Friday, July 14, 2006

Flashback: A Wire Service Reporter Named Carlson Got Drunk—and That Was Only the Beginning.

newsroom group
Recovering from a brush with near-career death (and at last getting my Minnesota driver’s license tucked securely in my wallet), I longed to get away for a vacation—but it was not to be. The summer of 1957 was a dead time, politically. The legislative session had ended; the governor’s office was quiet. No campaigns would be waged until the next year, 1958. Moreover, in Minnesota it was a time of unutterable stillness. There was no major league team. The universities had adjourned. The only thing that was newsy was the Minneapolis Aquatennial, a chamber of commerce summer fest that picked a queen. With no blogs, no talk radio, the political waters were at a standstill.

At those times, political reporters looked far and wide for something to cover. The Minneapolis papers had a bigger budget and sent their reporters on tours of the hinterlands to feel the pulse of, say farmers and small businessmen. But in St. Paul, the Ridder newspapers were incredibly stingy. This worried Fred Neumeier, the sage but elderly political editor of the Dispatch (the evening paper) and the Pioneer Press, the morning one. Neumeier was getting on to 70 and he didn’t particularly want to hang on the phone all day drumming up stories—one for the morning, one for the evening. But his editors expected it.

So Neumeier hatched an idea. One day when I came in carrying a so-so release, he looked at it and said, “Let me suggest something that you must not say came from me. Your adversary, Jerry Schaller, in the Democratic-Farmer Labor party is in the same boat as all of us. No news. Why don’t you get together with Schaller and drum up a little controversy? Something for us to write? You can get your spokesmen to say something and Schaller’s spokesmen respond; then the next day the repartee continues. It’ll show people you’re doing your job and my editors who like politics will be happy. And I’ll be happy. What do you think?”

I thought it was a good idea. Schaller and I had been fairly good friends since we had the same job, publicizing our respective parties and the fact that a major state columnist wanted to give our parties publicity was irresistible. . So we got together over drinks and made a deal. I would use two spokesmen from the GOP—my immediate boss John Hartle, the state chairman, and the national committeeman, George Etzell. He would use his immediate boss, Ray Hemenway, the DFL state chairman and his party’s national committeeman, Gerald Heaney. Hartle, a state legislator, insisted on reading the broadsides that carried his name first before it went out (a sensible precaution) but Etzell, a small town newspaper editor in Clarissa, Minnesota (population: 250) said he didn’t need to. “Just send what you want out in my name,” he said, “and when and if the papers call I’ll wing it.”

Fair enough. Heaney, a union organizer in Duluth, gave Schaller carte blanche to write and release anything in his name. Except Heaney was afflicted with a terrible stutter so I had to be careful that we didn’t attack him in a way that required a personal response because if the radio stations would call him for a tape, his eyes would bug out and he’d stammer so much it would be fatally embarrassing. Conversely, Mrs. Heffelfinger, the acknowledged GOP heavy-weight, did not care for publicity—so Schaller had to be careful that his spokesmen didn’t attack her because she despised attacks, preferring to operate on the phone in her never-ending quest to get Cabot Lodge the vice presidency and ultimately the presidency. .

O.k. That seemed easy. If there were a political anti-trust, both Schaller and I would have been indicted. We decided the run the scenario this way. My guy Etzell would declare that the Democratic demagogues are proven wrong on the farm issue, because the latest statistics show that income is rising etc. etc. Schaller would have Hemenway respond that the family farmer was still being driven off the land and Etzell, as a fat-cat Republican, didn’t care. To which I would have Etzell, a country weekly newspaper editor, respond—well you get the drift. Both Schaller and my parties would be in the headlines and Fred Neumeier need only sit in his swivel chair and re-write press releases. To some extent some radio stations would pick us up. This was the dawn of 24-hour all-news-all day and one station in Minneapolis was crying for fodder. Excellent.

One group that didn’t want to play ball was the wire services. Staid, formal, they ditched most news releases in the waste-basket. One guy, named Einar Carlson, was particularly offensive to both of us. He was the night manager for a wire service who hated politics anyhow, was a bug on fact-filled news not political invective. But Schaller and I had the same experience with him. We’d bring in our releases (at separate times, of course; it was very important to personally deliver them) and Carlson would give them a cursory look-see and with dramatic flourish pop them in the wastebasket saying, “That’s what I think of that [scatological reference to farm animal waste].” For a long time, I thought his attitude was because like most newsmen then and now, he was a liberal Democrat. Schaller thought it was because he was a Republican—certainly the only Republican working newsman Schaller had ever met. No, we were both wrong.

Einar Carlson just hated politics and vowed not to run invective if he could possibly avoid it. But more than anything else, he despised Humphrey. It had nothing to do with Humphrey’s politics but everything to do with the staccato way Humphrey talked and the smug, wise-guy attitude Carlson thought he showed. Frankly, I liked Humphrey and didn’t see anything more than a passionate partisan. But Carlson told me this when I asked why my stuff is going into the basket.

He said, “Your stuff goes into the basket but look here, Schaller’s stuff also goes into the basket. I am frankly neuter, a eunuch when it comes to politics. I like the Opera, the Minneapolis Symphony, good drama but politics leaves me cold. And as I run this place all night, don’t entertain the slightest thought your pap will go on the wires. Not unless your bosses die. So far as Humphrey is concerned, were he to die I would be delighted. With no political bias, I can say there is something about him, his words, his tight little mouth with no lips, that I can’t stand. Period. And I’ve told Schaller that, too.”

