Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The Beginnings of a Political Master in a Supposedly Radical—but Actually Rather Conservative—State

[This is being written on Tuesday night, March 21, while we were waiting for the 2006 primary election returns to come in. If you have something better to do, by all means do it. This is primarily for my kids and grandchildren. In summer, 1954 I decided to hone my talents as a political reporter by going to Duluth and the big AFL-CIO convention that would endorse Humphrey. It was clear even then that he wanted to run for president one day so while I had decided never to work for him, I wanted some experience. Before going, I did some boning up on my adopted state’s and Humphrey’s political history. Ever since I’ve been glad I did since the problems Humphrey faced with his party concerning the Cold War are closely analogous to the ones the Democrats have now with the Iraq War. I may be pardoned for thinking that Humphrey’s solution would help his party today.]

I learned much about Minnesota’s political history and the imaginative job Humphrey did in building an impregnable organization that has kept Minnesota in the blue column almost every presidential election ever since.

Minnesota has a reputation as a radical state, supposedly by the fusion of nationalities which in Europe were comfortable with socialism: Norwegians, Swedes, Finns, Czechs, Northern Germans and Slavs. Sounds reasonable but not so. Until 1930 all governors but three were Republicans. Discontented ethnics from the late 19th century until the late `20s were anything but Marxists. These people looked upon themselves as free enterprisers, organized to protect themselves against monopolists who crushed free enterprise. There was a lot of inconsistency within that melting pot. The farmers of those nationalities tended to be for state-owned grain elevators because they felt correctly that the monopolistic railroads and the big Minneapolis millers cheated the wheat farmers.

At the same time, the miners of the Iron Range, the backshop workers at the railroads because members of the International Workers of the World (known as the Wobblies), wanting not irrationally to form one big union to counteract the monopolistic practices of big business. But the agrarians and laborers were not necessarily anti-capitalist: they wanted a piece of the capitalist action and felt, correctly, they were living like the serfs of Old World feudalism. I interviewed some of the hoary old survivors of the Wobblies. One, 93-year-old Oscar Torgeson of St. Cloud, born in 1872, a survivor of early Wobbly organizing, told me in remarkably articulate phraseology, “We felt that they were a hell of a lot more American, in the sense of striving for a share of prosperity than the big money interests which snuffed out labor and farmer rights.” Farmers and laborers gave up on the two party process and began to switch to various short-lived groups: the Anti-Monopoly party, the Greenback party, the Populist party and ultimately into what they called the Non-Partisan League. They may have been anti-establishment but, as Torgeson instructed me, “we were anti-European powers, anti-British, anti-imperialistic and especially isolationist.” It was out of that tradition that Congressman Charles Lindbergh, father of the famed flyer, who was the Congressman in central Minnesota, voted against Wilson’s proposed declaration of war in 1917 (and part of the reason why the Lone Eagle railed against our entry into World War II with the “America First Committee.”) For decades the farmers and laborers voted alike, believing they were essentially social conservatives, wanting a bigger share of the pie. Minnesota’s one bout with radicalism came with one Floyd B. Olson, who fused all the discontent of the ethnics into one spellbinding politician. Only one but he was a terror.

The Great Depression produced Olson. Historians have forgotten about him and if I live long enough I’d like to write his biography. He tied both rebelling farmers and laborers together to build what he named as the Farmer-Labor party. He was elected governor in the Great Depression year of 1930 as a Farmer-Laborite, the Democrats running one candidate and the Republicans another. I have heard Olson’s crackling voice in speeches, preserved in early recordings at the University of Minnesota. I have never heard Huey Long but Olson was heart-stoppingly eloquent and addictive as a personality. A former prosecutor from Minneapolis with yellow hair and an ingratiating manner, he was probably the nearest thing the U. S. had to a reincarnation of Adolf Hitler. He energized the sod busters, played poker and drank with the Pillsbury’s and other milling people, charming out of them lavish contributions. He was legendarily popular in the state and privately planned on running for president on a third party ticket, after FDR second term would expire in 1940 where he would become a leader similar to Hitler and Mussolini.

