Sunday, October 29, 2006

Flashback: Back to Minnesota With the Quaker Oats Job, Undisclosed, in My Pocket. Michelson and McCarthy…and a Re-Telling of Rumors in the Bars.

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

I returned to Minnesota with the Quaker job , undisclosed to any, in my pocket. It would be a month and a half—until after the Republican national convention—before I would leave and I didn’t want to be sitting on the side while a prospective successor would be broken in wherein I would lose my clout. I’d give the party the obligatory two-weeks and spare myself the interminable liver-damaging boozy farewells that accompanied such lachrymose partings…and I didn’t want the Heffelfingers to try to make a bid to match the deal which could embarrass me with Quaker. I really wanted to go to Chicago as did Lillian. Besides, I needed the time to privately study…unobserved… how Nate Crabtree of General Mills, Bill McFadzean of Archer-Daniels-Midland and John Verstrait of 3M did their jobs which involved public and community affairs and state legislative and congressional lobbying. I’d been on the receiving end of their lobbying in the governor’s office for so long I’d dismiss their work from my mind but never really paid much attention to how they did their jobs.

Meanwhile, Art Michelson, my old TV ally, had assimilated well in Washington as news secretary to Eugene McCarthy and I wanted to stay in the loop. On a recent trip to Washington to coordinate with the Republican National Committee, I was invited to Michelson’s house for dinner at which were both McCarthy and his administrative assistant, Jerry Eller (an old classmate from St. John’s). All told there were three Johnny alumni there: McCarthy, Eller and me. I wondered why McCarthy’s wife, Abigail, wasn’t there. The possessor of shrewd instincts as befits the stridently ambitious Quigley family of Irish-Catholic Democratic Wabasha, Minnesota, it seemed she should have been there. But she frowned on much frivolity and certainly did on the irreverence Gene showed for Humphrey. Indeed, it seemed she rarely was with Gene—but no matter.

It did not take long after a few scotch and soda belts when the Senator opened up about what he deemed the possibility…and then elevated to the likelihood…that President Lyndon B. Johnson might offer him the vice presidential nomination later on that summer in Atlantic City. I asked about Humphrey’s chances for vice-president which spurred a flurry of anti-Humphrey talk including derogation for Humphrey’s role in the bogus Highway 35 “scandal that never existed.” McCarthy liked my old boss, Elmer L. Andersen, a lot and noticeably didn’t chime in on the attack.

“Karl Rolvaag, the former drunken lieutenant governor, is now the drunken governor,” he said. “Thanks to Hubert and that unethical last-minute diversionary attack. He is held by me and others to be personally responsible for that travesty. I told him personally I was ashamed of his role in that endeavor. Sandy Keith, the lieutenant governor, is so turned off with Rolvaag’s incompetence that he is privately planning to run against him in 1966. And so turned off with Hubert that if he had to run with Hubert in the same year, he’d sooner become a Republican. [NOTE: Keith did become a Republican several years later]. That’s when Elmer should run again, in 1966. I will do everything I can to see that this injustice to the voters is remedied.”

This was a diversion and not related to Humphrey’s chances for vice president with Johnson, a subject to which I returned.

“Of course, I don’t know,” said McCarthy. “But I can tell you that Humphrey’s strident, peppery liberalism won’t add a thing to the ticket. Lyndon Johnson is going to take care of the liberal side of the equation, mark my words. He’s going to be the greatest civil rights president in history. His natural inclination has long been as a populist. But the Kennedy precedent—an Irish Catholic as president—would require, and this he has said to me, that an Irish Catholic return to the ticket. It would also require a kind of conservative brake on Lyndon who can get carried way. By the way,” he added drolly, “has anybody checked as to whether Hubert, who has some Irish in his heritage, is taking instructions these days?”

“Taking instructions” is Catholic talk for undergoing a conversion to Catholicism.

“I’m sure he would do this” said McCarthy and he put on a side-splitting imitation of Humphrey in his staccato voice reciting the Nicene Creed. We were well along in the evening but I didn’t think I would ever recover from the gasping attack of hilarity that caught me just as I had taken a gulp from my glass, prompting an explosion of coughing until I thought I would die. Then to make matters worse, McCarthy imitated Humphrey reciting the Hail Mary, the Memorare and singing the Te Deum. My face turning blue from the frolicsome exercise I begged him to stop. Which made him perform all the more—including reciting Yeats in Humphrey style with Humphrey’s oracular gesticulations copied to a “T” in the poetic cadence.

