Monday, September 18, 2006

Flashback: The Mondale Explosion and the Budget Crunch Goes On.

“Don’t Call Me Fritz!”…Don’t Call Him Fudd! Yet Another Threat of Emasculation. All This and a Special Session.

[More on fifty years of politics for my kids and grandchildren.]

The story recap. I become press secretary to a liberal Republican…albeit idealist and nice guy…Elmer Andersen who vows to tax utilities in order to pay for expanded social needs. The Legislature turns it down. The budget hole just sits there as both sides wait for the other side to crack. Meanwhile, Fritz Mondale, who is appointed attorney general and inherits a giant charities fraud case, gets national attention and a cover story in “Time” calling him a rising young Democrat of the future. It goes to his head and at my governor’s suggestion that I try to puncture his solemnity, , I write a blast of him in the name of a Republican official calling him “Crusader Rabbit”—a popular goofy cartoon figure for kids. So I’m summoned to see Mondale.]

When I approached his desk, he was writing and kept writing. As he was scribbling he said without raising his head, “Roeser, I don’t want to waste time. Obviously George Etzell your handpicked crony didn’t write the Crusader Rabbit attack on me. It was you. It has the earmarks of your style so let’s not even debate the issue. All I want to do is…” and he lay the pen down and looked up at me, “to tell you that the House Majority Leader is seriously disturbed about this and is very close to introducing a resolution to ask Elmer to fire you from the public payroll for misfeasance and malfeasance and gross misapplication of your duties which are designed to assist the taxpayer to understand his government to crass partisan politics. Now I have temporarily put a hold on this resolution thing because of our past friendship but I cannot hold back a legislative action very long.”

I said with feigned surprise: huh?

“Don’t give me that wide-eyed innocent [allusion to barnyard excrement], Roeser. In this business you have a choice. If the Etzell thing which you’ve invented doesn’t stop, the resolution gets introduced and will pass the House. It’s your choice.”

He added: “Oh, I should add—Elmer will certainly let you go because he will become aware, if he isn’t already, of what it means to make fun of the office of chief law enforcement official in Minnesota. So I guess what I’m telling you now is this: you have a choice. If you want to continue this Crusader Rabbit insult you can, the resolution will be introduced, will pass by this afternoon and you’ll be on your merry way on the door on your [scatological reference to posterior]. So what I suggest you do is this: go tell Fudd [another Disney cartoon character, Elmer Fudd, noted for his agitated, stuttering habit highlighted with his excitable “aba-dabba-dabba-that’s all ffffolks!”—an allusion to the Governor’s proclivity to stammer when excited, a throwback to a childhood illness of polio from which he had recovered but which affected his speech in times of stress]. He’ll order you to stop the press release thing with Etzell and we’ll let this pass.”

I said, Fritz, is this how you administer justice? You read a story in the paper, decide without proof that I wrote it…I’m sure without talking to Etzell…and allow the House Majority Leader to introduce a resolution calling for my firing, call for the House to pass it without corroboration and then expect that the Governor will fire me--like that? Does that fit the description that “Time” gave you of the People’s Lawyer whom future Minnesotans to hail?

“Don’t call me Fritz.”

Don’t call him Fudd, then.

“I’m telling you what is likely to happen not detailing what I want to happen. As I say, Freddie Cina [the House Democratic majority leader] is very hot. So you just might want to ward this off by telling the governor that you…”

Okay, General, you get Fred Cina to introduce the resolution and make me a hero because that’s what I’ll be—a martyr to the proclivity of the Democratic-controlled House to purge dissent by a non-state employee

to fire a state employee without proof. Thank you.

And I walked out back across the hall to the governor’s office. When I got back to my desk I was summoned to see the governor.

“W-what happened?”

I told him.

“M-maybe we ought to stop it, you think?”

No. He called you Fudd.

“H-he did? Well then Etzell should have a g-go at it once again.”

So I sat down and wrote another Crusader Rabbit. In between I got two phone calls. One was from Etzell who said, “my-my, I’m quite the celebrity here for my skill at drawing the bead on the attorney general. I think I’ll write an editorial for my own paper amplifying it.”

I said, not only that but you’re going to press again here in St. Paul with the rabbit.

She second call was from Lillian. She told me we were going to be parents again, the baby to be born in December [1961]. Terrific! I finished the Crusader and called for the GOP messenger to pick it up. Then I went home early to take all three of us out to dinner to celebrate at the Lexington, not far from our apartment. Forgetting about the Etzell release.

The next morning when I picked up the St. Paul “Pioneer-Press” there it was on the front page—“the return of Crusader Rabbit” this time the bunny dressed by a cartoonist in a general’s garb with his sword dragging on the floor. The properly liberal Minneapolis “Tribune” this time carried nothing. But the St. Paul was good enough. When I got to work, everybody was working in the governor’s office with heads down waiting for an explosion; the governor had left word with his secretary that if I were to be summoned to see Fritz, he would follow across the hall after me and they’d have it out right there about Fritz’s calling him Fudd. The AG’s office across the hall seemed quiet and drowsy. Silence all around.

