Friday, June 9, 2006

Flashback: With Augie the Family Farmer’s Friend, We Turn to a Highly Incompetent Republican Candidate—George Mikan

[Continuing the possibly over-long memoirs of a life in politics which my kids and grandchildren may find interesting in future years.]

Congressman August H. Andresen didn’t fully understand how the liberal Minnesota media circa 1956 focused on him, an Old Guard Republican, as the defender of the hard-pressed family farmer rather than picturing him as an dinosaur isolationist raconteur, but he wasn’t about to allow the favorable news to go unduplicated. He wisely had his reelection campaign blanket the district with photo copies from the Rochester Post-Bulletin and for the first time in his life, ordered an ad agency to prepare TV commercials based on the story and silent footage from KROC-TV of the Lake City speech. So dramatic was the change, that the Post-Bulletin wrote an editorial praising him for his interest in the plight of the farmer which Augie also circulated. By primitive 1956 standards (no one took polls for congressional races in those days) he was in excellent shape. Before long he had scrapped any reference to isolationism and carped unceasingly about his program to help farmers, zinging Ezra Taft Benson all the while which helped him enormously in the rural district.

In Spring, the state Republican party completed a Grand Design for a unified campaign for the Fall which would embrace the state ticket, the Congressional races and dovetail them into the reelection campaign of Dwight Eisenhower. The master organizer of the unified campaign was to be Elmer L. Andersen, a multi-millionaire industrial adhesive magnate who was also a very astute Republican state senator. I was given responsibility to manage the public relations, convening meetings each week with the press representatives of all the campaigns as well as hiring a general ad agency. In those beatific days when campaign finance rules were elastic and vague, industry mobilized large sums of money (by 1956’s primitive standard). In fact, 3M’s senior vice president for government relations told me this which was stunning: “Don’t let lack of money stop you—if the state Republican finance people run out or turn you down, give me a call.” (It gave me pause and caused me to hope that I would be a corporate public affairs executive one day).

It was a welcome sign that business was coming back into the Republican fold. Armed with that promise, it can easily be said that I had an unlimited public relations and advertising budget which I nevertheless managed to over-spend. Ah, those were the days.

My twenty-seven year old eyes turned first to any congressional seats we could pick up. The big farm revolt against Ezra Taft Benson in 1954 had lost us a good number of seats. Of the total nine-member delegation, we had only three—the renowned Walter Judd, foreign policy expert in the 5th (Minneapolis), Augie who was now the poor farmer’s friend in the 1st (area surrounding Rochester in southeastern part of the state), Joe O’Hara in the 2nd (New Ulm and Mankato and parts of south St. Paul) who knew very little about agriculture but was parroting Augie on everything. Joe, too, became the defender of the family farmer. Both were reasonably sure of reelection in an era when Eisenhower was running for reelection.

Mrs. Heffelfinger and I turned our attention to the 3rd where she lived. The area included the rich suburban and exurban areas of Wayzata, Minnetonka and Hopkins, all solidly progressive Republican but also spanned blue-collar, heavily DFL and unionized north Minneapolis where they burned vigil lights before Hubert’s photograph. The object was to recruit a candidate there who could appeal to the blue-collars and still excite the country clubbers. This was a problem until somebody suggested that George Mikan, the former Minneapolis Laker might be interested. He was hugely tall, shy, somewhat humble for all his fame and followed his basketball career by becoming a lawyer. I was interested in him because he was a Chicagoan and DePaul star. He had, of course, instant name recognition and was a hero of sorts.

Moreover, initially the outcome for Mikan seemed favorable. The incumbent was an elderly former union organizer, Congressman Roy Weir, a runty little man with a high school education who constantly mispronounced words to the delight of the media which thought themselves far above him because of his semi-literacy. He was famous for railing at Walter Judd’s foreign policy by declaring, at a Minneapolis Star editorial board meeting: “That Walter Judd is a fan--, a fan-a-tick” with the accent on the first syllable. You can imagine how these mistakes went over in the posh, lush sophisticated Republican suburbs in his district—so he stopped visiting them. He was only happy in the portion of his district that was heavily union. We decided that George Mikan, who lived in upper-class Minnetonka by a lake and who owned a lot of property should be able to take him easily. Were we wrong!

