Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Flashback: The Idiosyncratic U. S. Congress in the `50s and Quie Reelected that November Handily. And Little Kathy with Arthritic Trembling

[More memories from fifty years in politics for my kids and grandchildren.]

As the months wore on for the very short term in Congress before Al Quie would have to run again, the feudal Man-Boy nature of Congressmen and staff continued to depress me. In no other job, including political party research-publicist, governor’s press secretary, assistant to a cabinet officer, foreign service officer, private corporation vice president or college faculty member has the caste system matched that of the U. S. Congress and its staff members in the 1950s. The odd thing is that the longer one worked there the less observant one could be of the caste system. Veterans staffers took it as a matter of course. Not me. I’ve never gotten over it.

I checked with friends who worked there and discovered that the vassal system was a vestige of the old Congress when staffers were valets. The House began, of course, in 1789 as a place where there were no personal staffers at all. A Congressman carried a small portable desk into the chamber, sat there, wrote his own legislation, argued on the floor, wrote his own letters back home and went back to his lodgings where he ate in the company of his fellows and walked over to the Library of Congress, then a dusty, disordered place, to do research for himself. In that environment, the House passed the Bill of Rights within a few months. One can imagine how long it would have taken if staff, lawyers and image-persons were around to bog down the progress. Members might be debating these ten amendments even today. There was no staff except slaves—literally—to draw Members’ baths in rooming houses and to shine boots.

Clerical staff—all males—began in the 1820s. When Lincoln came to Congress the entire Illinois delegation had what they called scribes to help with the correspondence: two or three scribes to the entire delegation. Speech-writers abounded from the very first but they were usually journalists paid on the side. The concept of professional staff as House employees didn’t begin until the end of the 19th century, overwhelmingly male in the professional categories, female in clerical. By the time I got to the House, the professional staffs were quite small in number and devoted to doing case work: help to constituents. In the House, for junior members which Quie was, there was only one general office where the staff sat. The Congressman was tucked away in his private office. Even Augie, a very senior Congressman, had a second room for his “secretary,” Barky Bergquist, with everyone else working…typewriters clacking, phones ringing…robotype machines roaring…in a general office. The crowded nature of the Quie office didn’t bother me (I was used to this in newspapering and Republican party activities). What bothered me was the “yes massah” and “no massah” deferentiality that was at great variance with what the House was supposed to be. There are two examples I like to cite.

The chief “secretary” of our office, R. T. Berg quist (with whom I became the best of friends) who had for a brief time run for Congress after Augie died and who was hired by Quie, was a man in his fifties who had spent almost all of his adult working life in the House. He was so in awe and beaten down by Augie…and so emasculated in service by him…that he would arise from his desk in the office and stand at attention when Augie strode in every morning, a throwback to the old days. Augie was a man of careless attire, engrossed in writing and debating farm legislation. Barky wanted his boss to look good so he asked Augie to bring in his most rumpled suits. Augie did, of course, and while Augie worked in his office, Barky would hike the suits down Constitution avenue a couple of blocks to the cleaners and pressers where he would pick up suits that he had brought the day before. He would pay for the cleaning and pressing himself and was proud to do it.

It never occurred to Augie to pay for his own cleaning. “I did it because I wanted him to look good like a Congressman should look,” he told me. I responded that I hoped he wouldn’t try that with Quie because assuredly Quie, one of the most stringently tight men I have ever met notwithstanding his family’s comfortable means, would allow him to pay just as Augie did. He never did. He said he wouldn’t have to because Quie wore dry-cleaned and sharply pressed suits.

But my day came to do menial service. I was ordered to take a huge hound that belonged to the Congressman to a special vet who lived…get this…in West Virginia, a trip that took several hours on the irregular Saturday that I had a day off. I was supposed to drive my car but it was so old I begged off. I was grudgingly allowed to drive his second car, a used one which had more miles on it than mine did. He reluctantly agreed to pay for the gas. These round trips happened several times (the huge, slobbering hound riding in the back seat, taking in the countryside, was supposedly in fragile health), my time spent doing it on my own since he properly would not countenance the time spent on the federal clock. So for several Saturdays this occurred. I was expected to feel very lucky that I had the opportunity to serve a distinguished member of the House…in fact that House’s most junior member. I was unimpressed.

On one of the trips I nicked the bumper. I reported it to the Congressman who agonized over the cost, went outside the House building to inspect it and had a hard time doing that since the car was so old it was barely distinguishable. I agreed to pay for the very slight damage myself. He was willing to accept this but finally, after some thought, decided that the minor abrasion should be reported to his insurance company. Whereupon he insisted that if his insurance rate went up he would charge me the overage. I kid you not. After all this you were supposed to sit down and write sagas about this statesman and newly-elected Savior of the republic.

