Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Flashback: Nixon Carries Illinois in `68 and With it Wins the Presidency.

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

Just as Charlie Barr was right in his dispute with Billy the Kid (Stratton, the two-term former governor, two term state treasurer and ex-congressman-at-large), he proved to be a Cassandra: one whose analysis, though correct in all particulars, was fated to be pooh-poohed and never listened to. Barr it was who said Dick Ogilvie was embarked on an empire-building crusade, to build not just an administration as governor but to weld a hybrid party from disparate elements of the old ones. Ogilvie as president of the Cook county Board was dead set on running for governor in 1968, after that making common cause with his idol Nelson Rockefeller and taking Rockefeller’s big government thesis to Springfield and ultimately 1600 Pennsylvania avenue. Stratton had insisted Ogilvie do what he—Stratton--who was for a short time a vice-presidential prospect himself—would do…avoid building a machine because to do so would get one into trouble…remain at heart a loner, a friend to all and ally of none, staying flexible for future coalescences.

Ogilvie, recognizing that as board president he was the leading Illinois Republican on the ground (Percy and Dirksen were in Washington) began to survey the prospects of an alliance which would (a) get him in well with a future president and (b) enable him to glide with ease into the governorship in 1968. It would be natural to expect that he would tie in with Rockefeller whose appetite for the presidency had not been quenched by amateurish efforts in 1960 and `64. Ogilvie’s natural ally was Rockefeller but the dour Scottish ex-prosecutor understood that there is political fatality involved in his stealing another man’s wife and convincing her to leave her kids and surrender custody to them in order to marry him: an ego thrust worthy of Henry VIII. Endowed with the coldest eyes in the business, Ogilvie recognized it would be a no-go with Rocky and so he cemented ties early with Richard Nixon. In doing so, he rejected Rocky’s importuning to support Michigan’s George Romney who was the New Yorker’s choice for the nomination.

My own corporate leader, Bob Stuart, chairman of Quaker Oats was an enthusiastic Romney fan but he was restricted by some personal ties. He was friends—close friends—with Chuck Percy, a freshman senator, was hoping to profit from a deadlock between Nixon and Romney—or a three-way if, as Percy suspected (rightly as it turned out) Rockefeller could not resist getting in the fray. He had known Nixon for many years, probably better than anyone in the Illinois GOP save Everett Dirksen and Les Arends, the House GOP Whip. He had given much financial help to Dick Ogilvie in his run for board president which enabled me to scout just what Ogilvie was up to involving the presidency. Avoiding much interaction with the two masters of grunt conversation, Jim Mack and Tom Drennan, Ogilvie’s henchmen, I wheedled a meeting with Ogilvie in winter 1967 when we both flew together side-by-side in coach class to Washington, he to address a meeting at the Urban Institute and I—well, to do the public’s business for Quaker Oats.

“I think a lot of Rockefeller,” he said in his laconic plain talk. “As a governor, that is. Not as a presidential candidate. He’s too sophisticated; maybe what this country will become but hasn’t yet. His choice, Romney, is the other way. A good governor of Michigan but curiously old-hat. Like the 19th century. It’s the Mormon in him. His billboards when he ran in Michigan read: Fight Crime by Rooting out Moral Rot. Com’on, I’m as moral as the next guy but you’re not running for national Pastor here. Watching him go across the country, as he has, is like watching a duck make love to a football.”

As I sat there nibbling pretzels I tried to imagine Romney making love to a duck but could not.

“They’ll send him on an excursion to Vietnam to become an instant expert but that’s not George the way I know George. I’d rather stick with Dick.”

But all the same, I got his drift. Nixon, he believed, might not win the presidency but he was familiar to Illinoisans at a time when Ogilvie would have to run for governor. Also, with Nixon in the mix, it would keep; the insatiably ambitious Percy from making noises which would be a distraction from the governorship and Dirksen, Percy’s enemy, from making counter-noises. Better to be for Nixon early, get it out of the way, keep Percy’s nose to the grindstone in the Senate, keep Dirksen happy for he would be making what was expected to be one final run for the Senate in 1968. Won’t Rockefeller be angered at Ogilvie’s refusal to go along with Romney?

