Thursday, October 12, 2006

Flashback: Humphrey Rolls Out the Big Howitzer, Charges Andersen with Highway Corruption in Address at Macalester College, Broadcasting His Charges on Twin Cities and Duluth Radio.

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

Most U. S. Senators tend to stay aloof from state-side campaigns and battles in their own party. Everett Dirksen did, Paul Douglas decidedly did. Lyndon Johnson decidedly did not—but then he wanted to become president and he felt he had to have a strong Texas Democratic party to use as a bid. Hubert Humphey, who sought to learn the art of presidential climbing step-by-step from Johnson was told one thing by his mentor: Go to the presidential primaries with your own state in tow and have a favorable governor. LBJ had John Connally as governor. JFK had a united democracy in Massachusetts with a favorable governor; Stuart Symington had a strong party behind him in Missouri.

Humphrey decided he had to have a strong organization and governor, too. He thought he had with Governor Orville Freeman, his closest associate. But he and Freeman were snookered in 1956 in the state’s presidential primary. Republicans crossed over to vote Democratic in huge numbers and defeated Adlai Stevenson, Humphrey’s choice for Estes Kefauver. To the end of his days, Humphrey felt deep in his bones that in 1956 he missed out on being Adlai Stevenson’s vice presidential running-mate because of the primary. Kefauver became the veep nominee not Humphrey. And he remembered me with misgiving because I ran the cross-over that he believed all his life de-railed him.

That victory…compared by some Republican enthusiasts to the Christmas night crossing of the Delaware by Washington’s ragged troops which took the Brits by surprise…has been my sweetest political savor that I cherish in my senior years. If I still remember it fondly, Humphrey despised the memory. He missed the brass ring when he lost that round—and chances like that seldom come twice. The way Humphrey reckoned it…always with his age in mind…he would have been nominated with Stevenson for vice president at the age of 45 (about the age of Nixon when he became veep). Stevenson would lose against Ike, there would be no denying that. Since that would be Adlai’s second trip, the way would be clear for a presidential nominee in 1960 to run against an unpopular Nixon.

And that nominee could likely be Humphrey, age 49. Oh there’d be other Democratic challengers in the process, but Humphrey had no qualms about them: including JFK who was only a blip in 1956. Now all sorts of bad things happened: Kennedy elected president with Johnson as vice president. So Humphrey had to start planning all over from scratch.

Let’s see, Vice President Johnson has a bad heart. Kennedy-Johnson would be reelected in 1964 and by 1968 both of them would be through. Johnson would be ailing and too old. By then Humphrey would be 57—still young enough to run for president. He would have one more bite at the apple. But by God he was going to be sure to start a dynasty of Democratic governors from now on in Minnesota.

Night after night, the lost Minnesota presidential primary where Republicans snatched away the prize he deserved in his own party by invading it caused him to endlessly rub his scabs. He never completely forgave Orville Freeman for goofing up that presidential primary. He would love to have had Fritz Mondale run for governor now. But the old-time party regulars, enamored with the 90-year-old widow of the legendary Norwegian novelist and St. OIaf College professor Ole Rolvaag, turned decidedly ethnic and wanted her son Karl, the lieutenant governor, to be the nominee.

Oh, they didn’t understand that Karl was deeply absorbed in the bottle every free night but he—Humphrey—wasn’t about to go around and defame a Rolvaag. So Humphrey went along against his better judgment and okayed Karl Rolvaag for the nomination against Republican Elmer Andersen. Rolvaag was so bad a candidate that Humphrey couldn’t stand listening to him. He ordered a scandal to be concocted. The one they turned up—on Highway 35—didn’t turn Humphrey on. But that’s all he had to work with. Three times they tried to light the fuse and three times it sputtered. Now Hubert, the big Kahuna, would give it his all. So desperate was he that those close to him wondered if he was literally going around the bend. One of those was Gene McCarthy, the junior senator, who was relaxing and reading Robert Frost poetry and half listening to Humphrey rail with one ear.

They were fairly close in those days. McCarthy told Humphrey one day at lunch, “Hubert, for God’s sake, the governorship is not all that important! If you think it is, why don’t you go back and run for governor? You’d probably make it for sure!” But Humphrey would miss the Senate. He wanted the governorship. He wanted the presidency. He wanted everything! McCarthy shook his head. He was getting rather sick of this incessant ambition…this driving ambition. Privately McCarthy was exploring if he could get a college presidency somewhere: that’s how lacking in ambition he was.

Now Humphrey looked at the Highway 35 stuff. Not much there. Then he heard that Governor Andersen had telephoned the secretary of commerce, Luther Hodges, to find out what was what with the problem. A routine call. But wait. Then Andersen started following the tack taken by of all people Art Michelson that maybe the Bureau of Public Roads was being maneuvered for political purposes. That was a dangerous idea to gain currency. Privately Humphrey’s people were fooling around with the issue inside the Commerce Department. But if the thought got out that they were trying to finagle Commerce, it would be dangerous. He—Humphrey—would have to preempt that.

