Thursday, June 22, 2006

Flashback: Planning the Silent Coup for Kefauver.

[The latest in a memoir series for my kids and grandchildren]

Flying back to Minnesota, I could still hear the rasping old voice of Augie Andresen in my mind: “Don’t bring my name up in that connection! I have to work here!” He meant on farm legislation where he would have to gain cooperation with Hubert Humphrey in the Democratic-controlled Congress and the bipartisan farm bloc of which Humphrey was an important part. Augie, I expect it’s safe to bring it up fifty years later with everybody in that bloc long dead.

I got back and told Mrs. Heffelfinger that the idea came to me that (a) we should make a public show of supporting Eisenhower in the Minnesota presidential primary; (b) that behind the scenes, and deftly so that the media or the Democrats don’t catch on too quick (they’ll find out in good time and we’ll have to have deniability), we should do everything possible to see that as many of our people as possible cross over and vote for Kefauver; (c) that when the suspicion does rise, we ought to look dumb (not hard for us!) and allow them to blame Stassen. (Poor Stassen, engaged in an internecine battle of his own doing since he publicly raised the idea of Christian Herter of all people replacing Richard Nixon as vice president, had not the slightest idea that this was being considered).

As always whenever a good conspiratorial plot was raised, she was enthusiastic. My two other bosses were not, however, and it complicated it for me: State Chairman John Hartle and State Chairwoman Kay Harmon, believed it was downright bad citizenship, bad polity, nefarious, rather immoral to get out people to vote for Kefauver. Kay Harmon was the more eloquent. In a meeting at the Heffelfinger mansion she argued passionately that encouraging our people to vote Democratic would endanger their fealty to the Republican cause. Suppose Kefauver were actually nominated, she said; wouldn’t we lose our Republicans to his cause after we had encouraged them to vote for him once? Then she argued as a good League of Women Voters leader: The two party system exists for a definite purpose. We would corrupt it by doing this. The Democrats retaliate at some future time.

The arguments cut no ice with Mrs. Heffelfinger or George Etzell, the National Committeeman who said that the operation would proceed as an independent function anyhow, with no Republican sponsorship. It made things difficult for me, however. I was told by all sides to stay out of it and agreed. But Mrs. Heffelfinger gave me a broad wink as she temporarily left the room and I knew this was going to be very difficult.

The first thing I did was to begin a flurry of news releases outlining the campaign the state party was waging for Eisenhower. One went out almost every day. A special Eisenhower committee was set up which did a few things but was spectacularly inactive. My immediate bosses suspected I was involved in the subterranean plot but probably felt it would be twice as difficult if they forbade me to cooperate with the party’s largest individual donor family. The next thing I did was to find a receptive Democrat state legislator who could keep his mouth shut and importune him to go to one of the two DFL state lawmakers who were officially running the Kefauver campaign. The one I chose was State Senator Peter Popovich of St. Paul, a Catholic who I would see at Mass at the Cathedral, who played the role of Vulcan in the St. Paul Winter Carnival. He had taken his political life in his hands by agreeing to head up the challenge to Adlai Stevenson. It meant sure political death if Kefauver lost the primary for no one would be as dead as Popovich for seeking to assassinate a king—Humphrey, who was at the zenith of his power—and who failed. I was so fascinated with Popovich that I violated my own inner commandment and agreed to meet with him.

We had breakfast very, very early (6 a.m.) at the Capp Towers motel in St. Paul before Sunday Mass. He was a prosperous lawyer, a Ukrainian, then about 40 who loved politics. The role of Vulcan which was staged every year at the Winter Carnival involved a devilish creature attired in red tights who sought to dethrone the King of Winter and install a climate of warmth. As St. Paul gloried in its winter sports-tourism industry, the citizens cheered for the King of Winter to win. The forays went on for one entire week while Vulcan would invade restaurants, Chambers of Commerce and labor unions, brandishing a fiery sword and running out again to the joyous shouts of “get outta here!” Finally on Saturday night Vulcan and the King of Winter would stage a showdown, an energetic duel with swords as the crowds would team up and cheer. The script called for Vulcan to be deposed and return to install warmth in the Spring. Popovich so loved it—the Winter Carnival had just concluded—that he could hardly talk of anything else at our meeting.

“Did you see my getup?” he chortled. “They gave me a new red woolen suit and a sword that lighted up and sent out sparks! Fantastic! That old fart who was King of Winter was so old he could hardly manage the swordplay. I really thought about re-doing the script and winning but that would destroy the scenario.”

I said that if this switch didn’t come off, both he and I would have lots of time on our hands for extra-curriculars like that. Then I asked: Pete why are you doing this?

