Monday, October 9, 2006

Flashback: Late October, 1962—After the Cuban Missile Crisis, Humphrey Invents a “Scandal” That Never Existed.

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

All summer of 1962 I kept close touch with the Minnesota Highway Department, basis the “heads up” call I had from Wanda the Weather Bunny and confirmation from Arthur Michelson, the pre-Hippie era Hippie TV journalist. The commissioner, appointed by Governor Andersen, was James Creel Marshall, a retired brigadier general, a high official of the U. S. Corps of Engineers who had been the district engineer for the Manhattan atomic bomb project during World War II. Andersen’s interest was to supersede the Highway Department bureaucracy of politicians and hangers-on with a commissioner who was an outstanding engineer. This he did with General Marshall (ret.) but also one who was the first non-Minnesotan to take the job and who moved to the state from upstate New York.

From the tepid bath of politics that had engulfed this—and all other highway departments during periods of great public works expansion—Andersen moved Highways to the status of cold shower with the spit and polish of General Marshall who knew only one way to answer questions from the press: the impolitic way. Yet he was a fascinating creature; the most anti-political person in a political department, a non people person required to deal with pressure groups, politicians and the media…the most anti-political appointment for a sensitive department that could have been made. I started out disliking his coldness, ended up loving the guy because of his flinty integrity.

Our first minor confrontation was over what to call him. I called him “Commissioner” to which he replied, dryly, “Young man I didn’t run engineering projects in Saipan and Guadalcanal under the hail of enemy machine gun fire and spot bombings by Japanese Zeros to be called Commissioner.” Which meant General. And General it was. From the first day I alerted him of the possibility of a burgeoning scandal, he would call me at all hours never beginning with the conventional “hello.” The phone would ring, I would pick it up and he’d say: “there’s a dispute over a construction contract near Duluth but I’ve examined it and found it indisputably accurate.” When you’re getting fifty phone calls an hour you had to adjust to the department, the problem and remember it was General Marshall. He was indisputably honest; he fired those who were trimmers and loungers in the department and put it on a brilliantly effective basis. He was the best appointment Andersen ever made.

That was important because this was the era when the floodgates swung open to the states for construction of the interstate highway system. He ran into rocky problems with the press and politicians—and would always call for help—but his efficiency put Minnesota ahead of many states in the race to build interstate highways. By the summer of 1962, Minnesota ranked third in all the states which put to effective use all the funds to purchase rights-of-way and materials. That summer the state received from the Kennedy administration $53 million more as a reward for our moving construction ahead of schedule. Yet the progress was not sufficient for our critics including our opponent, Lieutenant Governor Karl Rolvaag who, when he was sober, focused on the need for quicker construction of a freeway south of downtown Minneapolis, where traffic congestion was extremely difficult.

Rolvaag told the press that progress should go faster, but Marshall, extremely careful, wisely defended his steps because land acquisition was extremely difficult. Hustling votes in 1962, the DFL pressed to apply the $53 million directly to Minneapolis. Other critics in out-state Minnesota criticized us for favoring the Twin Cities while the state’s trunk highway system needed more work. Depending on what audience he was addressing, Rolvaag would say either (a) Minneapolis construction should go faster or (b) out-state highways were being neglected. Because I knew that Marshall’s inherited communications department had worked closely with the DFL, I decided to supersede it and set up a temporary office over there to run communications. I found I could work easily with Marshall although to be sure the DFL zeroed in on me for, it said, “politicizing the Highway Department.” I thumbed my nose at them and the criticism passed.

I was doing all this—my own job and as communications person for the Highway Department—at the princely salary of $12,000 a year--astoundingly low by today’s standards but probably representing $50,000 in today’s dollars: still not over-paid. But you must remember that Marshall was getting something like $20,000 and the governor—who didn’t need it since he was a multi-millionaire—about $25,000. Yet as summer lengthened into Fall 1962 the communications for both governor and highway department were going well. Andersen was creaming Rolvaag in debates and the polls were generally favorable—the one in October showing the governor leading him 51 to 46 percent. I remember getting a call from Wanda the Weather Bunny who would say in her clipped Norwegian accent: “Our governor’s doing vell, very vell.” By then her liaison with Humphrey was becoming rather vell, vell understood within the DFL (but not her liaison with Michelson).

Thinking about her, I pondered two things: (a) either she was betraying Humphrey by rooting for us or (b) an insidious double-agent, rooting for us in order to get information from us to help Humphrey. Since Michelson was also in the picture, I determined it was the former. She really wanted us to win since, in his heart of hearts, Michelson did—and she loved him most of all. Actually I decided her current fascination with the TV journalist Michelson—so Humphrey and we were less interesting than the shaggy-haired, nihilist reporter who smoked unfiltered cigarettes down to the lip-line and who was not enamored of clean clothes. It was a case of beauty and the beast.


