Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Flashback Again: And So 1956 Dawns and with It Elections for President and Governor of Minnesota as Well as the Attempt to Kick Richard Nixon Off the National Ticket…Proving Only the Stunning Stupidity of Harold Stassen

[More reading for my children and grandchildren, the latter of which probably won’t get around to it until long after I’m gone.]

As a one man combination public relations director and speech-writer for the Republican party in a heavily Democratic state, I resolved that I would strive to meet every journalist covering politics in the state of Minnesota, starting with me personally making the rounds of the media in the Twin Cities, delivering news releases daily like a newspaper delivery boy to people in the two major newspapers, the AP, the UPI, the four television newsrooms, the major radio newsrooms and those who sat on the rim of the desks in the city rooms of the papers at night when the political editors were home. I wrote a story a day and made the rounds, having coffee, stopping and chatting and collecting names. One was an African American new guy in the Minneapolis Tribune named Carl Rowan…one was the one-man news bureau at television station KMSP named Harry Reasoner, who as a young high school student from International Falls way up north won an essay contest on “Why I am a Republican” and with it the opportunity to read it to the Republican National convention in 1944, for which he was joshed by his colleagues unceasingly.

I would begin to make my rounds at about 2 p.m., drop by newsrooms and have coffee, swap stories, develop names for future contacts, finishing sometime after 10 p.m. This went on for the three straight years I held the job. I was insistent on meeting newsroom interns, staff secretaries on the copy desks—anyone who could help me later places stories. I would take some time off for dinner and resume the visits in the early evening, when the radio and television newscasts were being prepared. I was interested in making reporters my personal friends rather than political allies. To me it was far more important to develop lasting contacts in the print media than television or radio because I saw early that electronic news piggy-backed on what was in print.

I made it a rule never to complain about inaccuracy or slant, believing—as I do now—that objectivity is impossible. Reporters were interested in the fact that I seemed to know every word they wrote about politics. I made the observation then which remains with me now—that the source of left-leaning orientation in journalism is not endemic in the profession but comes from college majors in the liberal arts, mostly at elite institutions. For a variety of reasons, many newsmen became my friends: one being that, while far from liberal, I had always had the reputation as being something of a rebel, which suited the journalistic fashion of favoring the un-mooring of convention. I never knew intimately the biggest name in communications in Minnesota—Cedric Adams, a columnist of the Walter Winchell-Irv Kupcinet variety (three dots…a nugget of opinion or news and…three dots again) for the Minneapolis Star who made a fortune anchoring the noon and 10 p.m. radio newscasts on WCCO radio while television was just starting to be a rival.

In those days it was de rigeur for radio news broadcaster to introduce the show with a commercial line. For example, Adams would begin his wildly popular noon broadcast like this: “Are you cookin’ with Crisco and suds’n with Dreft? This is Cedric Adams and the Noontime news.” His sponsor at 10 p.m. was “Sweetheart Bread” and he would begin “For the best in bread say Sweetheart! This is Cedric Adams and the 10 o’clock news!” Of course it was a fatal alliteration, especially when he would show up for the 10 p.m. news at about 9:55 p.m. well-lubricated after dinner washed down with several martini’s. Anyhow, I had just walked into the newsroom at 10 p.m. one night in time to see and hear Adams blowing his initial line: For the breast in bed, say Sweetheart!” There was a devastating gasp after that gaffe and then an explosion of mirth—so loud and so long that a substitute announcer had to rush in to relieve the 260 lb. old master who was almost carried out of the studio in paroxysms of hilarity. The news director was not amused for in those days even the hint of sexual impropriety was near fatal…but the gaffe made news across the nation. Now it would be regarded as mildly comic if even that.

Adams was famous for gaffes. He specialized in giving housewives hints for his noon radio-cast. An archaic story from the `50s caused a state-wide sensation. One day in a particularly hot summer (before central air conditioning came to private homes) he instructed housewives who ironed their husband’s shirts (you can imagine how long ago that was) to stand in a bucket of cold water while ironing to cool off. Of course that would provide immediate electrocution and the station ran emergency bulletins to housewives to ignore Cedric’s latest hint, long after Cedric went to the neighborhood restaurant for drinks to prepare for the evening radio-cast.

Adams survived to move over to television, became the host of a popular variety show, was romanced by all the big networks to move to New York and rival Arthur Godfrey. Rather than rival Godfrey, Adams became Godfrey’s close friend and subbed for him in New York: but Adams wanted to remain—and did—a Minnesotan. Actually, Adams was by far the superior television performer to Godfrey with an avuncular knack, not the arrogant know-it-all mien that Godfrey had. He was actually the only television performer who vetoed having a national audience because he refused to move to New York for the networks: which made him even more of a hero in Minnesota.