“Oh he’ll get over it in about a year,” said Ogilvie airily. “Rocky doesn’t hold grudges. Romney doesn’t. The only one who does is Nixon and I don’t want to have him mad at me with his connections.” He meant billionaire eccentric W. Clement Stone who under the old finance laws was giving Nixon millions and who was pledged to give Ogilvie the same.

“What’ll likely happen,” he said as he wolfed down the bad airline breakfast (like me already a rotund figure with a disinterest in exercise, his neck straining against the tight collar of his white shirt) “is this. Rocky will start off saying he’s not interested but supports Romney. Then he’ll send in his most expensive staff—Len Hall to run the campaign, Henry Kissinger to give him foreign policy lessons. It won’t work because especially in foreign affairs, George is all thumbs no matter what Kissinger writes. He sounds like an Old Testament patriarch which is from his Mormonism. But he wants to be liked and he’ll try to mix two sides together. So he’ll get blurred. Then sometime down the road when George starts boring the press or makes a mistake, Rocky will likely come in—very late. Then he’ll pull out. Then he’ll get back in. That’s the nature of the beast.”

Which is exactly what happened down to the “t.” Romney took foreign policy lessons from Kissinger and proved an obtuse student, rather like the comic Jack Benny taking violin lessons from the maestro who despaired of him. Romney took to sending drafts of his foreign policy stuff to Rocky direct and Rocky would end up vying unintentionally with Kissinger. Romney was constitutionally a hawk and Kissinger a dove. Romney would try to blend the two approaches together so that it was mush. He was trying to debut as a fresh, independent voice on Vietnam. It came out a hybrid, neither fish nor fowl. When LBJ first read it, he snapped his fingers and said, “I know what I’ll do! I’ll praise it!” He did which took care of Romney with the Republican base. Romney’s poll numbers went down and Percy called Rocky to try to get him off the Romney horse and for himself. No way. Rocky was solidly for Romney and discouraged anyone else from competing. All the while, Nixon was going around the country, speaking in an informal way and getting press reports that ended up in the back of the papers near the furniture ads.

Percy the supreme courtier, whose daughter Sharon married Jay Rockefeller IV, Nelson’s nephew in summer, 1967, flew to New York and told Rocky, his relative through fortuitous marriage: Can’t you understand? We must get off the Romney horse now! No way, said Rocky. Then the Detroit riots of 1967 started Romney on the upsurge again thanks to his firm handling. Rocky called Percy and said: see? I told you! But Romney’s standings dwindled after that to the point that he was tied with LBJ, who was at a low ebb. If the nation thought the same of Romney as it did LBJ, it was trouble, Percy warned Rocky. Still Rocky held firm.

Experimenting on his own, without Kissinger, but with Travis Cross, his new press secretary who came gratis courtesy of Rocky, Romney started to jiggle around with the rhetoric involving Vietnam. Once he had been a hawk. Now he was not sure we shouldn’t just negotiate and get out. Nobody noticed the slight change in direction until August 31, 1967.

Then in August—the 3lst of 1967—with Romney meeting with Len Hall at his Bloomfield office, Romney’s press guy, Cross (originally a Mark Hatfield staffer whom I very much admired) was delegated to speed Hall to the airport to catch the last available plane. Then Romney went to the Michigan State Fair. One of his grandchildren got lost at the Fair which drove the governor frantic. He directed state troopers to canvass the fairgrounds while he thought he was going to have a stroke. They found the kid riding on a ferris wheel and raced him back to his grandfather.

Romney had one more appearance—a TV taping for a show run by one of his old friends, Lou Gordon, a former Midwest garment manufacturer’s rep, a former legman for Drew Pearson who in his own mind was the foremost Detroit TV interviewer—a man who wanted to become the next Mike Wallace. It was to be the debut of his new show that was to air in Detroit, Boston and Philadelphia. Without the sagacious Travis Cross, Romney…out of breath, slowly recovering from the grandchild incident…was not at his best. Anyhow, he believed (wrongly since Travis Cross was not on hand to correct him) it was not a national show but a local one: no great harm, he believed. Besides it was a terrible show which even Cross should not have approved. Gordon was very much an inflammatory self-publicizing agent rather than journalist. Also on the segment to be aired before his and unbeknownst to him, Gordon interviewed a couple from The Swinger’s Club, a national wife-swapping organization. Then on came the Old Testament prophet…square George Romney.

