Tuesday, February 21, 2006

How a Grand Influx of African American Rooters Turned Out in East St. Louis to Cheer Richard Nixon in 1964, the Year Barry Goldwater Ran. Part I

Note: to those who complain that this blog is over-loaded with personal history, I must tell you I’m not writing it for you but for my four grown kids and 13 grandchildren, this in lieu of a memoir. Please be warned that it does not contain an iota of social or political value but is written to be archived and pulled up at some later date—please, God, much later—when my grandchildren who are beginning to evidence an interest in history may enjoy it.

In 1964 when I moved from Minnesota’s political scene to form Quaker Oats’ government relations department in Chicago, I started in July, in the midst of a presidential year. Accordingly the president of the company, Robert D. Stuart, Jr., said “I would appreciate it if you would spend the rest of the summer and early fall helping Chuck.” That was kindly, soft, patrician corporate-speak for “spend all your time helping Chuck Percy get elected governor of Illinois while we pay you and make a positive impression on his campaign.” Accordingly I decided to do that. I reported to the Percy office as just another staffer and was assigned to attend Saturday morning staff sessions with Percy, big business wunderkind on the sun-porch of his Kenilworth mansion, named “Windward,” with other eager-to-please staffers as Percy’s kitchen staff served tea, coffee and sweet-cakes. In eleven years of attending campaign staff meetings, including with the socially prominent Heffelfinger’s, owners of the Peavey Grain company, I have never slurped coffee in such baronial surroundings.

Percy was indeed the golden boy of Chicago industry. His resume could well have been written by Horatio Alger. Born poor, struggling through the depression in an neighborhood under the L tracks in east Rogers Park, he taught children Sunday school at a neighboring Christian Science church. There is so animated an owner of a small business that made cameras that he hired him immediately. The small business was Bell & Howell, which was just skittering along, sometimes struggling to make payroll. Percy spurred the company to great heights, spurring the boss to adopt aggressive marketing procedures in return for which the boss paid for his tuition at the University of Chicago. By the time World War II began, Percy was vice president of the company and had launched it into federal procurement where with contracts with the armed forces it zoomed into the stratosphere, making the owner a fortune and Percy himself a multi-millionaire. The federal government listed the camera company as an essential industry and Percy as an essential component to it, freeing him from the draft. In addition to which the owner who had no children left Bell & Howell entirely to Percy and at the age of 27 or 28 he became CEO and the subject of nation-wide attention for his perspicacity. He became adept at giving the Republican party a new, progressive image which fit in with his persona--blond, good-looking, with a magisterial baritone speaking voice. In short order he was baptized as an Eisenhower-style “modern Republican” and ordained as a future president of the United States—this when he was in his late `30s. So ambitious was he for political honors that it was said, only partly in jest, that he would use the presidency as a stepping-stone.

Obviously, these attainments were not an unalloyed benefit. Most other CEOs cordially despised him because he made them look under-motivated, grumbling that he was snooty (but it was because of a congenital hearing loss with which I have become recently sympathetic)—but not my boss, the president of Quaker who admired him hugely. The admiration was mutual in that Percy named Stuart, a heavy GOP contributor and scion of a famous Republican family, as Illinois Republican National Committeeman. Thus in doing Bob Stuart’s bidding to be helpful to his friend Chuck I was serving my party and also doing the Lord’s work which, I hoped, might possibly redound to benefit me.

The first Kenilworth staff meeting I attended dealt with the problem of race, discussed delicately as the African American maid lingered, pouring our tea. When she departed, the problem was stated baldly: Goldwater was the presidential nominee against Lyndon Johnson, in a year when crushing national GOP defeat was almost pre-ordained. Goldwater was one of the few Senators to vote against the 1964 civil rights bill. The question: how can Percy, who saw himself as having an enlightened civil rights record, transcend this problem running against the Democratic incumbent Otto Kerner? One sure given was to arrange to be in the opposite end of the state wherever Goldwater would appear—but as Percy remonstrated, that was not enough. To make matters worse, Percy’s own civil rights record was not unduly progressive. In running for the nomination he strove to make himself appear as conservative as he could to enlist the conservatives, declaring that the government need not resort to compulsory fair employment practices but should only utilize voluntary ones. (Hard to believe in view of today’s progressivism, but that was Percy’s position then).

