Monday, October 23, 2006

Flashback: Bureau of Public Roads Gives Highway 35 Clean Bill of Health on January 23, 1963, a Little More Than Three Months After Election.

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

After deciding to work as communications director for the Minnesota GOP once again, I spent many hours trying to get a an answer from the U. S. Bureau of Public Roads to justify our record. The Minnesota Highway Department issued a report—but it was laughingly dismissed by the DFL as self-serving. The Department said that the test of the concrete passed “with flying colors” except for small deviations well within the limit of tolerance. Nothing was heard from Washington for several weeks. Then Congressman Clark MacGregor called on the BPR to release its findings. It did on January 23, 1963.

It started with a letter to General James Marshall our highway commissioner by Rex M. Whitton, the federal highway administrator. He wrote, “The Bureau of Public Roads made its own investigation into the same allegations and reached substantially the same conclusions as did your department.” Then buried in official language came the full report. Blacktop mixed was well within the federal standard…the charge that concrete that was purportedly poured on frozen ground made it faulty was wrong and disproved…there was no evidence to substantiate the claim that the job was rushed for ribbon-cutting purposes…the fact that the contractor used salvaged bituminous mix material as base for a portion of the ramp was acceptable and had been done many times before…such deviations that were not acceptable were paid by the private contractor in line with longstanding policy—the cost to the contractor: $996.24. This in summary was the “scandal” raised by Hubert Humphrey which elected Karl Rovaag governor.

After a spate of angry editorials saying that the voters were duped by falsity, none other than A. M. (Sandy) Keith, Rolvaag’s DFL lieutenant governor, deplored the tactic and said that concrete density deviations are common ordinary practice, saying that he, Keith, did not participate in the histrionic cries of “scandal” during the campaign.

What did Hubert Humphrey gain by falsifying a record of acceptable concrete deviation into a statewide “scandal” that never existed? His goal was to impress the national Democratic party by electing a governor. The governorship election in 1962 meant nothing because the next year President Kennedy was assassinated and Lyndon Johnson, Humphrey’s old Senate mentor, became president. By the time Johnson ran for election, in 1964, Karl Rolvaag was in serious trouble in Minnesota and was a liability to Humphrey. Nevertheless—and not because Minnesota had a Democratic governor, Johnson chose Humphrey as his vice-presidential running-mate in 1964. Both were elected and Humphrey became vice president of the United States. This led Humphrey, for whom the presidency would be a Sisyphus-like frustrating quest, to expect that he could be elected president when Johnson would retire, either in 1968 or 1972.

As for Rolvaag, he was denied an endorsement for reelection by his own party in 1966 who chose his lieutenant governor, Keith at an endorsing convention. Rolvaag ran anyhow and won the primary but lost reelection to Harold Levander. In later years he was ambassador to Iceland; he lost his wife to alcoholism. He finally joined AA and traveled the state in its behalf. Andersen sought his party’s re-nomination against Levander in 1966 but his overall Republican liberalism and flaccid lack of fight as governor was remembered by convention delegates and he was defeated. I served him as well I could but here was a guy who said that he was happy to pay higher taxes because of the public needs they served: thus he had no concept of slowing the size of government despite the fact that he was a private sector success. He was truly misplaced in the Republican party. Though an honorable person, he was a consummate liberal at heart, unfeeling, unsympathetic and not understanding in the slightest about those who believed in the conservative philosophy. He lived for 40 years after his governorship, made at least two fortunes in business since; in invested in a chain of suburban newspapers, became a lifelong chairman of the board of regents at the U of M. As a child he had had polio but in old age paralysis revisited him as it is wont to do with recovered victims. He died at 96, an invalid and blind but in charge of his mental faculties; his last political act was to supervise the placing of a John Kerry for president sign on his lawn.

Andersen was offered the senatorial nomination to oppose Eugene McCarthy but the two had been friends and he declined). However, he campaigned for Levander who became the next governor. Thus the only accomplishment Humphrey gained from electing Rolvaag was of minimal value since his reputation was a fair campaigner was maimed in Minnesota and a Republican not a Democrat, was governor when Humphrey ran and lost for president. Thus my prophecy to him proved true: you have done this dishonorable thing…concocted a scandal that never existed in order to replace a good governor with a poor one so as to benefit your presidential hopes (which you never realized). All this—for Wales?

