Thursday, March 30, 2006

Going Back to St. Cloud from Duluth’s CIO and Final Reflections on Humphey…Venial Sins...Entry into Religio-Show Business

The long drive back to St. Cloud from Duluth gave ample time for reflection on this man Humphrey—and good it was, too, since I only saw him very sparingly from that time on until his death in 1976. He was, above all, a pugnacious man, either angered or sarcastic in his appeal to remedy injustice, who could almost pass as a plain small town druggist from Doland, South Dakota when he first began speaking. To him ideas were so important he disregarded grammar and pronunciation. The word was State of the Union AD-dress for Ad-DRESS. He continually said “kep” for “kept” and always dropped his “ing’s” and not for effect: goin’, meetin’, talkin’, waitin’. How did he win speech contests during the Depression? In those contests he was always marked down for appearance, grammar, lack of friendliness, by one judge for “talking out of the side of his mouth like a Chicago gangster.” His voice was not resonant nor properly basso like Dirksen’s or with rolling pronunciation like William Jennings Bryan. What was the answer?

The answer was, as one oratorical judge wrote when Humphrey won a Midwest contest over students from Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa, that “he gives the idea he knows the most.” His hard rasping voice, nasal to a degree, his (as one noted) “jamming the epiglottis down so hard the air could not get to his larynx, bumping his tongue densely on the back of his mouth, pushing hard with the muscles of his throat rather than relying on his abdominal muscles to do the work” made his voice come out with a rasp. Sounds unattractive, doesn’t it? But when he spoke he was what we called a
”drugstore liberal,” with a beguiling tone. One critic likened him to a big league pitcher with a blazing fast-ball, with such an overpowering delivery that he didn’t need a curve. All in all, breaking the rules as he often did, he was still the most compelling speaker of his generation. The better speakers of his generation almost always came off more polished: certainly FDR the patrician, JFK the Bostonian, Dirksen the comedic small town oratorical champion. But of these, I have always maintained Humphrey was the best because from the first sentence to the last he had instant rapport. Preparation and impressive encyclopedic marshalling of facts was his gift. But there was another thing.

He showed how to frame an issue. What do I mean by that? It’s not the assortment of facts in an argument but seizure of the initiative. Let me describe it rather than define. One day as he was campaigning in central Minnesota with me as reportorial side-kick, he decided, quite off the cuff, to stop in to see if he could speak to a group of farmers and small town neighbors who were attending a type of town meeting at which candidates of all types—legislators, aspirants for Congress, aspirants for county board—were speaking. Humphrey had calculated that for the most part they would be Republicans which made them appeal to him all the more.

As we stood in the back hearing the candidates, it became apparent that they were not only Republicans for the most part but devotees to President Eisenhower. That got Humphrey excited and he popped a spearmint in his mouth, chewing rapidly as he listened to a string of Republicans getting up asking the voters to elect them to enable them to, in some way, help Eisenhower. That was the big thing with Republicans in those days—elect them to help Ike. Of course he was noticed immediately as we stood in the back of the hall and the master of ceremonies invited him to speak as well because he was up for reelection. Normally one should be somewhat daunted by a heavy Republican house and very partisan Republican candidates—but Humphrey marched right up to the front of the room, not particularly shaking hands with individual members of the group.

His response was like this. Notice the framing. “Thanks, Mr. Chairman. I’ve been standin’ in the back of the hall listening to a number of fine Republican candidates asking you farmers to send them to Washington or St. Paul or whatever so they can help Ike.”

There was a general murmur of agreement.

“I tell ya, Ike has enough help. Why he has a White House chucked full of Republicans. He’s got a secretary of state, Mr.Dulles who is a multi-millionaire, he’s got Engine Charlie Wilson from General Motors, a multi-millionaire as secretary of defense; he’s got Oveta Culp Hobby at health, education and welfare, a multi-millionaire publisher; he’s got Douglas McKay as secretary of the interior, a multi-millionaire; he’s got Art Summerfield as postmaster general a multi-millionaire; he’s got Ezra Taft Benson as secretary of agriculture who’s a shirt-tail relative of the powerful Taft family of multi-millionaires; he’s got Sinclair Weeks as secretary of commerce, a multi-millionaire, he had poor old Marty Durkin of the plumbers union, a Democrat as secretary of labor but he didn’t fit so now he’s got Jim Mitchell, a big time corporate labor consultant, a multi-millionaire. He’s got a Republican Congress—both Houses—chuck full of Republicans. Now, excuse me, but we hear the cry: “Send me to Washington to help Ike! I tell you Ike’s got enough help. Do YOU? I would advise you to send somebody to Washington to help YOU!”

