Thursday, August 3, 2006

Flashback: “Welcome to Washington”: Moving the Mail Box from the Post Office in Town to the Rural Box at the End of the Road; and the Horrible Threat of Scandal at the Outset!

[More from 50 years of politics in two states for my kids and grandchildren.]

When Congressman-elect Al Quie asked me to go to Washington, D. C. with him as his press secretary, I was virtually already packed. Many of my St. John’s Democratic friends were already there working for Congressmen—and Jerry Schaller, my old friendly nemesis, was working for Humphrey. It’d be fun to join them. But as Schaller himself told me: don’t take out any long-term magazine subscriptions. The stay might well be short. With a 411-vote victory in a special election for a district that had been Republican since the nineteenth century, there was a hope but no sure indication we would win the regular election only eight months later against the same powerful opponent, Gene Foley, but much depended on how we could sell ourselves to the district in the interim. Certainly Humphrey and McCarthy would be brooding presences but the pressure would not be so intense. Humphrey had other fish to fry and McCarthy had his own reelection in St. Paul to tend to (although reelection for him in Democratic St. Paul was a sure thing). Even Schaller privately conceded that unless we goofed up (he used a more scatological word) Quie should be there as long as he wanted.

We got off on the wrong foot, though as soon as the election victory was certified and Schaller called up to gloat. Quie had defeated a host of other candidates in the special election’s primary including one Reynold T. (Barky) Bergquist, the able and surprisingly well-known administrative assistant (then the job was called “secretary”) to Augie Andresen. Bergquist had been viewed as possibly the toughest contender Quie would have because he had been Andresen’s right arm for a quarter-century and had possession of Augie’s files (i.e. people he had done favors for over the quarter century) with finger-tip knowledge of the district. The job of Congressman was, in a sense, more influential then than it is now. It seems everybody had a kid who wanted to go to West Point, Annapolis or the Air Force academy and in those days knowing the Congressman was the key route to take. A kid could do poorly in the admission tests and still make it due to the patronage of the Congressman (which was how Ulysses S. Grant, a poor hardscrabble boy from Ohio made it). Barky knew all the people who wanted appointments for their kids.

Second, in a rural district being postmaster was important and influential. The Congressman of the majority i.e. presidential party was the sole arbiter of the postmasterships. Bergquist had participated in the selection of the postmasters, knew their families’ political indebtedness and could trade on that favoritism as a candidate. Third, a rural congressman no matter what party, could benefit from a built-in privilege. What was that? It’ll cause you to laugh out loud. Since the days of Postmaster General James A. Farley in the 1930s, the Post Office Department had engaged in long-range movement of rural boxes from the village post offices to the handy box at the end of the driveway leading to the farm. Before the boxes were moved, the farmer had to drive “to town” to pick up his mail at the post office. Slowly but surely, the system was modernizing with adoption of the rural route postman who would bundle up his car and make the route, stopping at the rural mail boxes and dumping off the mail, saving the farmer from a trip into town. Barky knew all the people who waited expectantly for the news that their mail box had been moved to the end of the road.

You think that wasn’t important? Suppose you had to get in your car and drive maybe fifteen miles into town, park the car and go into the post-office every day to get your mail, a trip that could take an hour when you add in both ways, parking the car et al…and somebody comes to you and says your Congressman has arranged that your mail will be delivered to a mail box at the end of the road from your farm so that you or your wife or kids can hike out there and pick up your weekly paper the bills and letters from your aunt Minnie in Owosso, Michigan? You’d remember that Congressman, wouldn’t you?

A big part of Augie’s work was done when Bergquist would write hundreds of letters for Augie and announce that the big day had arrived when their mail would be personally delivered to them. Augie would sign each one and add some personal salutation. He told me, “I personally think that has had more to do with my gaining favor among farmers in the 1st district than anything else.” I saw how it worked. As he stood shaking hands in rural small towns, they came up and personally thanked him for the favor he did them of giving them personal home delivery. To them Augie would say, “well it took a fight with those bastards from the Post Office Department I’ll tell you, but it was worth it.”

It was no fight at all, of course. The Post Office Department had a list and when the list got down to certain rural routes in, say Rice county, Minnesota, faceless bureaucrats would send the list of names to Barky for Augie and to aides of all other Congressmen, Democrat and Republican. Then immediately the automatic typewriters would be set up (called “robo-types”) and a boilerplate letter would be slipped in the roll from the Congressman telling Farmer Jones and his wife that after a great deal of advocacy with the highest powers in Washington, a break-through had occurred. Barky would get the list, decide whether Augie knew the family personally or not (which meant either a first name salutation of formal) and say, “Let `er rip!” The giant robos would thunder off typing the letters 100 words a minute and spit out the copies. Smart Congressmen, including Augie, would personally sign the letters and add a flourish of personal salutation with pen and ink.