So Romney shows up and his old buddy Gordon asks him about Vietnam. Romney tries out his new position about us not having to fight communism everywhere and at all points on the globe.

Gordon asks: “Isn’t your position a bit inconsistent with what it was and what do you propose we do now?”

Romney: “Well, you know when I came back from Vietnam, I just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get when you go over to Vietnam. Not only by the generals but also by the diplomatic corps over there and they do a thorough job. And since returning from Vietnam, I’ve gone into the history of Vietnam, all the way back to World War II and before. And as a result, I have changed my mind…in that particular. I no longer believe that it was necessary for us to get involved in South Vietnam to stop Communist aggression.”

Gordon believed the most significant part of the story was Romney’s statement that he would not accept the vice-presidency. The Detroit “New York Times” writer buried the “brainwashing” deep in the text. But the “Times” desk caught the “brainwashing” part and four days after the show was aired, the newspaper came out with a story on page 28 with the headline Romney Asserts He Underwent “Brainwashing” on Vietnam Trip. Gene McCarthy, campaigning for president in New Hampshire came through with the comment of the year, saying “Brainwashing wasn’t needed. For Romney, only a light rinse would do.”

Romney was through. Ogilvie was right. Rocky refused to let Romney of the hook, then after Romney goofed up other things on foreign relations and his poll numbers sank, Rocky came in. Later he withdrew. Finally he came in again. Charles Percy, to the minds of many, the man of the future, had not taken a position on the presidency but no one doubted that he would endorse Rockefeller whose family he had strenuously courted in behalf of his daughter, Sharon and whose lineage seemed to bring security to the once poor Rogers Park native. Many Illinois Republicans wondered if Bob Stuart, my political leader, would follow the inclination of his good friend Percy-- Ogilvie particularly. While Percy dawdled with his endorsement, Ogilvie called me and invited me to his Chicago headquarters.

“I can tell you,” he said, “that I’m not worried so much that Chuck will endorse Rockefeller because the Rockefellers mean more to him than anything else--but if would be bad if Bob Stuart would follow suit. He’s far more influential with the Republican base than is Chuck. Do you have any indication?”

I didn’t but I had urged my boss to come out for Nixon because it was sure his nomination would be inevitable given the disorder in the liberal Republican ranks—from Romney to Rockefeller, then Rockefeller pulling out and then re-entering. But I didn’t know. I knew he read and enjoyed my memos but, after all, he had a distinguished lineage in the Republican party, far more significant than was mine. Then rapidly like two gunshots, Percy came out, as expected, for Rockefeller and Stuart as not-so-expected, for Nixon. When Stuart did, I was given credit but I had no way of knowing what he’d do nor did I make any serious attempt to do any more than write a memo urging the Nixon endorsement. Indeed, I was prepared to support my chief any way he would turn, although I had a sneaking hunch my boss would go for Nixon: loyalty to Percy aside, going for Rockefeller at that late stage would be quixotic.

I am told that Ogilvie took credit with Nixon’s campaign manager John Mitchell for Stuart’s endorsement, trying to make the best of things after Percy toppled for Rocky. And I am told that Ogilvie confided in Mitchell that I was responsible for the decision—which emphatically I was not. According to Jim Mack, Ogilvie’s aide, Ogilvie said, “the Stuart endorsement undercuts Percy’s of Rockefeller in a dramatic way.” I don’t believe that but this is how political mythologies are born. Somehow, as none other than Maurice Stans confided when we were on good terms, my name was written in the Golden Book of Nixonia as being responsible—with consequences coming at a later time, the value of which I have always pondered.

But when Percy came out for Rockefeller and Stuart for Nixon, the cards were still face down. However, without saying anything of significance on Vietnam, Richard Nixon emerged as the prime opponent of LBJ and was nominated at Miami Beach. I looked at Percy toasting Nixon’s victory at the convention and wondered what strange confluence had encouraged him to back the decidedly wrong horse: all worth it because the House of Rockefeller had been joined inseparably with the House of Percy. I wondered why it meant that much to Percy who was a multi-millionaire of his own. But as Georgia Dearborn, a wise old Percy aide confided not long later, “it means more than you or I could possibly understand.”

