Thursday, September 28, 2006

Flashback: The Premier of Ireland Arrives Amid a Hubbub. Humphrey’s Sage Advice About the Premier’s Wife: “You’ll Want to Watch Her. She’s Nuts.”

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

All the planning in the world to get my governor reelected in 1962 had to take second place, on occasion, to defer to the ceremonials of the job as state chief executive which Elmer Andersen took very seriously indeed. While my mind was filled with strategies for defeating Karl Rolvaag, I was called into the governor’s office and told to set these things aside for a time. Something really big was about to happen. What could possibly dwarf our interest in getting reelected? The prime minister of Ireland was about to come to heavily Irish St. Paul and attend Mass at the Cathedral of Saint Paul. It was loaded with political significance for it would be the first time a high Irish dignitary would visit the city. Which meant that all the public officials would be at Mass to be celebrated by the Archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Leo Binz. The governor of Minnesota, obviously, would be the host. Attending would be the two United States Senators, Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy, the entire roster of state constitutional officers, the Congressmen from St. Paul and Minneapolis, the mayors of St. Paul and Minneapolis, heads of the two branches of the legislature, the city councils of both cities and many senior business and labor union officials.

“Since I am to be the host and am not Catholic,” said the Governor, “and since you are the only Catholic working for me, I nominate you as the minister of protocol. And you must run liaison between the archbishop and his people and us. For example, what am I as a Lutheran supposed to do at Mass—kneel? I won’t kneel because it is not sanctioned in my church. Obviously I shall not receive the Lord’s Supper…” which I corrected as Communion. “…Communion, then. See? That’s why you have the job. At the same time, I want to show my deepest respect for the Catholic religion [meaning in this election year]. Another question: I take it my wife and I will be in the front of the church—the front pew, do you call it? I will want to sit directly next to the Premier so as to be in the pictures when they are taken. Where will the two Senators sit? Where will Judd sit who isn’t particularly fond of me? Now the Speaker of the House is not a Catholic but he should be right up front, because I like him. The Lieutenant Governor [Karl Rolvaag his gubernatorial opponent]: where will he sit? If he is sober, I don’t mind him sitting in my pew. If he’s drunk as he usually is I don’t want him sitting near me. His wife is also frequently drunk. You will have to handle this and make such decisions on a moment’s notice so as not to embarrass us. Okay?

“The House majority leader, Donald Wozniak, is a Catholic but I cannot stand him so don’t by any means put him near me. My wife’s first cousin, Senator Stan Holmquist is not Catholic but she wishes him to sit near us. What are the rules for the media to attend and take TV shots of the Mass? I would like them to attend but what is the protocol in your Church for this kind of thing? I am handing this all to you. The Archbishop is a new man and has not been here very long. I’ve only met him once. What do I do when I meet him on this occasion? Don’t tell me I kiss his ring because I will absolutely not. Do I shake his hand? Also does the British consul sit near us? The Irish consul, I would imagine, would take precedence. You are not known for your expertise at protocol so you better get out of here and learn about it. And don’t let this interfere with your other duties like handling my news conferences, writing my speeches, writing my news releases. And you must give me a thorough briefing paper about the situation in Ireland with respect to Britain so I can sound knowledgeable. That’s all I can think of at the moment.”

When I got back to my desk I got a phone call from the Governor: “I just thought of something else. Other church dignitaries will attend. My Lutheran bishop—I’d like him up front. The Episcopal bishop should be there, too. Then Rabbi Gunther Plaut will be there and he is usually ignored. Don’t let that happen to him. He should be up front. But if the Unitarian minister comes I can’t think of his name just now, I don’t want him in front because I don’t like him and disagree with his theology. One more thing: can you arrange it so the Catholic members of the legislature tend to sit more up front as they would like to be there I am sure. Finally, watch Humphrey. He’s a showboat and will try to get in the picture. Don’t put him near me. Put him near Rolvaag. Okay? Also what about security? The Premier is a high official. We don’t want him assassinated on our watch. Coordinate with the state troopers. That’s all I can think of for now.”

So I called a meeting of state troopers, none of them Catholic, who agreed to help me run this thing. Then I ran over to the Cathedral and sat down with the archbishop, the Most Rev. Leo Binz. He said, “This is what I am going to do. Every dignitary from Minnesota should arrive early and be seated. I have talked to the Irish consul and they want the Premier and his wife to be escorted in later, after everyone is seated—so as to make a big splash. Okay with me. In fact, I will start off by blessing the Cathedral which we do at High Mass. Do you remember how the blessing goes?”

