Sunday, June 11, 2006

Flashback: The Quest for the Governorship of Minnesota: Circa 1956

[More reminiscences from fifty years ago for my kids and grandchildren for which I beg indulgence].

The very formidable Mrs. Elizabeth Heffelfinger, mega-millionaire matron of the posh Minneapolis suburb of Wayzata, armed with a hefty Rolodox and phone, who once privately conspired to drop Vice President Richard Nixon off a cliff, now determined she would become his number one fan, hoping to encourage the vice president to choose her favorite Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. as his vice president. That, she thought, was do-able. She flew to Washington for a private meeting with him, Nixon unaware of her earlier participation in the abortive Stassen attempt to dump him.

After huddling with Nixon, they concluded that the best candidate for Minnesota governor would be the raw-boned working farmer who Eisenhower had named as Administrator of the Rural Electrification Administration (REA), a New Deal vestige that brought electric power to the farms.

He was, indeed, from many aspects a superb candidate. Age 52 with a hearty laugh, not the icy personality so many Scandinavians were, withy bubbling personality and impressive bearing, with a shock of unruly hair that advertised that he was fresh from the country, Ancher Nelsen (his first name was pronounced “anchor,” a Danish name) had been for a short time a state senator and then Lieutenant Governor of the state before being named to the Ag post. He was no college-educated slicker in an era when the farmers felt someone put off by gentle manners. He was a good family man, good Lutheran and a somewhat better than average speaker (but as is the case with many candidates, not as good as he fancied he was). He knew the farm problem up one side and down the other.

But, Nixon counseled her, Nelsen had disadvantages. As REA administrator he worked for the hated Ezra Taft Benson and there could well be a serious question as to whether he was loyal to Benson’s flexible price support policy that smaller, poorer farmers detested. The second thing Nixon told her was that the vice president had detected a lack of steel in him. Nixon told her that essentially, politics was a game of risk and Nelsen should separate himself completely from the administration, even to the point of attacking it and Benson (leaving Eisenhower and Nixon out of the controversy). Nixon wondered if Nelsen, a somewhat garrulous Dane, would have the guts to take such a risk—the guts that, say Augie Andresen had, concerning Benson.

Mrs. Heffelfinger herself loved risk: she took risks all the time, having split from Stassen in 1952 to support Ike; having plotted to overthrow Nixon by using Stassen as cats-paw in order to install Cabot Lodge. So she believed if I were Nelsen’s publicitor I could get Nelsen to separate from Benson, blast him if need be while the GOP hierarchy would be upset but privately she and Nixon would understand. In other words, I was to do with Nelsen what she fancied I had done with Augie in his major farm speech at Lake City. She was wrong here as I repeatedly told her while he declined to listen. I had done nothing of the sort: Augie was a genuine anti-Benson candidate and was known as such: all I think I did was to hint strongly that Augie would kill himself with the Republican fat cats if he blasted Benson, which gave the media the impetus to give the old man much publicity. Instead the media were aghast as Augie swept across his district as the poor farmer’s friend, thanks to the media’s lavish attempts to set Augie up.

“Your assignment,” she said to me, “is to make Ancher the next Augie and damn the consequences. If the Benson people don’t like it, [here she presented the picture of a grand scale debauchery.]” With that she got on the phone and started pumping the money siphon to Nelsen. Impressed, he resigned from his Washington job, returned to Minnesota to great party acclaim: the pro-Benson conservatives believing he was for them, the anti-Bensonites quite leery. Things looked good. The DFL governor, Orville Freeman was a grim, humorless lawyer: no great shakes. But Freeman was a bitter anti-Bensonite which stood him in good with the small farmer and the powerful Cowles Minneapolis newspapers. And as we worked together, I became convinced that for all his many faults, Richard Nixon was a good judge of Ancher Nelsen. Nelsen was a conciliator not a firebrand. He told me he could fashion a way where Bensonite conservatives and anti-Benson liberals would agree. Well, I said, you know farm economics and I don’t, but if you can do that you’d be the first man to reconcile conservative farm economics to the cause of militant populism. He thought he could do it. I concentrated on the puff (or press agentry) of the job but was dubious.

Every so often she’d call up and demand, “How’s the pigeon [the candidate] doing on the Benson thing?” I said, I wasn’t hired to launch a revolution in agricultural economics, Mrs. Heffelfinger, being from the rural heartland of Chicago. She’d chuckle and say, “aw, you’ll think of something.”


Next time: I didn’t. Nelsen sits down with, to my dismay, conservative Republican, corporate “farm experts” and we have a tussle.

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