At this point there came a brief interruption in my state government duties—but an interruption I shall never forget. Congressman Walter Judd called me one day and said that he was due to appear before the joint editorial boards of the Minneapolis “Star” and Minneapolis “Tribune”—then separate newspapers owned by the Cowles family (which also owned the magazine “Look”). As he never had a press secretary until I served in that capacity part-time, he wondered if I could accompany him to give him a briefing on the Board. It was going to interview him to decide whether or not it would endorse him. The Cowles people had gone quite liberal. In those pre-cable TV, pre-talk radio days, newspaper endorsements were quite important. I said I’d go because I knew a few on the Board, including Chuck Bailey who had just made a lot of money with his novel “Seven Days in May.” Judd’s name was anathema to Bailey who was slated to become editori-in-chief of the papers—and I believed I had a good relationship with him.

The good relationship didn’t help, however. We arrived at the paper and to my surprise I was waved into the meeting with Judd. The session was more a grand debate about foreign policy strategy than an interview. The Board was overwhelmingly pro-détente and dovish toward the USSR and China and Judd was the epitome of the hard-liner. At the end of the discussion, the editor said very frankly, “Dr. Judd, we have endorsed you in the past but that was the past. We think you’re on the wrong road on U. S.-Soviet relations. On the wrong road with China, too. Unless you can satisfy us that you can entertain at least an alternative mind-set toward détente, I fear we cannot endorse you.” Judd, the legendary Cold War strategist, was astounded. He told them that he took that statement to mean that they hoped he would cave so that he could get their endorsement. He told them exactly how little their collective insights amounted to in the broad overall and that if this meant he would lose the election by being right, he would gladly lose it. He stood up and jerked a thumb at me. “Mr. Roeser, would you retrieve my coat, please? Good day, ladies and gentlemen.”

We left the building and rode back together…this famous surgeon, nationally known humanitarian who had been captured by the Chinese twice…valued so much by the Kennedy administration that Dean Rusk wanted him reelected…both knowing that he would lose the election. But I had never been prouder of a politician in my life. It was my satisfaction to see him awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Ronald Reagan. I told Judd I would treasure his example of integrity and would tell my children and grandchildren that I had been with a great national resource. And now I have so recorded it. Political leaders can get no higher accolade than to be listed along with Walter Judd. (As Henry Hyde has. As Ronald Reagan has. My suspicion is that George W. Bush will but we will see).


In the governorship race, Andersen was leading in the polls and Humphrey had not yet made an appearance in the campaign. Wanda told me, basis her continuing close association with Humphrey, that he was planning to come in as an October surprise. But mid-October came and no Humphrey. “Dooon’t be too compla-cent,” she told me on the phone, “de Senator veel come in. Be weady for heem.”

Sure enough, Humphrey winged back to Minnesota, stormed into a DFL rally and shouted: “You know what’s wrong with this [gubernatorial] campaign? There’s not enough spunk to it!”

Warned by me, Andersen issued a statement saying that voters should watch out for an October surprise by Humphrey. “This campaign in singular in that it has run two-thirds of its course with the opposition unable to pinpoint a single issue on which to base an argument that a change should be made in state administration. For that reason, irresponsible elements are urging opposition candidates and officials to go-the-limit in charge hurling. They are advising that any charge made in the last few daysw—and particularly in the last few hours—will have telling effect because there will not be sufficient time to answer it properly. I urge all Minnesotans to disregard these last-minute tactics of desperation.”

So in paraphrase of Wanda’s worry, we were “weady for heem” but then it seemed that international events overtook him. On October 19, United States U-2 flights over Cuba showed the construction of an SS-4 site near San Cristobal. The photos were shown to President Kennedy on October 16. Three days later photos showed four Soviet sites clearly operational. Kennedy kept the matter secret, not telling the UK until the evening of October 21.

Then in a nationwide televised address on October 22 he announced the discovery of the installations, saying that any nuclear missile attack from Cuba would be regarded as an attack by the Soviet Union and would be responded to accordingly. The nation jolted like it had received an electric shock and to many of us it seemed the 1962 off-year congressional campaign and our own gubernatorial race was over (with us ahead). On October 25 came the emergency UN Security Council meeting with Adlai Stevenson producing the photographs.

We slapped on a quarantine and all state National Guard units were federalized. At that point, Andersen—seeing an opportunity for his friend Governor Nelson Rockefeller to get national attention for a 1964 run for the presidency—called Albany and urged Rocky to convene a meeting of the Civil Defense committee of the Governors’ Conference in Washington with Kennedy. Andersen was on that committee and he saw an opportunity for the both of them—Rocky to get some more national attention and Andersen to get some statewide media play. He pressed Rocky to call a meeting of the governors’ civil defense committee in Washington and meet with JFK. (This was one of the inconsistencies that continually caused me to marvel about Andersen. Just when you thought he was impractically idealistic he would come up with an idea of crass political opportunism in the midst of a national crisis: but it was one of the features that made life with him interesting).