Of course there was no charge because the scrape was hardly noticeable but I heard about that for many weeks which led me to insist that since I was such an undependable driver, perhaps he or his wife would undertake the great responsibility of driving the pooch to West Virginia themselves. Which led to congressional deeply hurt feelings. A House Agriculture aide was found to do the job—a lawyer who was thrilled at the opportunity to serve the statesman and newly-elected Savior of the republic. I was stunned at the aide’s enthusiasm. In checking with other staff aides, I found this was not atypical. They were used as valets in addition to their regular work. And in fact, how I was drafted for this service is interesting. Senior Congressmen would take the younger members like Quie in tow and give them advice about how and when to use staffs as valets. Thus was the Old Order perpetuated.

If you read Robert Caro’s brilliant biographical series on Lyndon Johnson, you understand how LBJ served his indentured time as a menial staff aide…and how he hated it, storing up his resentment until, when elected, vented his authority on his own staffers, becoming one of the most arrogant Members of Congress in the House followed by his election to the Senate where he became a tyrant and czar and then to the presidency where he operated very much in the style of Suleiman the Magnificent (saying to a staffer who how many planes were at his disposal, “Son, all these planes are mine. I’m the Commander-in-Chief.” LBJ was a staff colleague of Barky Bergquist and they shared a good deal of common wisdom about the House until, of course, Johnson got elected on his own whereupon, according to the caste rules, he never spoke to Bergquist again, which Barky understood since the caste system mandated this. I had the perfect occasion to witness this. LBJ had worked with Barky when both were staffers in what LBJ designed as “the Little Congress” where staffers would play Congressmen after adjournment. Barky played at it for a while and became an intimate with LBJ. But that was then.

I was walking on the Senate side with Barky on some errand or other in 1958 when the swinging door of the Chamber opened and LBJ, the majority leader, strode out and almost knocked us down. Barky said hello to him; he looked at Barky like he was examining some weird specimen and kept on walking. Barky winked to me after the non-response to assuage me that the caste system didn’t exist only in the case of Al Quie but was the order of the day. But the overnight transformation of a young farmer-state senator who beseeched me to get on the radio in St. Paul…the debating partner who discussed Lutheran and Catholic theology with me… and the autocratic Congressman has never, ever left me. It left me with a distaste for the working style of the Congress that I have kept ever since. And even now there is a heavy trace of Man-Boy in the Congress. So far as the public is concerned, there was—and is—a great deal of phoniness involved.

The Illinoisan who worked overtime to develop an Abe Lincoln mantra of humility in the Congress while treating everyone—cooks, cab-drivers, newspaper vendors—as equals was Paul Simon. He dressed the part down to his hand-tied bow-ties as did Lincoln. A singular difference between the two being that Simon was about 5 feet six and Lincoln was six feet four; Lincoln, by all reports, the genuine article, Simon the faux version. Cultivating the image of a shorter Jimmy Stewart small-town-newspaper-editor-come-to-Washington, Simon kept a small, old-fashioned portable typewriter on his desk where he was supposed to have written his calculatedly homespun newsletter and many books. A staff member told me that the procedure was far different, of course. Simon’s office had computers and all the modern equipment. His newsletters and newspaper columns were prepared in the new mode way--but here this lonely portable stood on his desk: God’s own simple rustic supposedly using it to pound out deathless prose. Once when I was visiting him and hearing about his homespun virtues from him himself, I walked over to his desk and inspected the old typewriter, blowing the dust off its keys with a theatrical flourish. He got the drift immediately.

When this Abe Lincoln paragon decided to quit the Senate, he left without lifting a finger to see that his loyal staff was placed in other jobs…which began the legend, told me by a woman who was stranded and whose request that he help her get another job was coldly refused: “Paul Simon loves humanity. It’s human beings he can’t stand.” But it is a mistake to assume that was just Simon’s trait. Humphrey was probably the best exception—having been loved by his staff whom he diligently placed when he left the vice presidency and whom he reclaimed—lot of them—when he returned as junior Senator from Minnesota. The best Senate staff I ever saw worked for Alan Dixon but he behaved as if they belonged to him. When Emmett O’Neill, his Chicago man, volunteered to help Carol Moseley Braun after she beat Dixon and when he visited the staff, Dixon cut him off without a word and didn’t even go to O’Neill’s funeral when he died suddenly the following year…despite the fact that Dixon claimed O’Neill was like a brother to him.

