Friday, March 17, 2006

Flash-Back Part I: Worrying About Getting Stuck in St. Cloud at $67.50 a Week for the Rest of My Life—But Traveling with Hubert Humphrey

[Too bad: You just got struck with another memoir written for my kids and 13 grandchildren.]

Carl Sandburg wrote in his poem, “The Sins of Kalamazoo” that they “are neither scarlet nor crimson/ The sins of Kalamazoo are a convict grey, a dishwater drab/ And the people who sin the sins of Kalamazoo are neither scarlet nor crimson/ They run to drabs and grays—and some of them sing/ They will be washed whiter than snow/ And some: We should worry.”

But in 1954 at age 26 I was worried that as good as my life was—and fun—I would be stuck in St. Cloud, Minnesota making $67.50 a week for life (the business manager saying I had no right to expect a raise in the foreseeable future)…which would mean continuing to get my hair cut free by the latest Indian the sheriff would incarcerate…hyping feature stories for a wire service…eating Mrs. McIntee’s oatmeal cookies…writing promos for the new sheriff, Peter A. Lahr including the slogan “the County’s PAL.”. Sandburg never went to St. Cloud so he never understood its sins were bleached next to those of Kalamazoo. Key venial sins:

Item: the city elected a new mayor, a 28-year-old lawyer, ex-Air Force jet pilot who won decorations from Korea, pencil-thin with distinct resemblance to a young Gregory Peck: a bachelor and Democrat who stole my girl-friend, from the city Chamber of Commerce office notwithstanding that I wrote a glorious feature on him--in return for which in retribution I dated his secretary who had mooned over him and who was so enraged at his lack of interest in her that she gave me all kinds of interesting inside stuff on city government—but which I couldn’t publish it because he would know where it came from. Sour grapes: who could get a Pulitzer Prize writing about rigged bids in St. Cloud, Minnesota. anyhow?

Item: The Minneapolis Tribune’s city editor liked my stuff, paid my way down there on a Greyhound bus for an interview but after I got there found out his news budget was strapped—but sure as shooting I’d be hired in the next go-round. So while I was down there on the Trib’s bus fare I tried to get hired by the rival St. Paul Pioneer-Press: no luck.

Item: When I got back to St. Cloud a phone call was waiting from the local chairman of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party. Sen. Hubert Humphrey was going to make a swing through central Minnesota and would I want to accompany him in the backseat of his car as his staff tooled him around. Huzza! Would I? This might be the real break that gets me to the Washington bureau of the New York Times! The DFL chairman said, haltingly but with ignorance and impropriety: “we got a feeling you’re Democrat anyhow, aren’t you? You come from St. John’s University so that’s good. We don’t want you goin’ with him if you’re goin’ to savage him.” My response: Obviously it’s improper to ask my politics but my mother was a Democratic judge in Chicago.” He: “That’s good enough for us!” I didn’t say she was a Democratic judge of election, which is rather different than a jurist. I resented his question and decided to write a savage attack on Humphrey anyhow to get even for his effrontery. See what I mean by grey sins? Two in this paragraph alone: misrepresenting and planned revenge.

* * * * * * *

But I couldn’t write an attack on the 43-year-old former Minneapolis mayor elected Senator because I liked him too much—a mortal sin for a Republican. I had seen him some years earlier from the top deck of the Minneapolis auditorium when, as a college student, I hitch-hiked to the big city with a Democratic buddy to catch President Harry Truman address a half empty canyon in September, 1948, in the campaign he was slated to lose to Thomas E. Dewey. Mayor Humphrey was then 37, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor nominee for the U.S. Senate, a liberal firebrand who had stunned the Dem convention by his fighting speech from the floor, challenging his party “to stride from the shadows of segregation into the broad sunlight of civil rights” which prompted Strom Thurmond and other southerners to walk out and which didn’t win Humphrey many friends among moderate Democrats who wanted to keep the party together. As you know, Thurmond ran against Truman as a Dixiecrat, spurred to anger by Humphrey’s cyclonic speech, a step that portended to ruin the party. .