Nor was he particularly crazy to think he could win the presidency, because FDR had some successes but still millions were out of work. Olson planned that, if he won the presidency, he would conscript all wealth in the country, have government operate all the key industries. He announced in 1934 a far more radical plan than Huey Long ever thought of. His Farmer-Labor platform that year said baldly, “capitalism has failed and…immediate steps must be taken by the people to abolish capitalism in a peaceful and lawful manner and…a new sane and just society must be established: a system in which all the natural resources, machinery of production and communication shall be owned by the government and operated for the benefit of all the people and not just for a few.” That was his official program for release to the media: his real plan was to grab the government by the throat and rule it by one-man fiat. All the while he had big money supporting him as did Hitler. Why is a good question. He privately disdained the super-wealthy, thought they were decadent, had bred their brains out and were fit to be exploited. He cut individual deals with businessmen and they felt they could do business with him.

To become president, Olson believed he needed to go to the U.S. Senate where he would make a national impact like Huey Long. He got himself nominated for the Senate while governor but in a stunning development this embryo Hitler came down with terminal cancer and died at the Mayo clinic. His successor as governor, Elmer Benson, flirted with 1930s Communists. Harold Stassen capitalized on his eccentricity by campaigning for governor against Benson Communists (they were there, no question about that). Stassen was elected and instituted what has been known ever since as liberal Republicanism. Eccentric radicalism and traces of Communism continued in the Farmer-Labor party.

It is impossible to calculate now how impressive Stassen was because he later became a laughing-stock, one who was willing to run for any office. I interviewed Stassen six months before he died: he was a co-signatory of the United Nations charter, a presidential candidate regarded in the same vein as John McCain is now, an Eisenhower cabinet member, a brilliant speaker who as governor at age 28 wrote finis to Democrats’ and Farmer-Laborites’ hopes. Stassen resigned as governor to go to the Navy in World War II which he planned to use as a catapult to the presidency.

Meanwhile a desperately poor Hubert Humphrey had come to the state from South Dakota after having received a degree in pharmacy from the University of Louisiana under inauspicious circumstances. Born in South Dakota of Irish and Norwegian parentage, he idolized his father who was a pharmacist but who was also an early liberal. Hubert came to Minnesota shortly before World War II, lived on the meager earnings from his wife and decided to get a Ph.D in poly sci at the University of Minnesota. There he blossomed in a political science course taught by Evron Kirkpatrick (husband of Jeane who later became Reagan’s ambassador to the UN). He worked his way to getting a degree in poly sci.

Humphrey began as an ace coffee house gabfest participant on campus, not an agitator but one who loved discussing political ideas. He knew one thing: he wasn’t an isolationist like the Farmer-Laborites who were also pro-Communist. Matter-of-fact he leaned toward the Wilsonian internationalism of the Republican Stassen—and he wanted to change his isolationist party but to do it he had to stay somewhat friendly to the Left. At one point he despaired of ever turning his party around and thought about becoming a Republican. So he went to Congressman Walter H. Judd (at one time later my boss), a former medical missionary to China who was elected to the Minneapolis seat as an internationalist Republican. He told Judd he voted for Willkie in 1940 and liked the GOP. He mentioned possibly running for mayor of Minneapolis. Judd liked the idea and sent him to some business friends. Then Judd found out Hubert was keeping company with the Communist element of the Farmer Laborites, misunderstanding that Humphrey wasn’t a Red but calmly sorting the wheat from the chaff. A furious Judd pulled the plug. Humphrey was persona non grata in the Republican party. He had to make do with his fractionated party, part conservative Democrat and part Farmer-Laborite radical.

