Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Flashback: Dirksen’s Election Night “Concession.”

[Fifty plus years in politics for my kids and grandchildren].

While Charlie Barr was right that Dick Ogilvie had mounted a machine, Ogilvie had succeeded with it getting Nixon elected president and himself governor. Were Charlie alive today he would have to tell us whether that outcome—with a state income tax enacted and a Watergate perpetrated which led to resignation—was justified…along with the assembly line production of lawyer-lobbyist-operatives with no philosophical values spanning Ogilvie-Thompson-Edgar-Ryan administrations (who could fit in anywhere, Dem or GOP) which replaced the old earnest, possibly too self-righteous, but diligent, conservatives. Barr would say the change was not worth the elections of Ogilvie or Nixon. I wholeheartedly agree. I sometimes even think Billy the Kid would as well.

But there was unexpected drama in Illinois on election night—and what looked like terrible news.

While we in Nixon headquarters at the Conrad Hilton were cheering the election of the 37th president due partially to our Illinois squeaker, the tumult was shattered and converted into silence when ABC-TV announced that Everett McKinley Dirksen had been defeated!

The crowd gasped: Lord, we never even thought that was a possibility! Everett Dirksen defeated!

His opponent, William Clark, former two-term state attorney general, had taken a sharp turn to the Left on the Vietnam war and the Chicago Democrats and the state AFL-CIO had held back from endorsing him. But under-funded and running from his gut, Clark, an outstanding public official, had come up from behind very-very close to the old warrior. Now he had won!

We stood and gaped as the announcer said the network had hired a phenomenal vote expert, Dr. Richard Wade, formerly of the University of Chicago. The camera then focused on Wade, who said: “On the basis of projections that I have just made, while Illinois has been instrumental in electing a Republican president, the state has also made a momentous decision. It has defeated the old lion of the United States Senate, Everett McKinley Dirksen. For on the basis of what I see now, with heavy Democratic returns coming from Cook county and a weaker Republican outpouring downstate and a weaker showing in the suburbs, Everett McKinley Dirksen has been defeated. This is truly historic. The dynamics of the entire Senate have changed tonight.”

I caught the elevator up to the Dirksen suite where people were standing around as if in paralytic shock. There was no Dirksen. He was sequestered in a private room with his aide Harold Rainville, the eccentric who wore cardboard shoes because he had perpetually sore feet. There was one connecting bathroom and I ducked into it and opened the other side door which gave me a glimpse of the Dirksen adjoining suite. There were only two men in it. On the floor was a chaos of bags with the bed unmade and a few pillows on the floor. The two in the room didn’t notice my peering. A wheezing, sagging old man sitting on the edge of the bed with a tumbler full of dark amber fluid—bourbon. That was Dirksen with pouchy eyes, a face like Bert Lahr playing the Lion in the Wizard of Oz, in his shirtsleeves, his coat tossed in a heap on the bed. And Rainville, his back to me, on the phone. I paused just long enough to hear the old man rasp, “Rainville? What d’ye hear? Speak!” Rainville motioned Dirksen to hush as he took down the figures. I closed the door discreetly and went through the other door into the larger reception room where people were murmuring to themselves that they had just seen history change.

A television set was blaring about Dirksen’s defeat. Then a loud knock of the door, repeatedly: in the chaos no one opened it. Finally someone did. It was a demur young man from ABC-TV, a messenger, asking for the Senator. A huge camera crew was setting up in the downstairs lobby to interview Senator Dirksen and a huge throng had gathered to witness the concession. Nobody seemed to know how to get to Dirksen and nobody wanted to knock on the door. I knew how to get to him—through the bathroom door which led to the interior room. I went to the bathroom, knocked on the other door and opened it discreetly. Dirksen was still sitting on the bed, the glass of amber fluid now almost consumed, Rainville still on the phone, and Dirksen mumbling to himself.

I cleared my throat and said, Senator? Senator? There was no recognition. Louder: Senator! He turned and looked at me, his face lined like the Phillips 66 roadmap of Vermillion county with red and blue veined lines indicating highways intersecting, grey hair standing on end, thick lips pursed as if in pious utterance. A giant oversized forefinger crooked, beckoned me to him. I said, ABC television would like to interview you downstairs. He said nothing, got up, flung on his coat while Rainville, on the phone, kept saying “uh-huh, un-huh, uh-huh.” Then as Dirksen prepared to leave with me, Rainville said to the phone: “Wait a minute.” To Dirksen: “Where are you going?”

Dirksen: “Downstairs. ABC.”

Rainville: “You can’t go down there. I don’t have all the figures yet.”

Dirksen: “Tell me what you do have, Harold.”

Rainville: “You’re in no trouble. Trouble with a few counties that have had some difficulties with the calculators. You’re in. It’ll be close, that’s all.”

Dirksen cleared his throat and coughed up a lunger into his kerchief.

“Well, Harold, what counties do we have?”

Rainville ripped off a sheet from his yellow pad. With his ear still at the receiver, he said out of the side of his mouth, “These counties you will carry. They’ve been reported wrong. But you’ll carry them. That gives you oh, I would say, 53 percent of the vote.”