All the while I was crafting news releases, trying to stir controversy with the reigning Democratic-Farmer-Labor party by picking their programs to pieces, lining up “spokesmen” who would agree to say whatever I wrote, the most colorful political woman I had ever met, Elizabeth Bradshaw Heffelfinger, the multi-millionaire Republican National Committeewoman from Minnesota, married to F. Peavey Heffelfinger whose family owned the Peavey Grain Company, was working doggedly behind the scenes to encourage the Republican party to dump Richard Nixon at its forthcoming 1956 convention in favor of Henry Cabot Lodge, President Eisenhower’s ambassador to the United Nations. The need to dump Nixon seemed urgent: Eisenhower had had a heart attack and an attack of ileitis which had necessitated an operation. There was grave worry that as one of the oldest presidents, he might die in office—especially if he won a second term. And the next president would be to the liberals’ horror: Richard Milhous Nixon.

After Ike’s heart attack and before his minor stroke and ileitis, we had hit on the very sound strategy of using Harold Stassen, a key cabinet figure, to foment progressive Republican discontent with Nixon. She and I bet that Stassen would stir the pot and probably harm himself in the process, but that with the door open to consideration of a new vice president, quiet, subtle suggestions would be made to President Eisenhower to open the convention up to choice: and that at that point, the Lodge people would be ready. Thomas Dewey, then considering retirement, was opposed—but after having lost two presidential races himself, Dewey was not in the strongest position. I remained distant from the enterprise because my original sponsor, Fred Hughes, wanted Stassen to get the vice presidential nomination, not Cabot Lodge…and I knew that wouldn’t happen. But every so often I would get clued in on the clandestine plot. And, it was clear, that Eisenhower himself wouldn’t be overcome with remorse if Nixon were replaced as Ike had heard some discouraging polls about Nixon himself.

It’s important to consider that Harold Stassen was not in 1956 the ludicrous comic figure he became. Stassen had captured national attention for being the nation’s outstanding governor in the 1930s, for quitting his political career and joining the Navy where he was a top aide to Admiral Bull Halsey, for returning to run for the presidential nomination in 1948 and 1952. Losing to Dewey in 1948 was almost lucky for him, because Dewey went on to blow the election to Truman which decimated Dewey for the future. In 1952 Stassen was a presidential candidate again and was overturned by Dwight Eisenhower. He was a charter founding member of the United Nations, then regarded as the last, best hope of man for peace. He was given a major cabinet-ranked post as head of Mutual Security under Ike, or the big foreign aid program which was an important part of our foreign-defense policies. Then he was made disarmament czar or the so-called “Secretary for Peace” which Eisenhower promoted as an antithesis to those who criticized him as a war-monger because of his military background. In short, Harold Stassen was very much the stature for progressive Republicans that John McCain has tried to become: independent, somewhat of a maverick but with a great appeal to liberal Democrats.

Mrs. Heffelfinger was in close touch with Cabot Lodge who, it must be acknowledged, didn’t care for the idea of ditching Nixon but who was agreeable to the notion that if Eisenhower wanted another vice president, he, Cabot Lodge, would oblige. After all, the vice presidency on a sure-win ticket with Eisenhower in 1956 would lead to a sure-thing nomination for president in 1960. Cabot Lodge was on television frequently from the United Nations, disputing with Soviet delegates and doing extensive interviews. The secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, didn’t particularly mind Cabot around if Cabot didn’t try to influence policy, which Cabot didn’t. “I tell you,” Mrs. Heffelfinger told Lodge, “let Stassen stir the pot. You just be quiet and prepare to let us plead for you to allow yourself to be considered when the President allows the convention to make its decision.”

But, said Lodge, I can tell you, Eisenhower is not going to ditch Nixon because Nixon is the key to the conservatives remaining true. He’s not going to allow the convention to pick the vice president!”

“Yes he very likely will!” she said. “All you have to do is shut up. You’ll let us try, won’t you?”

He shook his head and said okay, if the forces of big wealth want to act surreptitiously in his behalf—but, he added, he will not lift a finger nor say a word that is sympathetic to it. Quite the opposite: if asked he, Lodge, would endorse Nixon.

“We understand, Cabot,” she said. “Just let the process work.”

Of course it was a hideously dishonest ploy in the first place, crafted to encourage Harold Stassen to ruin himself by sidling up to him with flattery and telling him he, Stassen, is the man of destiny to remove Nixon—and that he, Stassen, would be venerated by the young progressives forevermore by doing it—all the while allowing them to pick as Ike’s running-mate Cabot Lodge.

