Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Flashback: Amazingly, Some Thought the 1963 Kennedy Assassination Meant that Republicans Could Win the Presidency: Amazing in Retrospect.


A Hot Convention, a Pyrrhic Victory and a Phone Call from Chicago.

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

It’s amazing when one looks back at the Kennedy assassination to gauge its political impact. After the initial shock wore off…the swearing-in of Lyndon Johnson on Air Force 1…the flight of the two families on the plane with the body encased in a coffin in the hold…the capture of Lee Harvey Oswald…the fatal shooting of Oswald…the turmoil that pitched this country into swirling confusion…the quick way LBJ worked to assume leadership…there was private, cold-eyed reflection by politicians of both parties. The normal view should have been that unless Johnson woefully mismanaged the succession, he would be a shoo-in for election the following year—simply because the nation would not be able to adjust for yet another changeover. But not so. There was quiet exultation within both parties in Minnesota and nationally that the substitution of a Texas drawling Johnson for a charismatic JFK would benefit particular parties.

Take the Democrats nationally. The old-line congressional people could hardly contain their excitement while weeping crocodile tears for Kennedy. They knew and trusted Johnson and privately exchanged the equivalent of high-fives (the gesture was unknown then) because they saw a transference from an elitist, high-borne aristocracy to the dirt-on-the-shoes working style democracy with which they felt comfortable. The Democrats in Minnesota felt that it was a good omen for Hubert Humphrey. This ranged from a quick prediction that Humphrey would be picked by Johnson for the vice presidential nomination in 1964 (which rang true) to the thought that Johnson might well decide not to run for election that year and pass the nod to Humphrey (the last peddled by some in Humphrey’s own staff).

The McCarthy people didn’t even try to feign remorse over Kennedy’s death. They never liked him, felt he was a public relations creation, and had always maintained a better view of Johnson as indeed Johnson did of McCarthy, his words “he’s a man you can go to the well with” used in McCarthy’s brochure. McCarthy was to seek his second term in 1964 and was just as popular as Hubert Humphrey if not more so…Humphrey’s abject partisanship having wounded him with voters who now had understood that they had been gulled by the bogus “Highway 35” scandal that was invented out of whole cloth in Humphrey’s backroom.

When the doors were closed to the media, the Republicans nationally felt that the Kennedy’s death helped them enormously since his charisma was irreplaceable. There were still some who felt that Nelson Rockefeller could overcome his personal difficulties—but they were not many. The burgeoning Goldwater movement, led by Cliff White and others (corporate public affairs people predominate like Charlie Barr of Standard Oil of Indiana based in Chicago, Bill Bennett of 3-M and Bill McFadzean of Archer Daniels Midland, then based in Minneapolis, who were leaders of a newly-formed trade association of public affairs officers called ECO for the “Effective Citizens Organization”) felt that Johnson would be a very ineffective candidate next to their champion. There was a general conservative huzza that for the first time since 1940 domination of the Republican party had swung to the Midwest and West from the East. That was a correct assessment. Eastern Republicans have never regained control of the party since that time until now.

I remember Nate Crabtree, then a public affairs mogul with General Mills returning from a quick Washington trip to tell Brad Heffelfinger and me that “there’s a new day dawning for the Republican party” following Kennedy’s burial. In a sense he was right. Conservatives used the assassination to wrest control of their party from the East…but there would be a disastrous defeat to be endured first. I really don’t think they understood how bad a candidate Barry Goldwater would be. Bad as he was, there was no sustained opposition to him. I remember some of the liberal Republicans like Brad Heffelfinger saying, “well, maybe we ought to let the conservatives nominate Goldwater without much opposition. After all, we have had sway since the Dewey days. The Goldwater candidacy can’t win anyhow.

True, but with the Goldwater candidacy came a good number of conservatives to take over the party and sever it completely from progressive influence. Not that this was bad. The only good thing that happened under Goldwater was that an actor turned General Electric spokesman named Ronald Reagan did a film that captured national attention—and showed Republicans that a conservative message can sound compelling when delivered by a master. That was the only residual good that came from the Goldwater candidacy.

