Monday, June 5, 2006

Travels with Augie Andresen: An Original Old Guard Isolationist but Liberal Farm State Architect of Federal Support, Provides an Invaluable Experience on How Americans Viewed Their Congressmen, 19th Century Style.

red barn
Coolidge, Calvin
[Continuing Saga for my children and grandchildren. The1956 assignment to provide Republican campaign help to one of the authentic Old Guard, isolationist Congressmen, August H. Andresen, was of great instruction to me. Here we begin several days’ travels around his district, the normally Republican 1st, composed of the southeastern portion of the state including Rochester, Northfield, Winona, Lake City and LaCrescent].

August Herman Andresen, identified so strongly with Minnesota, was born in 1890, improbably enough, in Illinois (Newark, Kendall county) to an itinerant Lutheran pastor and his wife. They moved as he accepted new assignments, to Grand Forks, North Dakota, then to Eagle Grove, Iowa and finally to Red Wing, Minnesota. Andresen thought he would be a Lutheran minister and went to Red Wing seminary and St. Olaf college, Northfield. He was an investigator for the state Department of Weights and Measures while he studied law. He graduated from the St. Paul College of Law in 1914 and began practicing in Red Wing. Married but with no children, he prided himself on being a devout Lutheran. He was drawn early to agriculture but never farmed. Instead he became an encyclopedic expert on farm legislation by reading statutes and complicated farm journals. No one thought it was interesting but Augie. By the time he ran for Congress in 1924, he could recite the entire history of U. S. farm legislation. This didn’t bore his farm constituents but edified them. Thinking him the smartest man on farming they ever met—notwithstanding he was not a farmer but a lawyer—they elected him to Congress on his first try as part of a team that included President Calvin Coolidge. Augie never cut an impressive physical figure, was always overweight with a protruding belly around which a vest strained and barely made it. A farmer said to me, “Augie’s so smart that that stomach you see is really full of brains! I believe it! You hear him talk about farm legislation and you’ll come to realize it, too!”

He had a point. So invaluable did Andresen become even in his first term in the Congress (when in that era expert staff members were not in great abundance) that he applied his legal skills to actually drafting bills in place of the House legal team. This drew him into a fight with the Harding-Coolidge-Hoover free marketers in agriculture. Until his death, Andresen was regarded as a majestic anti-internationalist of whom Colonel McCormick was fond while at the same time one of the—if not the single-most—knowledgeable experts on the drafting of liberal farm bills. I remember one day sitting in his Washington office while visiting the delegation in 1955 when the buzzer sounded and the secretary announced that Senator Hubert Humphrey was in the anteroom to see him, quite unexpectedly. “Show him in,” said Andresen, and in came the bubbling U. S. Senator with legislation in his hand.

Excusing himself for interrupting and with a warm greeting for me (“you know I tried to hire him once, didn’t you?” to which Augie said, “he’s got too much good judgment!”) Humphrey laid out the legislation on Augie’s desk and the two pored over the draft. “See, Augie,” said the Senator, “this is what I’ve been telling the Senate Ag counsel…about this, this, that and the other which I want in the bill. I told him the way to do it this such and such. He says no, it’s with this language here: such and such. That doesn’t make sense to me because if it passed, it would mean such-and-such which is the opposite of what we intend. So I told him I’d come to the greatest living expert…”

“Just barely living,” said Augie coughing up an asthmatic lunger. “But go ahead.”

“Well,” said Hubert. “Who’s right?”

Augie said, “You want me to be gentle with ya?”


“He is. But the better way is to do it the way I would. I know what you want to do but you can’t do it either your way or his way. Here’s how the language should read…”

And he picked up a pencil and wrote for a long time while Humphrey looked over his shoulder and then at me, saying “what would we do without him?”

Augie finished writing and said partially for my benefit, “Well, you goddam liberals sure are trying to make the…”

Humphrey finished the age-old line, “the sixth of November be the last of August? It won’t happen, Augie. In the First District, that bastion of conservatism? We’re telling the DFL farmers in the 1st they can’t do better than you. Anyhow, if you run into trouble you can always call on me to attack you which’ll help enormously.” .”

“Don’t let this kid hear that,” said Augie with a wink to me. “He’ll go back and tell John Hartle who believes I’m all wet. Hold off on attacking me. I’m not that bad off—yet.”

Augie stood up and they shook hands with much laughter. Humphrey departed out the door scanning Andresen’s legislative language. They were partners in crafting farm legislation, with Augie the silent partner, which would have driven Augie’s conservative businessmen nuts if they knew.

“You didn’t hear any of that,” said Augie and spat up a lunger into the spitoon.

I didn’t. And never repeated it until now, with Augie dead since 1958 and Hubert since 1976.


He joined the House in 1925, after the defeat of the last czar Republican Speaker, Joseph (Uncle Joe) Cannon of Danville, Illinois. Cannon was deposed by his Republican colleagues for exerting such an iron fist control over them that it was suffocating. When Augie entered the House, the Speaker was Nicholas Longworth of Ohio, the bald, businesslike, peppery and womanizing husband of Alice Roosevelt, TR’s only child by his late first wife (who died in childbirth delivering Alice). Longworth skillfully restored some of the power lost by Cannon.