We went down in the elevator, he making no notice of me but grumbling as if to himself, “this is what comes from my not coming back to campaign until mid-October. You see, when you become too much involved in governance the political suffers.” And when he came back he had had a lot of explaining to do to the conservatives. He had reversed himself on the Open Housing bill, a bill he had opposed two years earlier—now saying in his oozing baritone “this is an idea whose time has come.” After LBJ, his friend, had announced he would not run again but sent the name of Abe Fortas to the floor for confirmation as chief justice of the Supreme Court, youngish conservative senator Robert Griffin had wanted to fight the confirmation, but Dirksen said he would support it.

Then he reversed himself again and the appointment did not go through. The Senate, including some Republican members, were taking issue with his hard pro-LBJ stand on Vietnam. People were getting the idea the old man was slipping. Consistently he had refused to reveal or discuss his own financial affairs. People got the idea he was enriching himself from his Peoria law firm. More than that, he had emphysema though still inhaled deeply from cigarettes; his heart was enlarged and had a leaky valve. He had experienced congestive heart failure, had a greatly enlarged heart, had to have excess fluid drained from his lungs. He had a persistent bleeding ulcer; never took a vacation. All that plus terminal dandruff that turned his coat shoulders into a snowman. Now Dr. Richard Wade was saying he had lost reelection.

As he stalked through the hotel lobby with me at his side, wearing a suit-coat that sorely needed pressing, trousers hanging at half-mast with a belly protruding over the belt-line, the doughty old warrior gripped people’s hands with his gnarled ones and sank down heavily on a chair while the attendants hooked him up with the lapel microphone. He then noisily cleared his throat in a guttural outburst that sent the phlegm rattling up and down his windpipe which led some of the onlookers to feel vaguely ill. Someone handed him a glass of ice water which he gulped thirstily and noisily. Then he placed his two thumbs in his mouth to adjust his dentures.

Let us say it was far different from today’s immaculate, polished lawmaker TV performances. The director gave an order: “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re going to the ABC network now, to the national hookup. Quiet please!” The entire political nation was watching. Important little with headphones conferred on phones and a mustached little man flung out his arm with pointed finger to the reporter: “five-four-three-two…”

“We’re here with the man who has been called the uncrowned leader of the United States Senate, the Minority Leader, Everett McKinley Dirksen of Illinois. Senator Dirksen, our election analyst, Dr. Richard Wade, has just declared that you have lost your reelection to the Democrat William G. Clark by a narrow percentage. Do you have a comment on that sir?”

As Dirksen looked at the camera, his huge face appeared to on the portable screen with a closeness that showed the pores in his nose as well as his rheumy eyes that seemed to have seen enough of the human condition to split the planets and make the biblical Abraham an infidel. He began to speak so low that the technician turned up the volume and the deep bass profundo reverberated around the room down the lobby and even into the bar where congregants were watching in silence.

“This morning when I got up I was in Danville, in Vermillion coun-tay. When I arose and refreshed, I drove up here through the auburn fields that had been harvested…through…” and he enumerated all the counties through which he passed on the way to Chicago. The technicians looked at each other to seek meaning from this meandering and the reporter nodded dumbly as the Senator recited all the counties. “I have known all those coun-tays”—a pause while he noisily sipped the water as the camera recorded—“and have seen and known their people and with all due respect to Doctor Richard Wade, let me say that there are several coun-tays including Vermillion in which the calculators have refused to act and have balked—so as the technicians look to their trade and repair them before coming to the right conclusion—you will ultimately find that in the end I will have won by 53 percentage points, not great but sufficient to have won once again the reassurance of the people of Illinois that I may continue to serve them. That in the words of John 8:32 “is the Truth and the Truth shall set ye free.”

He then arose slowly, unfastened the mike, bowed grandly and departed with me in tow, handing the empty water glass to the startled highly paid TV reporter. In our ears rang the befuddled reporter: “Well, you’ve just heard it. Senator Dirksen has refused to concede although Dr. Richard Wade…” The startled crowd gave him a heavy applause to which he tossed the candidatorial wave as the elevator door closed on the scene.

In the elevator going up to his suite, he said—this time directly to me—“I stretched it out as long as I could in order to give the sunabitches heartburn.”

Later that morning, it was ascertained by Dr. Richard Wade that indeed Senator Dirksen had won by 53 percentage points. And so far as I know, Dr. Wade, the peerless expert, never appeared on television again. In his place was a giant computer.

Dirksen went back to Washington to serve his last term. A little less than a year later, a chest x-ray revealed a spot on his lung. While he worked and orated on the Senate floor, his staff scheduled surgery for him on September 2, 1969. In a memorable seeming valedictory to the Senate, he paused, looked at the presiding officer and said prophetically, “my time has run out.” A few days later he completed his autobiography. He entered Bethesda; an operation confirmed the tumor was cancerous and an operation was conducted immediately. He seemed to rally at first, then his heart failed and he died on September 7. In answer to those who thought he had squirreled away a fortune at his Peoria law firm, his estate at age 73 was between $150,000 and $200,000, not much after thirty-five years of service in Congress. So much for a fifteen year rumor that those who wanted to fix legislation would retain his law firm.

1 comment:

  1. Was it Ike? I thought maybe he had been born in Texas.