What they failed to calculate on was Stassen’s ham-handed bluntness. Where the eastern progressive Republican coterie had financed a private poll be taken that would underscore Nixon’s lack of popularity and then leaked discreetly to the press, once the poll’s result was handed to Stassen, he became a blunder-buss. Instead of leaking it first, Stassen marched into the Oval Office and gave Eisenhower the findings, declaring that Nixon’s name on the ticket would cost the Republicans from 4 to 6 percent in November. While Eisenhower had fretted about Nixon’s standing anyhow in other private polls he had seen, now with Stassen urging political assassination, the old general to whom staff loyalty was essential was stunned—and immediately vowed to do away with Stassen and keep his administration unified. How could anyone imagine a president could do anything else with Stassen presenting him a proposal for Nixon’s head on a platter?

Eisenhower, the cool diplomat who had dealt with Churchill, DeGaulle and Stalin, told Stassen, “you’re an American citizen, Harold and free to follow your own judgment in these matters.” Stassen took that to be support—which it emphatically was not. When news of this got out via the grapevine before it hit the media, it was Cabot Lodge who almost had a stroke, fearing that this goofy Stassen would somehow mention Lodge. But Stassen didn’t. Instead he certified himself to become ever after the laughingstock. With the news making the rumor grapevine as columnists reported it on a sensational basis, Stassen sent a registered letter to Nixon while Eisenhower was visiting Panama, meeting with South American presidents in an effort to show his recovery to health was complete.

The letter came to Nixon and Rosemary Woods brought it to him while the vice president was lunching with General Jerry Persons, Ike’s congressional liaison and Leonard Hall, the GOP national chairman. The letter said (a) that his poll showed Nixon would lose up to 6 percent for the ticket with the number growing among more highly educated, best informed and younger voters, (b) that Eisenhower was an indispensable man whose reelection could not be jeopardized and (c) Stassen was announcing his support for Governor Christian Herter of Massachusetts for vice president! Nixon’s, Hall’s and Person’s eyes bugged out: Herter! He was a sixty-one year old governor, with career State Department service in his background, but severely afflicted with arthritis who often walked on two crutches, a diffident, remote former Congressman and ex-member of House Foreign Affairs who was not known particularly as a good campaigner. Herter was not on any list that the anti-Nixon people had prepared for vice president. What in the world was this crazy Stassen thinking of? But what dismayed me was that he was acting with the full concurrence of Fred Hughes of St. Cloud. My idol, a brilliant lawyer and master legal strategist was something less than a political genius.

As soon as the letter to Nixon became public, all sorts of putative successors to Nixon emerged via the leaking process—none of them Cabot Lodge (who screamed to his well-wishers that this was a damn fool idea anyhow and he wanted no association with it). Names included Governor Dan Thornton of Colorado and Governor Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin of Maryland with Governor Goodwin Knight of California officially supporting Stassen. Then Stassen called a news conference, endorsed Herter and said Eisenhower had approved an open convention, which he had only vaguely hinted at. Brad Heffelfinger was shouting over the phone to Stassen that he had actually re-nominated Nixon—which was true. A survey of House Republicans showed 180 of all 203 wanted Nixon (although that wasn’t exactly a stunning degree of support). Eisenhower hastened to cut off the revolt by having Sherman Adams, his chief of staff, call Herter and offer him the job of under-Secretary of State under Dulles (with the likelihood of Herter succeeding Dulles in the second term). Herter said okay and agreed to place Nixon’s name in nomination at the convention.

“That stupid [scatological]!” Brad Heffelfinger told me as she stirred our scotch and sodas at the usual hour of 10 a.m. “The only good thing to come out of this is to find out once and for all that he’s a [scatological, sociological inhuman whose parentage is in dispute].” I didn’t really care; if Stassen was that inept it was just as well that Nixon continued anyhow.

And besides, I was enthusiastic about accompanying Minnesota’s most famous Old Guard Congressman, the isolationist, America First, ultra-nationalist leader of whom I had read since the mid-thirties when my father had given me a tutorial about Robert R. McCormick’s favorites, the men who stood fore-square against Rooseveltian socialism. We were to travel his district in southeastern Minnesota for many days as he would certify his reelection, one of the last vital links between the Congress of the pre-electronic age. A last living compatriot of Robert Taft, Gerald P. Nye and Stephen A. Day. I could hardly wait!


Next time: A journey back through the decades when Congressmen, unburdened by electronic media, went through the country towns ala Abraham Lincoln with the last link to the Nineteenth century.

1 comment: