Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Flashback: A Trip to Washington Produces Fast-Track Ph.D Equivalency with Dire Repercussions for Hubert Humphrey.

VPresident Humphrey L
[More from fifty years back: a memoir for my kids and grandchildren].

Temporarily interrupting the mid-winter bus tours with Minnesota Republican candidates, I was sent to Washington, D. C. in February, 1956 at the imperial order of Mrs. Heffelfinger (the Republican National Committeewoman) to attend a three-day campaign seminar put on by the RNC staff. “All of us can stand to learn the latest techniques,” she said. “Besides, have you ever been to Washington before? You have! Well, who knows you might have cause to live there sometime! Besides, regard it as a kind of bonus for your good work.” Flippant as a 27-year-old bachelor, I went believing that I already knew all that was important about campaigns. Assuredly not—but the seminar was not the most educative thing about the trip. What happened later was, but as for the seminar…

Attending were staffers like me from throughout the country. The session began with an address by Leonard Hall, the Republican National Chairman whose father had been the custodial officer for the Oyster Bay, New York family mansion of Theodore Roosevelt. Hall gave us to understand subtly that the hope of the Republican party lie in the Northeast, the home of the Republican Roosevelt, Thomas E. Dewey and his inheritors including Dwight Eisenhower. He maintained that Eisenhower would one day be regarded as one of the most effective, if not one of the greatest, presidents—of which I then had some doubt. But with the publication some years ago of the book known as The Hidden Hand Presidency by Fred Greenstein, I came to a much higher and revered estimate of the 34th president. Unearthing documents which until then were held private, Greenstein proved that far from being a semi-retired Chairman of the Board president who allowed Foster Dulles to run foreign affairs, George Humphrey economics, Charlie Wilson and Neil McElroy Defense. Ezra Benson Agriculture and Leonard Hall GOP politics, Eisenhower was a veritable windmill of energy—outlining ideas, demanding follow-throughs and even micromanaging some of the most intricate political negotiations such as the un-manning of Joe McCarthy in his squabble with Defense.

In short, Eisenhower’s only quirk—and it may not have been a quirk at all—was to eschew public attention to what he was doing. Moreover, a concise, almost terse, non-verbose writer, he often joshed to press secretary Haggerty that when he needed to obfuscate an issue, he would use gobbledy-good language in his news conferences. This he did and the national media quickly bought him as a man of indirection and obscurity with little commitment to direction. Why we constantly listen to the liberal media when we are proven so often how they are wrong is vexing—and in some respects I am as gullible as most. They are constantly drowning us with capsule character sketches and cartoons showing how stupid our Republican presidents are—or in Nixon’s case how duplicitous. They may have been right about Nixon but in calling Eisenhower, Ford and Reagan simpletons, they have been egregiously uninformed themselves…whereas in calling JFK a towering intellect, they have only their own blinded hero-worship to blame.

Second of the speakers was one Murray Chotiner of Los Angeles, a lawyer who attached himself early to Nixon. He was involved in Nixon’s first campaign which involved, as he said, a great deal of mythology which he purposely spread and which has become public lore ever since. The legend is that a group of businessmen in southern California advertised in a newspaper for a Republican candidate to oppose the longtime liberal incumbent Congressman, Jerry Voorhees. A newly discharged naval lieutenant answered, identified himself as Richard Nixon and the rest is supposedly history. Not so. Chotiner knew Nixon was interested and in fact had won business’ support for him. The newspaper ad was a ruse and it got Nixon off to a good start with a favorable media burst. Chotiner guided Nixon in matching Voorhees’ voting record with that of Vito Marcantonio of New York, then a far-left member of the American Labor Committee. The tactic was as old as the Congress itself and did not particularly overwhelm me with its uniqueness. But it was clear Chotiner was on the speakers’ list because of the vice president’s office.

Still as Chotiner unwound his stories, he made Nixon unintentionally but eerily fascinating from a worm’s eye view: tracing his upward mobility through the Alger Hiss case, through the run against Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas for the Senate, the formulation of the “pink sheet” which contrasted Douglas’ votes also against Marcantonio’s with the results printed on pink paper, with Douglas called “the pink lady,” an allusion to a then popular drink on the West Coast. The portrait Chotiner unwittingly painted was of the man history later recognized—with a busy mind of no special profundity, a man of no great warmth, no gregariousness or way with people, no seeming liking for people, but one with a shriveled sense of worth who wanted very badly to rise in the political profession. I have thought of Chotiner’s description of Nixon many times since then and only until fairly recently have I found a similarity with one I knew: no one reminded me more of the young Nixon than does Rahm Emanuel.

The third speaker was one Central Casting would have sent over to play the role of a sophisticated, worldly-wise, modulated Madison avenue advertising tycoon. He indeed was one. L. Richard Guylay knew very little about issues but who handled the Eisenhower TV campaign. Giving Guylay credit for a brilliant TV before the days of 20-second spots but when campaign presentations were either mostly live extravaganzas or billboards with voice overs, was undeserved. The finest work was done on live television by Eisenhower himself. One I will long remember was on election eve when the retired general met head-on a recurring criticism of a military man in the White House (since he was to be the first professional commander there since Grant, a not auspicious success). Eisenhower spoke extemporaneously and did not question the great national worry head-on: instead, he described simply how his pacifist, fundamentalist Jehovah’s Witness mother detested his going to West Point (which was the only way he could get a quality college education). By the time he finished, while he hadn’t made a direct case, he had allayed fear because of his own genuinely warm approach, which de-fanged the negatives shrewdly.

