Thursday, October 26, 2006

Flashback: My Breakfast with Bob Stuart Entirely Dissimilar to My Dinner with Andre.

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

Having flown back to Chicago from Minnesota the next Wednesday, I stayed at my parents’ home in the Edison Park section of northwest Chicago and instead of watching TV with them, remembered my wife’s sage counsel. I worked to commit to almost direct recall details in the Quaker Oats annual report. I figured I might get the Quaker job on the basis of my being able to help him on Republican politics, but there’d be a time when he would lose his interest in politics as many senior business executives do. “You don’t want to be in a position of not knowing anything about the food business,” she said as she was preparing our breakfast before my flight to Chicago. “I know you well enough that you’ll watch TV with your folks and talk over old times. But remember, your breakfast at 7:30 a.m. with him is the most important thing we have going for us.”

She added: “Look at the facts. Goldwater is going to get nominated. Kleinberg or Kleindienst or whatever his name is has said he’s going to see that you and Forsythe get fired because you beat his candidate with a 67-year-old ex-Congressman. That’s as sure as I’m preparing your bacon and eggs right now. So if you don’t get this job, you got to get something around here. You and I are about ready to go back home anyhow—so hop to it, do your homework and impress this guy. You like to write. You’d better learn to write about oatmeal and dry cereal, Aunt Jemima and Ken-L ration dog food. If they think all you know is politics, you’ll be soon out when he gets tired of politics, buster.”

Yes, ma’am, mother of our three children, the eldest of whom was then beating his sister with a utensil he should have been using to spoon his oatmeal…and she was cuffing him back, yelling: “Tommy’s hitting me for no reason!” when she had just given him a noogie (severe head rap with knuckles foremost).

So at my parents’ house, I read the annual report over three times and a number of Freeland’s press releases…press releases which prompted my eyes to grow weary. God, I thought, if I have to write stuff like this after having assailed Hubert Humphrey, gone around Minnesota recruiting Judd delegates, having worked to stack the Minnesota Democratic presidential primary with shills who would vote for Kefauver, how am I going to like doing this stuff? But I must. I must.”

My mother said, “Poor boy! What do they have you reading?” She looked at the annual report. “Oh, I would find this boring—don’t you? Isn’t it not as much fun as writing attacks on Humphrey?”

I was about to answer when my father said, “No it isn’t. Let him continue to learn about the food industry! That’s where the money will be—not politics, no matter whether they hire him for politics or not!”

She said: “Well, you’re the one who got him all interested in politics talking to him about Bob Taft when he was five years old and now you want him to learn about oatmeal! I’m going to bed!”

The next morning early, I put on a sincere suit and a sincere tie and caught an early train for downtown with my father.

“Sound knowledgeable about food but don’t over-do it,” he said as he got into his cab. I hiked over from the Northwestern station to the Merchandise Mart because I had a good deal of time. I browsed at a newsstand and glanced over the headlines. Goldwater on way to Coronation wrote George Tagge of the Tribune. I heard a lot about Tagge. See: that’s the trouble with me. Always reading politics instead of leafing to the business section.

When I entered the anteroom to Bob Stuart’s office, his two secretaries…one corporate and proper…one flip, irreverent and saucy…were there already. Then the executive door opened and probably the most handsome man I had ever seen, dressed superbly with striped shirt, button-down, gorgeous tie and shined shoes so one could catch his reflection in them…and a political manner that I had rarely seen duplicated…came out and with an infectious smile, pronounced my name correctly. I had expected to see a business type who was absorbed in his corporation. This guy could easily have been a candidate: not as overly-folksy as Rockefeller but more confident than the Reagan I first met years later who had a deferential way that made you almost feel sorry for him. Not this fellow. He was 48, twelve years older than I. Sandy-haired, smaller than I…about five-feet eight…with a contagious personality, charmingly thoughtful, gentle and encouraging—but his greatest quality: a vitality of decency that seemed to convey health and good spirit to everyone with whom he came in contact. He was a Brahmin but he had shaken clear of much of it and had a regularity of wit that overshadowed it. I tried to shake myself free of political observations…thinking I was such a compulsive that I thought of everyone I met in political terms… but the more I studied him, the more I saw in him a political person: good news for me. He talked easily with a deep, even professional announcer’s voice—with a tinge of the East in it but pleasant. He talked very quickly with a flow of easy words with his deep resonant voice.

