Monday, March 20, 2006

Flashback: The Humphrey Up-Close Experience Begins a Career Change.

“Well, I see we’re going to cover Hubert Humphrey,” sneered the business manager of my paper. “If bull-s—t were music, he’d be a brass band.” That really did it. I determined to give the Senator the best press of his life notwithstanding that I’d have to hold my nose doing it. But surprisingly it didn’t come to my overcoming a dislike; he was irrepressibly exciting, superbly irreverent, imitating Harry Byrd (“you shouldn’t do that,” cautioned the driver, my college classmate Mitch Perrizzo, “haven’t you had enough trouble with that guy?), putting on the new Democratic minority leader’s Johnson treatment (pressing his face near mine and straightening my tie and brushing lint off my jacket as he drawled southern-talk), taking off John Stennis’ hard-of-hearing tendencies in committee meetings, rolling a falsetto baritone in imitation of my home state’s Everett Dirksen. The bouncing, gregarious 43-year-old lawmaker was fighting a heavy cold on a grey Minnesota fall day, swigging what was really prescription cough medicine (I jokingly maintained it wasn’t) as we spun down Highway 10 through heavily Catholic and German central Minnesota.

He was ingratiatingly scatological as many young men can be, not caring if he would be quoted (strangely enough, trusting me not to quote him in the newspaper profile). “Woweee!” he said as we hit the campus of St. Cloud State Teachers were coeds were running in the chilly weather wearing gym tights that were then in fashion, “maybe we oughta have a seminar here, huh, Mitch? I’d take that brunette there aside and say `come here, my dear, and let us talk foreign policy’--.” “Hubert!” shouted Perrizzo, “I’m really getting concerned! Do you know we have a journalist here and likely a Republican one, too?” The next minute he was hustling down the sidewalk with the college president outlining a federal program he had authored, quoting the details from direct recall. At an old people’s home in Albany, Minnesota he was tender with a lady age 92 in a wheelchair who had fallen on the home’s back step having broken her hip and the step, saying that he had authored legislation that would install a Fall Clinic at University of Minnesota hospitals which could specially treat her hip and that there was also a program to repair the step, derived from the Hill-Burton Act. Mitch and I looked up to heaven for forgiveness.

But by 11:30 a.m. he had a slight fever by Mitch’s thermometer. We stopped at a restaurant for a glass of orange juice which he calculated would help his throat. I went to the phone to call in some of his quotes and when I returned they were in a serious conversation. Humphrey had agreed to speak at our alma mater, St. John’s University without having told Mitch, his driver and scheduler. St. John’s was thirty miles away and he had only 15 minutes to get there. Mitch was angered, sulky and properly stunned that Humphrey would pull that kind of thing without telling him. But that was Humphrey. “Don’t worry,” Humphrey said, “I’ll get you there.” Perrizo growled, “Oh you will, huh? What the hell are we going to do, sprout wings on this car and fly?” Humphrey took the insolence good naturedly and had decided what to do. There were two state highway patrolmen drinking coffee at the counter. “Gentlemen,” he said and they jumped up, startled. “Do you think your Republican governor would be upset if I asked you to escort this Democratic Senator to St. John’s in Collegeville with some special help?” They were delighted. Mitch was mollified and shook his head sadly, since he had seen this kind of thing happen before. Humphrey and I got in their patrol car; they turned on the flashing lights and siren and roared to St. John’s at 80 miles an hour while Mitch in his old Buick roared behind us trying to keep up. Flying through the small towns of Sauk Centre (home of Sinclair Lewis: Humphrey had a story about him), Avon, Freeport, Melrose while drivers pulled over to the side, Humphrey deciding not to wave at them (“bad idea” he said to me. “Why don’t you wave at `em?” I said, I don’t want `em to blame me! “Good thinking,” he said. “You got a future in this business!”

As we roared along, I discovered that he had not the foggiest notion of why he was asked to speak at St. John’s and I’m sure Mitch in the car back of us didn’t either. Then I remembered something as an alum. The Benedictines were marking some kind of anniversary of either the birth of St. Benedict or his founding the monastery at Mount Cassino in Italy—something like that. Humphrey paid great attention as he neared the campus. And, oh yes, I said: they are launching a 100 year building program. “Christ!” he said, “what takes a hundred years?” That’s the nature of Benedictines, I said, it is said that time means nothing to a Benedictine, as our police car swung into the courtyard and the Abbot of St. John’s was waving at us. Oh yes, I said: I remember now what the title of your talk is to be. “The Spirit of Benedictinism in America Today. It’s the keynote.” “What?” he said, trying to stop coughing, “What is the title?” The Spirit of Benedictinism in America Today, I said.

“The—what? The Spirit of--?” I repeated it: The Spirit of Benedictin-ism in America Today.”

“What is Benedictinism?”

I said: “Monasticism.” Then growing exitedly angry: “This is a monastery, Hubert! A Benedictine monastery with roots back to St. Benedict who lived in Italy in 500 A. D.! The monks kept learning alive! Don’t you remember your medieval history? Jesus!”

He grew thoughtful.

Then I saw the guy standing next to the Abbot (the head of the monastery). “See that guy? He’s the architect. You’ve got to recognize him.”

Humphrey said, “Now?”

“No not now! Of course not now. In your speech! I’ll tell you a little about him. I’ve sold out as a journalist before; I might as well again.”