But Guylay was convincing in a way that worried me—and, as history has developed, still does. He said that 1956 will probably be the last year live television will be used in political campaigns, that because of gaffe dangers there will be a bipartisan resort to film and—ultimately—an invention that was to come the road from the laboratories of the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company of St. Paul—a marvel known as video tape. This ultra-clear tape will make the production of short, 20-second “spots” very easy which the networks hugely favored—because it would escalate the expenditures on television and protect the candidates from “undue exposure”—i.e. generating the human qualities shown in personal appearances before small crowds (like our bus tours) or half-hour specials that few watched. Since then, his prediction has come true and the quality of campaigns have plummeted while the horrendous TV costs have escalated which makes it unlikely in the future that many average income people will run. But it was a fascinating morning. All these men are long dead, having been the age of my father or thereabouts. I have read their obituaries through the years in The New York Times.

Those were the three major presentations. In the afternoon, I skipped school, going over to the Capitol to grab a late coffee with some of my old St. John’s classmates: all of whom were Democrats, all working in different places on the Hill, some for House, some for Senate…but all warmly receptive to a Hubert Humphrey presidency. They were there in a quite honorable capacity, under Humphrey direct or indirect patronage. But they were not patronage troops: young, some going to grad school, all were liberal enthusiasts. I had no trouble getting along with them in the past because we had many more things than politics to share: great experiences. But with me they let go their unbounded enthusiasms to which I did not object but merely listened and asked questions.

It turned out that they had a central vision of Humphrey’s future which had been generated either directly or indirectly by one Herbert Waters, Humphrey’s administrative assistant, a very able man whom I knew very slightly. Humphrey’s goal was the presidency, obviously. Here he was at a young age, 45, already on the rise in the Senate, regarded as one of the most powerful exponents of a tough, anti-Communist liberalism. The obvious next step was for the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor party to get behind a candidate for president and enable him to sweep the Minnesota presidential primary in March. No, the candidate would not be Humphrey as a favorite son: that would be too crass. The candidate would be Adlai Stevenson, now 56, eleven years older than Humphrey, who deserved a second crack at Dwight Eisenhower.

Stevenson had already announced that he would allow his name to be entered in Minnesota. One other major Democrat did also: Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee. But Kefauver was held in great distaste by the national Democrats who could tolerate Humphrey’s liberalism but not Kefauver’s because he was seen as a traitor to the then dominant South. Besides, Kefauver may have the aura of a white knight, but his drinking and womanizing was known widely on the Hill. No, they were not afraid of Kefauver.

Stevenson was the kind of government leader the party could relate to. He was not the same kind of liberal as Humphrey: he was moderate, less flamboyant but deeply intellectual with a witty mien. It would not take much to put Stevenson over in the presidential primary where he would gain similar notoriety as Eisenhower had received for his write-in in 1952. Then, as a Stevenson delegate, Humphrey along with Governor Orville Freeman, would go to the national convention. The natural pairing of a ticket should be: Stevenson and Humphrey.

If they were elected, all the better—but no one expected they would, unless some health problem should befall Eisenhower (he had had a heart attack in 1955). But if they were not elected, Humphrey would have had a vast national exposure and would be primed and ready for the Democratic nomination in 1960—when Eisenhower would not run and the logical candidate for the Republicans would be…ta-ta! Richard Nixon! They virtually rolled on the floor in joyous anticipation of that match-up.

Their strategy sounded disturbingly logical to me. I asked some mildly deprecating questions about Stevenson from my experience in Illinois—the horse-meat scandal where we were buying steaks at the posh Blackhawk restaurant only to find later that the state’s inspectors had turned crooked and had certified horsemeat as fillets…the cigarette tax stamp scandal where counterfeits were made by state employees—and Stevenson’s own aristocratic, witty yes, but of a sophisticated variety associated with Ronald Coleman, demeanor. All these things they hooted away as vestiges of my old reactionary heritage. So we parted and I trekked across the Capitol to keep a date with Augie Andresen in the House.


I had made the date with Augie to say hello but also ensure that the old grump was happy in contrast to the raging state he had been in when he vowed to get me fired. His longtime secretary who had been with him since 1935 said he was in his office signing correspondence and was waiting to see me. How’s his mood? I asked. Not good but not especially bad, she said. See if you can improve it, will you? How can I do that? To tell you the truth, she said, I don’t know but I suspect he thinks of you as a kind of surrogate son since he and Mrs. Andresen have no children. Don’t quote me on that now, or I’ll have your head lopped off.

Into the private office I go. He’s sitting at the desk, a cigar in the tray, signing a huge stack of robotyped letters (all duplicates), putting them upside down when finished in perfect order. As I sat down he did not shake hands but gave the customary politician’s greeting of the time: “Well, what do you hear?”

