Saturday, August 5, 2006

Flashback: Washington, D. C. and the Man-Boy Relationship Which Exists in the Congress to This Day

capitol angle
[More of 50 years in journalism and politics for my kids and grandchildren]

Shortly before I left for Washington, D. C., Mrs. and Mrs. F. Peavey Heffelfinger hosted a grand dinner at their mansion for the man she had called “Cabot” from time immemorial in my knowledge of her, the ambassador to the United Nations, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr.

There is something about those rich eastern Republicans transplanted to the Midwest that glories in lineage—and they exist in species of the GOP to this day. Lodge, of course, was the grandson of a man who has been slighted by history as an ultra-conservative, having kept this nation out of the League of Nations—but, in reality, was a progressive Republican, close friend of Teddy Roosevelt, one of the very first Ph.Ds in Congress as chairman of Foreign Relations, who correctly saw that Woodrow Wilson, having barely survived a paralytic stroke was erratic, abnormally vindictive, unable to govern and should not have been rewarded for refusing to resign and have his incompetent wife run the country: a terrible calamity wielded by her that wouldn’t be allowed to happen today [that’s one long sentence, isn’t it?].

Lodge, Sr.’s plan was always to have us participate in international relations under a more secure basis but he has never gotten his due in history. Instead he was been relegated to the category of belonging to what he called a cabal of “evil old men” in the Senate who wanted to kick Wilson by depriving him of his dream when the president was ill. Balderdash.

Lodge, Jr. was strikingly young looking, handsome but with manners that would remind one today of “Freddie,” the rich, young, foppish, unrequited lover in the musical “My Fair Lady” who sings of “the house where you live”—sort of an unfair characterization of me, I suppose, No he was dapper, dark-haired and sleek, very much the “tennis, anyone?” preppie who, at fifty-something, had never really gotten over his Senate loss to John Kennedy (which caused Elizabeth Heffelfinger to despise JFK ever since, far more than Lodge ever did). But it was great fun to hear him give candid appraisals of the Senate figures he knew.

He felt that the late Bob Taft bore him a grudge because Lodge’s grandfather covertly helped TR in 1912 when Taft’s father ran for reelection. He thought that very petty of Bob Taft but if your father were betrayed by the man who insisted, first, he succeed him and, second, blasted that he was too conservative when Taft prosecuted more trusts than TR had and, third, sought to reclaim the presidency by tearing up the party and handing it over to an emotionally unstable Wilson with the consorted aid of Lodge’s grandfather, you’d feel the same way about his grandson who gloried in his name: at least I might be so tempted.

Lodge said that there was a terrible man, a revolutionary on horseback in the Senate named Barry Goldwater who would ruin the party and country with half-baked ideas if he ever got to national attention…that Joe McCarthy really had a point about traitors in the FDR-Truman administrations but McCarthy’s imprecision and terrible drinking botched it all (something which Judd agreed with)…that his successor, Kennedy, was a playboy who privately agreed with his father on isolationism and was therefore a no-account (while Mrs. Heffelfinger nodded excitedly)…that one of the deepest fellows in the Senate was Paul Douglas who was afflicted with a delicate emotional makeup which caused him at one time in the middle of a debate to cry out like a wounded animal and rush out of the Senate in dismay through the swinging doors leading out of the chamber which rather ruined any chance he might have to run for president (a scene that was recorded by the newspapers)…that Douglas’ colleague, Everett Dirksen, was a sly old fellow with no principles whatever but who was a favorite of Taft and the southern reactionaries…leaving the impression with me at least until 1953 the Senate had been composed of 95 demagogues (two for each of the 48 states) and Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr.