In between time, with the Democratic convention being held in Chicago in 1968, I got a delegate’s badge and happily bar-hopped from suite to suite at the then Conrad Hilton. I had an almost bi-polar time I had slipping between the various Minnesota factions—the one behind Hubert Humphrey where some of my Democratic friends were…and the one behind Eugene McCarthy where most of my St. John’s fellow graduates were. Sipping iced tea (believe it or not) in a small room adjoining Vice President Humphrey’s suite with my old friend-nemesis Jerry Schaller (the old Democratic publicist who vied with me years earlier when I had the same role with the Republicans), I was startled out of my wits to have someone tickle my ribs in a brusque fashion; wheeling around, I saw the jolly, ruddy face of Himself, Sir Hubert, whom I really hadn’t seen since the days of Wanda the Weather Bunny. “Roeser,” he said, “I count myself very lucky that you turned me down when I wanted to hire you. Right now you’d be cavorting with your old buddy Gene”—meaning McCarthy. No, I said, had I agreed to join you, you would now be president.

We doubled with laughter. Later I slipped out and went to the McCarthy suite just in time to follow him over to the unruly group in Grant Park across the street and hear his famed, “so this is the government in exile” speech. On the way back from that talk, with the cameras following him he made the observation, sadly, that being successful in politics is not unlike being a successful football coach. He paused while I thought that one over.

Then he gave the punch-line. “You have to be smart enough to call the right plays but dumb enough to think it really matters.”

Nihilism was always in the foreground with him, the one trait that turned off so many of his followers with the thought that he really didn’t give a damn.

Suffice-it to say that once Humphrey won the nomination and rallied most of the dissenting forces to his side in the general campaign, the inevitability of election which had assisted Richard Nixon all the way began to melt like a snow-cone in July. His once impressive lead had diminished to a vanishing point. As Humphrey labored to heal his party, Nixon’s ratings in the polls was stuck at the 40% mark. Humphrey began to gain, chipping away at George Wallace’s disaffected blue-collar workers in the big industrial states.

On election night, as I watched at Nixon’s Illinois headquarters, the first returns gave Nixon an early lead but not an insuperable one. The third-party threat by Wallace failed in the Border States and justified Nixon’s strategy of appealing to the periphery—appealing to those states while holding the ones he had carried in 1960. He carried Kentucky,Tennessee, Oklahoma, rolled up big leads in Indiana and Kansas. Wallace took Alabama and Mississippi as expected—later Louisiana, Georgia and Arkansas. Humphrey took the District of Columbia, Connecticut, West Virginia. All eyes then looked to New York.

New York went for Humphrey handsomely—480,000 votes. While Pennsylvania was supposed to be up for grabs, it toppled for Humphrey. But the margins were terribly narrow. That meant it was going to be an all-nighter.

By dawn it was clear Humphrey couldn’t win a pronounced victory but the election could be deadlocked if he could take two of three states—Ohio, New Jersey, Illinois, Texas and California. California had to go for Humphrey to deadlock it. With New Jersey squeaking for Nixon (thanks to Wallace who siphoned off 250,000 votes), Ohio teetered, tottered and fell into Nixon’s column. Then California fell to Nixon by a margin of only 1%, due to a Wallace vote of 7% in Democratic precincts. But Texas went for Humphrey narrowly. Then everybody looked at Illinois.

What put him over the top that November night was Illinois’ 26 electoral votes—votes delivered by a combination of forces: Dick Ogilvie’s foot soldiers intent on winning the governorship, Clem Stone’s mega-millions given in formal ways and covert ways to the benefit of the Republicans in the state, Joe Woods’ campaign for Cook county sheriff again floated by Stone’s many millions: in short the thundering Ogilvie machine that Charlie Barr had warned against and which Billy the Kid had dismissed as inconsequential to governance. But even so, with all that work and money spent in Illinois, with more than 92% of the total popular vote counted, Nixon’s plurality was fewer than 250,000 votes out of 68 million cast, slightly larger than John Kennedy’s 119,000 out of 69 million which also depended on Illinois, marshaled by Richard J. Daley.

1 comment:

  1. Tom, Thanks for all your messages. I was Senator Percy's page in D.C. for the second half of the 1968 Senate session so I knew a good deal of the background about the politics of that year but I appreciate what you added to it. You might like to know that a missionary priest from Wheaton (now in Manila) follows your writing.