Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Flashback: The Birth of Our Mary Catherine…The Mondale-Rolvaag Adventure Gives Humphrey More Concern.

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

Right after Christmas and just before the new year of 1962…on December 29, 1961…Lillian gave birth to our second child—a daughter, Mary Catherine. Like her brother before her, she was, thank God, a healthy baby. When her brother Tommy heard that someone new was joining the family he joyously shouted, “a puppy?” He was not overwhelmed when we brought our newest home since he had been the only baby. Little children, babies themselves, are funny when they confront a sibling. Tommy’s first reaction was to seem rather aloof, then quite curious and finally when he was allowed to kiss his sister, quite adult about it.

That month of December saw the Minnesota legislature in special session ratify the plan of redistricting that cut nine districts down to eight and which prompted Walter Judd to announce his decision not to run for a 12th term in 1962. Originally, Judd’s idea expressed to the governor was reasonable—to carve two districts in Hennepin county, one for the city of Minneapolis and one for the suburbs including the hard-pressed, blue-collar towns and let candidates have at it. Instead the two districts were jiggered so that Judd’s district received many labor areas outside the city and MacGregor’s received the plums: the upper-crust heavily Republican areas which made his election a cinch. Why Andersen didn’t try to interfere has never been explained satisfactorily to me, least of all by him: but he maintained that Judd’s national prominence would be enough to carry him through a tough district and the lush exurban one would elect MacGregor for a net gain of one.

I must say I don’t believe that for a moment. If the governor thought he was wooing DFLers by signing such a bill, it was only the latest in a string of ill-considered actions that expected a Democratic return for services rendered which didn’t pan out. I do know that John Mooty who was in charge of the Republican side of the negotiating was a heavy supporter of Clark MacGregor and that late at night when the negotiations were concluded and the map drawn, he was asked in my presence if he was satisfied with the plan. He said, although he was dismayed to notice that I overheard: “Yes. It went pretty well. But [here an exaggerated groan] we may well have lost Walter Judd.” He then glanced at me and bustled away.

I have never been able to figure out what the attraction of Clark MacGregor was…a thoroughly mediocre lawyer who ended up succeeding John Mitchell as head of Nixon’s CREEP…over an international statesman but I have noticed the preference for young exurbanites for one of their number before then and since. The young affluent types thought themselves as more progressive than Judd—and a Dartmouth grad—who as a badly pock-marked oldster was not seen as smooth. But that has been a characteristic of many weak-minded suburban Republicans in Illinois as well. There’s a human quotient to Andersen’s decision as well: he always wanted to be well-regarded by these types (he never was because they thought they saw in him a peculiar kind of weakness). In fact, in losing his sharply Democrat-accentuated district in 1962, Judd still ran ahead of Andersen by 22,000 votes. Andersen lost reelection by 91 votes out of a total of 1,250,000 cast.

But I’m getting ahead of the story. Hubert Humphrey sat down with his protégé Fritz Mondale and in one session gave him the facts of life which benefited Mondale enormously. One who was not in the room with them but who was filled-in by Humphrey on the dutch-uncle talk later, told me that Humphrey began with this: “Fritz, what the hell is this stuff about your not liking being called Fritz and wanting to be called General?” When Mondale tried to explain it, Humphrey waved him down. “Don’t interrupt, Fritz. Let me tell you as the first order of business—and you make a damned good note of it, you hear? If people get the idea that they can’t call you Fritz, ultimately they aren’t calling to call you General either. You’re going to be dead. Conversely, if people at the Minnesota State Fair feel they can’t call me Hubert, they aren’t ultimately going to call me Senator either, because I will have lost. Now, I don’t want to hear any more of this General stuff. You’re Fritz to me and to everybody else and if you resent it, you better find another profession.”

That talk worked wonders on Fritz Mondale. I met him a lot after that and his nonchalance and refusal to take himself too seriously became an attractive part of him. It was just the kind of correction that he needed…and maybe all of us may have needed at one time or other in our lives. The best speech I ever heard Fritz give was over Humphrey’s casket where in lay in the Capitol rotunda. Humphrey had a long, slow painful death from bladder cancer and appeared day in and day out a shadow of himself as the illness took root. Mondale said, “He taught us how to live. And he taught us how to die.” I must say my eyes teared up on hearing him. He was a gallant warrior. And he did me a good service although I didn’t realize it at the time. He singlehandedly beat Andersen with the result that all of us went to the private sector where I made out pretty well. Not rich but comfortable in a job I very much enjoyed. Thus I say: thanks Hubert.

All of these things were blissfully unknown to us and far ahead. Mondale still entertained somewhat the idea of running for Governor against Rolvaag in the primary and Humphrey didn’t try to stop him, but decided not to get involved. The idea came to a screeching halt—or let us say it was overturned—one mid-Spring day when the DFL leadership scheduled a retreat at a posh resort in Alexandria, heart of the park region tourist country. Everybody was there but Hubert but he was to be completely informed. And they were on their best behavior. In deference to the Lieutenant Governor no drinks were served but he seemed perfectly at ease and convivial nonetheless.

Mondale showed up in a full suit with trousers pressed to a knife-edge, starched shirt, tie, tie-clip, shined shoes, out of kilter for the relaxed nature of the session—but he had had a speech earlier. Legislative leaders, the state House Speaker, majority leader, leaders of the state Senate were all there as were some loyal liberal members of the state Capitol press room. While attendants got ready for lunch, Lt. Governor Rolvaag decided to take a spin in somebody’s new speedboat and invited Fritz to go with him. Fritz sat in the prow as Rolvaag turned on the ignition and primed the engine expertly. Then with a wave to the crowd, Rolvaag gripped the wheel and gunned for the opposite shore. Except that he had forgotten to unhook the chain from the pier.

Those who saw it said that Mondale made a high, spectacular arc in the air and went head first into the water which, thank heavens, was fittingly deep or else he might have struck his neck and have been paralyzed. As for Rolvaag, he was thrown over the steering wheel, did a kind of crazy pirouette with a surprised look on his face before he disappeared into the lake. Thankfully, the engine cut off. Mondale came up immediately and they wondered about Rolvaag but he showed up beside the boat and climbed into it. Mondale paddled ashore. “It was a stunning thing,” he told an onlooker, “to be sitting in the prow one second and be on the bottom of an ice-cold lake the next.” It was a rather sobering experience for Rolvaag as well—and, of course, the rumor circulated that he had been secretly drinking Vodka which he denied. But the episode got around and somehow, inexplicably, damped Mondale’s ambition to run for governor. So by the time the retreat ended and he and his suit was dried out, he had decided to let Rolvaag have the honor.

The episode gave Humphrey more concern about Rolvaag but there was nothing he could do. He resolved to get involved in the gubernatorial campaign thoroughly himself and try to propel Rolvaag to victory. But it would take great imagination. But no one ever criticized Hubert Humphrey for lack of imagination.

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