Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Flashback: Schmooze the Right People and They Schmooze Back.

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

I saw as a large part of my job, as press secretary to the governor of Minnesota, as schmoozing not just the media but other Democrats (note the redundancy) with the hope that they will schmooze back. It was natural with the media because essentially I have always felt more comfortable with them than any other group. I admire their work and ability to put together the thread of stories within a very limited time-frame. As press secretary I could help them by cutting through red tape in state government and producing experts in a hurry who could answer questions. They were rather indebted to me. I conducted the first “for background only” briefings that had happened up to that time in state government. They didn’t produce one significant betrayal of confidence. Not content to schmooze with them, I went out on the town with them, picked up dinner checks. I scheduled a river-boat cruise that was very popular each summer with a boat full of our administration officials and loaded to the gills with liquor and good food.

None of this was original but I sought to break down the usual barriers between government sources and the media—to the extent of even criticizing off-the-record some of our own actions…being careful to exclude the governor from the critiques…so as to build up the nature of candor and frankness. These things I learned from Jim Haggerty, Eisenhower’s veteran press secretary, who came to Minnesota for a series of University of Minnesota lectures after Eisenhower’s terms were completed and to whom I introduced to thanks to Mrs. Heffelfinger. He spent hours with me over lunches filling me in on what he had learned in many years as a press secretary…starting with Thomas E. Dewey’s three terms as New York governor, Dewey’s two unsuccessful runs for president, Eisenhower’s two successful terms as president and his counsel to New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller who wanted to run for president in 1964. Haggerty’s rough-hewn charm, his street wisdom were invaluable. He was the best tutor I ever had in politics —in academia, business or government. And yet, while Jim was the best in the business for his time—the fact is that he didn’t have to cope with the Internet or cable TV—but his principles still apply.

He taught me that I should take a chance with propriety and regard myself as the ambassador from the media to my candidate …and not the other way around. Jim was the Albany correspondent for the “New York Times” and his father before him had held the same job. He said that when you take a job like this, you have to decide whether or not you are to be the ambassador from the candidate to the media or the other way around…to have the media understand you are trying to help them than trying to get them to slant the news your way. With gratitude from the media will come a favorable slant, he said.

He stressed the importance to be an adjunct insofar as possible for the media to the governor--even though once in a while you may get your boss bad press. There are three reasons for this: first, you can give the governor a head’s up on what the media are concerned about…second you can give the governor an understanding of what he needs to do to get his message across…and third you can get the media indebted to you by this action which will be beneficial. His viewpoint is that the closer you can get to media individuals the better—because if they trust you, you can interpret and even anticipate attacks that may come your way. All his life, Haggerty was the working newsman’s ambassador and it paid off with excellent contacts. It was easy for me to adapt his strategy because I didn’t want to come off as the governor’s robot, someone told what to say but as an emissary have always been somewhat of a rebel—believing that while the media are liberal, they have a duty to report and that my duty was to assist them up to the point where I directly wound my candidate. It has always paid off, never failed. It worked for me as long as I dealt with them and when I dealt with them for myself as client.

And it was easy because I liked those guys (then they were all men: women are different—much different and require much more diplomatic handling; the male-female thing gets in the way). I could throw back scotches and sodas easily with these guys, tell stories with them and generally enticed them to hear my point of view. Many times I assisted them in writing newspaper ledes. As a result, we became almost incestuous and shared much information. A number of people in the state administration suspected my loyalty but the governor did not. As result, I received a number of “heads up” stories that gave us time to prepare.

My closest friend in the press corps was Arthur Michelson. The son of a wealthy Jewish family from New York which owned American Linen Supply, Michelson determined to strike out for himself and avoid becoming entangled in the family business. Instead of going to Harvard or Princeton, he went to the City College of New York, studied journalism, hung around New York city newsrooms and was convinced to get a masters in journalism at the University of Minnesota’s journalism school. Then he stayed in the state and became a television reporter with an independent TV station. He married a Jewish girl from New York and bought a fairly luxuriant house…not on a then TV reporter’s salary…in Wayzata where none other than Elizabeth Heffelfinger lived. He was an avant gard hippie before anyone knew about hippies and hung around with the then Left including Humphrey’s people. He gave Humphrey great coverage which in return the Senator’s aides positioned him close to the Senator. They didn’t know for a long time that when they were out drinking with them on Tuesday night, he was out with me on Wednesday and Thursdays—usually allowing me to vet him of the information he had gleaned.