My first appointment at 9 a.m. was with Mrs. Rebecca Overmann, a pillar of the Evangelical Church in America (ELC) who was interested in negotiating for her pastor, Rev. Reuben Youngdahl (brother of a former governor) a dignified colloquy on morality, ethics and high-sounding topics with my boss the governor and Attorney General Mondale—both Lutherans—participating along with Sen. Eugene McCarthy, a Catholic, Val Bjornson the state treasurer, a Lutheran and a number of legislators and pious business types. The questions were mundane: to see what the governor’s schedule would allow…get recommendations as to who else should participate (the governor wanted Rabbi Gunther Plaut, a good friend and at least one black minister). We were getting down to the nitty gritty in my tiny office, an office so small (it had been a former walk-in safe with no windows) that when the door was opened, it covered and perfectly obscured the person facing me at my cluttered desk.

Mrs. Overmann, a well-stuffed church and civic leader of great dignity, was expounding on whether or not we should begin the session—since it had a Lutheran, spiritual orientation—with a prayer when my door burst open, the door covering Mrs. Overmann from view completely and Fritz Mondale burst in running to my side of the desk. I rose and he pinned me to the wall in the tiny room and cursed, “Roeser, goddammit that’s the last straw, tell Fudd to get his nut-cups on!” using a phrase popular with Hubert Humphrey. Then, he turned and saw Mrs. Overmann, the distinguished church lady whose frightened eyes were popping out of her head. He said, “Oh—oh, Becky, I’m sorry!” and retreated. He was gone and we were once again alone, the whole explosion having lasted 10 seconds.

She said, “My goodness gracious! Was that Fritzie? What in the world? What did he say about things somebody should put on? Fudd?”

I said sadly, yes, that’s what we have to put up with around here, Mrs. Overmann. Fudd was a terribly improper scatological term this young AG (he was just my age) used about the Governor and there was implicitly a threat that he would do violence to the governor to the extent of forcibly removing his genitals.

Her eyes almost popped out of her head. She was there to organize a seminar on a Christian in Politics! I added: Mrs. Overmann, that’s why this colloquy will do some good.

My friendly sources in the AG’s office said he rushed back to his office, slammed the door and stayed there for a long time. There was no further talk of a resolution or censure of me. I decided we won with the Crusader Rabbit thing and never tried again although Etzell was begging for yet another sequel. I told him, no there will not be any and don’t you try putting one out either. The governor is satisfied that the battle has been won. As Mrs. Overmann left my office, she was ushered in to the governor’s office who shook his head sadly about the intemperateness of the young Mondale and his indelicate choice of words that were chosen to indicate he would be un-manned. No one could be quite as sanctimonious as Fudd—er, Elmer.


Be that as it may, the Crusader Rabbit tussle was one of the only battles we won for weeks. Andersen’s tax plan just lay there, having been treated as Dead on Arrival. I was urging him to cut services to the bone and submit a re-configured budget which placed the blame on the Democrats in the legislature to consider or amend the old plan—but no. He actively wanted new programs for mental health, traffic safety (then a big issue before many state governments), the single sanitary sewer system for the Twin Cities and the new Fort Snelling state park. He actively said that he would not tolerate a cut-back budget but wanted to be remembered as a governor who did things, built things, initiated things. Fine, I said, but when you don’t have the money what are you going to do? What do all of us do…not him since he was a multi-millionaire…when we can’t afford a new car? We cut back. Nope. I had lost. So he followed a path that all too many governors followed with many variations—before and since.

He decided to institute a withholding tax. A switch from annual payments to the withholding system would please some legislators-. They could claim that they were not enacting a new tax or raising taxes. The system allowed for the collection of next year’s tax in the current year. In other words it provided a double collection of income gax revenue in the year in which it was instituted. Prior to withholding, the tax on income made in, say 1961, was payable on April 15, 1962. No part of the tax was paid in 1961. By comparison, withholding took money out of each 1961 paycheck. Andersen realized that the public would object to the change unless some portion of the tax was forgiven in the transition year. So he argued for “forgiveness” of 75 percent of the income tax owed in 1962. That meant the state would receive a one-time 25-percent increase in income-tax revenue. That would be $35.5 million. And along with a $10 “head tax” or surtax on the income tax, and a 1.5 cent per pack increase in the cigarette tad, the budget would be balanced.

