Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Cabot Lodge for Vice President

[More posthumous reminiscences from grandpa to be read on a rainy Sunday when the grandchildren want to find out what went on].

No sooner did I begin meeting regularly with the grande matron of Minnesota politics than it became clear she had been in touch with those in the eastern wing of the national GOP who felt Richard Nixon’s slating as vice president—despite the fact that it had been done at the suggestion of New York governor Thomas E. Dewey—had been a mistake. She was very much interested, as her eastern friends were, in seeing if President Eisenhower would agree to dump him as running-mate in 1956: but contrary to everyone’s expectation, her candidate for vice president was not Harold Stassen whom she regarded with a kind of lofty contempt. She did not make it clear at first but her private choice was—who else?—her great and good friend, Cabot Lodge.

Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. was then the well-publicized ambassador to the UN. A pedigree as long as your arm that goes back to John Cabot nee Giovanni Caboto Venetian discoverer of the mainland of North America in 1497, the Cabots were so blue-blood they were celebrated as “speaking only to the Lodges and the Lodges speak only to God. The Lodges helped settle Massachusetts and got hooked up martially with the Cabots. It is interesting to think of the ultra-blue blood Lodge as a descendent of an Italian sailor. Lodge was the grandson of the first Ph.D in political science granted by Harvard, Lodge senior, who had been a strong ally of Theodore Roosevelt. Lodge was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee that scotched Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations. Junior was one of the youngest Senators in U.S. history when he resigned to enter World War II, the first Senator to do so since the Civil War.

He returned a Lieutenant Colonel, got reelected to the Senate and was one of the most instrumental leaders in winning the GOP nomination for Dwight Eisenhower in 1952. He so neglected his own fortunes that he was defeated for reelection by John Kennedy that same year. In 1953 Eisenhower named Lodge ambassador to the United Nations. Lodge never lost the reputation similar to that of Freddy in “My Fair Lady,” the nice appearing young man, not terribly bright but accommodating: the type who would burst into a room and announce brightly, “tennis, anyone?”

I had not cared for Nixon ever since the 1952 convention when he moved from Taft to Eisenhower—but in particular something stood out that signified he was not manly. Yes, not manly. That term goes back a long way and has just recently been reintroduced by a conservative Harvard historian as the title of a book in which he seeks to re-engender an appeal for genuine manliness in politics. Am I saying that to me Nixon was effeminate? No, not manly. Remember, in the midst of the 1952 campaign some muck-raker or other turned up what he called a secret “slush fund” of money raised by rich people for the personal political use of young Congressman and later Senator Nixon? Nothing wrong with it and at the time it was legal; indeed, it later turned out that wealthy benefactors or Governor Adlai Stevenson of Illinois had set aside an identical fund for Stevenson to use for travel, for hiring consultants: that kind of thing.

As Eisenhower did whenever Nixon’s integrity was questioned, he fudged and didn’t come up with a quick response. Eisenhower-Nixon headquarters announced that Nixon would have to answer the charge himself.

With the “slush fund” endangering him on the ticket and as history records, Nixon scheduled a live national television program with which to respond. On the program, he pulled out all the emotional stops as Nixon always did when he got in a fix. He said his wife wore “a cloth Republican coat” instead of a fur one…and he focused at the end of the program on his puppy Checkers who was given to his kids. It was a tinny, over-drawn, lachrymose ending which dominated his speech and got him acquitted in the public mind and frustrated the Democrats: which pleased me no end…but I still felt the choking up part about the little dog was awfully corny. The results that came in from the speech were overwhelmingly positive and Eisenhower scheduled a meeting with Nixon midway on the continent where their campaign trains came together. With all the cameras grinding, Ike said, “Dick, you’re my boy.” At that point, Nixon wept and buried his head on Ike’s shoulder to the embarrassment of the old general. It was that well-publicized moment that traumatized me as being “unmanly.” I drew that conclusion and kept it throughout my life.

“Well,” said Mrs. Heffelfinger one day over her glass of rattling ice cubes, “what do you think of Nixon?” I told her my impression of unmanliness, which she took instantly as a sign I was aboard.

“The best thing to do would be to dump him for Cabot Lodge,” she said.

Yeah, I said, but as Republican National Committeewoman from Minnesota you can’t be viewed publicly as consorting for Lodge with Harold Stassen in the running for the future. And Lodge can’t be seen as jockeying against a vice president, given Lodge’s position. Why don’t you use Harold--.

She caught on quick. “Use Harold as a pigeon, shaking confidence in Nixon and causing Ike to call for an open convention which could nominate Cabot. Which would also finish off Harold, too. By God, you’re every bit as good at this as Wally.”