Humphrey had an idea. He told his top political assistant that he would turn around Andersen’s suggestion that something was amiss. He would flatly, blatantly charge Andersen with trying to “fix” Hodges. The assistant said, “huh? Trying to fix that old southerner? He hardly knows what time it is1 How can a Republican governor threaten or intimidate a Democratic federal administration?” Humphrey brushed him aside. He was a great salesman and he’d make the case. He ordered a news conference back in the state and flew back, chewing on the edge of a pencil while he flew with the political aide figuratively shaking his head. If hot rhetoric meant anything, he—Hubert—would make the sale.

So at noon on November 1, 1962…with a week to go before election…he strode into a Young DFL state convention at Macalester College in St. Paul, where he had been a political science prof, and let go. In the audience were a host of admirers and media. Up front on his camera, Arthur Michelson, one an ally, now a critic, to whom Humphrey gave a fish-eye and no handshake. Sitting way back in the audience, Wanda the Weather Bunny. She wondered if Humphrey somehow was aware of her tie to Michelson. She waved at him. He responded, tossed her a jaunty wave as he hustled up the steps to the rostrum. He paused, and raised his hand to his lips like he was drinking coffee as a signal to her. She beamed back significantly. He was suggesting they have coffee soon. He didn’t know. Rumors of liaisons in Minnesota didn’t travel as fast as they do now in Washington.

Humphrey was introduced and strode to the mike. After a brief intro with no jokes (this was a serious matter) this is what he said:

“I, Hubert Humphrey, United States Senator from Minnesota, charge this governor, Elmer L. Andersen of our state, with attempting to obstruct a federal investigation into the use of federal funds. I charge Governor Andersen with attempting to use political pressure and political intimidation on the secretary of commerce to call off this investigation. I charge Elmer Andersen with a crude and partisan and self-serving attempt to protect himself by attacking the integrity and competence of the Bureau of Public Roads and by trying to prevent the Bureau from carrying out its duties under the law to investigate complaints and charges pertaining to the feeral highway system. I would remind Minnesotans that the federal Bureau of Public Roads has conducted investigations like this in 20 states. Minnesota is the only place where a governor has sought to obstruct.

“I charge this governor of ours with a speed-up of the construction of Highway 35 for his personal campaign purposes—a speed-up which has resulted in violation of federal standards, jeopardized the good name of the contractor, ignored the inspector’s report of a state employee and has now brought the Minnesota Highway Department under a cloud of suspicion. I further charge Elmer Andersen and his commissioner of highways with incompetence, inefficiency, neglect and mismanagement and a reckless use of public funds. I charge the governor with engaging in a deceitful, dishonest, irresponsible attack on an employee of his own Minnesota Highway Department, upon the federal Bureau of Public Roads and upon Congressman John Blatnik of the 8th district in order to cover up a scandal in his own administration.

Wanda approached him after the talk. But Humphrey couldn’t spare the time now. He was on the way to a TV station where that evening, with Rolvaag and state Attorney General Walter Mondale, he would re-beam his accusation across the state. This was an era where there were few if any TV spots…just wholesale purchases of time in half-hour chunks. Wanda followed with a group of DFL groupies to the TV studio.

There on live TV Humphrey convened a colloquium. Rolvaag and Mondale acted like a Greek chorus: emitting oh-oh, aw-aw, how awful as Humphrey, the Lion, roared: “I can assure you as a member of the Senate, gentlemen because I serve as a member of the Senate Committee on Government Operations which is the chief investigating committee of the United States Senate—I can assure you that there will be—funds will be suspended under every normal procedure until the investigation has been fully completed.”

After the show, Michelson with his cameraman grabbed him, asking: “Am I right that you are exerting your influence to cause the funds to be suspended so that Minnesota taxpayers will have to bear the brunt of the construction all by themselves? Are you?” Humphrey answered rather low-key and moved on. As he and his band of Greek choristers moved to a room for coffee (his cup brought to him by Wanda) he said to the group, “Somebody find out what that sonuvabitch…” but he was interrupted. Mondale said “cool it—cool it.” He jerked his head toward Wanda. She wondered: did Mondale know about her and Michelson? No, Mondale was merely being the good Lutheran boy who disdained bad language in front of women. Instead Humphrey cooled down, beamed at Wanda and they conversed over coffee. Then the DFL candidates moved on to go to Duluth for another rally.

Back in my Capitol office, Michelson and Wanda wondered how the Humphrey charge took. They thought it was effective as did I. But she was rather thoughtful. “I cahn’t imag-ine vy this means so much to Hubert!” But Michelson and I knew, aware of how Humphrey thought about his age and the presidency.

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