Sunday, July 30, 2006

Flashback: Campaign Manager Viehman Picks Up Faltering Quie Campaign… National Media Focus on 1st District…DFLers Humphrey, McCarthy, Freeman, Rolvaag, Eugenie Anderson Go Town to Town

[More reminiscences from 50 years in politics for my kids and grandchildren]

As previously cited, with Ezra Taft Benson, the agriculture secretary, having cut dairy price props to the bone the preceding Christmas Eve spurring a national farm outcry, the mid-winter special election in Minnesota’s highly dairy 1st district continued to win top honors in 1958 as the test market of farm and small town sentiment for the November congressional and the 1960 presidential election. People in Rochester, the biggest town in the district, turned blasé as they bumped into David Brinkley (of NBC’s Huntley-Brinkley), Dave Broder, Nancy Dickerson (the only female political TV reporter), Teddy White (doing a warm-up for his “Making of the President: 1960”) as well as Harry Reasoner (then a Minneapolis local TV reporter), Bill Lawrence (ABC-TV) and Sander Vanoecur of CBS. All camped at the Kahler hotel along with our Quie campaign staff (me, Lindy Lindroos, Herb Johnson, the GOP’s state executive director). The new Quie campaign manager, former radio celebrity Ed Viehman, stayed at home in nearby Owatonna, driving in as a commuter each morning.

I was 28 and the only bachelor, Lindroos 26 with Johnson the old man among us, 54. Viehman, at 36, was a dark-haired, gregarious, occasionally bombastic and outrageous, occasionally breaking out in song in his campaign office, puffing a cigar and acting, well, there’s only one person who resembles him, something I’ve thought of many times: Rush Limbaugh. (An aside: To the uninitiated, Rush Limbaugh is a tough act to take on the radio if you don’t know that his supposed self-praise and extravagant claims for his own sagacity is a deliberate put-on. Rush will say he possesses “talent on loan from God,” that he is “having more fun than a man should be allowed to have” as a fast-talking conservative prognosticator, declaring that every word that emits from his silver-tongued mouth is the truth and that there is not a duplicitous bone “in any inch of my glorious, naked body.”

( Continued aside: To someone of moderate political inclination, the Limbaugh put-on is a definite put-off unless you have listened long enough to realize it is unashamedly invented. Don’t get me wrong: assuredly Limbaugh is an egotist but not in the way he fulminates outwardly which he milks for laughs. Yet he has a right to some egotism. For most conservatives he is a morning and early afternoon booster shot of energy after a séance with mainline media that continually predicts conservative disaster which has made him a mega-multimillionaire with a net worth conservatively—very conservatively—estimated at $250 million. Two years ago I met him for the first time when I with all other WLS talk show hosts were on stage at the Chicago theatre. I had told myself: perhaps you’re wrong and in person he doesn’t resemble Ed Viehman. But backstage as he clapped our backs and revved us up for the performance he was—irony aside—a dead-ringer in actions and mannerisms of Viehman, a man who today would be 84 and easily could have been father to Limbaugh.

(Further aside: The other day Howard Fineman, regarded as an astute analyst for Newsweek in the space of one interview with Chris Matthews, Tip O’Neill’s ex-publicist who is on MNBC, declared that Bush’s memory will be linked forever with defeat in Iraq, mistakes in Afghanistan, callousness to human need on stem cell, wastrel budgeting, an economy whose boom is not from his doing plus. Yes plus: Bush’s own body movements betray a man haunted by his own failures. Fineman said everything was going wrong except Laura Bush hadn’t skipped out to a motel with Karl Rove…and he was just about getting down to that when I turned him off. Limbaugh parodied him the next day in a remarkable satire that made me laugh so hard I almost drove off the road.

(Almost concluded aside: Limbaugh is the great antidote to the deep-barreled media voices of doom, the antithesis for, and indispensable to, those who can likely be caught up into a wave of defeatism by what he has termed the “drive-by media”—media which, like drive-by shootings on Chicago’s South and West Sides, spray a hail of bullets, demolishing all hope and then flee. In the 1950s with no recourse to the Big Three , NBC, CBS, ABC, their pessimism threatened to dishearten even a warrior like me. The nearest person I have ever heard and the heartiest, best-schooled, smartest, best-researched man—indeed one who could have easily have been the major national predecessor to Limbaugh —was ex-radio star Viehman--may he live forever in the eternity he so passionately believed in.

