Friday, August 31, 2007

Flashback: Two Presidential Candidates from the Same State and Their Differences.


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

It so happens I knew extremely well two presidential candidates who figured importantly in U. S. history in the 20th century—one who codified liberalism as it used to be understood…at least so that it was acceptable to me in some aspects....and another who tipped the balance, effectively unseated a sitting president of the United States and fomented the non-patriotic side of the modern Democratic party.

One was a kind of liberal legend who became a multiple candidate for president, serving as a longtime senator: Hubert H. Humphrey. I covered him extensively and later jousted with him as a staffer for the Republicans. The second was a graduate of my college (many years before me) who had been a Benedictine novice, preparing for the priesthood who left the monastery shortly before ordination: Eugene J. McCarthy. I drank, dined and mused with him. He I knew better than Humphrey—but it is fair to say I knew both of them better than I came to know most politicians ever since.

What were the differences between them? The circumstances of birth for one. Humphrey said: “I must say that the Depression left a lasting impression on me. Much of my politics has been conditioned by it.” Hubert Humphrey, born in 1911, the same year as Ronald Reagan, was indelibly affected by the Depression—in a much more drastic sense than was Reagan. The prairie country of South Dakota where Humphrey grew up had been settled by people who were inured to battling natural forces beyond their control. He was born in the bedroom of a three-room apartment above his father’s drugstore in the tiny town of Wallace, S. D. (population: 181). He was named Hubert Horatio Humphrey, Jr. but men as far back as 1843 in his family inversely used either Horatio Hubert or Hubert Horatio. His mother, Christine Sandnes, was the daughter of a Norwegian sea captain and she unashamedly favored him among her other two children.

Humphrey’s maternal ancestors came from Kristiansand, a southern Norwegian seaport. His grandfather, Andrew, worked on Norwegian merchant ships and was captain of one of the first ships to pass through the new Suez Canal. But he wanted to do better and particularly stay at home with his wife and twelve children—so he came to the United States in the 1880s and, following his bent, followed Norwegian settlers to claim a hundred acres of land near Lily, South Dakota where he built them a sod hut.

The future senator’s paternal ancestors had come to the U. S. even earlier—from the British Isles in pre-Revolutionary days. An Elijah Humphrey of Massachusetts served in the Continental army; Mark Humphrey, a great-grandfather married a cousin of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and came to Minnesota in 1855, three years before statehood. The last of his nine children was John Wadsworth Humphrey who settled on a farm north of the Twin Cities and who set out to make his farm the showplace of the upper Midwest. His son, Hubert, Sr. broke with farming, went to Drew School of Pharmacy in Minneapolis and went to work in a drugstore in Lily, S. D. where he met Christine Sannes. Her father was delighted when she announced that she was engaged because he feared she would marry a Swede, a nationality he felt was distinctly beneath them. Hubert, Sr. and Christine his wife, moved to Wallace, S. D. where they bought their first drugstore and then Doland, a town of 550. Hubert, Sr. was an impractical dreamer and reader. His wife once grew angry at him and dumped a crate of books he bought (when he should have purchased more necessary supplies) into the Minnesota river.

Humphrey told me about “Dad Humphrey” who imbued him with liberalism—reading to his children William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech and Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points. The Humphreys were technically Lutheran but were far more concerned with the social gospel ala Bryan—trying to make life on earth fair and just rather than sticking their nose into theological tracts.

Hubert was called “Pinky” by his mother because of his fair complexion (he was called “pink” later for his liberal political coloration but his legislation to abolish the Communist party ended that speculation). He was seemingly born with a love of the limelight; also a yen to negotiate schoolyard battles. He was in a hurry from the outset, called by one teacher “Hurrying Hubert” because he would bound up the stairs two at a time even when he wasn’t late. He was naturally a bright child (not so much a scholar as his father who loved ideas) but the more practical type. In high school he got all A’s except for a B in Latin and B+ in music. He was the star of the high school debating team.

He told me one time that the most meaningful day in his life was when on Armistice Day, 1932 he was hunting pheasants when the first serious dust storm hit eastern South Dakota. “The sun was blackened out and all you could see was a small, shining disk which was the sun. The heat was terrible and the dust was everywhere. The wells ran dry and people bought bottled water. Then the grasshoppers came, millions of them it seemed like and they even ate the paint off our houses. I thought it was the end of the world.”