The Man-Boy caste system led to shriveled egos on the staff side which in turn prompted some staffers to relieve the tension by playing outrageous games including gross ethical violations and spectacular sexual peccadilloes. One game among veteran staffers was to try to seduce as many young female clerical workers as they could. In other words, the male ego took it out on young women in order to make up for the humiliation the male staffers received from their elected bosses. Women were treated as pawns, with the male staffers, married or single, gloating over their sexual conquests over coffee and drinks in a particularly nauseating male guffawing detail. It was a very minor form of power being a great aphrodisiac—but what power that could come from an affair with a male staffer is hard to discern…and the mystery to me was why so many girls allowed themselves to be used. A Congressman’s overture to a young female staffer was frequent—but why she would yield stumped me.

In my time, many male staffers acted very much like immature high school freshmen who after class hours wanted to strut in their own milieu. Of course there were gross exaggerations as to how many of these women clerical workers they seduced—but the conversations were depressing, decadent, dispirited and demeaning. There was an intellectual poverty there. The sexual conquests were not limited, of course, to male staffers and young female clerical workers. Occasionally the Congressmen and Senators invaded the turf and used preemptory privileges of rank to prey on young women, many of whom were imports and were living alone. Across the hall from our office, a Wyoming Congressman and his comely, single female aide who came from his law firm in Wyoming as a neophyte seemed to work round the clock—in the office long before we arrived, staying long after we left. Their work paid off when he was elected U. S. Senator from Wyoming. But he never got to serve. He died Senator-elect in his House office, in her arms during a midnight tryst.

And a few weeks later, as the House workmen cleaned out his office, she stopped in to say goodbye to us across the hall, his wife weeping and emptying out his drawer, the female staff aide going back to Wyoming after only a year in Washington. I knew how he died despite the Washington Post’s saying he was found dead in his chair. To me she whispered, “that’s not all. I think I’m pregnant from that night. And I’m thrilled. Somebody who will always remind me of him!” Yes, I heard about John Kennedy’s exploits when the world saw him as just another bachelor Catholic senator--long before the world knew he was a womanizer. Nor was he alone or singular because he was young. Strom Thurmond was known as an equal opportunity predator during my time there. The Congress in the `50s—particularly the staffs—could be a cesspool.

There is a study being undertaken now—an academic study—that purports that the U turn that Michigan’s pompous Republican Arthur Vandenberg made in the Senate from isolationist to leading internationalist was executed because Vandenberg wanted to impress an early, well-known female newspaper columnist who told him she adored him when he showed the instincts of a world leader. Robert Taft, once his old friend, was aghast at the spectacle. For her he made a national address from the Senate floor, marking his debut as an internationalist, an address I watched while Taft watched him, his face resting on a strangely closed fist, leaning on his Senate chair. In that case, perhaps the public weal was served, however because Vandenberg heralded the dawn of a bipartisan foreign policy that lasted for much of the Cold War. Wendell Willkie became a leading internationalist because he wanted to look good in the eyes of his mistress, a female journalist for the Christian Science Monitor. Those who doubt there were powerful female journalists in that era are invited to remember Dorothy Thompson (married to Sinclair Lewis) whose column was super-powerful, more so than that of Walter Lippmann. In my day, Kenneth Keating relaxed with Nancy Hanchman, later known as Nancy Dickerson, of NBC-TV and the nation was told by NBC that Keating “grew” in office. No, nobody ever insinuated that Helen Thomas of UPI ever carried on with anybody.

Whenever I go to Washington I try to go to a certain special Senate dining room where the presiding maitre d’ is a tiny woman so old that she has difficulty arising and walking about. She was years and years older than I when I worked there—and she is still there, approaching ninety, hardly able to preside. Her name is Kathy. But Kathy was importuned when she worked in the House restaurant as a lowly attendant in the House staff cafeteria by a man who was the Democratic whip of the House. How he came upon her, I don’t know because the caste system insisted on Congressmen dining with other Congressmen, not staff. But whenever he worked late, he would ring for Kathy…and she, waiting alone in a deserted cafeteria would wait for his call and thrilled for the chance to be of service. Whereupon she would come up there, maybe at 10 p.m. or so and they would recreate together. She allowed him to keep that up for many years, including after he became Speaker of the House where she would wait for the phone to ring. She became locally famous and staffers treated her deferentially because of her close contact with the Speaker, a celebrity she seemed to enjoy hugely.

She never married but acted for decades as his literal body servant. He retired and died much later—but with a modicum of class which his colleagues did not have, tenderly left word among the seniors of the Congress that she was to work there as long as she wished, literally until she died if that was her intention. It was and is. I saw her last year, quite a celebrity. When she spots me, she asks the same question: “How’s Barky?” I always tell her he died thirty years ago whereupon she looks very sad. She has never volunteered to step down; no one has ever asked her to, respecting the wish of her long-dead Speaker patron. At her place in the Senate special dining room there is an heroic photo of her late lover. Now she is so old that no contemporary worker knows the story or even recognizes the name of her patron. But there she is: a relic of the not-so-dead (I believe) past.

