Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Flashback: And so I Returned the Phone Call from Quaker Oats—and It’s Made All the Difference in the World…An Order of Bacon and Eggs.

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

When I got home and after I did a few chores, I returned the call from The Quaker Oats Company in Chicago (312) 528-0100 wondering what in the world did this cereal company want. A long time intervened before my caller, Bayne Freeland, came on the line.

“Well,” he said, “you’re a hard guy to get.”

The cocky nature of the response mystified me. What can I do for you, Mr. Freeland?

“Three months ago you answered our blind ad for a public affairs manager. We had some 200 plus answers to the ad and we’re getting down to the R’s now.”

Whup! It was May and my I wrote my letter in early February. How could I remember what with delegate hunts, a Bureau of Public Roads admission it had been wrong, a hot convention fight in which we defeated Goldwater and a threatened firing?

“Would you be interested in coming to Chicago to be interviewed? Would, say, Friday of this week be convenient?”

Yes, it just might be convenient.

We made the date for that Friday. I had very little hope of getting a job there given that (a) I knew nothing about the grocery industry and (b) there were 200 resumes received, presumably most from people who had been involved in the food business or nearly so. And, as he said, they were just getting down to the R’s.

I flew there and walked into Quaker’s relatively modest Merchandise Mart suite of offices. Freeland was a folksy, quippy, rural kind of guy who had been a feature-writer at the Cedar Rapids “Gazette” (where Quaker had a big cereal plant) when he was hired some years earlier for the public relations department. Now he was p. r. director.

“I was just kidding about getting down to the R’s. We’ve had a harder time getting hold of you than we had with any other applicant,” he said somewhat ruefully.

I apologized but said I am interested in the job—but also that I didn’t know anything about the food business.

“Well,” he said, lighting up a pipe, “we know that. In fact, looking at your resume we find you don’t have much business experience at all except for a stint as an advertising copy-writer for Perk Dog food. We do a have a dog food, however. Kenl-Ration.”


“For a long time we decided to ignore your letter. But now we are more interested. It turns out that our company president is very much interested in Republican politics. And his good friend Charles Percy, who as you know is running for governor here, has just made him Republican National Committeeman for Illinois. What does a national committeeman do, anyhow?”

I told him.

“Well, what we have here is a very small p. r. shop and no public affairs guy. The president calls us up all the time asking us for recommendations on files he’s receiving from Washington, D. C., the Republican National Committee. I read the stuff and it beats me all to hell as to what we can do for him. None of us are well-versed in Republican stuff. I’ll tell you, I have had no experience in this stuff. Nor has anybody else. There’s an old woman here Kay Metz who does but she’s so far right that I’m afraid to listen to her. She got our company into trouble a couple of years ago but that’s another story. There’s an actor here who goes out, puts on a wig and a costume and plays Mr. Quaker and talks to Rotaries and schools who has a lot of ideas what our president should do but who cares what he thinks? And all the guys who applied for this job…or almost all…have not a clue on how the GOP would run here in Illinois, of which Bob Stuart, our president, must be a prominent leader. Then I fished your letter out of the dead-letter file where I stored it. Now my first question is: I know you understand a lot of politics in Minnesota but what about Illinois?”

Well, I was born and reared here, was involved in some campaigns as a kid here and come from a family whose father was deeply interested and fascinated with Illinois politics.

He exhaled in relief. “Good. I was down on Skid Row three times today to talk to either Stuart or his secretaries about this stuff of which I know nothing. Tom Bartell, my boss, is in the same boat.”

Skid Row?

“That’s what we call the area where our senior executives are quartered. Here, take a look at this file and tell me what you’d do.”

It was duck soup. I told him.

“Sounds impressive. If you’re wrong, we’re all in trouble: you and me for hiring you. See, you’ll work for me. Bob Stuart’s not particularly crazy about me and frankly the less I deal with him the better. That’ll be your job. But I’ll be counting on your to be…100 percent right all the time…so I don’t get hauled down there.”

How can I be wrong on this stuff? It’s routine. I’ve done this a million times for our state chairmen and our national committeemen. I know national committeemen from all over the country. Nothing complicated about it if you’ve done it as long as I have.

“I see. I see. I see. That’s great. Now what I want you to do is to meet with Bob Stuart but he’s just now gone out of town. We’ll have to have you back next week. Frankly, the sooner we hire you the better as far as I’m concerned and as far as my boss is concerned too, Tom Bartell. He doesn’t know anything about politics either. He’s vice president-employee relations. Lost his eye in the war. You’ll see him next and when you finish with him you’ll see his boss a man named D’Arcy. He knows less about politics than either Bartell or I do but he’s executive vice president. Then next week you’ll see Bob Stuart. I just hope to hell you pass muster with him because if you don’t, I don’t know who I’m going to find to go through files like you just did. So pray he’ll like you for my sake.”