We Minnesota Republicans who knew what articulate conservatism sounded like with Walter Judd were not enchanted with Goldwater so we built a delegate team for the state convention that was composed of a number of state party leaders. It was my job to help recruit Judd delegates and to publicize the effort all the while maintaining the fiction that I was neutral as the party leadership was supposed to be.

As stated earlier, the birth of our third child engendered in both Lillian and I a kind of wistfulness about the need to return to Chicago. We loved Minnesota and had shopped around for a house in St. Paul. We particularly liked the suburban-like leafy section near the Mississippi that divides the two cities. But we were concerned that (a) a Goldwater victory at the forthcoming convention in San Francisco would cause a change in the party leadership which would mean I would be looking around for a job and (b) it had now been ten years…going on eleven…that I had been away from Chicago and our kids really weren’t getting to know their grandparents in Chicago.

At times, my father would send me newspaper clippings of ads that appeared in the Sunday Chicago Tribune editions…feature ads that called for public policy personnel. I who thought I knew everything would tell him that major jobs were not advertised in that way. I responded to a few only to find that they were dull trade association clerkships. One day he mailed me one that was a blind ad: with the headline “Public Affairs Manager Wanted” with a brief description and the code name MH-106. Now I told him quite flatly that I was sure no reputable company would advertise for a public affairs person under the rubric of a blind ad. He insisted I respond so one night late in my office I batted out a response on my typewriter, scanned it briefly, signed it and dropped it in the mail-box on the way home. Weeks passed; I didn’t have a response and so I quickly forgot it.

Meanwhile the Goldwater forces had defeated Rocky at the California state convention and had sufficient votes to be nominated. The absolute final convention was in Minnesota and with Goldwater the uncrowned victor, the Goldwater group came to Minneapolis along with their candidate. I met with him and had to acknowledge he looked good—physically, that is. Iron grey hair, tanned skin, tall and vigorous with an interesting propensity to be scatological in conversation with a carelessness in spraying the words with expletives which he didn’t bother to indicate were off-the-record so the press was rather entranced. He was a reserve air force general and carried himself like one. He flew his own jet plane and his co-pilot was a lady, a tough old bird who swore like a trooper and who caused him to double up with laughter. I flew with them to South Dakota…only a small hop…and was entranced. At the point where the pilot checks out his instruments, Goldwater looking every inch the handsome leading man would pull down the switches and say, “altimeter” to which she’d say “check”…something else…”check”…now this “check”… Once he didn’t hear her and repeated it and the old grandma said, “Goddammit, I said check!” They exploded in laughter. The easy grace was impressive. Almost enough to cause me to forget that Goldwater was not much for study or reflection but a visceral and highly immediate candidate who would say the first words that came to him.

I remember that flight where I sat in the pilot’s cabin and heard them talk to themselves and to the ground on the radio. I came close to saying maybe this guy will do…maybe he has a color that will overcome his carelessness…but then—naw. He doesn’t.

He made a speech in South Dakota and we flew back to Minnesota—only a short hop—where he was sorely disappointed. I disappeared from his retinue and took a seat in the backroom where I helped manage the anti-Goldwater putsch. After a long, hot and bitter convention that lasted until 4 a.m. which consisted of talks by Goldwater and Judd, Minnesota opted for her favorite son, its grand old man who had been deprived of reelection by a cruel redistricting managed by my old boss Elmer Andersen (whom I shall never forgive entirely). Goldwater and his people were furious. The press recorded that the convention vote meant nothing, that Goldwater was to be nominated anyhow—but the Minnesota loss was a blow to his prestige that angered him greatly. I remember that he had been very cordial to me in the pilot’s cabin but after the vote when I emerged from the war-room, I bumped into him and got only a steely gaze from his ice-blue eyes. I knew then that I was dog meat.

