Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Flashback: Working for a Liberal Governor, Even Though I Liked Him, Had Its Down Moments. The Nature of the Liberal Beast. The Defeat of Walter Judd. The Rolvaag Literary Tradition.

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

When critics say that because I am so conservative I don’t have any conception of the breadth and depth of modern liberalism, they fail to recognize that I comprised a virtual lifetime in the subject matter by working with a host of national minorities in the U. S. Commerce Department…as number three in the Peace Corps…teaching politics and dining with colleagues at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard plus knowing—and admiring some singular aspects of—Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy and others. But it was working with liberal Republican Elmer Andersen as Minnesota governor, one of the most intellectually capable chief executives in the nation (who died last year at age 96 proudly touting to me that his last vote was for John Kerry) that I think I absorbed the entire grist of the mind-set…with which I steadfastly disagree.

The trademarks were evident in Andersen from the start. First, he was a determined relativist…a Lutheran for political and social reasons but who really doubted that God exists and expected in old age that after death he would go, not to “the Great Perhaps” which even some speculative saints hope for…but to “the Great Void” which he felt had caused the world to be created in happenstance. This was really liberal nihilism. Second, while he had built his company and his own personal fortune on adaptation to exigencies with shrewd application to what he saw as practicality, he knew the knack of getting out with magnificent timing—a timing he felt should be applied to practical politics. Third, he had the liberal relativist’s fondness for public solutions to problems and a devotion to the adulation that comes from support of the under-classes and equality of result. (After we left office he continued on to support abortion rights. There is not the slightest doubt that were he around today he’d support rapid pull-out from Iraq, the Big Box ordinance and gay rights, as well.)

When last I saw him a few years ago, he was in his motorized wheel-chair, blind, palsied at 96, but as clear-headed as ever and still wedded to liberal solutions. He had an absolute vengeance for philosophical conservatives witness his coldness for and refusal to attend the funeral of the man who built the Minnesota GOP’s organization as a conduit to his election: Ed Viehman. (If left to his own devices, he would have regarded me the same way except that my mentor, Mrs. Heffelfinger, a fellow liberal, convinced him duplicitously that I was a liberal at heart when she knew I wasn’t, for which I owed her much).

So he came to the governorship a brilliantly successful multi-millionaire entrepreneur and he applied adaptation and flexible pragmatism to all tasks. He absolutely rejected cutting the state budget in order to balance it…but realized a tax hike would be politically disastrous…so he attempted to tax utilities with a populist approach. When this was rejected by the legislature, he tried to let the body stew in its own juices or come up with another solution. It waited him out and he broke quickly. I told him to wait out the impasse and the legislature would crack—but with no intransigence, he was the one who cracked and caved. The legislature bluffed him into submitting another variant which it wanted in the first place: a withholding tax which hiked revenues for a one-time shot. That balanced the budget. It gave him a year which didn’t bother him at all.

He was right about crusading for a Taconite Amendment to stimulate the mining industry which to his credit he stuck with—but Democratic liberals would not allow one to pass because they did not want him to benefit politically from it. So in the interim he fiddled around with liberal toys—such as passage of the Fair Housing bill which prohibited discrimination in housing: an okay bill but identical to what was being considered by the Congress. On this I helped him, because (a) it was my job and (b) I was not unalterably opposed to the legislation but believed real progress in housing should come from private initiatives and voluntary agreements: legislation was a show-boat way of performance that satisfied political needs.

He was ambitious to get on the national stage and saw the way as a conduit to Nelson Rockefeller, the Governor of New York and then (1961) widely held to be the frontrunner against Kennedy in the 1964 election. With social issues not on the agenda, I myself thought Rocky was the best man we had. From the start I was unimpressed with Barry Goldwater: a kind of simplistic third-rate (and hardly even that) Walter Judd. We went to the National Governors’ Conference in Hawaii, flying on a Minnesota National Guard prop plane where he intrigued Rockefeller, ensconced at a family mansion in Honolulu, with ideas that he and Rocky should try to get the governors to pass a civil rights resolution.

The Conference…intimidated by the southern Democratic segregationist governors…never tried to pass a civil rights measure—and why should it? A resolution would mean absolutely nothing, had no binding power.. Andersen was determined to try for public relations value. . I regarded it as a pure self-serving device as did, I believe, Nelson Rockefeller who listened to Andersen somewhat apathetically as he drank Polynesian lemonade on the veranda on his munificent and garish estate on Maui. Looking at Rocky that day…a handsome, much younger-appearing man than he really was at 53 (rivaling in sandy-haired rugged appeal John Kennedy who was nine years younger)…I did get the feeling that he was Destiny’s Tot. He gave you a Franklin Roosevelt sense of inevitability. Besides, he was wondrously firm on defense policy and the Cold War, even to the extent of being appealing enough for Walter Judd to quote him.

As it turned out there was no political inevitability to Rocky at all, due to his liaison with Happy Murphy, the wife of a former employee. God knows she was no looker (she was around as a staff aide in Hawaii; of her real romantic purpose there we had not an inkling). But his forceful breaking up of two marriages, his convincing Happy to abandon her own children, doomed his 1964 presidential effort as it should have. But we knew nothing of this then.