Humphrey thought long and hard about the two-headed monster, the Farmer-Labor party which was disreputably radical and unelectable, flirting with Communists and the state Democratic party, quite conservative, isolationist and anti-New Deal. He set himself on a goal early to unite the conservative Democrats with the non-Communist faction of the Farmer Laborites to produce a Democratic-Farmer-Labor party. He worked tirelessly to do it, spending many hours over coffee, negotiations and pragmatic diplomacy. Welding the monster together took years and his last $75 spent on a train ride to Washington, D. C. where he wangled a meeting with FDR’s postmaster general Frank Walker who blessed the effort. .

While poor Murial Humphrey worked her fingers to the bone, Hubert played politics and picked up odd jobs as a teaching assistant and lecturer in poly sci while trying to unify the two disparate parts. He hung around with the Kirkpatricks (Jeane was getting her Ph.D) and talked largely international affairs. He joined William Allen White’s “Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies” which was positioned against the America First Committee. But one thing Humphrey didn’t want to do. Supporting our entry into the war and Wilsonian idealism was one thing but he didn’t want to get drafted.

This had always been a very, very touchy subject with him, one that no matter how well you knew him could not be mentioned without him flying into a frenzy of self-justification, expletives and his wondering aloud whether you were loyal to him or not. But the facts are these: He was married with Murial expecting a child, had applied for a deferment because of a hernia and color-blindness. But he strove even harder. He ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 1943 as an independent but lost. He requested deferment in December, 1943 on the basis that he was teaching two political science courses to Army Air Force cadets at Macalester College (he was also an unsuccessful candidate for Mayor of Minneapolis). It’s hard to imagine how he got a deferment, arguing that he can’t go to service because he’s teaching political science to Army cadets! Then in 1944 he pulled it off: he crafted a union of the Farmer-Labor non-Communists and the conservative Democrats into the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party which has been a dominant factor in the state ever since. Promptly, he got elected the next year as the first state chairman of the new unified Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor party. But the army was still on his tail.

The next deferment was applied for by the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party State Central committee in September, 1944 because—get this—he was an essential party worker! I doubt if anyone else in the U.S. had the guts to make that request. He got the deferment! A third deferment was applied for in January, 1945 on the basis that he was serving as a labor relations consultant to something called the Industrial Grease and Drum Company and also to the Stay-Vis Oil Company both of which had war contracts. He got the deferment. These deferments constitute one of two longstanding criticisms of Humphrey’s record.

In 1945, after the war ended, Humphrey got elected mayor of Minneapolis, as the first office-holder elected by the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party. He was off to the races. The legitimate non-Communist liberals were dissatisfied with some aspects of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party so Humphrey had to craft an organization for these lefty, non-Commie intellectuals. He did it by joining with some Hollywood lefties including the young Ronald Reagan and Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt to create Americans for Democratic Action.

He gained all kinds of attention trying to clean up Minneapolis which, believe it or not, was decaying from corruption. Always susceptible to the blandishments of others, Humphrey avoided trying to purge the lingering Communists in his party and inadvertently made them think he was a fellow leftist by maintaining a lovey-dovey relationship with former Vice President Henry A. Wallace who was forming a left-wing Progressive Party. Orville Freeman and Eugenie Anderson tugged with Wallace people for Hubert’s soul and made him finally realize that Commies were impervious to conversion as liberal Democrats. Thereupon, he turned on the Reds with a fury and got them banished from the DFL party. Fearful of Republicans capitalizing on anti-communism, he called for a legal ban of the Communist party. In that liberal but anti-Communist mode, he was elected to the Senate in 1948. Running afoul of the conservative Democrats in the Senate, he finally made peace with them through the intercession of the Democrats’ new minority leader, Lyndon Johnson.

Now Humphrey was running for a second term and was in Duluth to build peace with organized labor which had some lingering pro-Communist members in it. The question he tackled in the hotel room sessions I attended with him was what the Democratic party should do vis-à-vis the Cold War and the Eisenhower administration. As I look back on it, the meetings of 50 years ago, fueled by hot tempers and cold drinks were quite similar to the questions besetting the current Democratic party: whether it should cooperate with Bush in the Iraq War or declare hostility to the war itself.

Next: How the Discussions Reached Consensus on the Cold War.

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