Monday, August 7, 2006

Flashback: Did You Ever Feel that You Wanted to Go, Then You Feel that You Wanted to Stay? That’s How it’s Always Been with Me and D. C.

[Continuing the memoirs of fifty years in politics and reporting for my kids and grandchildren.]

So, I told Quie, this job, this life…this being a serf…is not for me and I’m going. I’m thirty years old and my indentured servitude was in St. Cloud, not here. Com’on, he said. I can’t change the system. That’s the way it is here. Congressmen are up one level, that’s all. How will it look for me if you take off and go back? That’s just it, Quie. That’s the way it is here, isn’t it? “How will it look for me? How will this and that affect me?” Look, I packed up and quit a perfectly good job in Minnesota to which I can return. I came here to do some writing, radio and TV work for a Congressman, not to be an assistant bartender for a group of freshies who play statesman.”

The last remark was focused at the fact that he had joined a freshman Republican Congressman type of fraternity called the “Acorns” who met once every week to discuss issues in one or another’s offices (the young Bob Michel of Illinois, who had graduated from staff assistant to Rep. Harold Velde to being elected to succeed him as Congressman from Peoria) was one of them and the staff was supposed to pour and serve drinks for them after hours (Quie was a total abstainer). Barky Bergquist, the old hand top aide to Quie, was delighted to serve them. Not me. At the least they could pour their own drinks. Stuff it.

At about that time Viehman called from Minnesota (the ex-campaign manager, former WCCO radio celebrity, now sales manager at Josten’s). He said, “I hear you don’t like it so well there. Well, tell `em to stuff it and come back here. They’re going to elect me state chairman and I’ll make you deputy chairman, a raise and all the works. Together we’ll elect a governor as we did a Congressman.” Sounded good to me.

I called my guru. “Don’t in heavens name quit,” said Mrs. Heffelfinger. “We all spoiled you, that’s what. Be the bartender, be the serf, get along, do the job and come back. Besides you don’t want to come back. That icky Ed Viehman, the Bircher you like so much, is running for state chairman and he’d probably want you to work for him and turn you into something like what he is.” Brad, you don’t understand. Conservatism with some amendments, not dropping Social Security one of them, is the wave of the future.

“Wave of the future my [scatological reference to piece of her anatomy]! That’s why you should stay there, get to learn the value of modern Eisenhower-Cabot Lodge Republicanism!”

She didn’t convince me to stay. My father came closer selling me, You want to go back to Minnesota because it’s familiar, he said. But personal growth depends on mastering the unfamiliar. You’ve always wanted to get out of difficult work. Remember when you got a waiver from college from taking calculus because you convinced a faculty pal? He did a favor for you he thought but he didn’t. You always want to take the short, easy course. Stick with it now. You may not enjoy it but you’ll learn that the world often requires you doing something you don’t like.

Well, I still wasn’t sold but I decided to stay temporarily at least. Turned out a newsletter for Quie that got an award from the Bull Elephants Club, the group of aides to Republican Congressmen. Set up a series of Quie interviews with prominent Eisenhower people mailed back to the Rochester TV station; turned out radio tapes of Quie Reports to all the radio stations (subsidized by the RCCC, the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee). Grabbed a sandwich early each late morning and hurried over to grab a seat in the Senate gallery, sitting there by the hour watching the performances. Even when it was dull and Teddy Green, the 91-year-old Rhode Island denizen who helped me find my way around, dozed in his seat while Wayne Morse blabbed on about some social injustice or other.

It was a great Senate for gawkers. Tall, immaculately dressed, Lyndon Johnson was the majority leader, a gorgeous linen handkerchief protruding just so from his breast pocket, striding down the aisles, hands in pockets, nodding to one and other, sauntering down the aisles, hustling over to only one beckoned finger—that of the old bull, Everett McKinley Dirksen, the minority leader, who looked very much like Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion in the “Wizard of Oz.” Dirksen could deliver more southern conservative Democrats than could Johnson with one exception, his old patron Dick Russell of Georgia. Dirksen was indispensable as to how Johnson ran the Senate. Sitting in the back, watching them, undoubtedly wondering what the Dirksen beckoned finger and hustled Johnson who now bent over Dirksen’s desk, meant: Jack Kennedy. Hustling the younger members but staying away from Kennedy was Hubert, particularly close to Ed Muskie who as a Polish Catholic seemed to be more Hubert’s cup of tea.

