Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Flashback: Indecision Grips Nelsen As He Seeks to Project a Program to Solve his State’s Farm Problem

[More from the files of memory of fifty-plus years in public affairs participation for my kids and grandchildren]

As a 52-year-old, largely self-educated, working farmer who worked in agriculture since he helped his father and grandfather on the family farm, a former state legislature, lieutenant governor and national Rural Electrification Administrator, Ancher Nelsen, the 1956 Republican nominee for governor was expected to come up with a program that could galvanize the state’s disparate parts. But as the state was torn between pro-Benson and anti-Benson policies—the liberals urging high price supports, the conservatives believing in the free market policies of the Eisenhower administration--it was an impossibility.

“Of course it’s an impossibility,” Mrs. Heffelfinger told me on the phone. “I hope he doesn’t try to reconcile the two policies in which case he’ll be as effective as a mashed potato sandwich. Tell him he’s got to come out for the Augie Andresen type of high price supports and if John Hartle doesn’t like it, tell him to [and she again described an indelicate scatological procedure].”

Then Hartle, my other boss, the state GOP chairman and conservative pro-Benson farmer called and said, “I’m counting on you to keep Ancher on the straight and narrow so that he doesn’t run on a program that insults the president.”

All the while, Nelsen was sitting in a hotel room in Minneapolis, conferring with a number of farm experts and scratching out a compromise on a yellow pad. I was not surprised when I walked in on him to see Earl Butz there, the Indiana University farm economist who was pro-Benson.

After Butz left, I said, Ancher, let me tell you something. You’re trying to square a circle, to reconcile an impossibility. You’re trying to write a speech that will please both sides. You can’t do it.

“Who the hell made you a farm expert?” he shouted. “You’re from Chicago! You’re just one thing: a press man. Get that straight.”

I’m from Chicago and I’m just a press man, yes. But you know and I know what you’re trying to do. And you won’t please both sides.

“Okay, just for fun I’ll ask you. What’s the Roeser farm program?”

Look, it’s one thing or the other. Suppose you take the Augie Andresen line: high price supports and damn the torpedoes. You’ll get press on it. You’ll get some fans and some enemies. Suppose you take the Hartle program, the Benson one. You’ll get press on it, some fans and some enemies. But take one or the other.

“You didn’t answer my question. What’s the Roeser farm program?”

Here’s what I think. I’ll bet when you were in the Ag Department, you made some speeches, did you not? Speeches all over the country.

“I did.”

And when you were going around speaking in farmer forums and places like that, I’ll bet you spoke in favor of the Benson program.

“Of course, I did! He was my boss!”

Listen to me: if you change now and go for the Augie Andresen plan, Hubert and the Dems will look up your earlier speeches and say you’re changing your mind just because you’re a candidate—and you’ll look very weak. We’ll have to hold press conference after press conference trying to justify your contradictions. So my advice is: be consistent, come out for the Benson program and let `er rip.

“That’ll get your friend Mrs. Heffelfinger mad.”

So what? You’re the candidate nor her! Hartle and the business contributors will be happy. Ancher, you can’t please them all!

He looked at his notes. “Maybe I--.”

Maybe I, maybe I--. Baloney. Take it one side or the other. My advice is because you’re on record in the files of the Ag Department supporting Benson, stick with Benson. It’ll be a lot easier to defend than trying to justify you changing your mind for political reasons!

But he was gripped by indecision. He kept calling experts on the phone and farmer friends of his in southern Minnesota. Day after day went by. By the weekend, I dropped in again.

Ancher, I said, I’m catching heat for not getting you in the paper.

“I know you are.”

And I can’t get you in the paper without a farm plan. Now will you listen to me and buy the Benson program and stop fiddle-farting around? Pretty soon Humphrey’s going to settle it for you anyhow, by finding your old speeches and telling the world you’re for Benson. So you don’t have much of a choice.

“I’m not going to let Hubert Humphrey dictate my timetable.”

All right. You won’t listen to me so you won’t have me around anymore. I’m going to work with the rest of the ticket—that means everybody else but you.

“Suit yourself.”

Two days later, Hubert Humphrey himself flew to Minnesota and announced that he was going to save Ancher Nelsen the agony of indecision by revealing the support Nelsen gave his old boss Ezra Taft Benson in support of his farm program. Humphrey wound up by saying, “So let the debate begin!”

Nelsen called me up. “You were right. I was wrong. Let’s call a press conference. I’m off the dime.”

And, said I, you made the first big mistake of the campaign. Allowing Hubert Humphrey to tell the world what your farm program is.

“I know it.”

I wrote his statement which he wanted to weasel-word but I wouldn’t hear of it. He gave up. I called the conference. We were off to the races, inauspiciously. Nixon was right about a failure of nerve in this guy.

Mrs. Heffelfinger called up mad.

I said: not you too. You don’t understand. This guy has reams of paper in the Ag Department supporting the Benson program. You want him to look like a fool?

“He is!” she thundered. “Wishy-washy! Where are the real men today?”

There are none, I told her with exaggerated sarcasm. Only Cabot.

She didn’t hear the sarcasm. “That’s right,” she said gently as if she were in love. “Only Cabot.”


Next time: Eisenhower and his wife come to Minnesota and columnist Drew Pearson of all people triggers another health scare.

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