For my sake, too.

I saw Bartell who was taken phone calls every ten seconds. Balding, very uptight; glass eye. When he put down the phone for a second, he said, “Bayne tells me he thinks you know the political business. I sure hope you do because when Bayne isn’t down there” he nodded toward Skid Row, “I am. And between the two of us we know nothing. I’m trying to keep up by reading the newspapers but every day I get goofy notes from Stuart like this one”—and he handed one over, a note jotted on a GOP form letter.

On it was written: “Tom—Call Ed Derwinski and tell him he has a suite at Mark H in S. F. Bob.”

“Now he’s out of town,” said Bartell. “Can you translate?”

Pretty well. Derwinski is the Goldwater chairman for Illinois. Every state is supposed to have a Goldwater suite at hotels where they’re headquartered in San Francisco. Minnesota is at the Fairmount. I can check but it looks like Illinois is at the Mark Hopkins. You’re supposed to tell Derwinski he has a suite at the Mark Hopkins. You can find Derwinski at Goldwater headquarters in Chicago. If I were working for you, I’d double check to be sure you’re at the Mark Hopkins, get Derwinski and tell him he’s got a suite. In all probability he’ll want to get more details and I’d run interference between Derwinski and Stuart who is the National Committeeman and who is supposed to be in charge of arrangements.”

Bartell was taking notes.

When he finished he said, “Thanks. That clears up one of these notes. There are a handful of others who evidently have some political experience who are competing for this job you’re interested in. Everybody else is far more impressive but all they know about is the food business. Why the hell would we want somebody who knows the food business? I am just hoping and praying that you will get this job because you can take this file…” and here he pointed to a hefty stack of memoranda, “…off my hands. It would be nice for you to know the food business but I’m telling you right now, Bayne and I are in need help…are in make that desperate need of help here with this political stuff and we’re in your corner. If you pass muster down the hall, you will come back next week…Wednesday… and have breakfast in the M & M Club downstairs with Bob Stuart, our president. Read up on us before, will you so you make a good impression? Here. Here’s an annual report. Here is a stack of other stuff about us. Speaking for myself and Bayne, we hope you pass the test and join us to take this stuff off our hands. Your next stop now will be Jack D’Arcy who will try to show you he is knowledgeable about politics. But he isn’t. Just a warning. He will try to find out if you believe you can be a Christian and in politics. I don’t know your religion but—you’re not Jewish, are you?”


He didn’t look pleased. “Okay, we’ll see. Remember, D’Arcy’ll ask if one can be a Christian and in politics.”

What if I tell him one can’t?

He smiled at last. “I’ll find you and kill you. I think you’re our guy.”

He led me from the hard-surface floors where middle management worked to another part of the building which was all carpeted. Skid Row. D’Arcy was seated at a more expensive desk than Bartel’s writing while a glow from his desk lamp settled around his shoulders giving him a kind of halo effect, lighting him up in the office gloom in solitary grandeur. He stood up shook hands, asked me to sit on his couch and looked at me with deep-set eyes that evoked those of an Episcopal bishop: eyes which looked like they had ruminated on significant things…ethical challenges…decisions in which war and peace hung in the balance. There was no smile just the grim humorlessness of the occasion.

“Tell me…do you believe one can be a Christian and yet be in politics?”

I felt like responding with a remark that would send him flying out of his chair…something like: Nope. I’ve seen enough evil to split the planets…to make the biblical Abraham an infidel! But that was the last remaining remnant of my old irreverence. I leaned forward, looked at him intently, and said that my model was indeed a Christian in politics, Thomas More…Lord Chancellor of England…the king’s good servant but God’s servant first…who lost his head by adhering to principle, opposing Henry VIII’s divorce.

He listened closely. “Couldn’t he just get an annulment?”

Henry couldn’t get one. The Pope said no. Their last recourse was Thomas More. If he would say yes, they’re push it back to Rome. Henry was clear about it. It was say yes or lose your head.

I got the idea he didn’t cozy up to the Thomas More example. He thought for a while, sizing me up and then said: “Very good. I’ll recommend you see Bob Stuart for breakfast on Wednesday. Have a good day.”

I left somewhat cocky. With all those guys indicating I’m needed, what possibly could go wrong? Go wrong?. Go wrong? Oh, but it did the next Wednesday at breakfast!


  1. Tom, I enjoy your anecdotes.

    Regarding the question posed to you in the odd interview: Do you believe one can be a Christian and yet be in politics?

    Your reference to More suggests that no, it is not least not without loss of life.

    Not sure why the interviewer asked that question, unless he couldn't imagine that his question could have been applied to other vocations -- not just politics.

  2. Keep them coming.

    Goodness knows you know more about how the Republican Party got in the mess it is in that anyone else who willing to talk (write, that is).