He shrugged. “Humphrey’s people are so arrogant. He’s been thinking of running for president since he was mayor of Minneapolis. That Freeman, grim, humorless. I deal with him in the legislature. No time for us. We’re supposed tro be acolytes. An acolyte? I’ve worked hard for through two Senate campaigns. Headed up the Ramsey county [St. Paul] campaign for him. Wanted his backing for a judgeship: was told to wait. Wanted a shot at mayor of this town. Was told to wait. So--.”

You’ve got guts, Pete.

“You can bank on it that if we lose this, Hubert will have my [indelicate reference to anatomy]. But if we win the primary and they’re not delegates but we are, he’ll go across the state kissing [same indelicate reference to anatomy] for years. Matter of fact, when you show some independence they begin to notice you. If you don’t want to gamble, don’t go into politics. My gamble is that Kefauver will win the primary. That’s all. If he does, I’ll not only not be punished, I’ll be courted. That’s the extent of my gamble. Sure, if he goes on to win the nomination I’ll be in clover. If, say, Ike has another heart attack, Kefauver’ll win the presidency. That’ll be the jackpot for me. A certain White House job or a big one at Justice and then a federal judgeship. But winning the primary is good enough for me. What’s in it for you?”

If Kefauver wins? Nothing personal but it gets Hubert out of the way for a while. If word gets out that I am this far involved I’ll certainly have to be fired by the party to save face. Maybe then I’ll go back to newspapering. Maybe I’ll use some contacts with Republican fat-cats to get a corporate job that pays real money. Or maybe I’ll try newspapering in this town.

“No,” he said. “You can’t do that. There’s an unwritten rule about journalists who get involved in politics never being able to come back.”

I offer that one up in tribute to Russert, Stephanopoulis and all the other journalists since who have done stints in politics and have come back.

“Maybe I’ll see what I could do to get you lined up in a public affairs job,” he said. “Would you like to work for a union?”

Absolutely not. Let’s not talk anymore, I said, I’m starting to worry. Anyhow, I said: Here’s a list of GOP leaders throughout the state who I’ve talked to indirectly and who want to play ball.

He grabbed the sheaf, looked at it quickly kissed it and said, “From all over the state! Pure gold! Thanks, Tommy!”

Pete, remember: they’re conservative Republicans and won’t be any good to you outside of this deal. No good for the DFL. They hate Humphrey, don’t even like Kefauver. Don’t think about putting `em on a big master list. It won’t work.

“Understand. We gotta get outta here. Some people I know are comin’ in. I can’t be seen with an evil Republican like you.”

The waitress brought the check for breakfast and he just looked at it. I said, what is this? I give you a golden future in that list and you’re too cheap to--.

“Yeah-yeah,” he said pulling out his wallet. “Force of habit. See ya in church—10:30.”

Later, to cover my tracks more, I arranged to make a circuit visiting a new species in radio. Radio talk shows. They were a new thing, then. I didn’t have any worry that Kefauver would go far beyond Minnesota but I wanted to be showing the flag so no suspicion would come to me.


Adlai Stevenson helped us a lot. Bald, stout, buttoned-up in style, he came to Minnesota to campaign in the style of a visiting panjandrum. He didn’t loosen up. Governor Freeman was running the campaign with a ruthlessness that made enemies in his party. But the presidential candidate wasn’t very good. When Stevenson went to the heavily Democratic Iron Range, he delivered high-minded, theoretical speeches to tepid applause. Humphrey who was with him winced. When Stevenson went to the militant Farmers Union, he refused to endorse its program of high price supports. As a mouse in the corner, I slipped into his rally at the Minneapolis auditorium. Boy, if being an intellectual was supposed to get votes, I’d certainly be surprised, I told myself. A dead group. Humphrey raised the rafters but Adlai seemed to throw a cold mop on the crowd after that.

In contrast, Estes Kefauver arrived and went in a small car with a few workers from town to town, starting in Augie Andresen’s 1st district. I sneaked to a few towns on his schedule and waited in coffee shops until he got there. Strange thing, as a tall, weather-beaten, homespun, raw-boned man with indelible ID recognition due to the earlier mass-televised Kefauver hearings, he looked just like a Minnesota farmer. Speaking humbly, in a low voice, following the easy-going humble-pie style that Ronald Reagan would use a generation later, he would walk up to farmers and small businessmen, extend his huge paw and ask, “I’m Estes Kefauver. May I ask your help to be president?”

