Saturday, May 20, 2006

Flashback: Drinking Straight with Mrs. Heffelfinger and Getting Straight with Wallace Mitchell

[More on the road to complete reminiscence of the past for my kids and grandchildren.]

After a meeting with the powerful doyen of the Minnesota Republican party, Elizabeth Bradshaw Heffelfinger, I determined that the best thing for me to do is to establish a relationship of sorts with Wallace Mitchell, the influential liberal political editor of the Minneapolis Star who was worrying that his days as unofficial counselor to Republican leaders would be jeopardized by my presence. How to do it without showing weakness and fearfulness of my position was the problem. There was the age difference: he was 54, I 27; he was a tough liberal who had ingratiated himself as the “know-all” with his paper to the extent that they would ask him how stories should be played; I was a graduate of a country newspaper who had no power whatever.

In doing his job, Mitchell had wormed his way into the confidence of Mrs. Heffelfinger and others with the effect that he occupied a role unknown to his journalistic employers as a major strategist, in the same way that George Tagge of the Chicago Tribune had done in Illinois (except that Tagge had done it forthrightly, with support of his newspaper and the wholehearted gratitude of the Illinois Republican party while Mitchell had done it surreptitiously, with his influence unknown by his newspaper). No private tipping off the newspaper of Mitchell’s double life would work because the newspaper believed in him and Mrs. Heffelfinger cherished the conspiracy. So he looked to be buttoned in there for good.

But in a very real sense, Mitchell was betraying both: as a liberal Democrat, he was giving Republicans sometimes good advice which was a kind of betrayal; then he would give the GOP bad advice to even the score which was a betrayal of the GOP’s great confidence in him.. In addition bu his own newspaper’s rules, he was a walking conflict of interest. There is no moral law forbidding a journalist to consort with politicians; not even an absolutist ethical reason that he couldn’t do both: the history of journalism is replete with such activity. If there were monetary payment by politicians that would be unethical, but that could never be proved and it would be disastrous to allege. So I called Mitchell for lunch; we managed an uneasy truce while I heard hints from him as to the many reasons why I was too na├»ve and young to participate in the same role as he, and he had a very good point. He was an extraordinarily talented political analyst and counselor.

There are many examples from history that show the major force of journalists as partners in molding politicians’ reputations. Ben Bradlee then of Newsweek was such a close friend of John Kennedy—and an adviser, too—that by his own testimony he refused to take note of any personal dereliction in Kennedy’s behavior (with women). We know that Philip Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post, was an active participant with Kennedy at the 1960 convention and greased the way for Lyndon Johnson to become Kennedy’s running-mate…so much so that his paper was scooped at times on stories he had already known and could not release out of loyalty to the Democrats. We know that Kay Graham, although not as conspiratorial as her late husband Philip, was a vigorous partisan and ally of Democratic presidents; that Joe Alsop was a confidant of a series of Democratic presidents; that Arthur Krock, Washington bureau chief of The New York Times was a fast confidant of Joseph Kennedy and steered the writing of JFK’s award-winning book, “Why England Slept.”

Indeed journalistic alliances go back to the founding of the country when Alexander Hamilton had not only his pet journalist but had his wealthy friends set up a newspaper for him; the same with Thomas Jefferson. It was Jefferson’s pet journalist who, for one reason or another, soured on his patron and produced the story of Jefferson’s mulatto mistress, the comely Sally Hemings, who was the half-sister of Jefferson’s dead wife. And it has gone down through the years, with FDR and Marquis Childs, Truman and Eddie Folliard, Eisenhower and The New York Herald-Tribune past Kennedy, Johnson, Ford (not Carter) until it was discovered that George Will participated in a debate briefing for presidential candidate Ronald Reagan.

And there was a formidable Minnesota precedent. Harold Stassen became governor largely through the good press supplied at the outset by the St. Paul Pioneer-Press and Dispatch’s political editor who was every bit as powerful if not more so than Mitchell: Joseph Ball. In fact, Ball became such an intimate part of Stassen’s governorship that he was walking around with such complete knowledge that, sitting at his typewriter, he would have to examine himself before writing—so as not to indicate that he knew more than he could let on. The news that a powerful administration department head was privately being investigated for theft while the department head was featured on another issue entirely—and scores of other examples—caused Ball no end of problems. He sat on the news that Stassen, at his urging, had decided to enlist in the Navy during World War II to ultimately get the veterans’ vote for president afterward, determining to allow Edward J. Thye to become governor. All the while, his closeness to Stassen was getting around and Hubert Humphrey of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party was leery of him, and properly so—with Humphrey cutting him off from all Democratic leakage. Ball was so close to Stassen that when Sen. Ernest Lundeen was killed in an airplane crash, Stassen asked Ball if he wanted to be named U. S. Senator. To which Ball said, “hell, yes!”

And Joe Ball, Democrat, ink-stained wretch and political editor, became Republican U. S. Senator under appointment—the only Republican Senator who supported FDR for reelection in 1944! . Humphrey, who was mayor of Minneapolis, was enraged but he needn’t have been since he had favorites, too, namely a young Wallace Mitchell of the Minneapolis Star. Humphrey ran against Ball for the Senatorship in 1948 and won. Whereupon Mitchell became his choice confidant. Then for some reason—Mitchell began advising Mrs. Heffelfinger, the grand matron of the Republican party while seemingly never losing his touch with Hubert. In his time he was more influential than Ball, seen as a strategist for both sides. You could find out what both parties were plotting by getting Mitchell drunk. Intriguing.