To gin up the 1948 crowd which was very apathetic to Truman and pessimistic that he could win, the Dems brought in as master-of-ceremonies a handsome actor the same age as Humphrey, 37: Ronald Reagan, a fellow officer of Americans for Democratic Action (ADA). Thus on one stage I saw two United States presidents, one who initiated the containment policy of the Cold War and the other who concluded it with victory as well as one vice president. Reagan was not very sure about political speaking that night, speaking in a soft voice with the characteristic deferential bob of the head to mark his humility. Truman read his speech with defiant hand-chops, railing against that do-nothing 80th Congress and Humphrey gave the speech of the night which sent the rafters ringing. His speech was reminiscent of one he would give later about Goldwater. Paraphrase: “When the elderly want health care who fights for health care? President Truman, a Democrat; Senator Barkley, a Democrat. And Mr. Dewey—where was he? Where was Mr. Dewey?” The crowd would shout back “no-where!” I noticed Reagan would shout back with them, laughing heartily.

I told Humphrey that when I got in the backseat of the car in 1954. Yeah, he said glumly, Reagan headed up Democrats for Eisenhower in 1952. I knew that and was secretly glad. Humphrey was not in a good mood and didn’t appreciate being reminded about his old ADA buddy Reagan defecting. He had gone to the Senate in 1949 as a divisive force, had tangled with conservative Democrat Harry Byrd of Virginia who headed up a Select Committee to Eliminate Non-Essential Expenditures in Government. Byrd was the Senate’s watchdog conscience against overspending and was berating Truman about overspending. Sitting on the Senate floor, freshman Humphrey got a bright idea: why not find out how much money Byrd was spending on the Committee to Eliminate Non-Essential Expenditures and rip him with it—which would be warmly received by President Trumam . So Humphrey stepped out in the anteroom, called his aide Herb Waters and in a few minutes had the bill the taxpayers were paying for Byrd’s committee. While Byrd was speaking, Humphrey asked courteously for recognition, got it and announced how much Byrd, the guardian of the treasury, was spending.

Byrd, the most venerable Old Bull of the Senate, was humiliated. He answered Humphrey briefly, concluded his remarks and walked out. Then all the Democrats walked out in protest, including Dick Russell of Georgia. And henceforth whenever Humphrey arose to speak, all the major Democrats walked out. Even senior Republicans Taft of Ohio and Milliken of Colorado, friends of Byrd walked out. So did Joe McCarthy who was hard up for friends then. Lyndon Johnson told Humphrey, “Hubert, that’ll never do.” The brash Humphrey was disconsolate. He apologized to Byrd and ate crow—huge dishes of it. He was silent for quite a while, a huge penance for Humphrey while LBJ led him around to make amends. The story raced across the nation that this brash young man had insulted the ranking Elder: a rude, ignorant young man had wiped his nose on the drapes of the Senate.

So when reelection time came in 1954, Hubert Humphrey was not exactly el supremo in the country. In Minnesota he wasn’t too bad but the Republicans thought they could beat him and President Eisenhower and his vice president Richard Nixon had slated him as a key target. Some Minnesotans weren’t exactly sure what they had in this firebrand young Senator. In fact, they had just beaten a liberal Republican Senator who was a show-boat: Joe Ball who thrived on press and controversy; they had picked Humphrey over him. All in all, they were used to more conservative Senate types: like Republican Ed Thye, an expert on agriculture who served their interest; Hendrik Shipstead, the old Farmer-Laborite who voted against World War II and Ernest Lundeen who rarely made speeches. The Minnesota Republicans nominated to oppose Humphrey a veritable ethnic icon on that tail-end of the ethnic era: a man named Valdimar Bjornson, an Icelander who spoke Norwegian, Danish and Swedish, who was progressive but also conservative: the state treasurer. He was Mr. Fiscal Integrity and had calculated how many billions of taxpayer dollars Humphrey had proposed for his ever-growing list of urgent agendas for the nation. Like Humphrey, Bjornson was an orator. It promised to be quite a match.

When I rode along with Humphrey, he was blowing his nose and coughing, sipping syrup to ease his throat; the money wasn’t coming in all that well; Eisenhower was sky-high in the state and had promised to come in frequently for Bjornson on Ike’s silver eagle, the Colombine. It was a cold, grey day in Minnesota, the farmers were pouty, the Catholics seemed to like Ike, Protestants liked Ike, Jews liked Ike, business was chilly to Humphrey and after a rocky couple of years he was getting re-acquainted with the territory. What happened that day has stayed with me for the rest of my life.

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