Saturday, June 3, 2006

A Black Alpaca Coat in the Hot Summer; a Nasal Voice; Terminal Dandruff and Upper Plate Wobble Which He Remedied by Projecting both Hands in His Mouth and Pushing Upward: The Isolationist Congressman August H. Andresen (1890-1958)

Since I had been tutored as a far-right extremist at the age of 8, I was thrilled to read the circa 1930s Chicago Tribune editorials to my father every morning while he shaved. On occasion, he would soak the soap from his razor, look at me and say, “Boy, the word you’re struggling with is `unconscionable.’ Say it three times. [Pause]. That’s right. Now you may proceed.” The best father one could have. He never played ball with me nor talked down. He talked politics all the time at the table and demanded response as he would from any adult.

One morning while hearing one of Colonel McCormick’s editorials, he soaked his razor under the faucet and said, “The socialists have gotten to Bob Taft. That’s the sad fact.”

At twelve, I was dismayed. Since I was ten I had heard from him that the salvation of the country to save humanity from Franklin Delano Roosevelt would come from the man they called “Bob, Bob the president’s son. If he can’t do it, it can’t be done!” Now what was my father saying?

“I’m saying,” he said, scrunching up his face to have the razor glide more smoothly, “that our last, best hope appears to be dashed. Bob Taft’s flirtation with public housing and federal aid to education means that he’s off the list. And who else we can go to is anyone’s guess. But you can take it as certainty that the socialists have gotten to Bob Taft.”

After he left for the office, I walked slowly to St. Juliana grade school repeating to myself: The socialists have gotten to Bob Taft. I can’t believe it. My classmates were tossing a 16-inch softball in the playground before the 9 a.m. bell. I wasn’t any good at softball but always made an attempt to play. Not now. Downcast, I slumped at my desk. Sister Patricia McGill OFM saw me and came over: “Thomas, do you feel ill?”

Yes, I said. Because the socialists have gotten to Bob Taft.

Later my father amended that. He said perhaps the socialists haven’t completely gotten to Bob Taft but his flirtation with the left means that no politician can be called dependable, including Bob Taft. No, he corrected himself again. One exception would be Congressman August H. Andresen (pronounced ANDR-EE-SEN) of Minnesota. Andresen was a proper isolationist and proud of it. Ever since he was elected to the House in 1925, he suspected certain left-wing eastern seaboard internationalist Republicans of trying to get us into international embroilments. Warren Harding had been softened up by his secretary of state Charles Evans Hughes who had run a kind of me-too campaign against Woodrow Wilson. Now while the Republican platform forbad joining the League of Nations, here was that bearded New Yorker, former governor, no less, convening the London Naval Disarmament conference to limit the size of navies by scrapping vessels of war.

Colonel McCormick had quoted a young, crisply black-haired Andresen

as saying in 1925—three years before I was born—that Charles Evans Hughes sank in 25 minutes more ships than all the admirals of the world have sunk in three centuries!” Then Andresen criticized Calvin Coolidge’s secretary of state, Frank B. Kellogg, a fellow Minnesotan for consorting with other nations of the world in trying to pass a damn fool idea to eliminate the concept of war as an instrument of international policy. Andresen wasn’t for war but he heartily disapproved of U.S. idealists swaying to the siren song of the idealists. Andresen was for us being strong and isolationist—with armies and navies to defend us when we’re attacked, but for god’s sake don’t go joining any of `em in a lot of futile negotiations which only can weaken us. Kellogg’s winning the Nobel peace prize didn’t faze him at all. These peace prizes only beckon a secretary of state to needlessly cooperate and make pacts with a lot of foreign countries.

“And that’s the truth,” my father would say rinsing his razor under the tap. “I don’t think Bob Taft, as much as I like him, is that strong. After all, he attended the meeting at Versailles as a young man. His father was never very dependable. Well, if Taft’s the best we got in the future, okay, but a man like Andresen, now there’s…”

The only problem was August Andresen was defeated in Minnesota during the big FDR sweep in 1932. But when I got started reading to my father in the bathroom while he shaved, Andresen had managed a comeback. He was returned to the House in the Seventy Fourth Congress and handsomely reelected after that. By the time I became aware of him, he was a leading voice in agriculture but also a strong voice for isolationism.

“Atta boy!” said my father as I would read aloud about Andresen in the Tribune. It seemed every time Andresen would run there’d be some doubt as to whether with his conservative views he would get reelected in normally wild and woolly and exceedingly progressive Minnesota. And so he would begin all his campaigns with the same old joke which the Colonel would give unusual prominence to in Chicago. It was: “Let not the sixth of November [election day] be the last of August!” Andresen went down the line, fighting Roosevelt’s foreign policies, warning that FDR was rather like his old cousin, Teddy, itching for a war. But Andresen was not exactly against all elements of the FDR farm policy—but that didn’t matter to my father. “He’s got to be reelected,” he would say. I wondered about that. Haven’t the socialists gotten to Augie Andresen? Guess not. The important thing was to keep out of war.

