Monday, June 19, 2006

Flashback: News from the Front of the Bus as the Minnesota State GOP Ticket Goes Touring: Winding Up in Minneapolis to Greet Eisenhower

[A memoir of highpoints of the past fifty years in politics for my kids and 13 grandchildren.]

The more I think of it, packing an entire state ticket on a Greyhound bus is still—in a very real sense—the best way to campaign to make sure the voters get an impact of state candidates. In retrospect, for the entire ticket to go busing throughout a state—in the early Spring in Minnesota where our candidates didn’t lay eyes on their opponents—was far better to gain greater public receptivity when voters saw them occasionally slugging it out through the late-falling snow than the strategy today which is to hire consultants to produce mindless 20-second TV spots. Then voters saw and button-holed the candidates; now they rarely see them face-to-face because the candidates have to spend much time ingratiating themselves to donors. As the bus entered certain rural or suburban areas, we were joined by Congressmen, state legislators and candidates. We were accompanied by two or three metropolitan newsmen, either from the Minneapolis of St. Paul newspapers, or a radio newsman from the big WCCO station in Minneapolis and a few weekly publishers who would hop on.

Town by town through the snow-drifts we went, I serving as the publicitor and general master-of-ceremonies, introducing them all. Since then, invariably I have been called upon not to give speeches but to introduce politicians in a peppery fashion which set the crowd to applauding. Ever since then, I’ve done it, whether at Quaker’s public policy seminars, general meetings in Washington, for the City Club of Chicago and other places including ABC radio where I host two pols, a Republican and a Democrat, every Sunday: almost as if fate had determined that I shouldn’t make a speech but introduce others, which is okay by me.

After brief talks by each, they would fan out, visiting restaurants, churches, newspaper offices, radio studios (and in some rare cases TV studios for live interviews). It was great fun, build great friendships between the candidates on the ticket and got good press as well. Our bus had washroom facilities and a fine p.a. system hooked up to a recording of a marching band which played as we entered towns. It was a terrifically organized foray. The Democrats didn’t do anything of the sort—were content to send their candidates around individually…one of the few mistakes they were making without rectification. I didn’t understand why Hubert, a master organizer, didn’t order a re-haul of their personal appearances. Later, I was told that a busload of Democratic candidates could produce so much animosity among themselves that with them showing up side by side would be seriously counter-productive.

The Republican state ticket that year was composed of all males par for the time: there was no woman in either House of the legislature although the DFL had elected a congresswoman named Coya Knutson who went to Washington but whose husband remained at home to keep house, issuing plaintive calls for her to return which the press labeled: Coya Come Home! The husband charged Coya’s young administrative assistant with alienating her affections. That humiliating experience seemed to quash for that time further interest on the part of both parties in recruiting women candidates. The woman’s traditional role as family nurturer was sacrosanct then. Coya rebelled against it, was an early feminist but only served one term and was replaced by a Republican Norwegian farmer-lawmaker.

All our candidates had Scandinavian surnames with only one exception, emblematic of that time which was the tail-end of the ethnic era in Minnesota: Ancher Nelsen, a Dane, former lieutenant governor and REA administrator for governor; Leonard Dickinson, a wealthy Swede and lumber mill owner (and state Senator), an anomaly as a popular Republican (a self-made man, high school education) from solid Democratic territory in Bemidji, for lieutenant governor; C. Elmer Anderson, a Swede, former governor of Minnesota from the central part of the state for secretary of state. We could never discover whether C. Elmer was slightly but imperishably retarded or merely slow on the draw. We never listened to his spiel to the crowd but once I did and discovered he was saying that the problem with the Republican party was that there was “a lack of apathy.” A lack of apathy! I told him to correct it pronto implying that with his campaign there was no discernible lack of apathy (which he never understood) but later on when I caught his speech I found he had returned to the “lack of apathy” theme…but the audience, proving his point, never caught on.

