Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Flashback: January, 14, 1958--the Last of August.

Howard farm winter
[More memories to tuck in store for my children and grandchildren].

Democratic party publicist Jerry Schaller and I played back-and-forth rhetorical gamesmanship to get our mutual points of view aired but there was no doubt that Democrats had the edge on farm issues in Minnesota while staying close to Eisenhower on defense-foreign policy. At the 1956 GOP convention in San Francisco which I had attended, Harold Stassen made a roaring ass out of himself trying to dump Vice President Richard Nixon for, of all people, Christian Herter. No one went to Stassen’s suite and Mrs. Heffelfinger, who had lured him into this “Dump Nixon” trap with the hope that Stassen gambit would succeed but her idol Cabot Lodge would be picked as vice president, was not at home to Stassen…while, ironically, the man she had hoped to dump, Vice President Nixon was.

The debacle meant that Stassen’s once great influence over the state’s Republicans—from 1932 to 1956—had ended, Nixon’s people were now former Stassen people. They included Senator Edward Thye (once Stassen’s lieutenant governor) the General Mills crowd, Donald Dayton (the department store mega-millionaire), his political guru, Paul Albrecht (once Stassen’s top aide), the 3-M people—many who had secretly supported the unsuccessful Stassen putsch of Nixon, topped by of course Mrs. Heffelfinger. All were Nixon regulars now and acting in the state with the imprimatur of Nixon. To my knowledge neither Nixon nor his people had the slightest recognition that these people who he named to manage his destiny had been involved surreptitiously in trying to dump him. Stassen, once the brightest hope of Republican progressives, drifted out East and was only heard of when he ran unsuccessfully for governor of Pennsylvania and mayor of Philadelphia as well as a number of other posts…always running for president…where he became a laughing-stock. Only Fred Hughes of St. Cloud remained faithful.

In the meanwhile, Hubert Humphrey was planning a run for the presidency in 1960, the year he would be up for reelection to the Senate. His plan had been torpedoed by losing the Minnesota presidential primary and his followers had taken out their revenge by ending the primary. Looking across the landscape, Humphrey believed—rightly—that Massachusetts Senator John Kennedy would made a bid but, wrongly, that JFK would not be an important factor. Kennedy had made a good impression as a rival to Sen. Kefauver for vice president in 1956 and would be a sure-win for reelection in Massachusetts in 1958. Humphrey realized that one of the heaviest blocs of Democratic votes were Catholics who had been disappointed that one of their number hadn’t become president. They were downhearted by the belief that since Al Smith lost in 1928 there was no chance for a Catholic to become president (my own father had told me this as an article of faith when I was a boy).

So, Humphrey became determined to get on the good side of Democratic Catholics by quietly and unofficially backing Congressman Eugene McCarthy for the Senate in Minnesota. He reasoned he could win them over and still capture the heart of the nation which was decidedly Protestant. He would start with McCarthy, who was not only a Catholic but one well-versed in its theology beginning with Augustine, then through Aquinas and Anselm and expert on the encyclicals of Leo XIII and Pius XI.

McCarthy seemed at the time an awesome gamble because Minnesota was regarded as almost defiantly non-Catholic and in many areas anti-Catholic. To get McCarthy endorsed, Humphrey had to stretch to the limit his diplomatic pragmatism because he did not want to offend the wealthy Mrs. Eugenie Anderson, the former ambassador, who sorely wished the endorsement and was very well equipped intellectually to be a good candidate. There were others as well but McCarthy and Anderson were the two main rivals. Most observers had the feeling that Republican Thye was not going to win reelection because he was elderly and, due to mal-education, rather bumbling, addicted to big Senatorial words he didn’t fully understand and generally considerably behind the times, a sort of rustic with newly acquired pomposity.

With McCarthy ascendant in the DFL, Jerry Schaller left his party berth to become his major “publicist” (the name people called strategists in those days) preparing for the battle of 1958. All my old St. John’s classmates were enlisted on the side of McCarthy: Jerry Eller with whom I matriculated and many others. McCarthy had an intellectual gloss and it was the badge of some cerebral feat to be associated with his campaign. It was believed by Republicans that McCarthy, who represented St. Paul, could not do well in heavily rural—especially Scandinavian—Minnesota and it was up to me to disabuse them of that fact. McCarthy had been born in the tiny central Minnesota town of Watkins to an Irish farmer and a German mother. In his formally religious period, he had run a farm himself while he communed with nature as a kind of recluse and wrote poetry at night. Only his wife’s active opposition to this life made him leave and accept a teaching position at St. Thomas in St. Paul. But McCarthy knew agriculture, knew how to run a farm and milk cows. Once he had been pro-Benson on farm policy but later as ambitions for the Senate loomed, he changed and even pleased old Augie Andresen by coming out for some of Augie’s liberal farm ideas.