“Jack,” said Humphrey to one of the patrolmen, “lock the doors. Don’t let `em in here. Go on out there and say we’re conversing and’ll be out in a minute.” The patrolman, commandeered as an escort, now became an official of the campaign, got out of the car and did what he was told. And as for me, intending to be a reporter, I had become an official briefer for the candidate, prepping him for his speech—all in the space of an afternoon.

“The architect’s name is Marcel Breuer,” I said.

“ Never heard of him,” he said.

I was surprised at that. “He’s a world famous architect, designed the UNESCO Building in Paris. Revolutionary. He’s been retained to design this 100 years building program. That’s all I know about it.”

Humphrey said, “gotcha. Let’s go.” One more swig of the purple cough syrup and he was out the door, bounding over to the Abbot and the architect, pumping his hand warmly.

As we walked to the auditorium, he glanced up at the Abbey buildings which were soon to be replaced, giving special attention to an old dormitory. In the auditorium we discovered the archbishop of St. Paul was along with about 2,500 Catholic dignitaries. As we strode along the sidewalk, he dropped back, grabbed me and whispered, “The Spirit of--?” I said: The Spirit of Benedictinism in America Today.” “Right.” Behind us, Mitch was rolling his eyes. He said, “You know, I’m still so mad I hope he goofs up. Would serve him right. I had to cancel a lunch with a big contributor because of this—this Humphrey will drive you right straight up the wall…” Aw, I said, let’s see how he does. “See how he does? Fine for you. You’re a Republican! This is my job!”

When he was introduced by the Abbot, Humphrey said this. I was so fascinated I didn’t take notes but 52 years later I can paraphrase it.

Father Abbot, Archbishop Murray, Reverend Fathers, Reverend Sisters, Distinguished Faculty, Students and Lovers of Saint John’s, I bring you greetings from our Nation’s Capitol where, outside the Senate chamber, there is a Men’s Room…

I thought: what in the world is this?

…where after you wash your hands you and extend them before an automatic drying machine which can emit a rush of tropical air to dry them you see a small sign on the machine that reads: “Push the button and listen to the voice of your U. S. Senator.”

The Abbot and archbishop suffocated with laughter (I frankly didn’t think it was that funny) but we were off. Twenty minutes later after he reviewed the contributions of the medieval Benedictine monasteries which kept the learning alive which has continued to be the treasure of the West, he talked about education—the education he taught as a professor at Macalester, the education dependent on the eternal verities of the West which the Benedictines had imperishably preserved. I saw the Abbot straighten up proudly. After 35 minutes of tracing civilization to the then contemporary struggle with “atheistic Communism,” he concluded in this fashion:

Down through the ages it has been said with great truth that glancing with a smile at me, time means nothing to a Benedictine. That’s why I am pleased to honor you as you initiate a one-hundred year building program. And that you have retained the outstanding architect, Marcel Breuer who designed the UNESCO Building in Paris.. Why as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations committee when last year I went to Paris I stole away to view that building. As vibrantly modern as are the challenges of this age, yet it is rooted in tradition and firmness, emblematic of the words of your holy Father, Benedict—and his immortal words “Ora et Labora.” Work and Pray! Those words, my friends, constitute the Spirit of Benedictinism which, God willing, you will make the Spirit of America today!

The crowd leapt to its feet and I would imagine if the Abbot had not concluded the session and the crowd were still alive, they would be applauding yet. Marcel Breuer was ecstatic: he told me in a thick Belgian accent, he saw my building! The history professor wanted the text. The university president grabbed me by the arm and shouted to me as the cheers continued, “Now you know why I’m a Democrat!” Surrounded by those eager to pump his hand, Humphrey signaled to us that this was the time to leave. We got in the car and Mitch said, “Well, goddamn it, Hubert, you did it! Magnificent! Just don’t ever pull that on me again. My heart can’t take it.”

What time is it, said Humphrey. It was 2 p.m. I believe, he said, “I’d like to stop for a sandwich and—and a drink.” He had sweat through his heavy woolen jacket. “I will buy that drink,” said Mitch. And I said, I will drink it.

As we sat and munched sandwiches, I told Humphrey: You remembered everything I told you about St. John’s—the 100 years, Marcel Breuer, the title “The Spirit of Benedictin-ism in America Today.” But where did you get the motto of St. Benedict—“Ora et Labora?”

He said, “Right off the building when we got out of the car! I saw it again on the old dormitory! On the top of the building! I saw it as we walked into the place. You guys think I’m dumb? Don’t know what Ora et Labora means? I’m a pharmacist; we know Latin!”

I was so entranced and protective I didn’t write it the way it happened. He knew I wouldn’t but didn’t ask that I not. But the experience started me thinking. Rather than being a journalist which is somewhat like a stenographer, I’d like to learn more about this business of politics. Because I saw it up close—somewhat phony, yes, but exciting and thoroughly captivating. And it was making history.

When I wrote the story, the Humphrey campaign thought it was so good they sent it around the state. A day later at my desk, I got a phone call from my buddy Mitch.

“He wants you to be his campaign press secretary,” he said. “And if he’s reelected you’ll go to Washington. Fifteen thousand per.”

God, I said, don’t tempt me. I’ve got to keep on doing this for awhile but I’m flattered.

Mitch said: Think it over. He wants you to cover him next week at the Duluth Labor Temple!

O.K. I’ll do it. But I got to cover your opponent, sometime.

I pondered it over and concluded that no matter how captivating this man was, how exciting, how irreverent and funny, I’m just a damn conservative…and I can’t work for him. But I didn’t say that to Mitch until some time later.

[See what you got yourself in for, reading an old man’s blog? Some more soon.]

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