I never got to finish my sentences with her around but yes, that was the idea and I didn’t like the idea of being as good at conniving as Wallace Mitchell, especially since my sponsor was one of Stassen’s closest friends. But the idea was her property, for her to execute; Stassen, whom I had never met, would be a fool to be beguiled into trying to dump Nixon; he would ruin himself. But failing that, if she carried it off without flaw, Lodge would be promoted and Nixon put down which was all right with me. Or there was a third option: if she really messed up, Nixon would be enhanced, Stassen downgraded and Lodge neutered: which was not all right with me but so be it.

Let me warn you not to get Lodge in the papers in any way concerning this, I said, or it will embarrass him since the Nixon people won’t believe he isn’t a part of it.

And so, engrossed, she turned to her telephone, happily conspiring. In the meantime, I was meeting all the political reporters in the state, setting up conferences for my two bosses, John Hartle and Kay Harmon, to meet—one in the southern part of the state, one in the Twin Cities, one in central Minnesota, one in far northern. And there was a bit of personal fun to attend to. The Knights of Columbus in St. Cloud were coming to the Twin Cities to put on one of their lusty initiation ceremonies and I would play the part of the mad dog—my favorite where I would bite open Alka Seltzer tablets in my mouth and froth like a rabid person.

The first change I didn’t like was when I got to the hall in Minneapolis and found I would have to play the role of the priest. St. Cloud police detective George Stotko and I rehearsed a couple of times, him pretending to slap me and I falling but my roman collar wouldn’t open appropriately. After a few times, I had it working. Everybody in the cast was on hand. After the performance we would go out for dinner since it was probably going to be the last time I would be working this gig—and I was rather downcast about it.

The initiation went fine and we went out for dinner to a place in Minneapolis someone had recommended—but it was a dump. Still, the St. Cloud group had to eat and get on the road for the hour and a half trip back, so we made the best of it. The crowd in the steak joint was somewhat intoxicated and so to join in the festivities we had a few drinks ourselves. To say farewell to the good old times, I commandeered a piano that had been vacated by the professional pianist. The St. Cloud people stood around me as I played when one heckler across the room, sitting at a bar, wanted the return of the professional pianist. Unable to get attention to his point of view, he seized a round, tin waiter’s tray and twirled it across the room like a Frisbee where it struck me soundly on the forehead, knocking me off the stool to the floor where I lay for a few seconds trying to gather my senses. My loyal teammates raced across the room at him but he vanished to the street out a side door. That ended the festivities and I had a small, swollen hematoma the size of a small egg on my forehead.

It took two days for it to go down and I had quite tucked the episode out of my mind when at my office at Minnesota Republican Headquarters the morning’s mail carried an envelope addressed to me from a Mr. Thomas Davies of Minneapolis. I opened it. It was a copy of a letter sent to Mrs. Elizabeth Heffelfinger, Republican National Committeewoman in Wayzata, Minnesota.

In paraphrase this is what it said:

Dear Mrs. Heffelfinger: :

Having dropped in to the Nicollet Restaurant Sunday evening with my family for a late dinner, I was startled to see a group of disorderly patrons commandeering a piano and singing in uproarious voices songs that were singularly inappropriate for that time of night. They were imbibing quite frequently and heavily, had dispossessed the regular pianist and were behaving outrageously. When I inquired who they were, I was told by one of their party that they were a religious group from St. Cloud. “A religious group,” I said, “how could that be since they are imbibing so freely?” There was no response to my question. The leader of the group, a young man playing the piano one of their number said, was none other than the director of public relations for the Minnesota Republican party, a Mr. Thomas F. Roeser. He added: “We know how to have a good time! What the hell, it’s after hours and on Sunday, so what’s your beef?” Then there was a wild struggle; the pianist, your public relations director, was struck on the head by a waiter’s tray thrown across the room and a gang of toughs raced over to the bar, following the person who tossed the tray to the street where God knows what happened to him.

Let me ask you: I have been told an effort is underway to revitalize the reputation of the Republican party in this state. Do you think the man in charge of that effort who was involved in the melee is appropriate for this task in light of the behavior I saw carried out on a Sunday night? When I left with my shocked family, he was lying on the floor trying to collect his wits after having been struck by the tin tray that was hurled in anger by a patron who was justified at the interruption of his meal.

As I have been proud to call myself a Republican and have given liberally in contributions and devoted volunteer time to your effort, I want to notify you that you have seen the last of me for the indefinite future until you rid yourself of such a person as this Mr. Roeser is, who, along with the others, exhibited such shocking lack of manners that I would characterize them as evidence of debauchery and asininity.