So Wallace Mitchell was on familiar ground. And no snooty-nosed kid from Chicago via St. Cloud would dislodge him. Unless. I decided that as a full-time publicitor, I should be able to find out Republican information that even Mrs. Heffelfinger and Mitchell didn’t know: what was happening in the grassroots, for example, far away from her palatial manor in Wayzata of Mitchell’s newspaper office in Minneapolis. And so I got in touch closely with Congressman Walter Judd who was not enamored of Mitchell and key grass roots conservatives as well in all sections of the state. Shortly thereafter, I began steering Mitchell’s rival, Fred Neumeier, political editor of the St. Paul Dispatch-Pioneer Press, and the successor of Joe Ball in that post, to real news. Neumeier began to blast out with exclusives which the paper banner-lined: feuds between progressives and conservatives, likely toppling of Republican state lawmakers, likely conflicts of interests in the administration of DFL governor Orville Freeman.

After about a month being drowned by Neumeier exclusives from his own beat, I got a call from Mitchell. “What gives with Neumeier?” he said. “How’s he getting that stuff?” I said mildly that Fred Neumeier was one hell of a reporter. “No,” he said, “He’s not one hell of a reporter. I know Fred Neumeier. He’s so lazy he never leaves his desk. You’re giving it to him.” Of course I denied it. “Okay, Tommy,” said Mitchell. “Let’s have lunch and work it out.” We did and didn’t work it out. Mitchell started drinking after lunch as I listened to him and watched him getting progressively tipsy. “Listen,” he said, “Heffelfinger is my beat.” Of course, I said, I wouldn’t dream of interfering with your long relationship. She’s a cute old girl. [Lord, I shouldn’t have said that!]. “What do you mean by that?” he said. “That I’m sleeping with her?” No, I said, she’s far too old for you [Lord, again: I shouldn’t have said that either. I decided that when I get fired I would have to tell my mother that I was fired by hinting to a drunken reporter that he was either sleeping with a Mrs. Elizabeth Heffelfinger, then in her sixties, or that he was too young for her. To which my mother would say, “Then it’s time you came home to clean Chicago after wallowing in that immoral cesspool.” But it never came to that].

He was getting progressively sloshed when I said, “Wally, I have to go back to work. Let me just tell you one thing: We can work together or we can work separately. It’s your choice.” And I walked out. The next morning I was summoned to the Heffelfinger mansion.

“I understand you think I’m sleeping with Wally Mitchell,” she said in her frostiest tone. No, ma’am, I didn’t say that: That is entirely wrong and was probably told you by Mitchell when he was drunk. “I understand you think I’m too old for him.” No, ma’am, I didn’t say that either and was probably told you by Mitchell when he was drunk.

She offered tentatively, in a subdued tone: “Wally doesn’t get drunk.”

I said, Mrs. Heffelfinger, Wally does too get drunk and does so frequently. But that isn’t the point.

She shouted, “Well, what is the point?”

The point is we can work separately or we can work together. It’s his choice and also yours. Obviously I can also be fired. But Mr. Neumeier wouldn’t like that because he has a certain fondness for me. The implication was that Neumeier would zero in on the Heffelfinger cabal in retaliation for his source being fired. That would certainly not have happened but when conspirators begin to consider what may happen to them, they grow weird. .

She got up, poured a drink for herself (it was 10 a.m.), offered one to me which I accepted. She said, “You young rascal you.”

We drank in silence. Then she said, “How do you propose we proceed?”

Pardon me? Proceed with what?

“Working together.”

I propose that we three form a partnership: you, me—and if you want Wally around—with Wally. You are the senior partner, of course. But I’d like to be a full partner with Wally.”

She tipped her glass bottoms up. “Deal.”

Is it? Will Wally accept that?

“He damn well better, my dear. Now where does Fred Neumeier fit into all this?”

His sources may well dry up if this is to be a full partnership and I suspect Wally Mitchell will continue as he has up to now.

“Deal.”

When I got back to the office, driving very slowly after the onslaught of morning scotch and sodas, there was a call from Mitchell. Deal. But not long after that, Mitchell dropped out of the partnership—nearly dropped out of journalism altogether. He was taken off the political beat and put on the desk. I was mystified. Mrs. Heffelfinger called me, aghast, and wondered if I had anything to do with it. I didn’t and told her so. She said she didn’t believe it. To imagine I had that kind of clout with the owners and publishers of the Minneapolis Star whom I had never even met was ridiculous.

It turns out that the rumor was Mitchell was years behind in paying his Minnesota state income tax—and as a political reporter who was covering state government while in serious arrears in his tax payments all the while other Minnesotans paid theirs, his continuance in that role was intolerable, said the Cowles people who ran his paper (as well as the Des Moines Register and Look magazine).

His interrupted service had nothing to do with me because I would have no idea whether he paid his taxes or not—but for some strange, complex reasoning endemic to born conspirators, Mrs. Heffelfinger determined that I had found out about his tax avoidance and had “gotten” Wallace Mitchell. She gave me far more “credit” or blame, actually, than I deserved. Strangely enough, she regarded it as a great recommendation for me—that I had torpedoed the major political writer in the state in a game of dirty ju-jitsu! She decided that since I could play dirty pool, I could thereby fill his role since she luxuriated in the notion that she could play dirty pool too. And so quite innocently, I got the reputation as being a bad guy to fool around with. The reputation has been very helpful to any political staffer from young Captain Alexander Hamilton, the guardian of the door at General Washington’s Valley Forge down to Karl Rove…and in between on a very minor level, me.

[Next: A botched Heffelfinger-hatched attempt to dump Richard Nixon from the vice presidency in the 1956 national convention.]

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