Schaller and I had another couple of drinks and he said, “Yes, Carlson is strange. First of all, Carlson doesn’t know a thing about politics and doesn’t care so it’s no good you or me educating him. Maybe we should just save our shoe leather and not hike up to his office—at least during the nights when he’s on.” Okay, another deal.

Formal artillery barrage began with Etzell (me) extolling the Eisenhower record on agriculture; and with Hemenway countering. The St. Paul papers ran adjoining photos of the disputants and our mutual constituents were thrilled: give `em hell, Etzell! That’s telling `em Ray! It made our bosses minor celebrities. Whenever there was a GOP fund-raiser and the name Etzell was brought up from the rostrum, there was a round of applause and one night there was standing ovation for the fighting little bantam rooster small town editor who was slugging it out with the big Twin City guy. Etzell loved it. He had no suggestion as to what he would say; he would just say that he would put me in for a raise with the state finance boys.

He would get up in the morning, turn on WCCO and hear what he had just charged the DFL with—which was news to him. Then by noon he’d hear what Hemenway said about Ike. Also the St. Paul papers were making a big deal of them both. Fred Neuemeier was in heaven. Schaller and I met for lunch and agreed that things were going well, the public was getting an education and they were picking their favorites: the small towners picking Etzell and the big city types, labor union guy, cheering Hemenway.

This went on all summer and gradually the players were winning statewide reputations for caustic, fighting comments. Schaller and I were like seconds who gave water and encouragement to our fighters ringside.

It became a regular feature of Minnesota politics. One indication of how successful it was came when Hubert Humphrey himself would chime in from Washington. I was delighted when he would attack Etzell and so was Etzell: an indication of the big time. It was due to last at least until the legitimate political season would begin when bona fide candidates would pick up the slack.

Then one night it happened. I went to bed after watching the 10 p.m. news on TV to see the announcer reading a statement made by Humphrey in Washington while the camera showed a Humphrey still photo, his fists clenched and in the midst of a fervid speech (that was how TV news was in those days, largely). I drifted off to sleep happy that the stage-managed battle was drawing so much attention that the junior Minnesota senator wanted to play. I made a mental note of trying to get our Republican Senator Ed Thye to go along, since Thye was due to face a tough reelection battle the nest year, 1958.

At about 4 a.m. my phone rang. I couldn’t believe it: it was Einar Carlson calling from the wire service. He was choked up. Earlier that evening he had seen the Humphrey statement and had watched the announcer read the statement on his office TV with the camera catching the angry Humphrey picture. It turned out Carlson was a secret tippler in the office when he and only one other guy was there all night and Carlson had over-served himself. Something Humphrey had said ticked him off mightily. Humphrey had taken credit for creation of the soil bank, the latest palliative both parties were using to reduce surpluses. Somewhere in his statistical readings, Carlson remembered that the soil bank was initiated by Republicans. Sitting at his typewriter, high on Jim Beam (and I have never been able to ascertain for sure but I was told that there was some smoking of what was then called “reefers” or marijuana in the newsroom. I don’t believe just a few swigs of Jim Beam would have done it but Carlson turned out a response to Humphrey from the wire service using Etzell as an indignant adversary.

But Carlson’s facts were wrong. Humphrey was right. And Humphrey’s press guy responded with an angry, derogatory slur at Etzell which demanded an apology. By the time Carlson called me he had sobered up and come down to earth—and he was obviously worried. If in response Etzell maintained he had never said it and that the statement originating from the wire service was fabricated, Carlson would be instantly terminated. His plaintive suggestion: would I mind taking the hit, acknowledging we were wrong so as to save his job?

Hell no. I had never been accused of putting out sloppy research whatsoever. Besides if Carlson were to go it would be a net plus not just for me but for the coverage of politics. But I knew the controversy was not as great at all but was of significant magnitude for Carlson. So I told Carlson: if I take the hit, you’ve got to take a hit, too. Which means that all the stuff…and I mean all the stuff…that I grind out has to be in your news budget and sent out throughout the state. I’ll let you off the hook if you convince me on very few occasions that it is not practicable to do it—but if I take the hit, you take the hit and you become a conveyer for my stuff, but not for Schaller. Okay? Either that or you can handle this mess yourself.

It was okay and immediately our news coverage expanded throughout the state. My hit was played down and the controversy passed when Humphrey’s press guy evidently decided other things were more important. But until the day he died—tragically too soon—Schaller wondered why suddenly my stuff was running circles around his on the wire service and why Carlson had developed a sudden interest in George Etzell’s views.

The good thing about being old and telling this story is that everybody associated with it is dead: Carlson retired as a senior journalist and was gone a few years later. Only he knew the tale. Everyone else from that era: Schaller, Humphrey, Hartle, Etzell, Heffelfinger, Freeman, McCarthy, Neumeier—none of whom knew or even understood there was an apology—all gone. And it’s left for me to tell the tale.


  1. No survivors?

    Hey, Ishmael. You got it wrong. The white whale still swims.

  2. .... at Obama's expense.

    Tom, is there any chance you're a co-conspirator with Zorn as you were with Schaller in pursuit of a whale of readers?

    For a change of subject, visit and watch the Lamont-Lieberman debate.

    Other news: Jonathan Tasini will be on the ballot in NY.

  3. Coming up with phony controversies to pass their bipartisan agenda of allowing 66 million illegal aliens into America, keeping the American border porous (but spending whatever AIPAC dictates to defend Israel's borders), creating record domestic spending each and every year and keeping the status quo as far as abortion (legal on demand) and other issues of concern to Christians and so called "paleocons".