Life in politics allows you to see the strengths and frailties of mortals at far closer scrutiny than does business. The strengths I saw in the early Humphrey were his fierce opposition to communism in his own party when the left was threatening him with political extinction. I saw his fearlessness in defense of civil rights and his great articulation as well as his masterful view of compromise and his ready wit. The frailty I saw in his overweening ambition in pursuit of the presidency which led him to perform a clearly dishonorable and lying tirade against a decent governor so as to help his presidential quest.

That overweening ambition also kept him from contradicting his chief within the White House on the Vietnam War. Not that he should have given in to the doves as he ultimately did; he should have bolstered Johnson to win the damned war—as it should have been won. But Humphrey’s overwhelming ambition for the presidency had always demanded that he not alienate his great mentor. The cause of this nation suffered by his salivating over-ambition. Still, I wiped a tear away when he died but I had long before decided he was not a great man—just a well-meaning, good one who was misled by his vaunted ambition.


Many Republicans like to date their conversion to the right with the Barry Goldwater campaign. My conversion to conservatism began with far nobler men: Robert A. Taft in the late 1940s and his campaign for the nomination in 1952…and Congressman Walter Judd of Minnesota. Both men were towering intellects with great integrity. Goldwater was too raw, too unlettered in philosophy to make much of a mark.

The Republican campaign for the presidency began in 1963 when the front-runner and all-but—acknowledged proto-nominee was Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York. I liked Rockefeller but he was too big government for me. Goldwater was held out as the logical alternative. But when I met and spent several hours with Goldwater, in mid-1963, when he came to Minnesota to become acquainted with the party, I was under-whelmed when comparing him to the men I had supported and worked with earlier. Goldwater was a second- or third-rate intellect, a gregarious guy but no scholar. His convictions, highly touted, were shallow and the book associated with him, The Conscience of a Conservative, was ghost-written. He was not given leadership assignments in the Senate and his education in history was faulty.

I not only didn’t support him, I took an active dislike to him because he seemed to me to be a contrived usurper of the conservatism brilliantly formulated by Taft, Judd and Russell Kirk. He was a passing side-show. I remembered the views of others who came before him: Borah, Taft, Vandenberg among them who were more natural leaders. His wife, Peggy, later blurted out that he had been treated for depression. In his own words he was “pooping around the country” ad-libbing answers to foreign policy questions others had took years to study. I felt that he was a natural for a set-up for attacks as a war-monger because of his carelessness in talking about the use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam…when he meant using some sprays to eliminate foliage…proved it. A natural set-up, too, for charges of racism. In all, I felt him insubstantial. My view has been substantiated with his later turn-around on social issues…from pro-lifer to pro-choicer…from supporter of traditional family values to supporter of gay-rights…as result of his second marriage to a younger, ambitious woman (after his first wife died). Now he is cited as a model by an early “Goldwater Girl,” Hillary Clinton.

Governor Rockefeller’s candidacy was more natural for me to support because of his defense posture—stronger than Goldwater’s—and his tough-on-crime stance along with his contagiously optimistic personality. But I was dissuaded by his rigid population control measures and ultimately by his signing New York’s abortion laws prior to Roe v. Wade from which, unlike Reagan, he never retreated. But in the main, he disqualified himself by getting a messy divorce, courting a woman whose husband had been employed by the Rockefellers. The way the press found out that there was trouble in the supposed paradise of the Rockefeller household was interesting.

Rockefeller had married Mary Todhunter Clark, a Brahmin, who was a kind of eastern seaboard wealthy woman of the horsy set: in fact, it was said that she was such a non-looker that she rather resembled a high-spirited horse herself. They had four children including one who had been a missionary in Africa who was slaughtered and presumably cannibalized by the natives. After that huge press episode passed, Rocky was at his family estate in upstate New York one winter night in 1963 when the place caught fire. The fire engines raced in along with the press. One wing of the house was engulfed in flames and Rocky and a familiar tall, horsy-looking woman—presumably his wife--were standing near the rooftop in their pajamas to escape the fire.

The press took photos of the two of them standing up on a balcony, slightly visible through the smoke. But when the photogs got back to the office and developed them, it became clear that the horsy looking woman was much younger than Mary Todhunter Clark Rockefeller, his wife of 32 years. On examination, she proved to be much younger. Again, no looker but horsy-looking in a remarkable similarity to his wife. She was Margaretta Fitler (Happy) Murphy, 37, the wife of a physician who worked under the jurisdiction of a Rockefeller Foundation grant, and mother of four. What was she doing with Rocky that night? Such was the lingering power of the Rockefeller name that the media kept it officially quiet—but the secret was out.