Up on the dais, Richard III, the serpentine figure of the vice president, Richard Nixon, unwinding and winding and stretching to relieve the tension. In one enclosure all of them: Kennedy, to be the 35th president, twirling his reading glasses, occasionally receiving a note from a page; Johnson, the 36th up from House staff aide to master of the Senate, the ring-master with a tiny copy-cat who when LBJ wasn’t around would walk, at 5 feet 6 inches of him with his hands jauntily in his pockets, Bobby Baker, secretary of the Senate , Nixon, impossible to stop fidgeting, twisting, scratching, slumping or sitting upright, the 37th and on the House side down just a floor from us, Gerald Ford, the old footballer, probably the most normal of them all who was to be the 38th . And Hubert who so passionately wanted to be the 35th and the 37th and the 39th , blocked by the results of the Minnesota presidential primary that Augie had surreptitiously orchestrated and falling ill too soon to take advantage when Jimmy Carter did. No, I had not a clue who they would end up being or in what order they would fall but an intimation that one of some of them would land there—so I studied all.

In the meantime, Barky and I served drinks occasionally to the Acorns. I was still bored but a Republican member from southwestern Minnesota hired an 18-year-old former Miss Swedish Minnesota (born in Sweden) as receptionist who then went on to become Miss Aquatennial Minneapolis 1957, having passed up a Hollywood screen test because of mother’s disapproval, a stunner (where as singer and budding actress she could easily have topped Ann-Margaret), who was given a job to occupy her beyond being so beautiful the mailmen who delivered packages to the House would walk into walls ogling at her. The job was to write a weekly “my day at the office in Washington” for the Minneapolis Tribune about what was happening to her in the House and how it felt to be working in Washington, a Swedish immigrant-applicant for citizenship’s impressions of the White House and the Jefferson Memorial. The lovely Swedish thing, a look-alike for a later Christy Brinkley but far more winning in personality, strolled into our office as the typewriters stopped and Barky didn’t pick up the phone but stared as she made her way with great feminine delicacy to my desk, emitting the sachet of perfume, electrifying the men and antagonizing the women who hated her instantly. I hear, she said excitingly in a soft accent, that you’re a writer so I was wondering if you thought what I have written here is o.k, asking because like me you’re a Republican, if that’s all right. Yes, it was all right.

So I started ghosting her observations of Washington for the paper. Ooooh, she said, dot’s goooood. What does this word mean, haaaaaaaaah? Yahuhhhhh? Oh, I see. Yesssssss, you’re goooood. Really? Yessssssss. When Viehman called and asked angrily, “well are you quitting there and coming home?” I said noooooooo, not yet. I told him I decided to stay.

“You’re staying there? Missing a great opportunity!” he said. To which I said, yessssssss. I could hear my mother say: He went to Washington and met this-this Swedish beauty queen, she eighteen and he thirty, she probably tempting him, putting him in danger of losing his Faith since she is a…a…devout Lutheran, probably Missouri synod or something worse which they probably have in Sweden. for God’s sake and who, if he marries her, we will not go to the wedding because in all odds she will never raise their children Catholic.

She need not have worried. This lissome Church of Sweden variant of strict Missouri synod Lutheran had her mother living with her in Washington (another look-alike stunner just over 40) both of whom regarded the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit which will in no way be defiled by anyone, least of all a follower of the craven church of Rome. I tried to educate both about Saint Bridget [Birgitta] of Sweden, their country’s patroness, but made little headway. Nevertheless both approved of me for escort purposes during her several months’ internship in Washington. So it was a high society trip when I took her out every Saturday night and once as the Queen of the Minnesota State Society Christmas ball, tagging along as then spindly, thick-spectacled escort. She even took my beginning jowls in her two exquisitely tapered hands, came nose-to-nose with me until I was engulfed in her light blue, unfathomable eyes and said, “Tomas, vat do you vant to do vith your life? Vould you too run for Congress?” I said no but I hope to do a hell of a lot more than serve drinks to the Acorns. She said, beguilingly, “Vould you let me help you serve dvinks to the Acorns?” Of course. Let us say that the Acorns, particularly young Congressman Michel, were powerfully impressed.