While all of us were sipping tea, keeping an eye out for the black maid, we were seeking to come up with a solution while Childe Percy was stewing—but then one Tom Houser (not Tom Roeser) came up with a brilliant solution. Houser was the campaign manager and a lawyer for the Burlington railroad. Houser said this: “You have to tie up with a national Republican figure in order to beat the curse of Goldwater or else the GOP faithful fill think you’re snubbing the nominee. Who better than Nixon?” Everybody looked up brightly: Nixon, of course! And Houser made the case very well as Percy jumped up and shouted: “Of course! Brilliant idea!” Houser said: “He’s a retired Vice President, has had a brilliant civil rights record. Whenever LBJ as majority leader positioned a civil rights vote he angled it so Vice President Nixon had to break the tie—earning Nixon enemies in the South. Nixon is going nowhere, having lost for president to Kennedy, losing the governorship of California. He’s a private lawyer in New York with no future ahead of him. Have Nixon agree to come here to campaign throughout the state with Chuck. After all, Nixon almost carried Illinois and probably did if it were not for Daley vote fraud.”

“Bravo!” yelled Chuck and even the maid peered around the corner. The next step was to get Nixon lined up. Then Percy jubilantly pointed to me and said, “You’ll get him because Nixon knows and likes Bob Stuart.” While I was choking on my sugar roll, Percy said, “But I will call him first to line him up. He’ll do it, I’m sure! Then we’ll send Roeser to New York to plan the itinerary!” With that in smart executive style, Percy took the phone, consulted a list of numbers where Nixon could be reached and tried them as we munched thoughtfully. Suddenly Percy shouted:

“DICK! Chuck Percy here!” He listened, smiled and said, “Things are going well here, Dick! I’m sure we’ll make it!” He held the phone away from his good ear, winked at us and whispered, “He’s going on about vote fraud in Illinois!” Then he said, “That’s why it’s so important that we win the governorship here, Dick. Oh, it’s not about me, not so ego thing—no, no, no. It’s about good government! And wouldn’t that drive Daley nuts to have a conservative governor in Illinois?” He held the receiver aloft and we could hear the rejoinder.

In short, Nixon was set to come to Illinois and spend two days barnstorming town by town with Chuck Percy. When Percy hung up, he nudged me in the ribs and said, “It’s all set. You’re delegated to fly to New York Monday and see him in his Broad street office at 3 p.m. And he says “Bring a road map of Illinois.”

Thus endeth Part I. Tomorrow Nixon and I consult the map of Illinois!


  1. Tom, this is enjoyable reading for political outsiders. Perhaps insiders and – more importantly – your family will enjoy it, too.

    Unrelated topic: I frequently listen to Beyond the Beltway and your show on Sunday evenings. This past Monday morning, before turning the dial for my usual sports talk fill, I heard the hosts of whatever was on griping about the "weekend amateurs" messing up the settings for their show.

    It's no wonder I only listen to that station between 6 and 9 pm on Sunday evenings. Keep up the good work – both the hosting and adjusting of the Monday morning engineer's settings.

  2. I enjoy your brushes with history, Tom. Keep them coming.

  3. I too enjoy reading your flashbacks. Keep them coming.

    One more thing - I don't know what feedback WLS has gotten squeezing that real estate show in between your show and Drudge but I hope they put Drudge in his rightful place - after your show. His show is now on delay and I am sure loses listners that would have stayed tuned to WLS after your show.

    Anyway, keep up the good work.