Since I lost again and had to live with it, I suggested he propose the withholding compromise at the end of the session with the idea that in the rush to adjourn, the legislature would pass it. He agreed with that late one night and I went home to go to bed at about 11:30 p.m. But even later that night, he called…woke me up…and said no, he wanted to call a special session on withholding. I said a special session on withholding will extend the debate and with one House Democratic and hostile to you and the Senate conservative Republican and hostile to you…and with Mondale and Lt. Governor Rolvaag (who whenever he was sober would craft a press release against you) why do it…sort of like cutting off a puppy’s tail a little bit every day? Nope, his mind was made up.

I talked to his wife later and asked her where he got the special session idea. “Heavens,” she said, “I don’t know! He agrees now it’s a mistake. You know who I think puts stuff in his head? I think it’s that very nice, very naïve driver of his, the state highway patrolman who has him in his limousine for hours at a time when they drive across the state. He’s one of those guys who tells Elmer he’s the brightest, most effective and articulate man in the world and when he’s tired, Elmer sheds his natural suspicion and listens to him. He’s the man, I am sure, who wanted a special session because yesterday he even talked to me about it. I said, `Land, no!’ but he’s become a very strong figure in Elmer’s mind. Especially when he’s tired and there is just the two of them riding in the car in the middle of the night.”

We were stuck with a special session. So I called for one in a news briefing since the governor rightly didn’t want to open himself up to a lot of negotiating questions. Then afterward, I popped in to see the chief of the Minnesota Highway Patrol, a Republican.

I said, chief, we have a case here where the governor’s driver and boey guard Sergeant Robert Eckstadt is usurping his role. He’s talking to the Governor him endlessly as they drive through the night with the governor exhausted. Believe it or not the idea of a special session that we just called today came from Sergeant Eckstadt. Now here’s the ticklish part. We all agree he’s a bad influence on the governor but he’s a favorite. How do we get Eckstadt to clam up without us getting ourselves in the soup with the governor?

He said, “It can be done. Believe it or not this has happened before—with Orville Freeman and even predecessor governors. Politicians believe they are hearing the voice of the common man when they hear their state highway patrolman driver talk. Especially when it’s late and they’re coming back from a meeting and the governor’s tired. I will just tell him that there’s an opening and promotion somewhere else in the state—somewhere far away. He’s a sergeant now; he’ll be made a lieutenant in charge of the small office in International Falls, right near the Canadian border. This will be disadvantageous for two reasons. First, International Falls is the worst duty we can conceive. It starts snowing up there in September and doesn’t quit until April. Second, Eikstadt gets far more money now—thanks to lots of overtime due to his driving the governor across the state—than he would even with a promotion and rank hike. I’ve checked and he gets far more money through overtime and double-time than you or anyone else on the governor’s staff. And all he does is drive.”

What if he turns it down? “He can’t. But I can cut a deal with him. I’ll say he has to devote more time to his driving and less to spouting off—that the suggestion comes from me, not anyone else. And I’ll tell him as his commanding officer that this is my personal evaluation, not to be shared with anyone else including the governor. I’ll remind him that in this business governors come and go but as state superintendent I’ve been in charge for ten years and intend to be around for ten more. He’ll get the drift.”

The sergeant quickly got the drift. The strategic advice delivered from the front seat to the occupant in the back seat stopped somewhat—but he made another pass on yet a second special session which none of us could halt. Eickstadt partially zipped his mouth because he was afraid of his direct boss—but we had to live with Sergeant Eickstadt’s two special sessions of the legislature. Rolling in dough and a good pension…easily topping our meager salaries when we had far more onerous jobs to do…Eickstadt was the governor’s favorite of all state employees. He died too early but he was the only state highway patrolman who had a former governor mourning him—and I mean mourning him, with sniffling and watery eyes. As Milt Knoll, Andersen’s top aide said: would Andersen go to our funerals if we died? We all knew the answer to that one.

1 comment:

  1. I'm sure that, as a Lutheran Christian, Walter Mondale has forgiven any injury he might have felt over your cartoon humor.

    There is, however, another potential part of your modern-day audience that might not be so forgiving . . .

    . . . In fact, you could very well become the object of a violent outrage worthy of Yosemite Sam, if you don't immediately issue profuse apologies.

    Some Muslims might take great offense at your use of a cartoon with the "Crusader" moniker. Remember how President Bush had to backtrack after using that term?

    You may object that you meant no offence against Muslims, that you didn't even mean to associate your views with Crusader Rabbit, that someone else created the character and you merely cited him. How has that answer been working for Benedict XVI?

    Danish cartoonists can tell you how sensitive some Muslims are about cartoons they deem offensive. Can a Fatwa be very far off?

    Of course, such a reaction will be impossible for any Muslim who deploys rationality to such matters. That is the sort of approach Benedict XVI admonished to Muslims in his speech in Regensburg, and we are now able to see how dispositive Muslims around the world are toward this suggestion.

    Let's hope they don't find out where you live, Tom!

    (I invite responses only from those who are not deaf to irony.)