During the time she and her mother were in Washington (before she left to enter the University of Minnesota), most every noon after lunch we would go to gawk from the Senate gallery. The first time we appeared, Sen. Karl Mundt (R-ND) was attacking Sen. Hubert Humphrey in a long, prepared speech. Humphrey stuck his head in from the cloakroom, surveyed the scene, cocked his eye up to the gallery and then popped it back in the cloakroom like a turtle, giving no particular importance to Mundt’s speech. Two minutes later he was in the gallery by our side saying to Miss Swedish Minnesota, “You know you are shattering the decorum of the Senate for which I say `thank God!” She was so delighted she gave him a kiss, causing some speculation down in the cavern of the chamber. Humphrey then proceeded to give her in whispers so that he placed his lips to her delicate ear, the history of the Senate as he sat next to her.

Shortly thereafter, g after, we, along with Humphrey, were joined by the wheezing lion of the Senate, Everett McKinley Dirksen, who asked her in a stage whisper if the junior Senator from Minnesota was bothering her—for which Dirksen also received a kiss which he returned with a great sloppy one on her mouth before he took a seat on her other side. Much of the Senate which was watching, applauded as the minority leader waved. The majority leader, LBJ, made a ceremony of shaking his finger disapprovingly at his Republican colleague and his Senate whip, both of whom bowed to all theatrically. Those were the days when partisanship stopped—if not at the water’s edge, at the entrance of a beautiful woman. Will we ever see those days again?

Dirksen was more interested in Minnesota long before the entry of Miss Swedish Minnesota to the Senate gallery. A Dane, he had gone to the University of Minnesota and found the Scandinavian populace there very hospitable to him—and indeed pondered for a long while about possibly staying up there and running for office since he had a very congenial name. He earned a few bucks as a student addressing Republican gatherings and could tick off the towns like Zumbro Falls, Dundas, Faribault, Sleepy Eye and New Ulm. Had he stayed and not returned to Pekin, Illinois, he probably would have ended up at the same place because of his demonstrative talents.


As news of my celebrity as escort of Miss Swedish Minnesota got around not just what was the New House Office Building (now the Longworth H.O.B), the Old House Office Building (now the Cannon H. O. B.), the Senate Office Building (now the Russell S.O.B.) and indeed the entire Capitol including the staff of Vice President Nixon, the frozen status between Congressman Quie and boy in the office began to melt—not back to what it had been when Quie was a state senator and I the publicist, that of equals, but halfway between master and servitor and the chief steward of the public television series “Upstairs, Downstairs.” We would exchange witty notes about the foibles of the House from time to time—I initiating them from my desk in the outer office, he responding via his secretary with penned responses that would be delivered to me, while we were within twenty feet of each other.

He was particularly derisive of an old Congresswoman from Ohio—one of the few females in the House at that time—a woman approaching 75 who took up a great deal of his committee time moving that certain commas and semi-colons be struck from committee documents…Mrs. Frances Bolton. Later her son, Oliver, became a Congressman and the two made the footnotes of American history by being the first mother and son to serve in the House at the same time. Anyhow, Frances Bolton was an enormously built elderly matron who moved as she thought with great deliberation. In fact, the ringing of the bells and the flashing of lights in the House calling members to quorum calls and roll-calls had different designation. Two bells and two flashing lights meant a call to the House, three bells and three flashing lights meant a quorum call and four bells and four flashing lights meant rollcall. There was also a provision for five bells and five flashing lights which was never used. I asked an old House hand when, if ever, they would be used. His response was, whenever Frances Bolton entered the House swimming pool.

One day I was in the House Minority (Republican) Room, the clearing house for mimeograph (modern copiers not yet invented) and duplication of all kinds including a bevy of robo-typewriters which were going lickety-split running off form letters with Members’ names. I noticed evidence of great carelessness from the office of Frances Bolton. She had allowed her engraved signature plate to be used by clerks in the room. When the robo-typewriters rattled off form letters, the auto pen would jerk upright in a poised position and scribble “Frances Bolton” at the bottom. I have explained earlier why the indiscriminate usage of an auto-pen was regarded as the height of folly, because it could be easily mis-used and checks could be cashed on it because it was the authentic signature of the member of Congress. Mrs. Bolton, a stickler for correctness, had evidently in her old age nodded and allowed the plate to be carried to the Minority Room where it could be abused.