I thought so. “Let me fill you in. The celebrant of the Mass—me—takes what is known as the Aspergirrom which is this spoon-like device, dips it into a bucket and walks down the aisle shaking off the holy water first one side then another. Like this” and he waved a make-believe Aspirgirrom to his right and left. “I will be notified that the Premier and his wife will be standing at the rear door of the Cathedral so I will march down the center aisle shaking the holy water to and fro. When I get to the rear door, I will greet the Premier and his wife and they will follow me up the center aisle to take their place in the left front pew right next to the Governor and his wife. Be sure that they wait. You will learn that I am a stickler for ceremony and I am relieved that you as a Catholic will be in charge of protocol.”

Mass was to be at high noon. The dignitaries—Senators, congressmen, state lawmakers, mayors—all arrived on time, surprisingly and were shown to their assigned seats much as if they were going to a wedding with the state troopers escorting them which the elected officials thought was nifty. As Humphrey and his wife were escorted down the aisle, Humphrey beckoned to me with a raised finger. I thought: what now? I went over. He whispered, “you will want to watch out for her.” I said: “who?” He said, “Her. The premier’s wife.” I said: “why?” He said, “she’s nuts.” I said, “huh?” He said, “she’s nuts. I watched her when she was in Washington. Mad as a March hare.” Our whispering was being frowned at by my boss the governor who didn’t care for the fact that I knew Humphrey pretty well—so I said, “okay, I’ll watch out.” Humphrey said: “Do that. Really nuts.”

I headed back down the aisle to the rear door so as to be on hand when the Premier and his wife arrived. They were walking up the steps. She didn’t look nuts to me—but I never have doubted Humphrey’s acumen at times like this. Then the bells rang and the Archbishop came out on the altar. He took into his hands a bucket of holy water and the Aspergirrum, a kind of bulb on a wand that looked not unlike a portable microphone. He dipped it into the bucket and to the sound of majestic organ music led a procession, followed by priests and curates down the aisle, waving the bulbous instrument filled with holy water as the Catholics in the pews blessed themselves and knelt. At the back to the church, I was holding the Premier and his wife back from entering, telling them that they would be greeted by the Archbishop. The TV cameras decided to film this ceremony, running—improperly, I thought—backwards and filming as the Archbishop approached. The Archbishop didn’t seem to be perturbed that they were filming him so I decided it was all right. The backward running photographers with their cameras whirring detoured gracefully and the Premier and his wife approached the Archbishop as he held in his hands the sacred bulbous instrument with which he had blessed the church.

Then I found out what Humphrey had meant about the Premier’s wife. She advanced on the startled Archbishop, took the bulbous instrument from him and spoke into it—thinking it was a microphone—saying, “On behalf of all the people or Ireland my husband Sean Lemass the Taoiseach [literal title in Gaelic] are happy to greet you, Archbishop!” The irreverent TV cameramen tittered with laughter and one, backing up to get a wider arc film, went over backward, falling head over heels, shouting in fear, with camera rattling down the 27 marble steps to the sidewalk while all the other cameramen decided to record it, angering the Premier’s wife, Kathleen Hughes Lemass who felt they were being topped by a stupid cameraman. She made a pass for the bulbous instrument which the Archbishop pulled away from her. Finally, they followed the Archbishop into the cathedral and down the aisle, the prelate handing the blessed bulb to an altar boy.

When I got back to my pew, I could feel Humphrey’s eyes on me. I looked at him and he gave me a sign that meant: I told you so. That Mass was the first time I saw Wanda the Weather Bunny, the former non-meteorologist TV star from Norway, the volunteer DFL publicist who was such a fan of Humphrey’s—there demurely with her rich husband. At a reception—coffee and rolls—in the Church hall she approached and said with a lilting accent: “Your governor is such a nice man. He is of Norwegian descent, no?” Yes, I said. “I am very impressed with him,” she said. I said—“but you are a Democrat, no?” She said surprisingly: “no—just for good government.” I wondered about that—but not long. I grabbed a cup of coffee and seeing Humphrey across the room, told him how the Premier’s wife mistook the Archbishop’s holy water bulb for a TV microphone.

“It could have been worse,” he said. Then as we joshed, he turned serious and said: “Don’t get used to your fine surroundings, Roeser.” I won’t, I said. By the way, I fortified old Rolvaag over there with a good shot of sacramental wine. Was that okay? I walked away, vowing: Hubert, I’ll see you in hell before you take the governorship away from us—even from this weak liberal haphazard nondescript Republican governor I’m working for.

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