Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Flashback: The Fuse is Lighted, Sputters, Lighted Again and Doused on the Highway 35 Bogus Scandal, Leaving it to the Great Man to Re-Ignite.

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

Michelson arrived at my office early in the morning with his camera crew but there was no sign of issue detonation on a terrible Highway 35 scandal from the DFL. I said we shouldn’t be the ones to start the controversy if they can’t light the fuse. Perhaps the federal Bureau of Public Roads wouldn’t budge. Maybe Congressman John Blatnik, the Minnesota Democrat who in addition to being public works chairman was chairman of the highways subcommittee, didn’t think the issue was worth it. We even pondered whether or not Humphrey had second thoughts but Wanda the Weather Bunny who insisted she knew, said Humphrey was adamant about going ahead.

I never knew how she managed to be close to Humphrey and the DFL yet close to Michelson who was secretly allied with me. Who was the really working for? Michelson’s answer: Many women in his experience like playing the Mata Hari. I deferred to his vaster experience but I never did know how she kept her lines—and lies—straight: talking as a confidante to Humphrey one time, behaving as Michelson’s inamorata the next, representing the DFL to the media as a p. r. volunteer and as a closet Republican pushing Arthur and me to counter Humphrey, all the while playing the sunny, innocent Norwegian new to the country and wide-eyed about life. That was five distinct roles. But as I had no stake in the matter I tried to turn it the possibility of this double or triple agent stuff from my mind.

The DFL tried to light the fuse several times unsuccessfully. When they sobered Karl Rolvaag up sufficiently to listen to the Robert O’Donnell tape of supposed irregularities…pouring cement in sub-freezing temperature…disregarding substandard bituminous mixtures…tossing his report in the waste-basket…telling him he was “too honest”… he decided it was all too complicated for him to spring —which drew agreement all around. The DFL tried to leak it several places including to Michelson who listened to the tape and said it was insubstantial, to the party’s disgust. Finally Berde went to the “Minneapolis Tribune’ on a Sunday when experienced political writers were home and played the time to Dave Mazie, a freshman political reporter. Mazie thought the tape was insubstantial but he called Congressman Blatnik. Blatnik, the Congress’ so-called expert on highways, said he had heard the tape and deemed it serious.

He gave Mazie his lead: “We have had indictments on similar charges in other states.” Thus after successive false starts, the great Highway 35 “scandal” was ready to blow. He called Elmer Andersen who, briefed by me, reacted with great calm saying that any investigation is welcome—adding “I will leave it to the people to judge for themselves the implication of an investigation announced one week before election.” At the same time, Michelson didn’t want to get scooped on his own story. He prepared his story for his TV station that equaled Mazie’s…and which would break at the same time Mazie’s did…except that he hauled me down to his TV studio and had my thorough response, linking O’Donnell to a brother working in Rolvaag’s campaign office. At Michelson’s side was Wanda the Weather Bunny. It was a strange interview where I was the spokeman but they were the directors. When I finished, Michelson conferred with Wanda and said it was not strong enough. “Show humor, not indignation!” Like film directors they ordered another “take.” The second “take” was better. She wanted a third. “Loff it off! Call eet a scandal that never existed,” she suggested. I did. The third “take” was best. So I went home to watch my third take on the news Sunday night. I agreed. I seemed subtly ironic like a poor man’s John Kenneth Galbraith. With work and their continued direction, I might become a pretty good TV spokesman.

The story that played on TV and in the newspaper was so balanced that the fuse didn’t light and it sputtered. The paper carried Blatnik’s assessment but Andersen’s rejoiner and my interview so that I got the better of the argument. The DFL was furious. The story lay there—blah—for the next day or two. Then Wanda said Humphrey was trying to get the Bureau of Public Roads to suspend the funds. But no funds could be suspended because no state was reimbursed until after the highway project was completed…so the “suspension” was a contradiction in terms. Nevertheless Humphrey decided to put enormous pressure on the Bureau. The next day Andersen and Rolvaag were to meet in the final debate of the campaign. They gussied Rolvaag up with the details. As an incompetent, he messed up which seemed to make the issue what it definitely was—a political not a highway issue.