Copies were marked to the attention of my direct superiors: State Chairman John A. Hartle; State Chairwoman Kay Harmon; State Republican Finance chairman Lucian Strong; the senior Republican United States Senator Edward J. Thye; and all the Republican members of the House delegation starting with Congressman Walter H. Judd, the former Congregationalist medical missionary to China.

Well, I thought, so this is how it will end for Tommy Roeser. An innocent get-together in Minneapolis after a Knights of Columbus initiation and just my rotten luck to have a major financial contributor to the Republican party in that place. Mrs. Heffelfinger will not be shocked: she would have enjoyed being there herself; but the others would—especially the pillar of rectitude, Dr. Judd and Senator Thye whom I haven’t met as yet. What will my mother say? She will say, “I always told you to beware of false friends!” And I will say, “Mom, these are fellow Knights of Columbus!” “Knights of Columbus,” she would say, “they’re bums drinking and carrying on in the middle of a Sunday night or the wee hours of Monday morning when work is to resume, when they should have been home with their families! Well, now that you’ve been fired you can think about this indiscretion for the remainder of your life. Your father and I think you should come home as your reputation is probably damaged in the Twin Cities.”

I checked the address of the writer of the letter and it proved out: a man by that address lived in suburban Minnetonka, a wealthy suburb. I thought: well perhaps the best thing to do is to call Brad Heffelfinger who has the original copy now and explain it to her—and then to my immediate bosses and then, I suppose, with the Minnesota Republican congressional delegation, most of whom I haven’t even met yet. What an introduction for them to the man who is supposedly handling their party’s image.

. Thinking it over, I re-read the letter. Several questions came to my mind. First, what was a prominent contributor like Mr. Davies thinking about taking his family to dinner in that Hennepin avenue bar and grill where the food was awful and the noise unbearable even when we walked in? Second, who in the Knights would have used my name and have spoken so thoughtlessly to a stranger? Third the concluding words have a ring to them, words I’ve heard before: “debauchery and asininity.” They are grossly inflated words: intemperate we were, debauching we were not; foolish we were, asinine we were not.

So, my heart in my mouth, before I decided to do anything like rendering a full confession of my behavior, I would take a gamble. I telephoned St. Cloud and Martin Nilan, the head of our Knights of Columbus, who earlier had had his daughter pretending to be the screaming wife of James Gasser about whom I wrote when he drunkenly drove his car into a storefront in Sauk Rapids, Minnesota and at whose expense I foolishly had played with his surname: Gasser, quoting the village constable as saying, “Mr. Gasser was gassed, all right.”

Marty, I said. I got your letter today. Congratulations. Great joke.

He said, “what letter?” My heart sank.

Your letter. The one you sent to Mrs. Heffelfinger.

He said, “What? Mrs. Who?”

Come off it. It was really well-written.

“Are you okay? I didn’t send any letter. What letter? What do you mean?”

You didn’t send a letter to Mrs. Heffelfinger with copies to the Republican delegation in Congress from Minnesota?

“What? Why would I do that? About what? Listen, talk to me: what’s this about anyway?”

It was the real goods, then.

Well, I said disconsolately, and I read the letter. There’s only one thing I can do and that is to call up Mrs. Heffelfinger and tell her…

With that an office secretary came in and said, “Mrs. Heffelfinger on line one for you.”

I’ve got to go, I said. That’s her on the phone now. Goodbye.

“Wait! Wait!” he said. “Don’t talk to her yet. Listen to me. After I wrote that thing, I thought it was stupid of me to do. It’s a joke. Can you hear me?”

I pretended not to hear him, letting him believe the conversation was over. Bye! And hung up.

I was exhilarated with relief. But I took a deep breath before I took her phone call.

“Good news,” she said. “Things are starting to work. I talked with Harold Stassen and of course he’ll start ginning things up. He wants to be vice president! He doesn’t realize it but he’ll be running cover for Cabot. Isn’t that exciting!”

Not as exciting as what just happened before I took her call.

All the while she was on, the phone was ringing off the hook in the office. The secretary came in and said, “Mr. Nilan is on the phone and must talk to you this very minute—before you do anything drastic. I don’t know what that means! He’s terribly excited. What should I do?”

I said, tell him I’m making some important phone calls related to what we discussed and I’ll be making them for the balance of the day.

Let’s play a reverse guilt trip for the ace practical joker of the 1950s.

1 comment:

  1. This is a "posthumous rememberence"? Is there something you're not telling us? Did I miss your wake?