Thereupon Rockefeller pressed his wife for a divorce. She resisted for a long time but ultimately granted it to him. Then he applied unmerciful pressure on Happy to get a divorce while the media covered everything. His attempt to force her while Happy’s husband fought back was grist for the tabloids. Eventually she succumbed to Rocky’s pressure and divorced Dr. Murphy. The courts were unsympathetic and she surrendered custody of her four children to her husband. Rockefeller’s behavior in the matter smacked of Henry VIII and there was no chance of his getting the nomination. That rash bit of extra-marital nonsense cost Rockefeller the presidential nomination. It is a dead cinch that he could have come close to defeating Lyndon Johnson…and that he probably would succeed the second time around in 1968. But the amazing arrogance of it came because he was a Rockefeller and thought the public would accept him regardless.

Rockefeller entered the presidential race anyhow but was dogged by conservative disapproval. The most scathing was from a purported Rockefeller eastern ally, Senator Prescott Bush of Connecticut. He said, “Have we come to the point in our life as a nation where the governor of a great state…can desert a good wife, mother of his grown children, divorce her and then persuade the mother of four youngsters to abandon her husband and their four children and marry the governor?” That statement was disastrous. Rockefeller stayed in the race until the California primary which coincided with the birth of his and Happy’s son. The news ended his chances and after losing it to Goldwater he dropped out. (His later run for president came in 1968; in 1974 he was appointed vice president by Gerald Ford, himself an appointive president; then dropped because of conservative disapproval). He was an aging merchant prince and ex-pol who seemingly could never understand why he couldn’t buy the presidency when he could purchase everything else.

His demise was characteristic of this gifted but supremely autocratic, self-centered man. The elderly imperial, autocratic Rockefeller who gloried in making his own rules, excused himself from a Sunday night family dinner with his wife and their two small children, saying that he had to go to his office to do some work. Instead he went to a rendezvous in a private apartment where the attentions of a young woman made him feel young again: a selfish conceit. Bored with philanthropy, disappointed that he would never be president, he burned up his later years with carnality to enable him to forget his disappointment. He died of a heart attack in the arms of his young mistress in the midst of love-making. She was his staff member, Megan Marshak and he collapsed in her apartment January 26, 1979.

He died not there but to preserve his dignity he insisted on putting on his clothes and seeking to be transferred to his office by the young woman before paramedics were called. It was to be a ruse but it didn’t work. The move to salvage some dignity killed him. He was 71. James Reston of the New York Times, a dreamy liberal who conjured great thoughts to please the Sulzbergers—but because of his wild impracticality was often out of the loop and unable to spot cynicism in liberals--wrote a front-page eulogy. It rhapsodized that this was typical of Rocky: While others recreated on a weekend, Rockefeller was working hard in his office on his many projects. Many projects: yes. The column was wildly hilarious reading for New Yorkers who quickly—before Reston—figured out the details of his death from reading between the lines of the news accounts. Soon the news confirmed it: he died in the company of Ms. Marshak who, at his order, moved him precariously to his own office before calling the paramedics. I had hoped that the Reston’s gaffe would have been contained in his own 1995 obituary but the Times saw to it that it was not.

Marshak has become a very rich lady by blackmailing the Rockefeller family which all too often had bought off history. She received an endowment of tens of millions from the Rockefeller family for only one reason: her disdaining to write a memoir of their time together. Every time she gets a yen to write her memoirs they make her richer. At his life’s tawdry end, the epitaph could be repeated: this ignominious end for Nelson Rockefeller was caused by his preening egotism alone: all this arrogant ruining of families…his original one, Happy Murphy’s and now the family he sired with her…was caused by his own quest of whim in order to distract him from his inability to attain what he so sorely wanted: the presidency. So he did this to everyone. Again: all this for Wales?

The Rockefeller divorce convinced a number of us in Minnesota who couldn’t take Goldwater or Rocky to support a favorite son. He was by all odds more conservative, more influential and more perspicacious than Goldwater: ex-Congressman Walter Judd. Not that any of us had any illusions of his winning the nomination, but we did not want to oppose Goldwater with no alternative. Judd was the only rallying point we could find to keep our state’s Republican party from stampeding to Goldwater.

