Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Spring: 1955 and I’m Getting Ready to be a Republican Flack.

[More for my kids and grandchildren: Keeping a secret has always been tough for me, so long about the end of May, I told the newspaper I’d be moving on to St. Paul on July 5th to bcome the Minnesota Republican Party’s first, full-time news-information director. Big yawn: but they wanted me to stay on until June 30, five days before I was to start. Somebody called up from the Minneapolis Tribune, offering a job as assistant to the Political Editor. Too late, I said. Their response: ‘How sad because you’ll never, ever be allowed to report politics again—once you cross the Rubicon, an iron gate descends and you’re barred forever because the taint of partisanship has stained you to the marrow of your soul which can never be removed.’ Do you hear that Tim Russert who worked for Moynihan and George Stephanopoulis who served Clinton and Brian Williams who was an intern for Carter?]

Minnesota’s Republicans were in the same lowly estate Illinois Republicans are now, with the exception that there was no corruption, on either side of the aisle. The Democratic-Farmer-Labor party controlled the governorship, lieutenant governorship (elected separately), attorney general, secretary of state and treasurer. Republicans held one state office, state auditor. Both houses of the legislature were Democratic (but they were non-partisan, with Republicans generally grouping in a caucus called Conservative; the Democrats in a caucus called Liberal—but to which there were exceptions, some Republicans from more northerly areas calling themselves Liberals and some Democrats from the more conservative areas Conservatives). Patronage was unheard of except for a few policy positions in state government. The governor named departmental positions, of course, and perhaps deputies but after that, the jobs continued in civil service. The legislature met every two years in sleepy sessions. Agriculture was a big topic; then mining. The state’s iron ore was being tapped out and there was a looming depression up north. Taxes were low.

The state had been run by Republicans since Governor Floyd B. Olson, a pioneer Farmer-Laborite, died in office. Republican Harold Stassen became not just the wonder boy governor of the state at age 31, but easily the man of the national GOP’s future. Stassen built his party strongly, in league with close friends like Fred Hughes of St. Cloud. After he left for the national stage (a grave mistake), progressive governor Luther C. Youngdahl was elected: a brilliant campaigner, brother of the nationally known Lutheran TV minister Reuben, who won headlines across the country for reforming the mental health institutions. Youngdahl swept to three terms and was easily a choice for the U. S. Senate, destined to beat Hubert Humphrey when Humphrey successfully pleaded with President Truman to name Youngdahl a federal judge, which was what Youngdahl wanted but no other Republican did. He was succeeded by his lieutenant governor: a doltish, sleepy-appearing terribly tongue-tied businessman named C. Elmer Anderson. Anderson won election over DFLer Orville Freeman in 1952 but when the public caught on to how sluggish and slow Anderson was, Hubert’s reelection caused almost a full-tide of DFL winners to take over in 1954.

Bereft of a governor or legislative majorities, the Republican party had to rebuild and started with a full-time media person: me. If I was as smart as I am now with the benefit of age, I’d have run away from the job but I didn’t know better. My job was to craft a message for the GOP in the media. This was the beginning of the television era. Radio was still king at least twice daily, though. The entire state tuned in at noon to hear an icon, at least as well known to Minnesotans as Oprah is to the nation today: his name was Cedric Adams. A rotund, heavy-drinking, outrageously and un-toppably scatalogical Minneapolis Star newsman who developed a chatty Uncle Cedric way with radio (he smoked Pell Mells while on the radio and you could him him inhale), he’d begin his noon performance on WCCO (CBS) with a shamelessly candid mixture of commercials and news: “Are you cookin’ with Crisco and suds’n with Dreft? This is Cedric Adams and the noon-time news!”

With that—zip—the toilets would stop flushing, the faucets would be stilled, the phones would go dead and the ratings on TV would fall flat as all Minnesota listened to Cedric until 12:15 when all the activities would begin again. The newspapers chronicled the power declines when he was on. Then back at 10 p.m. he would come. An announcer with a deep falsetto would intone: “Ten o’clock and time for Minnesota’s best loved reporter…Cedric Adams!” He’d begin with a cough, after a long day of smoking (and drinking): “Remember: For the best in bread, say Sweetheart! Sweetheart bread for all in your family. Cedric Adams with the top of the news as it looks from here!” A daily column (like Kup’s) in the Star, a giant live television program on Saturday nights with vaudeville acts (he started it at age 52 with no warm-up, becoming a natural and rival in our state to Arthur Godfrey) and many commercial endorsements earned him well over a million dollars a year. NBC begged him to move to New York to compete with Godfrey (“hell, no,” he said, “I like Godfrey!” in return for which Godfrey would often him Adams sub for him).