Augie came to the Congress to help the farmer in his predominately rural district but he had a problem: farmers needed help from the feds which required a liberal Congressman but small business in the district was overwhelmingly heavily conservative and opposed to any government intervention. What to do? Augie solved it by becoming xenophobic on foreign relations which pleased the conservative businessmen and getting rather big headlines for his isolationist stand across the country, including Colonel McCormick’s Chicago Tribune. With that as cover, Augie turned to the farm issue which, he felt, necessitated remedial federal action. The two-way split didn’t exactly mean that Augie was intellectually dishonest. I’m convinced he was, in fact, an isolationist but that he also understood the plight of the farmer when the ag economy crashed in the 1920s and he wanted the government to do something for them. After all, if the government could impose tariffs for business, it could help the small farmer with a gesture, even if it might not work. So he told me as we rode around the district.

. So Augie became not unlike Idaho’s Senator Bill Borah and Wisconsin’s Fighting Bob LaFollette: defiantly nationalistic in foreign affairs and progressive on agriculture. His hot anti-internationalist speeches thrilled Colonel McCormick who must have known where Augie stood on farm legislation, but didn’t care since isolationism came first with the Colonel.

With Augie’s bifurcated policies, everybody in his district were happy in the 1930s and 1940s: the farmers who had been on the verge of revolt because they felt the Harding and Coolidge administrations were overboard on cutting taxes for business and reinstituting the old nostrum of higher tariffs to protect business and not doing a thing to cut back on the farm surpluses. With his keen analytical mind concerning agriculture, Augie made himself a farm state hero in the late `20s by writing the language and fighting for a bill that authorized the government to purchase the annual surplus of commodities and either hold them or sell them overseas, recouping any losses with an “equalization fee” to increase demand, cut surpluses and make prices rise. All the while conservative small-town business was happy with his conservatism and the farmers were thrilled with his insight that pre-dated the Agricultural Marketing Act. Liberal Democrats copied Augie’s ideas.

But with the Eisenhower years, more farmers seemed to be buying Ezra Taft Benson’s policies of returning to the free market. My boss, the state GOP chairman, John Hartle, a super-rich successful 1st district farmer himself, believed Augie’s plan wouldn’t work in the long-range. His answer was blunt: the days of the small family farm were over; bigger farms with more efficiencies were in vogue. Augie may have agreed but he demanded of Hartle: “You’re asking me to tell family farmers in my district that they must leave the land? Get your head examined, will you?” The split between them was like a chasm.

Hartle’s plan to encourage the poorer farmers to get off the land sounded heartless (he was a big farmer). Augie’s plan to have Uncle Sam accelerate subsidies for family farmers was unworkable, putting farmers on the dole but neither would budge. I told Hartle not to make any speech or press release which would lead to that conclusion. And insofar as I could tell Augie anything, it was not to sound like Santa Claus. Again: Augie wouldn’t admit his plan would fail and Hartle wouldn’t acknowledge that Benson’s laissez-faire plan would lose the farm vote. However, slowly evolution worked, the district was more prosperous than in the `30s and more farmers were thinking pro-Ezra Taft Benson free-market. But Augie’s ego was involved: he would give them his legislation. He wouldn’t back down. But I was working on him to go easy on Benson or he’d turn the conservative pro-Ike farmers and business community against him. To which he would answer to me with a ripe Anglo-Saxon suggestion that they perform a biological impossibility on themselves. I would shake my head negatively. He’d storm but then he’d agree.

Both Augie and Hartle wanted to save the district for the Republicans and were too stubborn to grant each other some leeway. As for me, hell, I wasn’t hired to devise a farm program but to use modern public relations arts to continue to get Augie reelected, sometimes even when he opposed them and me. Right now it was to save the First District for the Republicans.


As we rode along on a hot summer day in 1956 on the way for him to make a speech to the Rotary club of Lake City, Minnesota I thought this will be almost like a Ph.D seminar to see how a real craftsman speaks to a Rotary which was composed largely of conservative small town businessmen and adjoining area farmers split pro- and anti-Benson—and could possibly please both. A few hours later, when we hit town in a used car so old that the headlights were sagging with fatigue that Augie purposely picked because it had a lot of miles on it (“just like me” he would say), I would learn.

And the first lesson came when we entered the restaurant where he was to talk. A group of attractive, mostly buxom sun-bronzed middle-aged women ran up to him and gave him hugs and kisses. The wrinkled old face with the upper-plate of yellowed false teeth collapsed into a wide grin. “He got the Post-Office department to move our mail boxes from town here where we had to drive some miles to pick it up to the boxes by the side of the road near our farms!” one said. “He’s our hero! We always come out when he’s speaking and we get together to help him every campaign!”

“It took a lot of fightin’ with them in Washington,” he said with the wreath of smile still on his old face, “but being kissed like that by you ladies proves it was worth it!”

“We’re goin’ to see that…” one woman began. “The sixth of November won’t be the last of August!” the others completed.

Augie and they were suffused with joy.


As Augie proves in the next piece, it’s not just the encyclopedic farm speech to Rotary but the personal approach to small towns that charmed `em.

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