I was preparing to get involved in running Ed Thye’s “publicity” i.e. strategy for 1958 and looking forward to jousting with my old friend, Schaller. I took the first vacation in five years, to go to Europe in the summer of 1957. When I got back there were national changes in GOP fortunes, dislocations that interrupted the benign acceptance of Eisenhower as the supreme master of foreign and defense policy. The Soviets launched their Sputnik in 1957 which was a tremendous shock to our national psyche. It was a boon to McCarthy who had been going around the state speaking for an increased national defense, saying that the Eisenhower people had sorely misgauged our abilities in space. Then, believe it or not, on Christmas Eve 1957, Ezra Taft Benson, the secretary of agriculture, used his powers to slash dairy price supports. Augie Andresen, representing one of the state’s great dairy areas in his 1st district, issued a resounding blast. Augie then fell ill, told nobody about it and checked in at Bethesda Naval Hospital.

On one of the coldest nights of the year, January 14, 1958, I was fighting a cold and in bed in my one-room in a rooming house at 275 Summit in St. Paul when I received a phone call saying, “Tom, it’s the last of August.” I knew what those ominous words meant. The caller was Robert A. Forsythe, Sen. Thye’s administrative assistant in Washington. Andresen died of a heart attack that night. State law certified that the Minnesota governor, DFLer Orville Freeman, would designate a special election in the 1st district. Freeman took advantage of Benson’s catastrophic dairy prop slash and called it for March, which would give farmers the opportunity to register their opposition to Benson. So instead of thinking about helping to reelect Thye, I was detailed to help save the 1st district—a district represented by Augie who was a dissenter from Bensonism—and
run the publicity” which meant see that the participants didn’t get too rowdy. .

My own immediate boss, John Hartle, a state representative and wealthy farmer from the 1st, wanted to run for the nomination. He was a loyal Benson booster which would probably doom us to defeat if he got the nomination. There were several others in the race: one, Augie’s top staffer, Reynold T. (Barky) Bergquist who would probably carry on Augie’s tradition and a good many others including Don Brown, a conservative who published the district’s most important weekly. Then a young state senator decided to run. He was only 36, was himself a successful farmer and an uncommonly good legislator, a former Navy pilot in World War II, a Norwegian Lutheran with a photogenic family: Al Quie.

Quie (whose name was difficult for even Norwegians to pronounce; it was “kwee,” Norwegian for “pregnant heifer”) seemed to be one who, while supporting Benson, had the flexibility to straddle the disagreements in the district. But the outcome was by no means certain. All I knew was, I was ordered to go down to the 1st district and “run publicity” while working for the winner of the forthcoming primary. And to my delight, Jerry Schaller, my old adversary, was going down there to “run publicity” for a man the DFL had ordained, a bright young lawyer and Irish Catholic (Humphrey decided to try out Catholicism now in the Protestant 1st district)—Eugene Foley.

The New York Times and all the other major newspapers seized on the special election in the 1st district as proof that the Republicans were in trouble in the Minnesota heartland, especially in the rural areas where Augie Andresen won heavily and was so well accepted in 19th century campaigning style. A Democratic victory—especially by an Irish Catholic—would be seen as evidence that the Old Order was changing and a forerunner to an election of Eugene McCarthy to the Senate. Humphrey had decided to spend every minute campaigning for Foley. “It doesn’t hurt you’re a Catholic,” John Hartle, a Lutheran, said to me as I prepared to leave.

There were very few Catholic Republicans in the state; relatively few in the nation, a marked difference from today where the GOP has more Catholic supporters than the Democrats. Remember this was fifteen years before the beginning of the abortion issue with Roe v. Wade. Catholics had been wooed by Democratic liberalism that touted the working man and unions. The only Catholic Republican in the nation was Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin, now quite repudiated by the mainstream media. No other Catholics of significance were in the national Republican party. Certainly no Catholic Republicans were running for Congress in the 1st district. The newspapers were starting to report that a religious test in the making could come in the 1st district between gregarious Irishman Foley and any number of Lutherans the Old Guard Republicans would nominate.

For the first time in my memory, the Twin Cities newspapers which were liberal now seemed pro-Catholic as was the national press. They didn’t care about Catholic beliefs at all, of course, but just that the Democrats would win by sympathizing for Catholics as a discriminated-against group in order to boost Foley’s and ultimately McCarthy’s chances. I packed up and spent many weeks in the 1st district, lodging at the Kahler hotel in Rochester. And I was depressed when I met to Sunday Mass to occasionally hear priests mention as sly asides that Eugene Foley of heavily Catholic Wabasha, Minnesota (also the hometown of Abigail Quigley McCarthy) was running for Congress. At every mention, the congregations would nod affirmatively.

1 comment:

  1. These really are interesting and I hope you will keep them up. It is hard to make comment on the particulars aside from that they are enjoyable reading. It is somewhat like an oral history.