Andersen thought it would be great fun and terrific press for Rocky and him to bait the segregationist governors—Ross Barnett of Mississippi and Orval Faubus of Arkansas. I watched Rocky nod, wink and smile absent-mindedly as he sprawled on his veranda and got the idea that he was less interested because he was calculating the animosity the device would generate in the South for a future presidential election. For one thing, his brother Winthrop…an Arkansan who was plotting a future governorship run…was also sipping on the veranda with us (only he was slushing a Vodka concoction not lemonade like the rest of us). Winthrop was decidedly not for the enterprise, saying rightly that such a resolution had no binding power and was pure persiflage—which it was.

But Andersen would hatch his plans for Rocky and himself with long tedious conferences with fellow opportunist Mark Hatfield, then the governor of Oregon, while Rocky was out on his catamaran, Hatfield wanting a national career himself. They were conferences at which I was in bored attendance, looking wistfully out the window as the beautiful days were consumed with this foolish plotting, I ruefully concluding how right Winthrop was about the whole thing. In these talks, Nelson Rockefeller was the least interested—probably wishing, like me, that Andersen would let go of it and allow all of us to slink off into the warm sunshine. But not my workaholic.

So I used Andersen’s venture to get a lot of good press for him back in Minnesota…and to link Andersen and Rocky together as brothers which was nonsense hype…comforting but which added no hike to Andersen’s middling Minnesota poll numbers created by his failure to tame his legislature. He came back to Minnesota ecstatic, not at all concerned with the fact that 1962 was to be a redistricting year where the state was to lose one Congressman—go from nine to eight. I was because it was clear that much of the rearrangement of districts would take place in the metropolitan areas and that a very real loser could be Walter Judd. A vigorous young lawyer, Clark MacGregor, had finally won narrowly in the Minneapolis suburbs and his fan club, composed of all the wealthy, wanted to bolster his district with Republican cut-offs from Minneapolis. These people included Brad Heffelfinger, regrettably.

After we came back from Hawaii, the governor and I went to Washington to visit with the Republican members of the House delegation preparatory to Andersen’s coming later to meet with them. Meeting with Andersen before the meeting, I found him ecstatic about helping MacGregor and not enthused about bolstering Judd. In Washington, I took the time to slip away from the others and brief Judd, my old boss, urging that he get his financial backers in Minneapolis to agitate in his behalf and insist that no sacrifice be made of fertile Republican territory to MacGregor. The idea was to encourage the Republican delegation to agree on a new map—get their Democratic colleagues to agree, certify it, and serve it up to the legislature which was going to hold a yet another Sergeant Robert Eickstadt-ordained special session as a fait accompli for ratification. I told Judd, This is where you could really get screwed, Doctor, if you don’t mind my usage of that word—if you don’t pay close attention to what’s happening in Minnesota while you get so absorbed in foreign policy in Washington. The MacGregor forces are eager to carve up your territory.

He said to me, “That’s one hell of a note. If I may say so, now that the Kennedy people are running the country, I am the leading Republican spokesmen on foreign policy in the nation. You can’t imagine how dumb Goldwater is in all this. And now you tell me I have to rally all my people in order to save myself from extinction by Minnesota Republicans who want the freshman Clark MacGregor to survive?”

I said that’s the way politics at home always is, Doctor. Do you know that Sam Rayburn, number two in line to the presidency, has to watch his back because in Sherman, Texas some farmer in his district is pissed at his lack of service from Agricultural Extension of USDA and blames Rayburn for it and has joined with others to try to bump him off?

“Yes,” he said, wearily. “And that’s what I hate about this dreadful business.”

I saw a sense of futility in him about this and worried all the more. Here was a man who by his own lack of confidence didn’t work at convincing Richard Nixon that he should be his running-mate in 1960…and who could very well have given the ticket enough steam to get them both elected…a man who passed up a chance to possibly beat Humphrey for the Senate when the man who took the assignment came close to beating him…who now appeared too tired to try to defend himself in the rough-and-tumble redistricting process. Whatever it was, I couldn’t do more because I was supposed to be working for the governor and not for any individual Congressman’s interest. I talked one last time to Miriam Judd who said her husband was indeed tired of all this political business. Bad news.

When we got down to the negotiating (in the last special session prompted by State Highway Patrol Sergeant Robert Eickstadt), Judd had not rallied his troops and the MacGregor people, helped by the mobilization of the indefatigable Sally Pillsbury (who could whistle through her teeth to hail a cab just like a man) and her brother a blond-haired “tennis anyone?” multi-millionaire who inherited his dough from a St. Cloud land and granite quarry baron, rich dilettante Wheelock Whitney who bore the affable nickname “Whee!”, creamed the Judd people. The man who was in charge of the Republican negotiations, John Mooty, a big money lawyer (now in advanced old age the owner, among other things, of Dairy Queen nationally) allowed the map to be drawn which took much Republican territory from Judd. They gave him lots of hostile northern Minneapolis labor union areas and bolstered MacGregor with lush conservative suburbs.