Humphrey caught on to the danger early. He raced back from Washington, had a row with Stevenson because Stevenson was so academic, so non-committal. That hurt Humphrey for the future but he thought they could make up if he could just get Stevenson through the primary. They whipped organized labor up to a frenzy. The Farmers Union was cold, though—as cold as Stevenson had been with them. It didn’t help that Humphrey had to be in Washington fighting for a high support farm bill that Ike vetoed.

In the primary, the state’s top four Republican counties which pushed an Eisenhower write-in to the tune of 75 percent of the total, now cast more DFL ballots than Republican ones—and on election night the announcers were saying Kefauver was getting the lion’s share. At the windup, Kefauver’s slate of unknown delegates defeated the well-known liberals including Humphrey and Freeman by 245,885 to 186,723. (Humphrey later wheedled one out of the DNC but he was sorely wounded) Immediately afterward, Minnesota Republicans came home, dusting off their hands and all ready to vote for Ike in November.

Our reaction at the Heffelfinger mansion was ecstatic. Some of us were exuberant that Humphrey would not be a delegate to his own convention. That was fun enough. But for the long-range, that primary was certainly the decisive event in his political life. Losing his own state forfeited any chance of his being on the ticket—and that was a huge loss on his timetable. Stevenson went to the Chicago convention far from the prince regent he had hoped to be. He had lost some key primaries to Kefauver. By convention time, Harry Truman had come out for Governor Averill Harriman of New York. Eleanor Roosevelt endorsed Stevenson. True to form, the party regulars detested Kefauver.

Senator John F. Kennedy got his first bid in the national spotlight by placing Stevenson in nomination. Stevenson was re-nominated on the first ballot with 905-1/2 votes to 210 for Harriman, 80 for Senator Lyndon Johnson and the rest scattered. Humphrey’s name or presence was nowhere to be seen.

For vice president, Stevenson stunned the convention by tossing the choice open to it. Then there was a brilliant struggle between John F. Kennedy forces and those of Estes Kefauver, with Humphrey playing an impotent role. The Minnesota delegates graciously endorsed Humphrey as its favorite son candidate for vice president—but then they began to have serious second thoughts. Kennedy had come out against high price supports; Kefauver was for them. On the first ballot for vice president, Kefauver and Kennedy were close: Kefauver with 483-1/2, Kennedy 304, Gore (the father of our Al Gore) 178, New York Mayor Robert Wagner 162-1/2 and Humphrey 134-1/2. Needed to win: 686-1/2.

Humphrey feared that not only was he maimed by being defeated in the primary, nomination of Kennedy an opponent of high price supports could kill the reelection hopes of Gov. Orville Freeman, a high price support advocate. Then it appeared the convention was at a standstill. Kefauver could only win the nomination with Humphrey’s votes. Kefauver went to see Humphrey who was in Sam Rayburn’s private room in back of the convention platform. “Hubert!” he said. “You’ve got to help me! Please!” And he broke down in tears. The second ballot: Kennedy 559-12, Kefauver 478-1/2, Gore 96, Humphrey 67-1/2. While Humphrey vacillated, Gore threw his delegates to his fellow Tennessean Kefauver. Then Humphrey got off the dime, tossed Minnesota’s 30 votes to Kefauver. But the powerful Cowles press said Humphrey “just didn’t have what it takes in 1956.” For his part, Humphrey tried to salve his ego by saying that, after all, Minnesota had nominated a vice president—but it was Estes Kefauver, not him.

In response to the media’s question, who nailed Hubert, I leaked the fact that Harold Stassen had come to Minnesota the week before. True, but Stassen was so dazed from his internal battles he had nothing to do with it. But he got the credit—or blame.

Humphrey certainly would have either received the vice presidential nomination or come close to it but for the Minnesota presidential primary. Following the bad news, the Democrats in the legislature scuttled the presidential primary and it was never held again. But now to get anywhere, Humphrey would have to start from scratch—going across his state patching up the malcontents, kissing their posteriors for years beginning with the one belonging to Peter Popovich.

Hubert Humphrey was a dead duck. We didn’t know it but the Minnesota primary made him a dead duck for all time. Four years later he lost to JFK in 1960’s primaries. His momentum was gone. He got to be vice president with LBJ, no prize: then got the presidential nomination in 1968, no prize. We nailed him in Minnesota when that idea “just came to me” ala Augie.

1 comment:

  1. Great story and great work knocking out Humphrey!!!

    In Chicago (Norwood Park), I usually vote in Democratic Primary (during Federal Election years) as most candidates / positions have one (and in some cases sadly no) options for most office holders. I wouldn't be surprised if many conservatives in the 41st Ward and elsewhere in the city do the same.