. He smoked exotic weeds with his wife, had a nihilistic view of life…no absolutes, eschewing his Jewish religion…and was yet very interested in mine. He was an ugly and unwashed newsman who, surprisingly enough, was regarded by women as so much a strange animal that they wanted to tame him. He had many girl-friends—unknown to but suspected by his wife. His wife would call me at all hours of the night and ask if Arthur was with me, whether he was working, etc. I lied brilliantly…not knowing where he was but surmising. In return he would share with me rumors in the trade that pertained to Andersen.

Michelson was the first one to call my governor…who stuttered when he got nervous…”Elmer Fudd” after the Disney character with a similar problem. I was the only one who could out-drink Michelson which I did on regular occasions, helping him into a cab often. In return as I listened to his babble, I learned much. Once in the middle of the night he said, “Fudd is going to be savaged by Humphrey.” I said: yes, I know. He schlepped his drink. I said: what will Humphrey do? He said it would be a breach of journalistic ethics for him to tell me. Then he went on a long rambling disquisition from his nihilism: aping Pilate who asked “what is truth?” to asking what is ethics? What is certainty? He ordered yet another drink and said “Fudd is a decent man and I’m going to tell you so that you can reelect this decent man.” I was all ears.

He said: they simply can’t beat you without a scandal. They are looking for one and think they found a small blip which they can build up to one. At that point, I left the subject alone—because I didn’t want to pursue so hard that Michelson, even in his stupor, would imagine I was eager to find out. I changed the subject. Sometimes this would drive him nuts. He would say: “You hear me? They’re going to get you!” I would say: so what? What is winning? What is losing? Occasionally, who is “they?” He would become agitated and say: Don’t you hear me? They’re working on it! I’d say: so what? It would drive him nuts that I appeared uninterested and so he would go on. All I learned was that they were using former Governor Freeman…then Kennedy’s agriculture secretary…to work on holdovers in state government to uncover things. I feigned total disinterest.

He said: They think they have something in Corrections—the Corrections Department with guard selling drugs…reefers (which was the name for marijuana cigarettes) in St. Cloud (the St. Cloud penitentiary). When I would get home I’d make notes and the next day I would spend time with our Corrections commissioner, Will Turnbladh (not a typo: the name is actually spelled like that with the “h” coming after the “d”). Turnbladh was the former award-winning warden of San Quentin whom we hired at great price. I grilled him on the guard situation at St. Cloud…all the while the next night feigning disinterest with Michelson. Turnbladh would go to St. Cloud on a sudden, unannounced inspection and would come back to me. “Everything’s o.k. at St. Cloud.” The long evenings of drinking with Michelson went on. Why I am not an alcoholic or suffering a seriously damaged liver I don’t know (Michelson is long dead of both).

In my sessions with Michelson, I had the potential for scandal boiled down to Corrections…which didn’t prove out…and Public Welfare. Public Welfare is always a logical candidate. The Commissioner of Public Welfare got grilled by me as well. He would make unrecorded inspections. “Honest to God,” he’d tell me, “nothing’s amiss.” In the meantime, I was schmoozing with others: Adolph Johnson of the Associated Press who was a friend of ours but not in the know. Richard A. Williams of the “St. Paul Dispatch” who was a friend of ours and definitely in the know—who was exploring where the “scandal” would surface. No one really knew but everybody acknowledged that Michelson who would drink with the Humphrey people half the night away should know. And it was clear he didn’t really know. The Humphrey people found out Michelson and I were close so they tried to shut up. But Michelson had so many Democratic contacts, even the Humphrey people found themselves trying to pump him for secrets within their own party.

The night I really got close to Michelson was the night I all but saved him from being severely beaten up. It was his birthday and a number of the newsmen from the Capitol press room went out on the town along with me. A number of off-duty TV reporters and cameramen came along as did one of the best journalists covering the Capitol: Bob Doder of the UPI. He was irreverent, not unlike Michelson himself but was sensitive about only one thing—he had a glass eye. No one brought it up but it was a matter of great secrecy and concern to Doder. He had been a great athlete in high school and in a football injury lost his eyesight which necessitated a glass eye. The injury wounded his psyche and no one…including his own wife…brought it up. About five of us were standing at the bar of a joint on University avenue in St. Paul when Doder, as anti-conformist as Michelson got into a loud argument. They were disputing about sports. Michelson was disproved on a point by Doder, was made to feel humiliated because of his scant knowledge of sports so Michelson turned to his glass of whiskey and said to himself…but loud enough to be heard by all of us: “that’s what comes from fighting with a guy with a glass eye.”