Lazier Congressmen would turn the job over to a mechanized staff downstairs in what was known as the “Minority Room” (or Republican Room in that Democratic House) and there would be an “auto-pen” with an engraved plate of the Congressman’s bona fide signature which would tirelessly inscribe: “John J. Jones” or it could be cut short and say “John” to personal friends. But that was precarious. Lazy Congressmen usually weren’t around all that long anyhow, not because of the “auto-pen” but because if they weren’t interested enough in communicating personally with their constituents with the energy it required—and it took countless hours—they weren’t very serious about keeping the job. It was as simple as that. Augie and the old veterans looked down with horror on any of their colleagues who used auto-pens: this was dangerous folly.

Using an “auto-pen” was precarious because their engraved plate produced the Congressman’s real, not facsimile, signature. Checks could be cashed on it, necessitating that the engraved plate be held in the Congressman’s office under lock and key. Wise old birds like Augie and his old House buddy-adversary Congressman Lyndon Baines Johnson (who began as a congressional secretary) did not allow their names to be signed that way, hated them, and rebuked them. So did Quie. Too dangerous and it could be mis-used. (Later on I’ll tell you a story of how one was mis-used—by me.)

Because Bergquist knew all those arcane goings on in a Congressman’s office, early on in the Quie primary campaign, we feared Barky Bergquist more than any other opponent, believing that running against the man who knew the favors the late Augie did for multi-thousands of constituents was akin to running against old Augie. Not so. Barky was still a functionary, locked up in Washington and was only known as a name while Augie had made the rounds of the district. But Barky had powerful reputation. Therefore when the primary election season began, Ed Viehman (the campaign manager) impressed on Quie to try to get Bergquist out of the race. How to do it? Offer him the same job in the Quie office if Quie were to win, of course.

Quie was amenable; it just made sense. In those days we didn’t have a lawyer, using one as a volunteer just to see that our financial reports were filed correctly. So Quie went to Bergquist personally, had coffee with him one-on-one, and pointed out correctly that our campaign was really going great guns, with money and resources (while Bergquist’s was not). He then started to roundabout offer Bergquist a job in his office if Quie won. But he never made the offer.

To Bergquist’s credit and to Quie’s dismay, Bergquist interrupted Quie mid-sentence and poked fingers in his ears so as not to hear. Why? Because there was—and certainly still is—an obscure federal law that banned the offer of a job by a candidate as reward—for either a contribution or any other reason, including presumably one candidate leaving the race and endorsing an opponent in exchange for getting a job with the winner later. Bergquist quietly told Quie that he would be vacating his candidacy and gave him a pretty good heads up that he would welcome such a job offer after election. They shook hands on it. But unbeknownst to them, one of Foley’s rat-fink campaign aides spotted them in the obscure coffee shop (it was Jerry Schaller, hidden behind a potted plant), viewed their handshake and tucked it into his memory. Nary a word was said until later. That’s why I have always grudgingly—and not so grudgingly—admired Schaller.

The first news release I pumped out after Quie’s election was the appointment of Reynold T. Bergquist as Quie’s “secretary.” That detonated an ethics explosion with Foley’s people announcing that horrible, terrible, unimaginable fraud…a fraud that would topple the underpinnings of the republic…had just been consummated, with Schaller declaring he had spotted Quie and Bergquist having coffee—horrors!—and later on that week, Berquist announced he would pull out of the primary. Now, after Quie’s election came the first scandal—and we hadn’t even been sworn in yet! Silently cursing Schaller, I had to get hold of Bergquist—finding him was a problem because he had gone to Florida for a long vacation—and reminding him that the coffee he had enjoyed with Quie was purely social, initiated by him, not Quie, after he had decided in the fullness of time to withdraw his candidacy. Bergquist wrote a letter to that effect that he wanted to quit the campaign anyhow, released it and the horrible, terrible threat to the republic abated. The people of the district didn’t care because the publicity reassured many of them that Barky Bergquist would be on the job and maybe their rural mail box would the on the list to be moved to the end of their road soon. No scandal in their eyes but a hugely celebratory moment. But it gave us heartburn.

The day I got to Washington and registered at a hotel (to camp there overnight until I got a room) there was a telegram at the desk saying, “Welcome to Washington, Tom! Your old pal, Jerry Schaller and the gang in Hubert’s office!”

The desk clerk saw it and said, “Well, isn’t that nice?”

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