Friday, July 21, 2006

Flashback: In the Middle of a Deadly Minnesota Winter, a Special Election for Congress Which Draws National Attention as a Test of Sentiment for 1960

[More memoir-writing for my kids and grandchildren]

DFL Governor Orville Freeman called the special election to fill Augie’s congressional job as soon as he could after Agriculture Secretary Ezra Taft Benson cut dairy props on Christmas Eve. The election was to be in March, 1958 with the primary in early February. As I mentioned, the Democrats had their candidate—an Irish Catholic lawyer named Eugene Foley (the brother of the Congressman who represented Montgomery county, Maryland, John). Foley was Hubert Humphrey’s pick to be a stalking horse for the Gene McCarthy candidacy for the Senate later that year.

We Republicans had a number of candidates, among whom was my direct boss, State Representative John Hartle, the former House Speaker and a young state senator, Al Quie who had been a Navy pilot in the Korean War (mistake: in the last posting I had said he had been in World War II). I was sent down to the 1st district to try to keep peace among the warring GOP candidates and to see that their press wasn’t inflammatory toward each other. I was in a bit of a bind because my boss was running (because of pristine Minnesota conflict-of-interest he couldn’t utilize me) and a good friend, Quie, was running against him. I personally thought Quie was the better candidate, about the same age as Foley (36) while John Hartle, who was like a father to me, was 68, the same age Augie had been when he died. Another guy running was Barky Bergquist, the longtime AA of Augie’s whom I would get to know later. Mrs. Heffelfinger was decidedly for Quie whom she regarded as a progressive Republican.

I took up residence at a pretty nice place for a guy who had been living in one-rooms in St. Cloud and St. Paul—the Kahler Hotel in Rochester, a luxury hotel for those visiting the Mayo clinc. I set up a general Republican headquarters at a storefront there and offered a wide panoply of information about all the GOP candidates running. Staying on and off at the Kahler were some members of the national press: James Reston of the New York Times who was there one day; Johnny Apple of the same paper who was there a lot; Walter Mears and on occasion Carl Leubsdorf for the AP, Dave Broder of the Washington Post, George Tagge of the Chicago Tribune, Sander Vanoceur of NBC, David Lawrence of ABC, Jack Germond of the Baltimore Sun, Carl Rowan of the Minneapolis Tribune, Herb Kaplow of NBC and, occasionally, two women, Kathy Mackin of NBC-TV and Mary McGrory of the Washington Star.

The 1st district special election was a national story because it was seen as a test case on the unpopularity of the Eisenhower administration with Midwest farmers. Their leads, with the exception of Tagge’s, were already written in their heads: GOP Defeat Looms in Key Farm State Election. But the national Big Feet were not as sophisticated about either Minnesota politics or the farm issue as the locals: Jack McKay and Adolph Johnson of the AP, John McDonald of the Minneapolis Trib, Wally Mitchell of the Minneapolis Star, Bob Doder of UPI, Gene Newhall of the St. Paul Dispatch. All were staying at the Kahler as was Jack Mills, the roving rep of the National Republican Congressional Committee whose area included Minnesota: the siphon between big GOP money and the winning candidate.

Rowan, the only black correspondent in the group, was the first African American reporter hired by that paper and in the bar he entertained us with a funny story. It seems he married money and they decided to live in a posh exurban area outside Minneapolis. One Sunday morning in the summer he was out cutting the grass surrounding his big, comfortable-looking house and a limo stops and a wealthy woman beckons to him with a crooked finger, saying “Boy! Oh, boy! Would you come here for a minute?” Rowan, all sweaty and in jeans, hiked over.

She leaned forward, fragrant with perfume and powered, a woman of about 65 and said, “Boy, how much does the lady who lives there pay you to cut her grass?” Rowan thought and said, “She doesn’t pay me anything but she lets me sleep with her.” Whereupon the window rolled down, the matron glowered and the car zoomed away. (I know it sure wasn’t Mrs. Heffelfinger because on race even in those almost early pre-civil rights years she was as left-wing as they get, a supporter of mixed racial marriage and for affirmative action beyond being a major contributor to the Urban League and NAACP.)