Accordingly, we set to work reaching out early to the conservatives who normally would be for Goldwater and convinced many of them to support the favorite son candidacy of Walter Judd. The work in rounding up the conservatives began early—at least a year before the 1964 nominating convention. We traveled around the state meeting with conservative leaders and doing a pretty fair job of recruiting them. At the same time, the national Goldwater leaders who had trounced Rockefeller in primaries and then his hand-picked successor, Governor William Scranton of Pennsylvania, were dismayed that Minnesota appeared to be locked up, in the hands of an elderly ex-Congressman who, though, famous, had no chance whatever of being the presidential candidate.

The work for Judd for president was a labor of love for me. I was traveling the state, officially doing Minnesota GOP work but unofficially lobbying for Judd delegates. On Thanksgiving Day rather than having dinner at home…with Lillian hugely pregnant with our third child…we went to have dinner at the Lexington restaurant. I was in a bad mood; had a cold. Driving there I noticed a howl in the back seat. It was not our kids but a sure sign that the elderly car’s rear end was starting to go.

After we got to the restaurant that chilly Thanksgiving night, we discovered its furnace had gone out and the place was inadequately warmed by electric heaters…with even the waiters standing around blowing on their cold hands to keep them warm. Few people were there; most were home with home-cooked meals. We ordered turkey and it was served cold. The coffee was also cold; the wine was warm. The drinking water was cloudy. To make matters worse, our children…three-year-old Tommy and two-year-old Mary Catherine…were restless and began to alternately slap either other like two of the Three Stooges. I was angered at them and was reproved by my wife. I tried to apologize but the kids seeing we were divided, screamed as if they were criminally assaulted—causing some guests to look over sharply. Lillian was uncomfortable and I raged at fate, saying that this was the worst Thanksgiving Day in my memory…declining automobile, cold food, sullen waiter, chilly, scarcely heated restaurant, children who were fighting, restaurant guests who were annoyed with us.

Then Lillian gasped. She felt the new baby was coming! I had visions of the baby arriving on our table with the waiters aghast and me calling out as they do in the movies (for what reason I have never known): “Hot water and plenty of it!” We hardly ate, paid our bill and rushed to Midway Hospital, St. Paul where our third child, Michael Joseph was born—on November 29, 1963. As I paced the waiting room (for a husband to be with his wife during delivery was forbidden: for which Deo Gratias) I decided that with Goldwater’s nomination next year inevitable, all of us state GOP people would be fired and replaced. Besides, as an only child, I worried about my aging parents who were in Chicago alone—and Lillian was worried about hers. I smile when I recall my worries about my “aging parents”—my father and mother were in their mid-sixties—hardly in the last stage of decrepitude. At least ten years younger than I am now and I don’t feel like I am old: oh, but my Roosevelt University students tell me, you are!

When I thought about the coming debacle that was Goldwater that would remove me from my GOP job in Minnesota, my goal was to become a corporate public affairs-government relations executive but I knew not how to do it. My colleagues and I on political staffs used to imagine that if we were good enough, we’d be picked by General Mills, or Pillsbury or Archer-Daniels-Midland or Minneapolis Honeywell, or 3-M or St. Paul Fire & Marine Insurance or Northwest Airlines. Few, if any, ever were. I had been hired for Josten’s but as a public relations executive not public affairs which I had turned down. At about this time I began to reflect on whether or not old Father Walter Reger may have been wrong and I stupid to have listened to him.

But those concerns were transcended by the joy of holding our third baby and second son in my arms late that night. We named him Michael because I was always impressed with the figure of the militant archangel who fought Lucifer in the last battle of heaven and who sent him tumbling downward, not to oblivion but to “darkness visible” as Milton explains it—where he stalks eternally in “adamantine chains and penal fire.” That Michael was a great masculine figure of bravery! Thomas, our oldest, named after me but always by invoking my namesake saint who, though a doubter, said when Christ announced he was going to Jerusalem said: “Let us go therefore and die with him!” Mary Catherine our second, a priceless girl baby, who was named after the Blessed Mother (and who has indeed become a gifted mother of eight and home-school teacher to them). Somehow, I thought, looking at the stirring baby Michael, God would provide.

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