to get in investment banking. I said: what do you mean?

He said: I don’t have a chance in hell of getting the nomination. The congresswoman, Marguerite Stitt Church, is retiring and she’s already picked her favorite for the Republican primary which is tantamount to election. I’m going back to file and after I lose I’ll get a job maybe at William Blair. He shot me a grin that since has become world-famous and left.

Mrs. Church’s designated hitter was a banker named Marion Berkes, a man despite the name Marion. A vice president, solid with civic credentials and philanthropy, he had a touch of grey hair that fit the district. There would be no other Republican running except this guy who worked across the hall from me. Well, the ex-staffer started to run and nobody cared. Until one day one of those white collar scandals broke about Marion Berkes that was fairly minor but could become major. Then suddenly he resigned from the race. Only one other Republican remained. The 13th district “A List” of donors decided to examine this ex-staffer along with Mrs. Church. They concluded: not bad. Young, an ex-Navy pilot, a Princeton grad, a wrestler. Married, born in the district. And so they got behind him. And that fall Don Rumsfeld went to Congress.

By the time he came back looking for an office suite of his own, I was back in Minnesota with a new governor. And a few years later when I would come calling, working for Quaker Oats, Rumsfeld had become associated with a group known as the “young Turks” who were displeased with the plodding, alcoholic leadership given Republicans in the House by Charlie Halleck. Rummy hung around with the self-same Jerry Ford who had been on our floor. He ran the putsch; they beat Charlie and installed Ford as minority leader. In one miscalculation, Rumsfeld decided to go after Les Arends, too. He was an old bull from Illinois who had been the GOP whip since the 1940s. The effort to unhorse Arends failed and Arends came over to Rumsfeld after the vote and said quietly that he would never forget the fact that a young Illinoisan had tried to defeat him—would never forget it. He stretched out the words so they had a quiet ring to them: I’ll-never-forget-it. Those words meant something to Don. They meant that he had better start looking around for something else to do because being on the wrong side of the Republican whip wasn’t conducive to career growth in the House of that day. By 1969 with Nixon in, Rumsfeld signed up as, of all things, head of the OEO (Office of Economic Opportunity), the old War on Poverty office that had been run by Sargent Shriver.

We both landed with the administration in not widely divergent kinds of work, me starting the Commerce department’s Minority Enterprise unit. “It’s best for both of us that we learn what we have to learn and depart” he said one day, giving me an initial grant to work with. How right he was. I learned the hard way, tossed out on my ear after a dispute with the Nixonians before going to the Peace Corps and then back to Quaker; he hanging around, wangling the price control job and then a diplomatic job (Ambassador to NATO) which took him out of the country during the 1972 campaign and back to Washington when Jerry Ford became president and decided he needed Rummy as chief of staff. Then he convinced Ford to ditch Nelson Rockefeller and became the youngest secretary of defense in U.S. history. Following which he came back to Illinois and we met when he wanted to run for governor and gave me a frown when I told him one Jim Thompson had it all wrapped up. He consoled himself by running G. D. Searle and then another big company, doing spot jobs for Reagan but was limited because he wasn’t getting on well with Reagan’s vice president, George H. W. Bush.

The last time I talked to him at any length was when I had retired from Quaker and was teaching at Roosevelt University part-time. He agreed to be a guest speaker. We rode over in a cab. What’s new? I asked. Nothing, he said. Nothing. He gave me that grin and said we’re survivors. You more than me, Don—but, yeah, I guess so. Two weeks later he was named the oldest secretary of defense in U.S. history by George W. Bush.

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