But the most interesting thing was that he never talked down to me. Most rich and powerful men I had met did—with the exception of the Heffelfingers. Elmer Andersen, a self-made multi-millionaire, successful politician, talked down to me all the time until I would rebel. Walter Judd did, as well—but he had a right to, as a world-class Mayo-trained surgeon, missionary captured and held prisoner by the Chinese twice, elected to Congress and ranking Republican on Foreign Affairs who talked casually to Dulles almost every day.

Not this fellow. He was there to interview me but I noticed pleasantly that he was extraordinarily good company. Perhaps the thing that made the conversation go well was that, I learned, he knew many of the same people as did I—from Minnesota. His sister had married the head of Minneapolis Honeywell; he knew the Heffelfingers; he knew Rhoda Lund, a wealthy contributor who owned a modest chain of supermarkets; he knew wily, old State Sen. Alf Bergerud who was general counsel of Red Owl supermarkets. He wore his aristocracy lightly and, I thought, tended to think too well of everyone at first—a Boy Scout-ish trait for a politician: pleasing to watch but fatal were it to be applied without reserve. In fact, he was asking me about certain propensities of the Illinois GOP that I knew from rumor; he confirmed some impressions, contradicted others. We were engaged in this fascinating colloquy when the waiter came and asked what we wished to order for breakfast. Stuart beckoned for me to begin as he pretended to study the menu (knowing, of course, what he would have).

And I knew what I would have: bacon and eggs; the eggs basted; buttered white toast and coffee—but starting off with a glass of orange juice. The waiter noted it and turned to Bob Stuart. He said with a sly look at me that he would have oatmeal—Quaker Oatmeal. Then we both burst out in laughter as the waiter looked nonplussed. The idea of a young guy applying for a post in a company renowned for breakfast cereal foremost and ordering bacon and eggs was preposterous. I had to burst out: “Waiter! Come back!” as a gag. Stuart remonstrated and we laughed out loud. (When I flew home, I found that Lillian had sat bolt upright in her bed in the middle of the night and knew full well what I would order if the waiter turned to me first).

That gaffe was probably the best thing I did. He said he didn’t know whether I was doing it deliberately to show him my independence or whether I was a philistine. I said perhaps if he hired me he would find out soon enough. And by the time the breakfast was over, I was hired. We did not talk money, of course. That was for my immediate boss.

I suggested to Stuart that I not come on with Quaker until after the national convention. I was expected to do the very same things as a staffer working for the Minnesota party officers that I would do for him—but I volunteered to work gratis to help him along with his new post as National Committeeman. It was agreeable. We parted and agreed that after I signed up with Freeland and Bartell…filling out the necessary personnel paperwork…we’d probably not meet or talk again until the convention in San Francisco.

When I returned to Minnesota I told no one about my plans. After all, there was at least a good month and a half until the convention and I didn’t want to do my job as a lame duck. In fact, I would lunch occasionally with my colleagues who had been governor’s office staffers. The chief of staff had landed a good job with the St. Paul Insurance companies: that of public relations director. His subordinate who took over when the chief moved across the way to take on a cabinet post for the governor…the guy who suffered greatly throughout the campaign and took the 91-vote loss as a personal rebuke (which was unwarranted)…had great trouble finding a job in the private sector: starting with a kind of nothing post with the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce and then with Burlington-Northern. He was the fellow who told me when I came aboard the GOP that the name of the game was to try to build associations with big business contributors so as to land a public affairs job when our political time was over. Several others on the governor’s staff sought to aim the same way.

But it was a matter of mirth to me, that the contacts we had with Minnesota business…General Mills…Honeywell…3M…Pillsbury…Dayton’s …never came our way. One job did as result of politicking for me—the Josten’s one that I never took—but the fact remained that the Quaker public affairs job which was regarded later by them correctly as a great plum, came from answering a blind ad sent to me by my father who insisted I reply to it. Now here I had a job that paid well and was truly paid to play—politics—for a bright man who, I hoped, would retain his great interest in it. As it proved, I needn’t worry.

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