That placid, mushy rally turned into a Democratic-Farmer-Labor full-blast convention that very minute. We couldn’t hardly get out of there because the farmers leapt off their chairs and gripped his hands—sometimes both hands—saying, “by God, Hubert, I may be a Republican but I like what you said!” That, I tell my students whenever I teach, is issue framing. He did it in all of ten minutes—an extraordinarily short speech for Hubert and then, his hands sore from handshaking, we were back in the car and cruising down the highway.

Then I say: Consider what Hubert did. He didn’t use statistics that time or scathing rejoinder, did he? Did he lie? No, but exaggerated outrageously only once. Ezra Taft Benson was an apostle of the Church of Latter Day Saints (Morman) and was decidedly not a multi-millionaire, having given away far more funds in accordance with the strictures of that religion than he kept. But what did Humphrey do? Not lie. He said Ezra Taft Benson was a shirt-tail relation of the famed Taft family of multi-millionaires. Everybody knew of the family of the late president and his son Robert Taft, a multi-millionaire and Horace Taft, his uncle, a multi-millionaire publisher. Under the rubrics of politics, it’s slick but oratorically permissible in the heat of battle. But that is what’s known as framing.

Humphrey didn’t invent framing (probably Alexander Hamilton did) but HHH was its best modern practitioner. Framing probably started with Lincoln’s admonishment in the midst of the Civil War not to change horses in the middle of the stream—a phrase he invented from his days on the farm. The best issue framer alive today is the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr. whose masterpiece coined during the Boston busing controversy still rings true: “Folks it ain’t the bus, it’s us!” There’s only one current Senator who imitates Humphrey to a T and regrettably, I must say, has his ear for issue framing. . He doesn’t have a lot of other gifts, certainly not the gift of what Hubert would say is “layin’ straight in bed” but he has framing down pat—Dick Durbin.

Once back in St. Cloud I covered Humphrey’s opponent, Val Bjornson, but it was like covering an auditor come to analyze the books vs. a true showman. He lost to Humphrey, of course, although I tried mightily to make him sound interesting.

On election night, 1954, , I dropped by the Stearns county Republican headquarters which was a wake. The GOP had lost the House and Senate and Hubert was on his way to Democratic leadership under Lyndon Johnson. The House had Sam Rayburn as speaker instead of Joe Martin. The mainstream media, not unlike today’s, forecast the death knell for Eisenhower if he would seek a second term. A prominent lawyer in St. Cloud, Fred J. Hughes, approached me at the wake and said he enjoyed my articles on Humphrey. “I perceive you’re a progressive Republican,” he said. I wasn’t sure what a progressive Republican was but responded possibly he was right.

“I want to talk to you about this state’s Republican party,” he said. “I’ll call.”

I forgot it and anyhow he didn’t call for quite some time. In the meantime, I was enjoying St. Cloud hugely, with the only proviso that it would definitely crimp my style to continue to live on $67.50 a week and any of the free-lancing I could gin up. I would have to think about moving on. I had a tentative offer from the St. Paul Pioneer Press but moving to that so-called Big City didn’t encourage me since it wasn’t too eager to pay a living wage to a young writer.

So I concentrated, happily, on St. Cloud which was at the time a repository of innocent joy and a multitude of venial sins. Concupiscence existed yes, but the small city’s prospective outrage at the possibility of any young man—much less a Chicago journalist—getting one of their young ladies in trouble was an automatic check to lust (not to mention the reaction of the young journalist’s Chicago family) and an inducement if not to chastity at least mandatory celibacy. This will surprise you greatly when you contrast the Catholic hierarchy there to the ultra-flexible and unself-confident one of today, but the Bishop of heavily Catholic St. Cloud was far more powerful than the mayor (a former Korean flying ace who stole my girl). The Bishop announced, for example, that he would prefer the diocese’s dance hall to be closed in Lent which meant that all citizens, Protestants and unbelievers alike, were to be deprived of entertainment during that penitential season. The dance halls timidly assented. The Norwegian Lutheran dinners had to be held on Sunday but no dancing.

In the meantime, I continued to get my hair cut by any Indian who would be incarcerated in the sheriff’s jail…eat Sunday leftsa and lutfisk at the Norwegian and Swedish dinners…occasionally allow myself to be confused as the progeny of the long dead and evidently great Federal Judge John Roeser…and hustle feature stories to wire-services. On several occasions, I ran the public address system at the minor league ball-park, reading the batting lineups and beginning with the profound intonation: “Ladies and Gentlemen, Our National Anthem!”

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