Anyhow, it was a great treat to hear the gossip and I thought this might be only the beginning when I would hear far more in Washington—but Washington was, in many ways, a great disappointment. Quie and I were rather like brothers, he only a few years older than I, when he was in the state Senate and I the publicist for the GOP. In fact, the great treat of working for the party in Minnesota was that you got to go to all kinds of interesting meetings: with John Hartle, the House minority leader to an occasional meeting with Governor Orville Freeman…with DFL House leaders and state senators (meetings that Quie, as a junior legislator, would not necessarily be invited to). But when I got to Washington, I learned very quickly of the man-boy relationship between a Congressman and his staff. To a great extent, the Congress is still that way. Man-boy in Washington means that you are on a perch far lower than you are in life with respect to a Congressman. In ordinary life, the Congressman usually seeks your favor; in House life you were to be a serf (and in many ways staffers still are).

In short order, the man now known as Congressman Quie indicated that I was to never speak for the Congressman unless deputized by him, that especially with the press I should take pains to see that my name never appear but that his should at all times. Not long later, I got lost in a maze of underground corridors below the Capitol and asked an aged man walking behind me with a cane if he could help me; he could: it turned out to be Sen. Theodore Francis Green (D-RI), dean of the Senate who had been there since the early days of FDR. I happened to mention this to a Washington journalist, Charles Bailey of the Minneapolis Tribune (who later wrote the book with Fletcher Knebel “Seven Days in May”). Bailey thought it very funny. He tucked it in as a paragraph in a column of odds and ends in the Tribune. When the paper arrived in Quie’s office, I was called in to the Congressman and told that the story should never had been told, should never have appeared and henceforth I was told once again—hopefully to be the last time—that all my work should be involved in publicizing him and not myself. Hmmmm.

Looking back on it now, I had become a spoiled young snot in Minnesota by the Heffelfingers and others who took me on as a full partner which was great fun. And by Quie himself who was buddies with me when he was in the state Senate. But that would not be the case in Washington and, in fairness to Quie, is not the case in Washington. Man-boy is the way Congressional staffs worked in the era when males were top staffers: now it’s man-girl staffer…or when a woman is elected to Congress, woman-boy or woman-girl. The staffer is always “boy” or “girl” just as deferential as they were in 1958 when I started

There have been very, very few federal lawmakers who were friends with staffers—and some say for good reason. Sen. Tom Dodd (D-Conn.), son of the current Sen. Chris Dodd, was as close as father and son with his top aide and like a grandfather with his female secretary. The aide was noted for putting in excruciating hours and Dodd bragged about his aide’s diligence. Then Dodd came back to the office late one night to pick up a briefcase and found the aide engaged in amorous activity with Dodd’s secretary on his office couch. Dodd, a conservative Catholic, rebuked them severely as a father might his own children, pointing out that both were married to different people and warning them not to do it again, that it was adultery and an outrage. To get back at him, the two came back late one night, went through Dodd’s files and released his office expense sheets and other data which proved he was fudging on his office expenses in reports to the government. That started the first modern ethics probe and a nationally-covered hearing which ended up with Dodd being censured officially by the Senate and leaving in disgrace. The two aides divorced, got married and didn’t mind writing articles on the Senate’s declining ethics. It all happened because of an interrupted love affair. Few since in either House or Senate have got close to their staffers.

One was did and lived to tell about it was Gene McCarthy who drank and fraternized with a friend of mine from St. John’s who was his top aide, Jerry Eller. Eller was his administrative assistant, guru, confessor, confidant, political strategist and mediator in the House and Senate and whenever McCarthy ran for president, was indispensable. He spoke for McCarthy and interpreted McCarthy to all, running interference between McCarthy and his wife when they battled and separated (never divorced). McCarthy served on the committee that censured Dodd and worked mightily to save him, making all kinds of quiet-spoken but pointed remarks about the peccadilloes of some of the Senators who voted to censure. But even he told me that he always told new Congressmen and Senators, “Never hire any top staff aide who gets to the office before you do in the morning or stays after you leave. I never have to worry that way about Eller.” Eller, an indolent, sleepy-appearing genius, arrived yawning at 10 a.m.--long after McCarthy--and left for home long before his boss did. Whenever McCarthy wanted him and Eller wasn’t around, McCarthy knew he could get Eller at home, taking a nap.