When I heard her importance in the 1950s I discounted it as mere male staff bravado. Then, having to work until very late at the end of the Congressional session, writing Quie’s remarks for the Congressional Record, I was leaving at about 1:30 in the morning…an ungodly time when no one except the cleaning staff was about… when my elevator stopped and admitted, of all people little Kathy and The Man himself, both very happy, giddy and relaxed from liberal dosages of alcohol.. As I watched carefully, I saw that he was gentleman enough to see that she had a ride—from his very own taxpayer-paid chauffeur while he piled in his second taxpayer-paid car and was driven to his home. What stories she could tell had she a mind to. She had served from the time of Sam Rayburn in the House and thence to the Senate where, when the phone rang, she would take the subterranean car to the House.

That kind of life was endemic in the House when I worked there. It was caused by the caste system where male staffers, imposed upon by arrogance, in turn imposed their will upon young women. There was another kind of speciousness that I observed. When I was in the House, the chamber was controlled by Democrats with little Sam Rayburn in the Speaker’s chair and the majority leader one John McCormack of Massachusetts. McCormack was a tall, thin professorial type but that posture was a fraud: he had next to no education, a graduate of the worst kind of Boston gutter politics. To cover up his lack of finesse, McCormack took elocution lessons and developed a kind of high-toned Boston accent not unlike the ones that the patrician Kennedys had. McCormack had a long time vassal, a staff aide named McCartney who was a serf, abused and mistreated for years.

McCartney heard old McCormack on the telephone so often McCartney began to practice the accent and tone of the voice. By the time he and I would have lunch, he would give side-splitting impressions of his boss—so perfect that it was indistinguishable from the real thing. When we said that he could easily impersonate his boss on the phone, it turned out to be a fatal compliment. It turned out that long festering resentment convinced him he could make use of his impersonating talent of McCormack.

A good many business types called McCormack, of course and talked with him on the phone. One day when McCormack was on the floor and tied up for hours, a very wealthy Bostonian called and asked to talk to McCormack. McCartney paused and then said, “please wait a minute.” He counted to twenty and then came on the phone as McCormack. The conversation had to do with a favor the business type wanted. McCartney then went to McCormack’s private office, called the businessman back and said that on reflection the favor could be performed. The businessman was very grateful. McCormack said quite confidentially that there was a fee for such service, a gratuity, which should be paid to his top staff aide McCartney and that McCormack never wanted to be reminded of the fee again because he was doing a very special favor.

The businessman, excited, agreed. Not long later the businessman called, asked to talk to McCartney and McCartney agreed to do the favor. He began a quite profitable business on the side because he could copy McCormack’s accent perfectly. McCartney soon got a huge reputation among Boston business as being the best damned aide McCormack ever had. He would imitate McCormack saying that he would refer the case to McCartney but would pledge the businessman to secrecy, saying he, McCormack, never wanted to be reminded of this again. McCartney as McCartney, would call regulatory agencies in is loud, professional voice as McCormack and get favors committed overnight. Payoffs would be made and the scam went on for years.

I didn’t imagine what was going on but soon deduced how it worked. Long after I had returned to Minnesota, I happened to pick up the Drew Pearson column and read that McCartney had been found out and that McCormack was stunned and saddened that his aide had betrayed him. He betrayed him I believe because of pent-up frustration of a lifetime of being mistreated. That is not to condone McCartney but he was quoted as saying that he enjoyed the scam because his boss was such a tyrant. The episode passed and the old House continued in its Man-Boy ways.

The Man-Boy nature of the House convinced me that I did not want to stay long. We returned to Minnesota for the Fall election and Quie trounced Eugene Foley handily. In those days there was no separation whatever between legislative work of the staff and political duties. I swung back to my old role as political press secretary for the campaign. Now there is a strict line of demarcation and one has to leave a federal staff and transfer to the political, campaign staff. But that is merely window-dressing. There is no adequate line of demarcation between what you do for an elected member who wants to return and what you do in his campaign.

Going back to Washington following the election, I knew the pay was terrific in comparison to what I had been earning and that if I stayed things could only get better. The medical benefits were great, too. But no inducement could keep me after I learned what I wanted to learn. Eventually, my relations with my boss began to fray but I decided I would be the one to decide when I would leave and that I would just have to bide my time until I learned as much as I could about what fatuously is called “the People’s House” but which was, in the 1950s at least, a citadel of caste and privilege and abominable abuse of prerogative over subordinates. Every so often when I return to the House I get a vague hint that the Man-Boy atmosphere has gone underground but still exists in some offices. And in the Senate dining room, little 90-year-old Kathy is there, with arthritic hands and Parkinsonian trembling, trying to serve me coffee as it spills into the saucer. God love her.

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