That election was the first one in which I saw the national Big Foot press and the perception I drew then hasn’t changed. More than any other group, the national media arrives with pre-conceived ideas. Broder, for example, warded off any attempt by pols to leak something to him, an extraordinary occurrence: he wanted to find out things for himself and draw appropriate conclusions. Perhaps that’s why for all the years he has devoted to covering the craft of politics, he has never, ever gotten an exclusive because he is adverse to receiving tips. Tagge was all over the place conferring with conservative Republicans who were button-holing him all day in service of conservatism. And he was putting an acknowledged conservative spin on his stuff, in essence doing what I think a reporter should in interpretative journalism. The others, particularly the national people, were putting liberal spins on their stuff but calling it objective which as readers of this Blog know I believe is a disservice.

Quie, six years older than I, was a successful farmer (having inherited a prosperous spread), married and a father of four and as the youngest candidate regarded as the liberal Republican in the group. He wasn’t that liberal but had an open mind on the farm program, born of his feeling as a Social Gospel advocate that the family farm was an important keystone of social stability as well as economics. Therefore, he was feeling his way about Bensonism. I found him very interesting because in the legislature he was one of the few who would stop by my office in the state capitol not just to do radio tapes with me but talk about what seemed to be his biggest interest after politics: theology. You must remember that this was pre-Vatican II and my church was stolidly rooted in Aquinas with extensions to working people found in the encyclicals of Leo XIII and Pius XI with which I was firmly supportive. Quie was a social gospel Lutheran, not a Missouri synod, but an ELC (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) who was a conservative believer while others of his stripe were more moderate and some frankly socialistic.

Where we disagreed and debated by the hour (over coffee since he did not drink and prudishly, I thought, disapproved of the stuff) was his confidence that he had already been saved by Christ’s redemption. To me—and to all Catholics, I assume—that “I’m already saved” business is the height of presumption. I said, “Com’on, Quie, you can do a terrible thing like going to bed with a woman not your wife, die of a heart attack there and go to hell!” He said that because he was already saved he was spared of that temptation. As a Catholic I was more cynical believing that all so-called pristine humans are susceptible to sin.

I insisted that more than faith alone was requisite for salvation but good works was. He cited Paul, I cited James’ encyclical that salvation depended on works, “not by faith alone.” He would come storming into my office with theological tracts, I would respond from some books from my youth. We never agreed but we mutually excited about our debate while above us in the legislature—and in his Senate—others debated more mundane things. The only other lawmaker with whom I discussed these things was a man much older than Quie or me, a multi-millionaire business entrepreneur and Republican chairman of the Senate Welfare committee, Elmer L. Andersen, also a Lutheran but a far more left-leaning social gospel advocate than Quie.

I was frankly almost scandalized on probing his philosophy as to how left-wing Andersen really was: at the very least the equal of Hubert Humphrey (while Humphrey didn’t have his interest in theology, and indeed, as he was dying signed up for the blatantly evangelical Crystal Cathedral people in California!)

Quie had a magnificently resonant voice and an instinctive way with humility that, as good as he was, Ronald Reagan the actor had to study in order to imitate: the deferential bob of the head as to signify he had a lot to learn, the apple-cheeked, tall strapping Norwegian Lutheran farm boy who belonged on any cover of the Farm Journal. He was a political natural with many personal talents that were uncontrived. He had a wonderful way of showing helplessness which led people by the droves to volunteer to assist either with contributions or time this good-looking, simple former jet Navy flier now farmer. So it was no surprise when in the heart of winter he won the primary and became the Republican nominee for 1st district Congress facing the Irish Catholic Democrat hope of Hubert Humphrey, Eugene Foley. Under the rules, I could now formally become his publicist (strategist) but Quie and I were stunned to find a brilliant campaign manager volunteering and becoming the key to his victory, a far better strategist than I plus a born genius in political organization of volunteers—a young man Quie’s age who had left a statewide familiarity as a former morning disc jockey-announcer in Minneapolis, now a wealthy salesman in Owatonna, in the 1st district. From him I learned more about politics than from anyone else except, perhaps the witty, sage and motherly Mrs. Heffelfinger.

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