But McCarthy was up for reelection to the Senate in 1964, the same year he would have been on the ticket with Johnson. I asked him if he felt he would miss the Senate if he moved up to a do-nothing vice presidency under an activist Johnson.

“He’d invite him to visit Dallas,” said Michelson drolly pouring himself another scotch.

“Shut up, ” said Eller.

“Well, I wouldn’t miss sitting next to Gale McGee in Foreign Relations,” said McCarthy which prompted chuckles of inside Capitol mirth from Michelson and Eller. I took it that McGee of Wyoming was a dullard.

I must say I thought Johnson would have been astute to choose McCarthy. I returned to Minnesota to receive a telephone call from Wheelock Whitney…a name that could easily have been used by the Marx Brothers in the film Duck Soup. He was a mega-multimillionaire from Wayzata who had been instrumental to bringing the Washington Senators to Minnesota under the rubric of the Minnesota Twins—with a stunning equally rich wife, photogenic children and all the other accoutrements. Whitney had circulated rumors that he was interested in running against McCarthy. Here I had just returned from an epic evening of irreverence with the Senator—at that time the most popular Democrat in the state…more so than Humphrey (thanks to misgivings about Highway 35)…to have lunch with the intense, humorless young somewhat obtuse scion of inherited wealth who was notoriously slow on the uptake.

“I am told you are acquainted with the Senator,” he said importantly.

Only somewhat, we both went to the same school. I never let on to anyone how close I was because I never had trouble designing strategies to oppose liberals, Humphrey and McCarthy included, no matter how well I knew them. Besides, now it would never matter; I’d be in Chicago when the campaign against McCarthy would begin.

“I’d like to try you out on what I see as the issues of the 1964 campaign.”

They were strictly boilerplate Goldwater stuff mingled with Babbitt pro-enterprise puff and how he landed the Twins. I sat back and imagined what McCarthy would do in debate with this guy.

“Well,” I said, noncommittally, “of course it will take a lot of money.”

“That’s what we have a lot of,” he said confidently. “I want to apply business marketing principles to my campaign so that it sells Whitney like it would a loaf of bread.”

Dear God, I thought: I can’t believe he said that; he’ll be easy pickings for the ironic, subtle McCarthy.


After some correspondence with Bayne Freeland of Quaker Oats, I decided to tell the Minnesota Republicans immediately that I would be leaving in a month or so--telling them much earlier than I had intended. There were, after all, inquiries about me that would be made in Minnesota by Bartell’s employee relations department and I didn’t want the word to get out without my giving our people a heads up. So I started the long folderol of calling around…starting with the Heffelfingers and then my immediate state chairman boss…to say I was leaving.

“Well,” said Brad Heffelfinger, “we will hate to lose you but it’s a smart thing. Nobody’s getting elected in this state for a long time, residually, after Mr. Goldwater finishes. Besides, I know Bob Stuart and he’s a dream of a good-looking guy. We’ll keep on seeing you because we’ll continue to work together, you and I. They keep talking out there about Chuck Percy this and Chuck Percy that. Listen, I remember when he [goofed up] the platform-writing at the last convention and they had to get Mel Laird to help. The guy they should be running out there is Bob Stuart. I will say that—and don’t you dare repeat this outrageous thing I’m about to say to Peavey after we’ve been married thirty years –but your friend Bob Stuart can park his shoes under my bed anytime. But I’m sure he has better offers.”

I demurred from comment but privately I added: I would imagine.

One of the last things I did before leaving Minnesota was to organize a general campaign headquarters for all the candidates, a unified headquarters, by taking over an old but comfortable resident hotel on the outskirts of Minneapolis—the Lenox—and apportioning various floors to the state ticket. The state GOP committee would be on the top floor. Wheelock Whitney’s U. S. Senate campaign would be installed on the first floor…the candidate for state attorney general on the second…candidate for secretary of state on the third…for state treasurer on the fourth…candidate for auditor on the fifth…the congressional department—handling duties for the House candidates on the sixth…the legislative department—handling duties for the state House and Senate candidates—on the seventh…the state finance committee, raising money for the campaigns, on the eighth. On the ground floor was a cozy bar which served sandwiches and coffee to noon and early evening patrons. Nobody went to one particular floor because one of our state candidates was conducting a flagrant affair with a young secretary there. I was deputized to break up the familiarity which I did by getting him scheduled for a round of Rotaries in the International Falls-Bemidji area of the state. He was gone so long that the secretary quit; thus I saved a marriage. Maybe two: hers as well.