Well, we got into war with Pearl Harbor and I kept reading Tribune editorials to my father. The Tribune supported the war but every so often would cast doubt on the nature of Pearl Harbor, citing people like August Andresen. Then I went to high school and left home for the bus to William Howard Taft high school before my father left for the office, so the morning readings stopped. But every so often at dinner when my father would recite a litany of good guys, the list contained the name of August H. Andresen.

Imagine my exhilaration, then, when as a brand new GOP public relations staffer, I was assigned in 1956, election year, to travel the southeastern Minnesota 1st district with Congressman August H. Andresen!

Back in Chicago, my father was thrilled (my Democratic-leaning mother agnostic on Andresen). The reason I was sent by GOP headquarters to travel with Andresen was that the old man was getting old. Born in 1890, a full nine years before my father, he was campaigning the old way, as if radio and television had not been invented. There were no news releases except one a year which was his statistics-studded address to Congress on farm legislation. Where he was quoted by the media, it was either from debates in Congress of his impromptu remarks when a newsman collared him in the corridors. John Hartle, the GOP state chairman and my boss—a southern Minnesota farmer himself—thought Andresen was woefully out of date and a true reactionary (Andresen had been for Taft rather than Ike) and thus likely to be defeated at any time. Andresen countered by telling Hartle to mind his own damned business. But he would accept me as a traveling companion because he had heard by the grapevine that I came from a family with a father who idolized him.

When I showed up for work at the Congressman’s Red Wing, Minnesota house to begin a week of steady driving through the district, he was helped by our driver into his black alpaca coat. He set upon his head a felt western-style hat; blew his nose violently and coughed heavily, rattling up yellowish bronchial fluid, producing what he called “a lung-er” which he spat on the ground with such fury that his eyes bugged. “Goddam asthma,” he said. Then he lit his cigar (which was bound to direly affect his breathing), removed it and held it away from his body between two fat fingers, while he kissed his wife good day.

“Now let us get this straight,” he said as he sat in the front seat, me in the back as the driver headed us toward river towns on the Mississippi. “I don’t want to see you with that notebook—put it away. Or that fancy doo-dad [portable typewriter]. Goddam press can get a man defeated and you don’t want the eighth of this coming November to be the last of August, do you?”

No sir.

“I thought not. I’ll show you how to campaign. Or, correct that, how I campaign anyhow. Are you agreeable to that, sir?”

Yes sir.

“Fine! We’ll get along just fine! [Another series of explosive coughing wherein he rolled down the window, seemed to curve his tongue out the window and shot a spray of phlegm smartly to the side of the highway.] Close your window, Barky [he said to the driver who rolled his eyes in disgust at the ejection of spit] on account of I gotta keep mine open. I’ll show this young man how I handle the newspapers. They get personal attention from me. Maybe it’ll do him some good so he can bring some commonsense to those pseudo-sophisticates at Republican headquarters in Saint Paul who don’t know…” and here he made a barnyard allusion comparing excrement and a then popular shoe polishing ingredient named Shine-ola. We’re goin’ to Lake City where I address a Rotary. I’m goin’ to tell `em what I think of the old General and his lousy secretary of agriculture, the Honorable Ezra Taft Benson. The only agriculture secretary I thought anything at all of was Henry Wallace.”

Henry Wallace?

“Not Henry A. Wallace—Henry C., his father who was Coolidge’s man. He argued unsuccessfully for farm relief as embodied in the McNary-Haugen bill but the idea was frustrated by—you know who?”


“Does the name Herbert Clark Hoover ring a bell for you? He was secretary of commerce and somehow had Coolidge’s ear on food policy! Worst man we ever had. Bankrupted the country.”

I said: Congressman, how do you reconcile your view of Hoover with your conservatism?

“Easy. Hoover wasn’t a conservative. Just Harding’s Golden Boy! You know who wanted him to be president? Moose Jaw!”

Moose Jaw?

“Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But keep on asking those questions. Can’t learn unless you ask `em. But more than that you’ll learn by watching me do it. You’ll see the applause I get goin’ after Ezra Taft Benson.”

Wonderful. The wheezing, coughing, spewing isolationist circa 1890 will be campaigning against the Eisenhower administration!


[Next time. Augie Andresen breaks all the rules of modern campaigning and is lionized for it including by women who stand in line for his autograph.]

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