(Concluded aside: Why did he quit radio? Because in that era of before the FCC repealed `equal time’ there was no opportunity for a program to air opinions, hence no talk shows and no opportunities for any. The only alternative for an activist was to run for office. And I think it’s clear that Ed left radio for southern Minnesota and a lucrative job in order to position himself to run for the U. S. Senate—a dream that, because of his tragic death, could not come true. Had he lived, as a vibrant campaigner, phrase-maker and fellow Catholic to Gene McCarthy, he would certainly have been nominated as challenger to the somber, introspective McCarthy in 1964 when Viehman would have been only 41. But, then again, that being the Goldwater year, McCarthy would probably have defeated him; but as with the tradition of so many, Bill Proxmire and others, Ed could well have made a second run for public office and won.)


Those were the days when private public opinion polls were very few. We relied on the liberal Minneapolis Tribune’s which came out only twice during the campaign and on one produced by NorthStar polling, a covert polling adjunct of General Mills and 3M. NorthStar showed that while 1st district Minnesotans were learning how to pronounce the name Quie (“kwee,” as in “It’s kwee for Me: a Family Farmer”) relatively few had any sense of who he was, just a state senator from Rice county. Accordingly, Viehman rolled the dice and did what it those halcyon days a campaign could do: he preempted the top-rated Huntley-Brinkley NBC News Tonight show on KROC-TV Rochester, which beamed to the whole district and decided to supplant it with one-half hour of personal interview between Quie and a well-informed reporter. In those early days of television, Quie had never been on live TV for any sustained period so he needed a well-informed reporter. The well-informed reporter would be, you guessed it, Viehman himself: a better choice that all agreed could not have been made.

But he and I had a terrible fight over the preemption. I thought it was a disastrous thing to preempt such a popular TV news show (in those days it was only one TV news show of three in the nation) for a political telecast. He told me (a) I knew nothing of communications and (b) basis my stupidity in questioning his judgment as the greatest state communicator in modern times, obviously I was a near-retardate who not only knew nothing but was incapable of learning anything. These gigantic exaggerations made him lovable but I still fought until the closing bell when I lost. And I would have lost the final strategic round as well had the show not proved to be such a disaster that we prayed no one had seen it. But that wasn’t Viehman’s fault but due to an Act of God.

When the newspapers carried the news that “Huntley-Brinkley” would be preempted by the Quie committee, there was an immediate outcry in the 1st but Viehman was prepared for this. He said the outcry was from the yokels and that the show would be so dynamic as to electrify the district’s majority Republican base. I was dubious but was told to shut up and write the Q and A script for the show which I did. I then had it put on a teleprompter, then an archaic instrument that ran the script in HUGE letters down a narrow column which made one no initiated with TV to bob his head to catch the letters as they were coming up to eye-level. Viehman privately ran through the script twice on the teleprompter, performing smoothly. Then he ordered that Quie cancel all his appearances earlier that day, come to the studio and as a novice, rehearse the script with him as the tutor over and over until it ran smoothly. I really agreed with the need to practice with Quie. (For those moderns who ask why we didn’t tape it the answer is simple: it was before the era of video tape; only dull, smudgy film. To make an impression, the show would have to be telecast live.)

But like all candidates, Quie hated to give up even one carefully scheduled series of coffees in the far reaches of the district. Thereupon he and I had a fight, where I, exasperated by having lost a fight to Viehman was now likely to lose another with the candidate who didn’t particularly care for the Huntley-Brinkley preemption either. I asked him: what in the world is the matter with your head—refusing to give up coffees of 30 or 40 people in Nerstrand, Minnesota and another 40 in Red Wing for a chance to address many thousands on live TV? He finally agreed, with one proviso. He would have to keep the coffee with a handful of people in Nerstrand, his all but actual home-town because his Lutheran minister’s wife was hosting it and he couldn’t bear to face her and ask for a cancellation. This is symptomatic of the first-time candidate, equating a tiny audience with a potentially huge one, a view which has killed many able men, some more able than Quie who was a very good candidate. Humphrey would have scrubbed a meeting with his own aged mother for a chance to get rested up for live TV.

Very reluctantly Viehman and I allowed him to do it: a mistake on both our parts. Nerstrand was about 50 miles away from Rochester and he could easily return in an hour. The coffee was mid-morning which meant that Quie could be in the studio at no later than Noon, grab a sandwich and put in five hours’ practice with Viehman and the teleprompter before the show would go on live at 6 p.m. Lindroos my fellow staffer would drive him so all he had to do was to relax on the way back and get in a mood to be good on live TV. But, I tell you, God intervened in an exasperating way.

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