Friday, May 12, 2006

Taking on the GOP Media Curse in Minnesota

General Dwight D
[More memoir-writing for my kids and grandchildren.]

The first thing I did for a party that had never relied on a full-time publicitor before (never having to: relying on a succession of Republican governors) was to tell my bosses they wouldn’t see me for a while but that I’d be spending it up on my expense account for lunches, pre-dinner drinks and dinners, sitting down with journalists one-on-one to get the lay of the land. The next month, filled with liquid lunches and dinners, almost ruined my digestive system but gave me a sense of what newsmen (and they were all male in 1955) felt, what they wanted. And as the late hours rolled on, they gave me an invaluable look-see into the political nature of the state.

The political nature was this: For years Minnesota’s GOP was progressive-liberal, run by attractive governors who didn’t mind using executive power for reform. All the while, the conservative base of the party was being nourished by a Robert Taft consensus, headed by a powerful State Representative, Roy Dunne of Pelican Rapids. Dunne was the House majority leader who had others play the role of Speaker. He represented the backbone of the party: big business, small business, farmers and worked his magic raising campaign funds and conservatizing the legislation behind the scenes after media-hungry charismatic governors pushed for things. It was a good balance, really. Stassen and Youngdahl, the two best governors, appreciated Dunne’s role in paring down their exciting ideas and making them realistic, because these governors recognized their ideas which were generated for public consumption, needed being worked over by a fundamentally sound conservative. For that reason, they had Dunne run around and play to the base while they exuded their magic with independent audiences. They even made him Republican National Committeeman for Minnesota.

They came to a split over the presidency. At first everything worked well. Stassen wanted to be president ever since 1940 and Dunne helped him by putting conservatives e.g. fund-raisers, lobbyists and big donors, into the mix. Dunne built a coalition in the national conventions of 1940 to stop Willkie, 1944 to stop Dewey and 1948 to stop Dewey again. They all lost but a working coalition was built between Bob Taft people and Stassenites. Dunne, working with a then very young George Tagge of the Trib. . They even got Robert R. McCormick to agree to support a Taft-Stassen ticket and even a Stassen-Taft ticket to stop Dewey. It was a brilliant achievement. Dunne was foresquare for Taft but was welcome in both Taft and Stassen camps building the alliance.

The ideal compromise of Stassen the liberal media glory-hound and Dunne the practical Taftite legislator and man of affairs came to a crashing halt in 1951. The swashbuckling risk-taking eastern-born wife of Peavey Heffelfinger, worth a half billion in those years (probably five billion now)--how’s that for a name: Peavey Heffelfinger?—had become the grande dame and social arbiter of Minnesota politics. Elizabeth Bradshaw Heffelfinger was an eastern product, a descendent of a Mayflower pilgrim: a broad-beamed gal with a longshoreman’s sense of humor, a legendary capacity for rough talk, libation and ingratiating herself with very tough journalists and cheered her daughter marrying Wendell Willkie’s son, Philip. A decided liberal, she nevertheless became privately fed up with Stassen (whom she called “Childe Harold” after the long poem in English literature). Saying nothing to anyone, she went for a week back east and sat down with a man she knew when she was young, a man she called “Cabot,” Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., the senior Republican senator from Massachusetts. If ever there was a man with black plastered-down hair, shined shoes and a wide grin that implied “tennis, anyone?” it was Lodge, grandson of the old warrior who opposed Woodrow Wilson on the League of Nations.

Cabot said he was dealing with 5-star General Dwight Eisenhower who was then in Belgium heading up NATO, that Eisenhower could be persuaded to run on the Republican ticket in 1952 and take on Taft but didn’t want to squabble with other progressive also-rans in the primaries like Stassen and Gov. Earl Warren of California. Cabot said Tom Dewey was in the picture for Ike but Childe Harold was not and could she help? Brad Heffelfinger was enthused but first wanted to meet Eisenhower. Lodge promised to fix it up. She flew back to her palatial manor in Wayzata, Minnesota and got on the phone. First she called her husband Peavey who was at work running the Peavey Grain Company. “Peavey,” she said, “you and I are going to Belgium to see Eisenhower. Cabot has set it up. We go Monday of next week. Clear your calendar. We’re taking a small group with us.” Peavey said obediently: yes, m’dear. She called Kay Harmon, a youngish eastern woman also a multi-millionaire who later was my boss as co-chairman of the Minnesota GOP. “Kay,” she said, “you and Ruehl [Ruehl Harmon, president of Webb Publishing] are going to Belgium with Peavey and me next Monday to meet General Eisenhower. We’re paying the way. Clear the decks!””