Andersen told me, “Oh, well, Walter is a national figure. He shouldn’t have all that much trouble getting reelected. Maybe it’ll be good for him so that he pays more attention to Minnesota now.” Meaning: rather than the well-being of the nation then locked in a Cold War with the USSR, an issue in which Andersen had little interest except that of dovish parochialism. Judd, angered (but really having himself to blame) issued a statement that said that he was retiring. That was what Brad Heffelfinger kept telling me until she discovered first-hand there was hell to pay. Former President Dwight Eisenhower called her and gave her hot-tempered five-star general unvarnished, un-shirted hell for allowing this to happen to Walter Judd, whom he called a “national treasure.”

“Brad,” he thundered from Gettysburg, “are you telling me that you people out there don’t realize after all this time that Walter is the body and soul of the anti-Communist movement? Who the hell is the governor out there anyhow who let this crap come to pass?”

Chastened and scared out of her wits, she mounted a terrific public relations campaign to convince Judd to change his mind, promising that they would bring all the riches of Croesus to his aid. She called me and ordered me to cajole him to come back. I said, no, Brad. He’s made the decision. You and Sally Pillsbury decided Clark MacGregor is more valuable to the nation. To which she shouted: “You little ingrate! How dare you turn your back on me!” She assailed me so hard on the phone as a brat and ungrateful whelp that I couldn’t take it so I went out there on a mission for her to see what he said.

When I walked in to his office in Washington, he said he had indeed changed his mind. I did tell him that he would have a tough fight since one of the young favorites of Hubert Humphrey, Don Fraser, a liberal State Senator was going to run and apparently had the blessing of the powerful Cowles Minneapolis “Tribune.” I left Judd’s office and called her saying he had changed his mind. “Darling boy!” she gushed. I told her I had nothing whatever to do with his change of heart. “I don’t believe it!” she trilled.

But I feared that there was one thing worse than his not running—his running and losing. Then to cheer myself up, I went across the Capitol to the Senate side to see some aides of Sen. Eugene McCarthy—longtime friends—who might tell me what was on Hubert’s little mind these days. Why did I expect to be cheered up? Humphrey’s problems were at least as bad as our own.

Hubert Humphrey was in a sober, un-celebratory mood about Minnesota politics. He had missed his first big chance at the national limelight when through his own carelessness and arrogance he tried to jam Adlai Stevenson down his party’s throat in the Minnesota presidential primary of 1956, allowing us Republicans to cross over and vote for Estes Kefauver, delivering a stunning rebuke to him. He had hoped to use the primary vote for Stevenson to get the vice presidential nomination with Stevenson and thereby, after the team of Stevenson-Humphrey lost to Eisenhower-Nixon, would find himself in top position for the 1960 presidential nomination—ahead of JFK and everybody else.

Not so. His ambition was derailed. He lost badly to JFK in the presidential primaries of 1960 and didn’t do particularly well in running for reelection that year against a lackluster Republican candidate: winning but with no landslide. That year he lost his best aide-de-camp, Orville Freeman as governor to Republican Elmer Andersen. He foresaw a buildup of church voters who were voting Republican—an indication of his prescience of the future when this really did happen. He could sniff a rise of evangelical fervor hitched to politics—years before it happened. He feared his party was going overboard on too many things. Even civil rights. He believed it was essential to win back the governorship so as to help him in future runs for president and he believed Andersen could easily be beaten. But there was an impasse.

Andersen, he believed, could be defeated easily by attorney general Walter Mondale, another close friend and a rising DFL star. All the polls agreed. But the DFL Lieutenant Governor, Karl Rolvaag, stood in the way and demanded a shot at the title. What bothered Humphrey was that Rolvaag was privately a near unredeemable alcoholic (who had tried all kinds of remedies and washed out), seeking to hide his addiction rather than dealing with it. Moreover, the rumor was out that Rolvaag’s wife had now turned to alcohol. But Rolvaag was beloved by the DFL rank and file which didn’t adequately perceive the extent of the alcoholism. Still, Rolvaag was not a sure-thing winner over Andersen—and even if he were to win, the specter of a governor with this great weakness gave Humphrey pause. He would love to back Mondale but having been burned by fighting against his party’s rank-and-file once, in 1956, Humphrey didn’t want to take on the Rolvaag forces and plump for Mondale in 1962. Nor was Mondale particularly desirous of a bruising primary. Also Rolvaag’s name was legend in Minnesota by people who had worshiped his father.

He was the son of a legendary novelist and professor at St. Olaf College, Northfield, Ole Rolvaag. Ole penned the greatest book ever written about Minnesota dealing with its heritage of Norwegian immigrants which has become a national literary classic, “Giants in the Earth”—and Ole’s wife, Karl’s venerable mother the Earth Mother of All Norwegians in Minnesota was still alive at 90, hoping to see her son run for governor. Humphrey was almost sure that Rolvaag couldn’t beat Andersen, that the extent of his alcoholism…and that of his wife…would be found out in a gubernatorial campaign and Andersen would win. So what cheered me up was to learn that our nemesis Hubert had problems aplenty too. And something was to happen shortly that worsened the situation for Humphrey and brightened our perception of that problem.

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