Continuing: Keith Kennedy, an Orangeman (non-Catholic) Irishman from Minneapolis for attorney general, an intellectual who read essays by Alfred North Whitehead on the bus and Val Bjornson, an Icelander, a former journalist, ex-editorial writer for the St. Paul Dispatch-Pioneer Press who lived in St.P Paul (a former state treasurer who had run against Humphrey two years earlier) for state treasurer. Back in St. Paul, the entire campaign was being coordinated by a masterly multi-millionaire state senator who coordinated all the details and managed fund-raising: Elmer L. Andersen, a state senator (no relation to C. Elmer Anderson the former governor). All I had to do was show up for the bus on time and an aide would give me a list of where we were to stop, who we should see, etc., a product of Elmer L. Andersen’s superbly corporately organized staff. Andersen would later become one of the state’s most important governors for whom I was happy to serve as press secretary.

As we began in the traditionally Republican southeastern 1st congressional district, we had Augie Andresen, the venerable Congressman (ranking Republican on House Agriculture) as our guide, who was in a splendid mood, determined to obfuscate any disagreement on agriculture, making jokes and wisecracks that pleased the crowds hugely.

We covered the entire 1st district, all the major towns, in a week or so with local candidates tagging along. The weather was generally favorable. But our plan was that had it not been favorable and we had been snowbound, we would hole up somewhere and help some small towns dig out. After we finished the 1st district, we turned the bus around and drove back to the Twin Cities area where President Eisenhower was to arrive, pulling the bus up at Wold-Chamberlain field precisely on time to greet the throngs awaiting the first five-star general-president. The weather was surprisingly receptive, the snows having evaporated and top-coat season.

The security was surprisingly lax given that the country had not faced an assassination since William McKinley in 1901. I stood on the ramp when his plane, the “Columbine,” arrived, being jostled by our Republican politicians but a modest sprinkling of Secret Service. The door opened and after a few staffers including his press secretary, Jim Haggerty, trotted down the ramp, suddenly he appeared in a flash that prompted a gasp and wild applause. It was a thrill to see the man who had written a note prior to D-Day that if it wouldn’t work, he’d deserve all the blame. A double thrill to remember that when the weather stalled and finally wouldn’t fully cooperate, he looked at his watch—and conferring with it alone as his advisers stood apart—announced, “we’re going!” That decisiveness spelled all the difference.

At age 66, he wore a light blue top-coat, bright blue eyes and was almost completely bald. He stood at the plane door and saluted with upraised arms to applause, then walked easily down the ramp and I saw him up close as he grasped the hands of the candidates as the cameras recorded. Only two Secret Service men were near him, but discreetly away from him. He was about five-feet 10, with a very fair complexion and a healthy reddened face. He had had a heart attack the year before but as he strolled down the line shaking hands it was almost like reviewing the troops. His movements still had the bounce of the athlete he was before he had wrecked his knee at West Point football.

His immaculate, suitably enlarged bubble-top was awaiting him, having been flown in from Washington. He peeled off his top-coat, announced with the familiar grin and wink at his wife, that he was going to work which meant standing up in the car with arms extended in the V pattern. Ancher Nelsen was allowed to sit with him and Mamie along with, as you probably guessed, Mrs. Elizabeth Heffelfinger, while the others followed in suitable open cars behind. Throughout the long, arduous winding trip to St. Paul, weaving through the streets, to Minneapolis, weaving through the streets, he stood with his two arms raised upright as the crowds in heavily Democratic but pro-Ike Minnesota cheered lustily. Political organization was not the Minnesota GOP’s forte so only the news that he was coming was counted on to spur the crowds. It worked; crowds were eight echelons deep and deliriously enthused. I rode in the press bus immediately behind him and saw the erect figure standing unprotected in the open car with his two arms upright, not unlike a kind of crucifix. City police kept the crowds from storming his car.

There was only three glitches. One: At the beginning of the caravan tour, someone presented Mrs. Eisenhower with a bouquet of fresh flowers. She was hyper-allergic to flowers and started to wheeze up as the car rolled along, giving them to Mrs. Heffelfinger who tossed them overboard. From that time on, Mrs. Eisenhower was free of the asthma condition the flowers instilled in her.

Before we got to the final stop, we paused at a hotel where the President’s people had reserved a suite. This was for him to refresh and get ready to deliver a campaign speech. He returned in about a half hour and we started off again to the bank plaza where he spoke. Two: He spoke very well with only a few slight missteps (Eisenhower was rather famous for some of them), referring first with a slip of the tongue to Congressman Judd as what seemed like “Dud” which later caused the DFL to jeer, but pronouncing Augie Andresen’s name correctly which made the old man beam. Then we escorted the party back to the airport where he boarded the Columbine, posed at the top of the steps with his arms extended again in a V and was off.