And he did another thing. Thinking of Rocky running for president, he had me call a news conference for himself and blistered Humphrey. The governor reminded the media that Republican U. S. Senator Kenneth Keating of New York had called attention to the Soviet build-up weeks before the Kennedy administration knew it; and Keating’s charges were pooh-poohed by the White House. Knowing that Humphrey was out to topple the Minnesota governorship, Andersen decided to keep him off balance by calling on him to get to the bottom of the matter. After all, Humphrey was the number two man in the Senate. (Some revisionists think calling on Humphrey was a mistake: like baiting an un-caged lion—but they’re people who were always fearful of the Senate lion in the first place which Andersen—and I, agreeing with him for once—rejected).

Answering Andersen at a news conference at the Hotel Dyckman in Minneapolis Humphrey stormed and ranted. He wondered aloud if this new expert on foreign policy, the Minnesota governor, felt Cuba should be quarantined as did Keating. Humphrey answered the question: “Those who feel Cuba should be quarantined are over 65, have hardening of the arteries and usually have congressional immunity.” A poke at elderly, white-haired Republican Keating.

That’s what caught the news but Michelson called me quickly with some news that the media hadn’t covered. He played the tape for me over the phone. Turning back to the state campaign, Humphrey lost control of himself and said: “The public will see the flaws in the Andersen record that we’ve been saving for this minute!” It was proof that Michelson and Wanda were right on target. But what would it be. It didn’t matter because with war fever, any news would be blacked out. Humphrey had made a mistake in tipping his hand but in retrospect he felt the Cuban news would drown all others. He was right except that Michelson alerted me.

Andersen ordered a plane from the National Guard for us to fly to Washington for the big civil defense meeting between the governors and Kennedy. I matched Andersen in political opportunism by insisting that my media favorites accompany us. The nation might be blown to kingdom come but the Minnesota governor would at least be photographed when the White House erupted in a mushroom cloud. Lillian drove me to the National Guard field and we saw the lines of federalized and heavily armed soldiers guarding the planes. Great fun for a 34-year-old. Andersen and I along with the media—TV cameras and all—flew to Washington in an old federalized National Guard prop airliner. Serious times but I did pause long enough to think that stay-at-home Karl Rolvaag was now totally screwed by events: the Republican governor going to the White House with a plane-load of media people. I sat next to Michelson, still warm and grumpy after having been ripped suddenly from the unwilling arms of Wanda the Weather Bunny. “Don’t get your hopes up,” he told me over the roar of the props engine. “Humphrey is determined to knock your guy out even if he only has 48 hours.” Yes, I figured: Michelson wants us reelected which means Wanda does, too and that both of them were telling the truth about Humphrey.

We landed at Washington National and proceeded down the ramp lined by newly-activated federal troops. The town was as I had never seen it before or since: bristling with arms and military men. We arrived at the White House. Andersen and Rocky along with three other governors went in to the Oval Office and I contented myself with attending one of Pierre Salinger’s news briefings. Having known Haggerty and watching Salinger, I could see the difference in style in just the few years since Eisenhower left. Salinger had adopted a slangy, serious yet youthful demeanor for TV reporters while Haggerty had been strictly a pad and pencil guy. Interesting contrast; I made a note to try to adopt my own style to accommodate Salinger’s.

After the session which lasted late in the afternoon, we went out to dinner with our press people to a place that I had visited often when I lived in Washington, a French place called L’Espionage which had been set up in the hey-day of Joe McCarthy when the country was excited about Soviet spies. The guys parking the cars out front wore capes and dark hats, looking shadowy. We had a great feast, told Minnesota stories and were served five different kinds of wine by a courtly white-haired, hugely obese African American waiter with a golden key around his ample tuxedo’ed belly, who looked like he came from the old South with Uncle Remus: indeed as if he could have been cast as a patriarch’s favorite slave in the film “Gone with the Wind.” But when he poured the last of the wine, he looked at the Governor with his aged, crinkly eyes and asked, “When are you going to fix up Rondo?” Rondo is a street in St. Paul in a neighborhood where blacks lived which was torn up and on hold until more federal funds would arrive. We were stunned. “Hey, he’s one of our own [derogatory reference to African Americans]” said the incomparably politically incorrect Bob Doder of UPI. Andersen glowered at him.

We celebrated, oddly, when the world was on the verge of destruction with nobody (but Michelson) getting drunk, me playing the piano in an off-room and the Governor finding two drum sticks from a long disbanded orchestra and keeping time. We didn’t get back to the hotel until midnight. It was a totally different Andersen for me and the media that night. I got the idea he thought his reelection was in the bag given the late entrance of an international crisis. But in the corner, Michelson, drinking himself into insensibility, kept saying, “naw—Humphrey’s going to come in, only very late.” The cameras sent back terrific films of Andersen entering the White House, Andersen passing by lined up troops as if they were in review. Outstanding. The publicist in me was thrilled. Beaucoup votes.