In the debate Rolvaag said that because he couldn’t get a straight story from Andersen, he—Rolvaag—contacted the Bureau of Public Roads. Then he said that he was told other alarming scandals were occurring: like “a problem in the neighborhood of Rochester on Highway 63 where…a highway was opened and within a period of just a matter of a few days the highwday had deteriorated to the point where it was useless and required further development…The commissioner of highways brought in by the governor, this so-called great collective team of his to move Minnesota forward in the future is an arbitrary and capricious man who has not been able to work with the communities around the state of Minnesota.”

Rolvaag then made the first real charge—somewhat ineffective in his wandering rhetoric and tinny voice—but the fuse was lighted at last. “This is his commissioner. He hired him. He retained him, a retired brigadier general from Skaneateles, New York to come into Minnesota to build our highways, to demoralize our highway department …It must be borne in mind by the people that [sic] are viewing this program that pouring concrete in freezing temperatures is not politics [sic: what he meant is it is politics]. It is bad construction. It is a violation of specifications. To put in faulty material in a roadbed is not politics [sic: again what he meant is it is politics]. It’s faulty construction. It’s faulty engineering. It’s faulty building of highways. And we cannot tolerate this kind of nonsense in the state of Minnesota. And the governor is responsible for it. His highway commissioner is responsible for it….

“And now we have the possibility that Minnesota shall lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal matching funds because of the carelessness—perhaps the willful carelessness-of certain members of General Marshall’s highway department.” Bam! That was the long delayed explosion of sorts.

Wanda called me at home and said excitedly: “Arthur is fwantic! Vot can vee do about dees?” I had a card up my sleeve. I called Clark Mollenhoff, the “Minneapolis Tribune’s” Pulitzer-prize winning reporter in Washington at his home. A lawyer as well as journalist, the only conservative on the staff, he and I had spent hours together when I worked in Washington for Quie both of us critiquing Humphrey’s excesses. Mollenhoff called the Bureau of Public Roads and demanded to know if the funds were suspended or not. Reeling from one onslaught from Humphrey and another from a nationally-known, crusading reporter who had won his prize ferreting out the Teamsters scandal, the Bureau denied it was preparing to suspend funds.

Thereupon Mollenhoff wrote the front-page story under the heading which the “Tribune” gave it: U. S. SAYS ROAD FUND DELAY NOT PLANNED. Mollenhoff’s lead: “The Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) has no plans to suspend federal payment to Minnesota in connection with allegations of deficiencies on Interstate Highway 35, a bureau official said today.” On his station, Michelson went with the story, intimating that Rolvaag’s people were fooling around with the Bureau of Public Roads for their own partisan purposes. It was now backfiring on Rolvaag.

He placed a call from Wanda’s home to tweak the DFL which thought he was in its pocket. He asked calmly, “I want to know who called the Bureau to use its influence to elect Rolvaag. That’s a bigger story than 18 and a half feet of concrete on an off-ramp near Hinckley.”

“What the hell is wrong with you, Michelson?” said a high Rolvaag campaign operative who had always regarded Michelson as a close friend. “Nothing,” said Michelson, “except that I can sense undue pressure being put on a federal agency for political purposes and let me say you better watch it and Humphrey better watch it. Mollenhoff would like nothing better than to get you guys trying to politicize the Bureau of Public Roads. And it just so happens that like Mollenhoff I’m interested in winning a few prizes about guys like you fooling around with a federal agency for political purposes.”

There was silence on the other end of the line.

“Arthur, something’s happened to you?” he said confusedly. When the operative hung up confused, Wanda who had been listening on an extension squealed: “Meee! Eeets me that’s happened to you, Arthur!”

The fuse had been lighted, answered by me and snuffed out. Now Michelson’s call to the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party thoroughly doused the wick with cold water. What had to happen next was the Big Man…who to become his party’s future presidential nominee believed he had to elect a governor in his home state to offset the damage he suffered with the Minnesota 1956 presidential primary where he lost control of his party to an influx of Republicans voting for Kefauver… had to put a blow torch to the “scandal” all by himself.

1 comment:

  1. Tom- If that be Wanda the Weather Bunny, your saga is even more interesting. Can't wait for the next issue!