Before the national convention opened with Goldwater’s nomination not in doubt, a bland, nice-appearing fellow showed up at my door and led me through one of the weirdest episodes that ever happened. I have dined out on this story and if you have heard it from me or have read it elsewhere, just scroll down further but this is the appropriate place to tell it. In preparing for their coronation in San Francisco in August, the Goldwater people had come into a ton of money and hired specialists who appeared at our doors every few weeks; most seemed to come from the outer side of the moon: one more weird, supernatural and occult than the other. But this guy seemed normal.

He was a buttoned-up banker or businessman-type from Phoenix, who, we were told, would add Goldwater money to our pot for a unified campaign which would include Goldwater. Wheelock Whitney was not involved, didn’t even know of the guy’s presence. He came in announced by a telegram from the Goldwater HQ in Chicago—a missive I received the night before his arrival.

He showed up on schedule, was very polite. He took my proposed budget for press services and pulled out an expensive pen with which he scribbled some additions. The additions were to be funded by the Goldwater people. He handed it back to me. The first line said, “Rumors in the Bars…$15,000.” I asked him what this meant, specifically. He said he would show me. Where was the nearest bar? I said: it so happens on the main floor of this hotel. We took the elevator down to the bar where we would have lunch. The place, full of noon-break salesmen.

He looked around, listened to the buzz of conversation and said: “This is the perfect place for me to show you.”

We took adjoining stools at the bar. He ordered a double scotch to start off with, then a ham sandwich and coffee. Watching him carefully, I did the same.

When the bartender came up with our scotches, he took his glass, held it aloft, stared at it through the light from the window. He turned to face me and said--in a voice that was not particularly loud but carried through the smoke, conversation, the soft blathering of a black-and-white TV and an underplay of recorded music so that it was distinctly heard down the bar—“It’s a terrible shame. That he’s to be cut down in the prime of life.”

He began with a delicate sip—then with finality and some evident inner depression, downed it in a gulp. He beckoned to the bartender for another refill.

As the bartender poured, he said: “Gene McCarthy is a great Senator. This news is…well, it’s tragic.”

The bartender was interested but decided not to betray his interest so he pretended to use a towel to polish glasses.

“What a fine, good Senator Gene McCarthy is,” said my companion. “And to have his life to end like this. Tragic.” He began to munch his sandwich, fastening his eyes on me. I didn’t know what to say.

“Leukemia is a terrible thing,” he continued, addressing me.

Conversation in the bar tapered off now, as people studied him.

“It starts with a dreadful pallor,” he said. “One is very pale and drawn. How long does McCarthy have? Oh, probably several weeks. Months with good care. One thing he should do. McCarthy should spend his last days with his family—wife and kids.”

The bartender finally asked mildly, “Did something bad happen to Senator McCarthy?”

The Phoenix visitor didn’t give an answer directly.

“Leukemia is like that,” he said continuing to address me. “You’ve seen how pale McCarthy is The continued pallor, the fatigue. Then one day you can’t get up from bed.” He snapped his fingers. “ And that’s it.”

“I have noticed how McCarthy looks pale,” a salesman sitting on the other side of me. “Tell me, is there no cure?”

Now my colleague raised his head, looked beyond me, to him and said in a sepulchral tone: “None that medical science knows of.”

A woman at a booth had overheard.

“How long he has had it?”

He swiveled to face her.

“How long has he got left is the question.”

By the time we finished our sandwiches and coffee and left, the bar was silent as if in presence of a corpse.

We rode up in the elevator silently. Back in my office, he said: “That’s what I mean by `rumors in the bars.’ By the end of the day, that rumor about McCarthy a walking dead man will be rooted in the bar. Your Minneapolis field man should take it and go to several bars you have on Hennepin avenue. I have already scouted them and have their names. Just several: no more. Then every field representative you have…scattered throughout the state…should use these funds to pay for drinks as they go into bars and plant this rumor. There’ll be one new rumor a week about Lyndon Johnson.”

I said: How do you square this tactic with the moral issue?

He said: “Pardon me?”

How do you live with yourself spreading false tales of his health like this?

“I didn’t say McCarthy has leukemia. I said first it’s a shame. I added McCarthy is a great man. Then I said leukemia cuts a man down in the prime of life.”

I asked: how do you know this won’t engender a sympathy vote for Senator McCarthy?

He looked at me incredulously.