After lining up Donald Dayton of the department store, she called Congressman Walter Judd, the former medical missionary to China, a key member of House Foreign Affairs, who represented Minneapolis. “Walter, you and Murial are going to Belgium with Peavey, Kay and Ruehl Harmon and me next Monday. Clear the decks. We leave Monday.” Judd who was a major Stassen supporter protested. “Nope,” said Brad, “we’re paying and, dear Walter, if you know what’s good for you—only kidding—you’re going with us!” Judd assented. Next she needed someone with lawyerly sense of election law. Feeling insecure, she called the Minneapois Star and had Wallace Mitchell, its political writer and her drinking buddy, come over to her Wayzata home. Mitchell dropped his newspapering role and became her aide and political confidante.

She called Warren Burger, then a modest south St. Paul lawyer with aspirations, a close friend of Stassen but a willingness to rise no matter who was president. “Warren, you’re going with all of us to Belgium next Monday, I’m paying the way and you’ll be our lawyer. Your wife? Sure, hell yes, bring her, too! My personal secretary will get in touch with you.” She called Harry Bullis, head of General Mills. “Harry, you’re coming with Peavey and me to Belgium to see Ike. No General Mills can’t pay. Cancel everything. No, it’ll be great fun! Peavey’s paying for us all! O.k? O.k. Grand! We’ll meet Cabot over there! Grand! Your wife, what’s her first name? Hazel, yes. Sure, hell, bring her too!”

So the Minnesota delegation met with Eisenhower and was enchanted. Mitchell was crushed that he couldn’t attend but Brad promised him solace, exclusive stories in perpetuity which ranged throughout the decade.. Eisenhower, decked out in his uniform and five stars, did a cursory walk-through with a chart and pointer on the Soviet threat (the same show he had given President Truman), charming them all as Cabot Lodge knew he would. Later, Stassen found out but could do nothing about it. He met with Brad Heffelfinger and said that if things didn’t work out for him, he’d like to be Ike’s vice president. Brad didn’t commit but didn’t disdain the idea but she was not enthused about Stassen, sensing a kind of crazy idealism cum ego mania as himself as a Childe of Destiny that later did him in.

Meanwhile, she got hold of garrulous, ill-educated and pompous Senator Ed Thye, a Stassen favorite and covertly signed him up for Ike. The idea was: be for Stassen as in the past but be ready to switch to Eisenhower. Then came legislation setting up a Minnesota presidential primary. Stassen got all of them to support him but their fingers were crossed behind their backs. Now Brad has to go back to Brussels.

Brad got hold of Cabot, her old pal from eastern seaboard society and Cabot and she flew to Brussels. Ike told Brad he couldn’t formally announce but he gave a kind of passive assent to a write-in of his name. Writing in the name Eisenhower for the new Minnesota presidential primary became Brad’s major project, done covertly. The only journalist who knew Brad was behind it all was Wallace Mitchell, the Minneapolis Star tough-as-ground-glass writer and he kept the secret, drinking unsteadily at the Wayzata mansion while she, matching him drink for drink but clear as a bell, with her social secretary taking notes, called her contacts, Mitchell serving as her top unofficial aide. When the Minnesota primary dawned, a wealthy businessman, Don Dickey, ran the write-in furnished by oodles of politically incorrect money from the Heffelfingers, Bullises, Pillsburys while Brad would chortle: “Hey! This is great fun!” Paul Albright, the public affairs guy for Dayton’s (who had been Stassen’s top staff aide as governor) added the political heft while Mitchell wrote his stories on a portable from Brad’s study.

Eisenhower won the New Hamshire primary over Taft, the Illinois delegate selection went to Taft. Then came the new Minnesota primary. Working night and day, smoking Chesterfield cigarettes, Brad wanted the write-in to beat Stassen but didn’t. But she got 100,000 write-ins which Mitchell, writing in the Minneapolis Star dubbed the “Minnesota Miracle!” Somehow the “Minnesota Miracle” swept the media field. Stassen and Dunne battened down the hatches, got Brad and the Ike-people to officially pledge again to Stassen, re-formed the alliance with Robert R. McCormick but now they knew they were in for a fight with the Heffelfingers, particularly Brad. Mitchell the journalist flew to Illinois, worked with the few Republican progressives there were, wrote pro-Ike stories from Chicago but privately ferreted out their plans, flew back, drank with Dunne as a kind of mole and got inside information all the while serving as personal emissary to the wealthy Eisenhower combine. Mitchell wrote the bannerline story for the Star that the Heffelfingers were still for Stassen but that Dwight Eisenhower was booming (even when at times he wasn’t). Dunne and Stassen knew better.