Looking back now, I am amazed that a state could be so clean without restrictive conflict-of-interest laws. It has caused me to be suspicious of purity-crusaders ever since: those who would bind hand and foot people serving in office. Those in the legislature were satisfied with their low wages, lawyers who served earning their keep in their law firms. The legislature was filled with farmers, who wanted to be done well before Spring planting…retired businessmen who, frankly, enjoyed getting away from home and wives and didn’t want the session to end, particularly…lawyers (in abundance, yes, some earning lucre by political contact but no one seemed to care)…wealthy young people, not unlike Peter Fitzgerald, who came to their dough by inheritance and who wanted political careers: Awfully clean! Most of the political sins were venial. The worst sin I remember is when some fat cat ponied up $500 to pay a Norwegian pig farmer with a popular name to withdraw his candidacy. The campaign finance laws were almost non-existent. All had to file with the secretary of state who would put their papers in a binder and tuck it away in a safe, there to be undisturbed until the next general election.

My boss at the Republican party was John Hartle, a kindly, wealthy multi-millionaire retired farmer who had been Speaker of the House and who now, in his `60s, was taking it easy as state chairman. He was known as too nice an old duffer for politics. His co-chairman was Mrs. Kay Harmon, a very wealthy (multi-millionaire) wife of a huge St. Paul publisher. She was an easterner, rather horsey with a Westchester county accent, with all the flare of an older Katherine Hepburn (and as good looking). She was a protype of many hard-driving GOP women of the era: wealthy, from the east, incurably liberal but gutsy. When Christine Todd Whitman dies they should preserve her with chemicals full-length at the Kennedy school at Harvard, on display for all future generations to see: she was the last of a long line or prominent Republican liberal women from the East. With Hartle who viewed me as his son, and Kay Harmon who saw herself as my mother, I was spoiled rotten as their little boy and participated in all their meetings with major domos.

Nothing I did was wrong and I had the run of the entire party to myself. They figured that since I knew Hubert pretty well I was a liberal, only a liberal Republican. Not exactly, I loved Hubert as a gregarious political animal but was a at that time still a relic carrying my father’s adulation for Bob Taft: but I didn’t tell them. It didn’t matter. Taft had died and the party was run by the Eisenhower people: their friends.

Their close friends included Stassen, of course (ponderous though, and away in Washington with a cabinet job under Ike); Warren Berger, a St. Paulite who was then an assistant attorney general under Ike; Harry Blackmun, the general counsel of the Mayo clinic and close buddy of Berger; Harry Bullis, the CEO of General Mills; Nate Crabtree the public affairs veep of General Mills; Henry McKnight, a multi-millionaire heir to the 3M fortune; Sally Pillsbury, heiress of you know what (another eastern woman lib); Elizabeth Bradshaw Heffelfinger (another easterner), wife of Peavey Heffelfinger, multi-millionaire owner of the Peavey grain company, a grand old warhorse who could top any man playing bottoms up in drinking rounds; Elmer L. Andersen (no relation to the defunct governor C. Elmer Anderson) who became rich by taking over H. B. Fuller Industrial Adhesives and who was a fast-rising liberal GOP state senator.

. The party headquarters and telephone lines were bursting with multi-millionaire volunteers. Believe it or not a woman who brought me coffee was youngish, attractive widowed Connie Dillingham of the fabulous Dillingham-Dole pineapple groves in Honolulu. If I stress the multi-millionaire facet too much it’s because the day before I started at the GOP I was still earning $67.50 weekly. And part of the group was the St. Cloud lawyer who got me into all this: Fred Hughes, but he was in St. Cloud and not around, always available by phone with wise counsel much like a Benedictine confessor. Every so often he’d call up and say, “Tom—you’re not partying too much down there, are you? Full-time politics can be terribly corrupting for a young man.” You can tell better than I whether it did or not.

Nobody had the faintest idea how to change the direction of the media which was very liberal, pro-Hubert and disdainful of the Eisenhower people. Incredibly, they believed this five-star general who conquered Europe and dealt with Churchill, Stalin, FDR and Truman, was dumb, inarticulate and being run like a puppet by Nixon and John Foster Dulles! The more I recall this, the harder it is to believe they would imagine this, but they did. They had the same review for almost all the Republican presidents who followed: that they were dumb, except Nixon who was evil. Gerald Ford was dumb, although he had been House Republican leader and vice president; Ronald Reagan was incorrigibly dumb although he had been a two-term governor of California; George H. W. Bush was a naïve boy scout although he had been Congressman, CIA director, emissary to China, UN ambassador and vice president. And his son is dumb although he had been governor of Texas for two terms.

You begin to see where they’re coming from when you see who they regard as smart: Adlai Stevenson, a one-term Illinois governor when we were eating horsemeat instead of prime fillet because the state ag inspectors turned crooked—but he was eastern articulate; John Kennedy, he was eastern articulate; John Kenneth Galbraith the redistributionist economist of whom it was said most great economists are tall but for two exceptions: Galbraith and Milton Friedman.

[Next time: How to go about winning a favorable voice in the media in a state where they’re liberal and in love with Hubert Humphrey and Gene McCarthy].

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