My boss, Bob Forsythe, the state GOP chairman who was really the architect of the Judd victory and Goldwater defeat, said that he thought both he and I could survive and keep our jobs because the Goldwater people might decide they need us following the nomination. He and I went to his hotel room to get some material and I was ready to go to my room across the hall to pack and go home where I’d get a little sleep when there was a knock at Forsythe’s door. I opened it. In came an assistant Goldwater manager who had flown with us to South Dakota…Richard Kleindienst of Arizona. Kleindienst was my age, a Harvard lawyer and director of field operations for his good friend Goldwater. (He ended up being attorney general of the United States under Richard Nixon, succeeding John Mitchell and was a cabinet officer just three days before the break-in at the Watergate with which he had nothing to do, but an episode that colored his tenure). .

Kleindienst barged in and asked me without saying hello, “Where’s Bob?” Meaning Forsythe. At that particular time Forsythe was shaving in the bathroom. I nodded to the closed bathroom door. Believe it or not Kleindienst stalked over to the closed bathroom door, hit it with a massive rap and said, “Bob—you in there?” Forsythe opened the door and, thinking it was I who rapped, was about to say, “hey, what gives?” when he saw Kleindienst.

“Bob—we’re packing up and getting out of here,” he said. “I won’t try to tell you we enjoyed this because we didn’t. You and your friend here, who flew with us yesterday to South Dakota by the way, you and your friend here ran a pretty good show and trimmed us good. It was a fair fight and we lost and we’ll never forget it. I just want to say a few things before leaving…”

With that there was another knock on Forsythe’s door and I thought: who’s this, now? Goldwater himself? No, it was my assistant. He handed me a note and said, “this guy has been trying to get you all day. He left his phone number.” I took it and tucked it in my shirt pocket and Kleindienst resumed.

“I want to tell you that you should savor this victory because, obviously, it’s all you’re going to have until the whole campaign is over. We’re going to go to San Francisco and be nominated there. I’m taking over as deputy national campaign manager then. It’s only fair to tell you that there’ll be a whole new operation here in Minnesota. If you two want to hang around, okay, but the way I am going to structure this thing neither of you will obviously have anything to say about how our campaign will be run. The state committee where you work will be a figurehead. Bill McFadzean of Archer-Daniels-Midland will be running things for us. My own advice for what it’s worth is that you two should have the grace to resign so that there won’t be confusion as to who’s going to be calling the shots because it’s going to be McFadzean all the way.”

Listen, said Forsythe. I’m sorry to hear you people don’t understand that the name of the game is to patch up convention fights and march together with us. We’re willing to back Goldwater. But obviously you don’t want us. As far as I’m concerned, neither you nor Barry Goldwater are going to tell us where we’ll be working. We were working for this party before you guys came to town and we’ll be working after you leave. So I guess I want to tell you that your threat has fallen on deaf ears.

“Maybe you won’t be so deaf to our need to run our own show after the convention,” said Kleindienst. “Thank you, both of you and good day.” Bam, the door closed.

Forsythe said to me: Don’t let that bother you. You and I are going to be around. And even if we’re not, we’ll make out.

I thought: sure, you’re a lawyer. There’s only one party I can work for. So it just reinforces in my mind the fact that sooner or later…hopefully sooner…I should get out of here. It’s been fun, a grand ride for ten years in this state. But I’m not going to hang around and importune Brad Heffelfinger to take care of me again.

I went to my room and started packing my stuff from the convention and preparing to load it in my car to drive home. Then I pulled the sheet of paper my assistant gave to me. It said: “Been trying to get you for days! Call me. Bayne Freeland.” There was a general number for Quaker Oats in Chicago. I thought: what in the world does The Quaker Oats Company want with me?

But anyhow, I decided to call Mr. Freeland when I got home.


  1. Tom, you write that you and your wife liked the area between St. Paul and Minneapolis along the Mississippi.

    Was Mendota Heights included, or was it too far from the homes closer to Macalster College for your taste?

    There are currently fine bicycle trails and paths along Mississippi near there -- one with a marker stating that the Indians from that area a few hundred years ago believed it was the center of the universe.

    Good location. I'd say it beats the home town of you and Hillary.

  2. Nate Crabtree was my uncle (my dad's brother) so it was with interest that I encountered your post. I was a pup when he died, so I would appreciate any recollections of him.