What do I hear? What better than to tell him the scenario I heard from my youthful ex-college chums: Humphrey’s political plans, getting Stevenson to sweep the Minnesota presidential primary, then the vice presidential nomination with Stevenson, then in 1960 the presidential nomination for himself.

He nodded, indicating he had long heard the same. Then he said, “what does that leave you with?” Strange question: what does that leave me with?

I said: it leaves me with the view that at least they have a plan for the future and we do not.

He exploded. “No-no-no! That’s not what I meant! Suppose this were a chess game. How should we respond?”

I said: probably being sure that President Eisenhower in the Republican side of the ballot gets more votes than Stevenson.

He roared: “That’s damned silliness! No, I say again: How do we respond?”

I was stumped to ascertain what answer he wanted. Then he said, “I’m going to the bathroom”—nodding to his private executive washroom—“and I’ll be in there for a good while. When I return I expect you will have re-thought your answer, sir.” Whereupon he picked up a fat sheaf of papers and went to the washroom, slamming the door rather impertinently behind.

While he was in there I thought and thought. Hell, I decided, I’ll never fathom what the old coot wants to hear from me so I’ll just tell him so.”

Ten minutes later, to the split second, he emerged to the sound of a loud flushing and returned to his desk.

Congressman, I said, you might just as well throw me out because I don’t have the faintest idea of how to respond beyond what I earlier said.

“Then,” he said as a lawyer, “let me ask you some questions.”

Very well.

“The Minnesota presidential primary does what?”

It’s open to all qualified state voters to indicate their choice for president…the Democrats and Republicans.

“And what do I have to do to vote in the primary? Do I have to be a longtime Republican or longtime Democrat?”

No. Under Minnesota law you just show up and ask for the ballot of the party you’re interested in.

“Very good.” He was beaming now.

“And if I ask for a Democratic ballot and go into the booth, what do I find?”

You find the names of two candidates—Adlai E. Stevenson and Estes Kefauver.

“And what else do I find?”

You find lists of delegates—one group committed to Stevenson, the other to Kefauver. By voting for a candidate you certify that you are electing these delegates to the national convention.

“And if I ask for a Republican ballot and go into the booth, what do I find?”

You find the name of one candidate—Dwight E. Eisenhower. With a list of delegates committed to him.

“So what you’re saying is: Republicans have no choice. Eisenhower will win no matter how many Republicans vote. But not so with the Democrats.”

At last I got what he was driving at. Brilliant.

“So under Minnesota law, anyone—including Republicans—can vote in a primary no matter what their prior affiliation?”


“And if Republicans, assured that Eisenhower will win the primary anyhow, decided to vote in the Democratic presidential primary for, let us say, Mr. Kefauver and Mr, Kefauver wins, what is the likely conclusion?”

A humiliating defeat for Mr. Stevenson and Mr. Humphrey.

“Yes, but what more is there than that?”

Oh, I forgot. Neither Mr. Humphrey or the governor, Mr. Freeman, get elected as delegates to their own convention—a smashing repudiation and a de-railment of a long-range program for Mr. Humphrey to get the presidential nomination in 1960.

“You are prescient, Mr. Roeser.”

You’re wrong, Congressman, I have been obtuse and an ass.

“Yes, but you are young. You don’t as yet look at politics as a chess game. You play chess?”


“Didn’t think so. Now armed with this strategy, what do you do with it?”

I catch the next plane back to Minneapolis and go to see Mrs. Heffelfinger and we plan to mobilize Republican voters to cross over and elect Estes Kefauver.

“Yes. But what else do you do?”

We tell no one about it. Mum’s the word. We are officially and practically for Ike. All the while, we work quietly—the press mustn’t get a hint of this—to get our people to cross over.

“Yes. And what else?”

I’m afraid I don’t know.

“You tell her that you came upon this brilliant idea—you did. You did. You don’t breathe a word to anyone—not your wife…”

I don’t have one.

“Good. Not anyone. If you carry this out well, you will have affected history because Hubert will be humiliated. Unable to go to his own convention, he will be squashed like a bug by Mr. Stevenson who, although you believe is a genteel man, is not where politics counts. Mr. Stevenson will be nominated for president. He will lose to President Eisenhower and in 1960 we will have Richard Nixon versus who? I don’t know—but it won’t be Humphrey. He will have been de-railed, as you put it. Possibly forever.”

The press will blame us for the Kefauver victory.

“Yes they will. But who specifically do we want them to blame? What Republican?”

Harold Stassen.

“Exactly! A man with no future, who has already maimed himself: Harold Stassen. Now did you say you have a plane to catch?”


I called Mrs. Heffelfinger and said I wanted permission to come home immediately. . She asked why. I said an idea just came to me that I have to share with her because we must start a very important effort to be consummated in March—next month—and we have no time to lose. “An idea just came to you?” Yes, I am enjoying it here but I cannot stay here one minute longer than necessary as we have work to do. “Well, then come home,” she said. “You are indeed a strange one.”

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