With a lightening move, Doder grabbed Michelson, pulled him off his stool and before I could interfere, struck him square on the jaw sending Michelson spinning across the room where he fell into a group of stools and ended up rolling around in the cigarette butts on the floor (I said this was not an especially fancy bar). The newsmen and cameramen who were with us were not sympathetic to Michelson at all but they picked him up, revived him (he was all but knocked out) and ordered some coffee. Doder, grossly offended, his feelings wounded to the quick was sobbing in anger, threatening to kill Michelson. Whereupon I, as the sober one, decided to be the peace-maker. I talked intently to Doder and said that Michelson was drunk and after a while got Doder to snuffle his tears and down some coffee. Then I went to Michelson and said that as a friend I was disgusted with his behavior, outraged, that his conduct was so mean-spirited that neither I nor any of the people who were with us would ever talk to him again unless he apologized to Doder. Michelson’s eye was blackened; he muttered an assent.

Then…all five of us—writers, cameramen et al…talked roughly to Michelson while in the corner of the bar Doder sat and where he had finally stopped sobbing to himself. All of us said: Michelson—you are going to have to apologize to Bob Doder or we will never talk to you again. Now stand up, apologize and extend your hand for a handshake.

Michelson reluctantly agreed. The entire patronage of the bar was watching. We escorted Michelson over to Doder’s stool. We told Michelson to extend his hand for a handshake. He did; Doder took it and looked up into Michelson’s face.

Michelson said: “I’m sorry—One-Eye!”

All of us…Doder, our group and some onwatchers…punched and kicked Michelson until our arms ached. I finally called a halt and got him a cab. But that was the way Michelson was. And that was the way when we were all young, in our youth (I was 33). Michelson strangely enjoyed infuriating us. He went home and called me the next morning asking if Doder was still mad.

I said: What in the world got into you?

His wife came on the phone and said: You treated Arthur good and proper. Why did you say that, Arthur?

He said: Who knows? And to me: What’s new with Fudd?

What’s new was that the polls which once showed Rolvaag leading now said the Andersen-Rolvaag race was going to be knife-edge close. They had three debates and after every debate, Andersen topped Rolvaag before the contest settled down to its old closeness. Andersen was an excellent debater; Rolvaag was not, was more of a robot-type candidate who relied on Democratic-Farmer-Labor boilerplate issues from which he rarely departed. After the summer when Michelson grew steadily less coherent about where the “scandal” would be found, a major debate came up in September sponsored by the League of Women Voters at the University of Minnesota.

Obviously, as his press secretary I went there with him to spin the press following the debate about Andersen’s good points. The audience was filled with prestigious Republicans and Democrats. It so happened that in that debate, Andersen really creamed Rolvaag, in a university debate where those who appreciated Andersen’s idealism and good handling of the English language were pleased. Michelson, recovering from his beating, was covering it with his television crew. It was a pleasure to be on his evening show and boast about Andersen’s advantages because they were clear-cut. As I left the “spin room” I bumped into…of all people…Wanda the Weather Bunny (see earlier reference) with her adulatory but otherwise bored husband. Wanda was a lissome Norwegian immigrant beauty, in her early 30s, who did the weather, then married a rich Democrat and became a volunteer press relations groupie for Humphrey. She was a kind of platonic (it was maintained) groupie for Humphrey. As I was leaving the briefing room, she came up and hugged me unexpectedly, kissed my cheek in with perfunctory ceremony (as he husband watched) and asked if she could give me a call the next day. And sure enough, on the next morning she did.

In her slight, lisping Nordic accent she said: “The Highway Department. I have talked to your friend Arthur [Michelson] who says you saved him from being killed. We don’t want Arthur killed. e The scandal will be in the Highway Department.” Click: buzzzzzzz. Whereupon I got hold of our commissioner of highways, James Marshall…a professional from the Corps of Engineers with gilt-edged credentials…and got him to run through his files to determine where a scandal—if there was one—could possibly be. I left him after he called a staff meeting to confer on the subject and walked back to my office in the Capitol. There was a phone call from Michelson. “You talk to Wanda?” I said I did: where did you meet Wanda? He said, “she likes me, thinks I’m fey. Did you get Highways?” I said yes, thank you. He said, “Even though you hit me, you saved me from getting killed. This is thank-you. I thought it was better to have her tell you than me. I mean—journalistic ethics, you know?” Click. Buzzzz. That night I spent four hours in the Highway Department with Marshall trying to ponder where the scandal would be, going over construction contracts, employment, personnel. But we could find nothing.

I went to Michelson and said I found nothing. “That’s your tough luck, he said. “You saved me from being killed but you weren’t all that gentle yourself.” Then good-naturedly he told me to go perform a biological impossibility. I tried to call Wanda the Weather Bunny but she never called back.

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