Then when the Chicago convention loomed, the Heffelfingers commandeered a private train for the Minnesota delegation, gave Stassen the big suite up front; he was their candidate for president publicly, privately they said he was their candidate for vice president; super-privately they decided to ditch him. They then went car to car planning the switch immediately from Stassen to Ike. All the while they were in touch with a private train coming from Los Angeles to Chicago filled with delegates pledged to Earl Warren for president. But newly elected first-term Senator Richard Nixon also pledged to Warren was going car-by-car getting them to consider switching to Ike. Nixon had no thought that he would be the vice presidential candidate.

By the time both delegations pulled into Union station, it looked reasonably good that Minnesota would switch to Ike. Roy Dunne got off the train, met George Tagge of the Tribune who, of course, was running the Colonel’s strategy for Taft and they huddled with other Midwesterners, Tagge writing huge stories saying that the fix looked good for Taft. It was Wallace Mitchell in the Minneapolis Star writing about Stassen, booming Ike but really an emissary for Brad and Tagge in the Trib, an emissary for McCormick, writing that Stassen looked like a good match for Taft and trying to negotiate that ticket..

Whew! Now do you wonder why I’ve got a crush on the Sun-Times’ Lynn Sweet? She’s not only got the political moxie, the liberal pzazzaz but is a player with a newspaper that plays in the hallowed Wallace Mitchell-George Tagge tradition (journalism should be forthrightly advocacy since it is impossible to be objective and boring to even appear so).

The convention starts, the roll-call begins and Eisenhower starts picking up steam; Taft is holding firm but weakening. Mitchell of the Star is on the phone with Stassen people, with the Dewey and Lodge people who are running the signals for Ike. Then with one ear on the phone, Mitchell raises his arm and brings it down decisively. Watching him, Warren Burger grabs the Minnesota standard, waving it so hard it strikes a delegate on the head, gets recognition and hands the mike over to Sen. Thye who says, “Mr. Chairman, Minnesota switches to Eisenhower!” The switch formally delivered the nomination. Tagge angrily smashed a fist into a cupped hand while he had McCormick on the line: they had lost. Because Minnesota’s switch delivered the nomination, Burger that day got himself an assistant attorney generalship in Washington (one big step to the Chief Justiceship of the United States). Brad became the official as unofficial Minnesota political grande dame and Roy Dunne and the Taftites were out with the side deal that promised Stassen consideration for vice president but in reality a cabinet post.

Back in Minnesota, in an era where women were supposed to be placid precinct workers and housewives and be proud in the reflected spotlight glare of their husbands, the papers didn’t report it but Brad Heffelfinger was the go-to person while husband Peavey beamed (my old patron, Fred Hughes, a Stassenite to the death, gnawed his knuckles and waited for another day). Brad was not only the most important Minnesotan in the Republican party, she could summon Hubert Humphrey and Governor Orville Freeman to her estate with a crook of her beckoning finger. No beauty, with a bulbous nose and devastating wit, at age 58 she ruled the roost, dealing with a coterie of easterners: Sherman Adams (New Hampshire) in the White House; Foster Dulles (New York) at State (who when he was an appointed U. S. Senator consulted with her); Herb Brownell (New York) at Justice; Sinclair Weeks (Massachusetts) at Commerce. With one non-Eastern exception: Oveta Culp Hobby (Texas, owner of the Houston Post) as health, education and welfare, who, she said later in a rhyming couplet, “looked good on the cover of Vogue magazine but sure as hell made a mess of the Salk vaccine.”

In an era where women weren’t supposed to count, I never knew anyone—man or woman—before or since, who could top her in influence. Hillary Clinton? Possibly but she’s got clout in only one party. No, Brad was the best.

Eisenhower was elected with Nixon; Brad wasn’t happy with Nixon but was flirting with Stassen and Hughes to become vice president for the second term. I was sent to Minnesota GOP headquarters under patronage of Hughes to see that she was playing the game straight for Stassen. After drinking with newspaper reporters, I discovered that my real big-time enemy was Mitchell of the Star who worried that somehow I would or could fill the role he held with Brad. It was not possible as I learned when I got a phone call from Elizabeth Bradshaw Heffelfinger shortly after I started. Would I come to Wayzata for lunch to be inspected? I would, getting into my $72.50 Benson-Rixon suit (“You can look nifty for seventy-two fifty.”) Her habit was to insult and thereby diminish anyone she sought to dominate at first meeting.

“Well,” she said as she mixed me the first and only Martini I ever drank to this day, “I’ll tell Wally [Mitchell] he shouldn’t worry about a St. Cloud rube like you.” As she sat down she said, suddenly, “and what should I tell Childe Harold?” I said: tell him to keep reading Lord Byron in Spencerian stanzas by Lord Byron about a wayfarer in search of his own destiny circa 1812. She roared heartily. She liked that. But Fred Hughes wouldn’t have.

[Next time: We somehow click, Brad and me.]

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