But no sooner had the plane disappeared into the clouds than a burst of attention was given to what is now called “breaking news.” It became the third glitch. A national columnist Drew Pearson, who had been on our press bus and who debarked at the hotel to use a phone, had called in a report that immediately got on the wires to the astonishment of everyone else on the press bus. Pearson never returned to our bus but the news of his report shook the reporters all of whom demanded to see Haggerty. Pearson, an old-line muckraking liberal, a vitriolic Democrat, had access to great news outlets basis his coast-to-coast broadcasts and hugely syndicated Washington Post column.

The story clearly meant that if it were true, Pearson had again scooped all the press. His dispatch said that Eisenhower had suffered a heart episode during the caravan trip between St. Paul and Minneapolis, and that his stop at the hotel in Minneapolis was for the purpose of recuperation. The news bulletin took all the air out of the GOP balloon: there was a resurgence of the health issue which had dogged Eisenhower and which had immeasurably aided his opponent, Adlai Stevenson. The press on the bus was first outraged by Pearson, wondering how he could have gotten a story about the heart episode from where he was in the bus—but then fearing that he was right. If he had had a heart episode, he was a brilliant actor as he made a campaign speech, rode back through the city standing upright and posed at the plane with arms extended. But perhaps this was a case similar to FDR who with the last burst of strength rode sick and exhausted through the streets of New York in a downpour in the campaign of 1944 to prove he was healthy. It seemed the press could not be immediately satisfied that Pearson was not correct.

Mrs. Heffelfinger called me immediately after the rally and said we must scotch it the Pearson rumor. She had been with Eisenhower and would swear nothing of the sort happened. When he returned to the car after the hotel stop, he joked that it was important to do certain things that transcended politics such as obey the call of nature. I agreed but what to do? It so happened that Pearson didn’t hop the return press plane to Washington but was scheduled to speak at a University of Minnesota public policy forum that night. Mrs. Heffelfinger said that she was going and would interrupt the proceeding to protest. I was excited to go with her. We arrived in tow with George Etzell, the Republican National Committeeman. Pearson was speaking as we arrived. In the talk he insisted Eisenhower’s heart had indeed acted up. He expounded on it at great length although it was a mystery to those who had ridden with the president and to the other newsmen who were accompanying the trip.

While Pearson was talking to the University group, in the back door we came, with Mrs. Heffelfinger tugging a somewhat reluctant and shy Etzell along. As we faded into the background, she strode down the center aisle, clambered up the steps to the stage as Pearson stopped mid-way in his speech and seemed dazed at the interruption. She walked over to his rostrum, pulled the microphone down to her lips and shouted, “I am Elizabeth Bradley Heffelfinger from Wayzata Minnesota and I denounce your statement as a damnable lie!” Then she told the group that she had ridden with the president, that the official schedule had allowed for a stop at the hotel for the president to refresh. She then called Pearson to his face—in a statement that thunderstruck the audience—“a punk, a pimp and a pink!” The media didn’t report these names she called him because “pimp” and “pink” were regarded as politically incorrect. But the rumor of her description of him raced around the Twin Cities by word of mouth. I issued it as a press release confirming it.

The Heffelfinger foray was brilliant because it captured the national press almost as fully as Pearson’s so-called “disclosure.” Press Secretary Jim Haggerty, who had accompanied Eisenhower to Minnesota, denied fully that there had been a heart episode as did the physician who traveled with the president. But the slur: “punk, pimp and pink” clung to Pearson at least in the state for much further time to come. Pearson, a moral coward, shrunk away from her attack.

Those were the days when the Republicans were run by some gallant leaders, in particular a valiant lady who had guts and determination and fighting clarity. I adored her from that moment on. May she forever rest in peace and live in beatific joy in the Valhalla where all good GOP multi-millionaires who are far more than money siphons—but energetic, bold and fearless warriors—thrive. God rest this great old warhorse and God give us successors, although in candor I have not seen any since.


Next time: A Republican takeover of the Minnesota presidential primary leads to a national embarrassment for Hubert Humphrey and derailment of his hopes to get on the ticket with Adlai Stevenson, as prelude to his getting the top nomination in 1960.

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