And where it was abused—by me. I took a few copies of her official stationery and ran them blank through the auto-pen causing it to jerk up alert, poise itself and sign “Frances Bolton”. Thus I had blank sheets of stationery signed “Frances Bolton.” I took them up to my office and carefully wrote a mushy, outrageously familiar letter to Quie, spacing it exactly so it completed itself with a vague proposition for future romantic collaboration at the end of the paper which was signed “Frances Bolton.” Dear Al, I wrote, looking at you across the committee room I can hardly contain myself. While you are a young man, in your 30s and I a somewhat mature woman, perhaps there is a lot about this world that I could show you and a number of things in this Congress that I could introduce you to—do you get it, lovie? On and on. It was signed, of course, with her carefully produced signature, “Frances Bolton.” When I had prepared my usual publicity puff stuff for him to approve, I gave it to his personal secretary, a woman with no discernible sense of humor or nuance, and she carried it atop the pile of mail to his desk.

I could hear him guffaw as I sat at my desk. He scribbled on the bottom something like, You bet, baby! Let’s live it up! I’ll meet you tonight at the Carroll Arms! Al. The Carroll Arms was a notorious pick-up bar and hotel at which Joe McCarthy had stayed, the place where Mark Russell began his career as a songster and stand-up satirist. Hours went by and as we were ready to leave, he said: “Great job on Mrs. Bolton! Did you get my answer?” I hadn’t. We both jumped. His secretary, LaVonne, was known as a human robotypist, a cold, emotionless machine whose fingers could fly over the keyboard as fast as a man could dictate. We raced over to her desk and asked what she did with the response. She frankly couldn’t remember it but she had typed envelopes for every bit of correspondence and did remember typing an envelope for inter-office mail to Congresswoman Frances Bolton. Both Quie and I were transfixed with fright. Frances Bolton was the senior Republican on the Committee, a matron with the power to make or break careers. Nothing would do but I would have to go down to the House Postoffice and personally go through all the franked mail to intercept that inter-office mail. When she determined that she had mechanically typed the envelope for an improper solicitation of Mrs. Bolton to a tryst, LaVonne was enraged at me for perpetrating the hoax that had caught her up and discredited her, she thought, in the eyes of her Congressman.

Quie was so alarmed that he wanted to go with me to do it, afraid that by midnight or so I might just say the hell with it and let the missive arrive. I pledged that I would not. At that point, Miss Swedish Minnesota appeared in the doorway for our evening of supper and the movies. Quite laboriously I explained what I had done. She thought it great fun if we would both go down to the mail-room and sift through the thousands of envelopes to find from to Mrs. Bolton from Al Quie. “It vil not take looong,” she said. She knew why.

Quie allowed us to go together, perceiving that with Miss Swedish Minnesota in fetching tow, the entire mailroom would heave to the task of finding the envelope as a favor to her. Which it did. She explained in her charming way, her blue eyes clouding, near tears, that she had made a mistake and that she had typed an envelope from Congressman Quie that should not have been sent…and she was sure she would be fired and have to leave the House were it not reclaimed. Immediately the entire male contingent dug into the pounds, almost tons, of mail while she perched on a desk, dried her eyes and said, “oooh eet is so gooood of you to do dees!” In relatively short order, an envelope was found from Quie to Bolton which I opened and to my everlastingly exhausted relief pronounced as the correct one. With aplomb Miss Swedish Minnesota bestowed kisses on the cheeks of the exhilarated male employees. But I never played that trick again. And LaVonne, Quie’s secretary, never spoke to me again notwithstanding that we worked together in the same small quarters. She was quoted by another woman who worked there as wishing I were dead.

The search for the offending envelope completed in less than an hour, we went onto the movies, catching the late show. “Tomas, you didn’t tell me you ver such a cut-up,” she said with mock reproof. “Is dat how to say eet? Am I saying it correct?” Yes she was. And when she left at the end of several months to go to the University of Minnesota, I was not only lonely but returned to my old love-hate view of Washington, D. C., a view that has not entirely left me despite another stint there and frequent trips between Chicago and D.C. as a lobbyist.

1 comment:

  1. One of your very best of this series! Growing up in MN, I encountered several of those drop-dead pretty Scandinavians.
    Wisely, I married a drop-dead pretty German young lady .