Aside from the fear that a very close top aide could breach the files and pull out an incriminating document, there’s another good reason—political. Timothy Patrick Sheehan was a neighbor of my folks on the northwest side of Chicago. He was a rich man who decided to run for Congress as a Republican in a solidly Democratic area during World War II. It was a heavily Polish district and Sheehan was an Irishman. No one gave him a chance against longtime incumbent Chester Chesney, a prominent Pole. But Sheehan had a secret weapon. He got himself invited as a candidate to a Polish American picnic in 1944 when he was running and wangled a place on the speakers’ platform next to Congressman Chesney. Chesney spoke first about Polish pride etc. and got the usual hand. Then Sheehan spoke and revealed some startling information about the wanton murder of 1,700 Polish army officers in the Katyn forest of Poland, purportedly by Nazis. Sheehan said he had private negotiations underway which might very well prove that the Polish officers were killed not by the Nazis but by Russian Communists who wanted to rub them out in order to have a more amenable Poland.

Chesney moved to the microphone and ridiculed Sheehan saying that everyone knew the soldiers were killed by Nazis. Sheehan took back the microphone and asked the crowd, “How many of you are related to some of those men who were killed at Katyn?” To Chesney’s dismay, a forest of hands spurted up. “Don’t you want to find out who killed them?” Sheehan asked. “Send me to Washington and I’ll start an official congressional investigation to find out!” There was a tumult of applause. Chesney grabbed the microphone and ridiculed Sheehan’s offer. There was a chorus of boos for Chesney. He lost decisively that November to the Irish Sheehan.

So a special select committee was created in Congress to investigate the Katyn Forest massacre, a committee on which Sheehan played the major part and got a lot of publicity back home in Chicago. The committee had some eyewitnesses who had escaped from Poland and who were in this country, people who had to wear pillow cases with holes cut for eyes to testify in anonymity, many of whom testified that the soldiers who perpetrated the mass murders were Russian. The hearings went on for two years at least. Sheehan was disadvantaged because he didn’t know Polish and most of the eye-witnesses didn’t know English. So he hired a staffer for the committee who knew Polish and who was also a former journalist who served as Sheehan’s publicist. Then the staffer decided to publicize himself. The ex-journalist was Roman Pucinski of the Sun-Times who decided that he could do Sheehan one better. As the official committee recorder he could talk as knowledgably about the massacre as Sheehan, plus he was Polish and Sheehan was not! Pucinski ran against Sheehan and unseated him, becoming one of the longest-serving Congressmen from Illinois.

The Pucinski-Sheehan lesson confirmed in many the need to keep the aides you hire as your employees, not friends lest they become competitors. Probably Quie had heard that story and decided that he didn’t need to encourage an ex-newspaperman from Chicago (who knew Sheehan and Pucinski by the way) to possibly get more press attention than he did—although to imagine this was folly. Yet insecurity governs in Congressional offices. Augie always worried that a kid who got a local American Legion citation of good citizenship at age 17 could grow up to run against him and win. Not that a spindly (then) city kid from Chicago (with thick glasses) would possibly either want to run for Congress from the agricultural district of the 1st district of Minnesota—or could beat an apple-cheeked Norwegian, ex-Navy jet pilot named Al Quie. But whatever, for Quie and me it would no longer be friends but man-boy. Which still exists to this day long after he left Congress to become governor of Minnesota.

With that rebuke from Quie in my craw, I decided to get out of there when the time was ripe—but I had made the choice and had to make the best of it. Not that it would be all that bad as there was a lot to learn in the House run by the Democrats under the sage leadership of Sam Rayburn and the Senate under another Texan who had once been a House aide in the man-boy relationship. And who better to learn things from than Barky Bergquist who was Quie’s secretary and who had been secretary there when the guy down the hall running another Congressman’s office was young, lanky Lyndon Baines Johnson who had asked Bergquist if he wanted to join him in a game after the House adjourned sine die in what he had named “the little Congress”? .

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