That campaign taught me that celebrity does not automatically register in politics. Say what you want about old Roy Weir, he knew bread and butter legislation front and back. Mikan, a great, gentle boob, viewed his celebrity as akin to victory and never spent a moment on the issue books. Every morning when I would meet him along with others, it was clear that not only did he have no idea what was going on in Congress but that he was peculiarly disinterested. He regarded going to Congress as a kind of vacation from sports and the onerous practice of real estate law (which he never got the hang of, anyhow). “I don’t give a damn!” said Mrs. Heffelfinger. “You can’t tell me George Mikan won’t sell in this area where people are thrilled with athletics.” But they weren’t that thrilled fifty years ago with pro basketball. Mikan had a 100 percent name recognition of course and was a celebrity—but the educated people in the suburbs were curious about him but not eager to elect him without knowing more about him. The labor union people feared him and worked all the harder for Roy Weir, fearing that their pork chop legislation would be lost by a man who bore a distinct resemblance to the then popular comic strip about an innocent ex-fighter named Joe Palooka.

This didn’t bother our ad and TV guru, Saul Wernick, a frenetic little man with a pencil mustache who was as taut as a violin string. Wernick planned to do what you would imagine one would do in behalf of a jock who had no discernible public philosophy. He turned out perfectly acceptable films of Mikan tossing a basketball with the adoring gym full of young kids…walking down a leafy suburban street with his hand clasping a suit-jacket over his shoulder…poking fun with his wife and kids as she looked adoringly up at him. These silent footage films and stills were clichés even when Wernick used them but even today they look good.

The money came in and the TV and newspaper ads began to run. All the while I was running interference with the media who wanted to interview him. Quite plainly Mikan was incompetent, would either refuse to study the issues or was incapable of learning them (I soon discovered the latter was true). I told Mrs. Heffelfinger, “Look, I can’t keep this guy isolated forever like a Buddhist monk. The League of Women Voters wants him to debate Weir and Weir has signed up.” She couldn’t understand that celebrity would not carry Mikan through. “Goddamit,” she said, “give him three things to say and have them written on a card and have him use them over and over. Get him over that one hump with Weir calling people fan-a-ticks and it’ll be duck soup.”

So I wrote three or four simple sentences—one placing all reliance on the five-star general who was our president and his Open Skies proposal…one on the necessity to hold spending down in a Democratic House that was overspending with the result that deficits could lead to inflation…and I forget the others. Each day I would grill him. He would forget them so I wrote them large with a big grease pencil on 3 x 5 cards which he tucked into his jacket pocket and headed out for the televised debate. As I followed him in my car, I thought back to the good old days with Augie, a candidate brimming with statistics and encyclopedic detail, the only problem being to get him to forsake one whole sheaf of mental absolutes for another.

The live TV debate run by the good ladies of the League of Women Voters was, as you would surmise, a disaster. The climax came when one of the matrons asked Mikan how he would recommend surmounting the House Rules committee whose chairman Howard Smith of Virginia would vacate the House for long stretches thus blocking consideration of civil rights. It was a natural opening for a Republican to blast the Democratic majority which was handcuffed by the southern segregationists—but Mikan shrugged and recommended the questioner ask Congressman Weir who would know much more about parliamentary procedure than Mikan would. Weir, of course, filibustered about the glories of civil rights and never referred to the blockade in his own party while Mikan was studying my notes with a brow winkled in puzzlement.

At the conclusion, Mikan’s performance was judged so bad that he was a laughingstock. I called Mrs. Heffelfinger and advised her not to spend a dime more. She agreed but Wernick, the TV consultant, was not dismayed: Mikan’s terrible live performance convinced him he must have a bigger budget for TV with which to drown the district. Drown the district he did and Wernick made a huge commission bundle, but Mikan lost big time and it convinced me ever after that celebrity invested in one who has no feel for public policy is meaningless: rather like the Hollywood stars who these days shout at Academy Awards against Bush and the Iraq War. But we still had a governorship to try to win and all the money 3M and others could supply. And our candidate was—hurrah—one who was seasoned on the issues, a farmer turned federal administrator who was raring to go.


Next time, the farm issue and Ezra Taft Benson become a bedevilment even with a candidate who knew the issue like the back of his huge farmer hand.


  1. Tom,

    George Mikan came out that basketball powerhouse, Quigley Prep, that brought us Ray Meyer, Andrew Greeley, Cardinal Egan and Mike McKaskey.


  2. Class of 1933