While we were rather decorously in the White House and going to briefings, our federalized National Guard pilots—in private life insurance agents, commercial airline pilots, small businessmen—were exhilarated with the thought of being in the capitol (some of whom had never been there). They went out on their own and scandalously celebrated throughout the day and well into the night. When we flew back the next morning our crew was frighteningly hung over...everybody: pilot, co-pilot, navigator, engineer. I saw them red-eyed and hung-over when we got to the airport. The co-pilot who had just arrived without having slept that night excused himself and raced to the Men’s Room. I stood behind them in the pilot’s cabin as we flew back to Minnesota, scarcely knowing what to do if, say, the pilot keeled over and the co-pilot felt nauseous. It didn’t happen. It was unsettling but still entertaining to see them shake their heads to dispel the fog and pour glasses of plain soda to imbibe so as to cause them to burp. I prayed very, very hard as we approached Wold-Chamberlain field, heard the crackling radio and watched the pilot shake his head so as to alleviate temporarily a blinding headache, arcing the plane down as he stifled a yawn. He hadn’t slept the night before. It was wonderful to hear the wheels squeal as we landed…and to be greeted by my beloved with our two kids.

As history shows, the Soviets then offered two deals. First, on October 26 they offered to withdraw the missiles if return for our guarantee not to invade Cuba or support any invasion. The next day they called for withdrawal of U. S. missiles in Turkey in addition to what they had wanted on the 26th. Soviet ships were nearing the quarantine zone. Robert Kennedy hatched the plan that obviated war. JFK announced he would accept the first deal and Bobby went to the Soviet embassy and told them privately that we would accept the second as well—that we would withdraw missiles from Turkey, requesting that Nikita Khrushchev publicly accept the first deal and make no reference to the second so JFK could save face. Khrushchev did which has always led me to think that Khrushchev was a kind of hero of the Cold War.

On October 28, the Soviet ships retreated and Dean Rusk made his famous observation: “We were eyeball to eyeball and the other fellow just blinked.” Not really—the U. S. blinked…but none of us knew it then. The supposed JFK victory popped the cork of celebratory mood in the last days of the campaign for Democrats—a gift from Khrushchev. The campaign was just a few days from being over—November 6. The Cuban missile crisis had taken over the news and Humphrey, as Democratic whip of the Senate, was anchored in Washington.

But back in St. Paul, on the 29th I had two calls: one from Wanda excitedl warning, “check the High-vay Depaahtment again! Somezeeng’s afoot!”

I said: Wanda, why are you so concerned for us? I thought you were a DFLer, a friend of Senator Humphrey. Now why are you so worried for us?

She said: “Because Arthur eees vorried. And you ver goot to him—very goot—when he got beat up! He vants me to help you!”

But I hit Arthur a couple of times, too.

“Not as much as ze oothers. Now I must go!” Click bzzzz.

Then a quick call from her boy friend Michelson saying, “It has to do with pouring concrete in cold weather for Fudd to dedicate a highway.” Click bzzzz.

I hustled to the Highway Department to find General Marshall in a crisis meeting with his chief engineer, John Swanberg. The secretary waved me through and as I burst into the meeting I learned that one W. W. Fryhofer, the federal Bureau of Public Roads’ division engineer had telephoned Swanberg and gave him the first official news—the feds had just now told him that a secret federal investigation had been in process on Interstate 35. Fryhofer wanted to meet Swanberg at the old American Legion hall near Hinckley, seventy miles northeast of Minneapolis, where the construction headquarters was located to go over the facts. Swanberg left us and drove there.

Some facts: In 1962, there was no U. S. Department of Transportation: that department would be created later under Lyndon Johnson. Federal highway aid was directed from the Bureau of Public Roads which was located in the U. S. Commerce Department. Marshall and I suspected immediately that politics was afoot. The secretary of commerce was former Democratic North Carolina governor Luther Hodges, an elderly genteel gentleman who took his orders from the White House staff and Humphrey’s staff (Humphrey had moved in the Senate for his confirmation). While we waited for Fryhofer to call us back I checked out the complaint which was just then being teletyped to the Highway Department. I came abreast of the facts at the same instant Michelson did. Michelson was called by the Rolvaag campaign and alerted that a terrible scandal was afoot. What was the terrible scandal for which we were unprepared despite all the warnings…from Michelson and Wanda the Weather Bunny? 0 the ignominy of it! 0 the horror! 0 the humanity!

1 comment:

  1. Tom- You should furnish player-piano background music like they had for the silent film Saturday matinee serials to accompany your saga. Keep the episodes coming!