“Come on. People don’t want to vote for a dead man. Or one who will shortly be dead. That’s not to say this is the deciding factor. It’ll hold the vote down a bit and will act like a tin can tied to a dog’s tail and worth the money we expend. Just see that it’s put to work if you please and keep your high-toned morals to yourself. I’ll call you to check. “

I said: “One thing: we’ll have to change the designation on the budget from rumors in the bars to “personal communications.”

“Okay by me. But keep it separate from the general communications item.”

He left. Then he popped his head in the doorway again.

“Oh, one thing I should have mentioned. This thing works ideally in elevators, too. Your staff guy gets on an elevator with another guy in a tall building—preferentially an elevator that goes express to the fifteenth floor. He starts in on McCarthy in mid-sentence. Then they get off and ride down. Do that several times a day and it really works. See that the $15,000 for rumors in the bars is distributed. It’s an order from the national Goldwater committee to be applied to some congressional races like McCarthy’s.”

I told him I will not be around to implement it but will see his views are passed along.

“If they aren’t,” he said, “I want the money back or stored in escrow—not applied to anything else. I’ll check with your state chairman. And failing that, your national committeewoman, Mrs. Heffelfinger. Do you think she would object?”

She is a liberal, progressive, a philanthropist, a humanitarian and a visionary. Yet at heart a militant Republican and street brawler so she will not object. You don’t anticipate her sitting around in the bars spreading this, though, do you?

“Of course not.”

He did a double-take.

“Would she consider it? It’d be very effective…”


It was just about my last official day working for the Minnesota Republican party. Not long thereafter, in Chicago I picked up a New York Times to read that Sen. Eugene McCarthy—while far ahead of his Republican challenger in the polls—had to call a news conference to try to stifle a rumor that he was stricken with leukemia.

McCarthy not only won that race going away—but, angered at not being picked for vice president by Lyndon Johnson—turned against the president in 1967, with his always subdued but lingering dark Irish-German central Minnesota malevolent streak for being passed up for vice president. He ran in the New Hampshire primary early the next year; he shot upward in the polls and denied he had leukemia. To scotch the rumor, he donned skates and played ice hockey outdoors (in college he was all-state). That seemed to end it for a while. His near-victory prompted LBJ to decide not to run for president in 1968. McCarthy faced an anti-war challenge from Bobby Kennedy which superseded his; but there was a recurrence of the rumor and to the media he denied he had leukemia. Kennedy was assassinated and McCarthy went to St. John’s for a retreat. When he came out a week later he was asked about his health by the press including Johnny Apple of the “New York Times.”.

Humphrey had the nomination wrapped up in Chicago but McCarthy came anyhow, met with a dissident group in Grant Park, termed them
the government in exile”—and denied he had leukemia. He refused to endorse Humphrey until it was too late to help him and denied he had leukemia. Because he failed to endorse Humphrey when it could have helped, McCarthy lost much support in the DFL. He declined to run for reelection in 1970 but in answer to a prevailing rumor, fervently denied he had leukemia. Humphrey ran for and was elected to his seat. McCarthy ran for president several times after that as an independent. Each time he denied he had leukemia. He endorsed Ronald Reagan in 1980 and tried to be appointed ambassador to the UN by him, unsuccessfully, denying to Michael Deaver that he had leukemia.

By now the bartender and almost all the people sitting at the bar forty-two years ago have certainly all died. The rumor purveyor died long ago of natural causes. McCarthy finally died in December, 2005 at 89—of a heart attack. Not leukemia.

But rumors in the bars as a device lives on. And not always about ill-health. I’ve heard various rumors about a Republican state candidate, a federal prosecutor, a Republican U. S. House member from Illinois, a Democratic county Cook county candidate. I sometimes wonder whether “rumors in the bars” is not entered into political campaign budgets but disguised. Just as it would not surprise me to learn that my well-dressed, button-down guest forty-two years ago had a Mephistophelian origin.

Then came the national convention which would nominate Goldwater. The last one I attended as a Republican operative.


  1. John Thomas Mc GeeanOctober 30, 2006 at 5:21 AM

    When you go to "yesteryear" I always learn alot about History. Your evening with Gene McCarthy was a great story. I never would have thought you would have been at dinner with him. I bet LBJ wishes he had picked Gene McCarthy for VP. As I recall it was Gene McCarthy's primary challenge in New Hampshire that caused Johnson to drop out of the Race and say "I shall not seek, nor will I accept my party's nomination for another term as your President."

  2. Tom, corporations involved in hiring consultants to "monitor" or "influence" critics, customers, and competition should identify the recipients of the payments in 10-K filings. Amounts spent and number of personnel involved in in-house operations should be revealed in the filings, too.