The Depression meant that people lost their land and their houses. Homes had to be sold to cover debts. He came home from school one day and found his parents standing together in their orchard and his mother was weeping. There was another man there. His father told him that they would have to sell their house. “And I seemed to learn then, that no matter how competent my father was or good my mother, they could be wrecked by forces over which we had no control.”

That was the day, Humphrey told me, that he vowed to harness a force to fight back against these natural elements—to provide for people who were wiped out. That force was to be, in his estimation, the federal government.


Five years after the birth of Hubert Humphrey, in a small town 150 miles due east—a town named Watkins (population: 760) in Meeker county, a town and county I know very well (which I covered as a young newsman) —Eugene McCarthy was born. Thought of as an Irishman, McCarthy was really not. He was more like his mother, Anna Baden, a brooding, reflective German whose parents were from Catholic Bavaria who came with the surge of Germans to farm in Minnesota after the Civil War. His father, Michael, was a long, lanky dark-haired Irishman, who farmed and did well at it. So well, in fact, that he paid for a huge stained glass window for their church of a haloed saint kneeling, his face uplifted to sunlight. Towering over the town only slightly smaller than the water tower St. Anthony’s church…huge as many are in that heavily Catholic area compared to the size of the town…standing, next to a red-brick school building where Eugene McCarthy went to grade school that was taught by strict German nuns.

And so here’s one contrast. First Humphrey:

The kid Hubert Humphrey was a hustler, fast-moving, a negotiator, who was emotionally destroyed by the dust storms and Depression and vowed to harness a force to fight them—the federal government. He went to the University of Minnesota in September, 1929 to join his older brother Ralph. But then both of Doland’s banks failed, bankrupt farmers were bringing in milk, eggs and butter to barter for drugs and the Humphrey drugstore was wallowing in debt. Hubert had to quit and come home to help out in the middle of his sophomore year. Beneath his exterior optimism was a streak of insecurity and a fear that forces beyond his control could darken his world. Humphrey once told me, “I saw what happens when there’s no money and no crops and when the drought hits. Even now when I see tight money and the Fed raising the discount rate and the prime rate, I’m rightly suspicious of the manipulators of money. One of the reasons I thought so much of FDR is because he was the first president in my lifetime to challenge the power of those money-changers.”

Now McCarthy. A moderately wealthy farm kid:

McCarthy was a serious, reclusive, non-political kid, born to a family serious about Catholicism. He would devour the Harvard Classics, owned by his mother’s oldest sister who lived next door. While his brother and great rival Austin read the comics, McCarthy would devour Plato, Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas and think deeply about them.

He was powerfully good—almost too good for a kid. Never any trouble. Gene went to nearby St. John’s prep school, a Benedictine academy attached to St. John’s University, 25 miles north of Watkins which meant he had to board there. It was the adjunct to the college where I went. Kids were regimented there and many of them went on to become priests. When Gene spent the summers in Watkins, he drove an old Hudson car making deliveries for a grocer. Other kids in the summers occasionally sneaked a cigarette, once in a while boozed and even tried to fool around with the town’s floozies. Not Gene. He was destined for higher things, his mother said. Silent, thoughtful, McCarthy was somewhat like his father, Mike.

Mike was a strong Republican and Gene was at that time as well. Mike had been the town’s postmaster but got fired when Woodrow Wilson’s Democrats came in. Then he turned to the livestock business for a living and did pretty well. Mike was ornery, never forgetting a fancied insult with a knack of making fun of his enemies that would drive some of them to the point of threatening to beat him up. Mike never forgot a slight. That trait dominated Gene McCarthy. Mike never was self-deprecating; neither was Gene. But they were different, too. Gene, a natural athlete loved baseball; Mike thought sports a waste of time. One summer after high school, Gene signed up as a semi-pro and went to northern Minnesota to play for a pittance. Mike scoffed. Gene suffered a ruptured appendix and had to come home. Mike said, good—a waste of time anyways. But Gene played baseball in summers at Watkins and was a very good first baseman on the St. John’s prep team.

While Hubert Humphrey was comforting his parents for having to sell their house, McCarthy—the scion of a moderate but comfortable income—was learning about Benedict and one of his mottos, “Keep death daily before your eyes.” St. John’s, where I went to school (not at the same time but in the same conservative German era as McCarthy) is situated in the middle of 2,400 acres of woods and two lakes, laid out like the Bavarian abbey of Metten which sent monks to form St. Vincent’s monastery in Pennsylvania and from there to Minnesota in 1857. It’s the oldest college in the state. When I went there as when Gene did much earlier, you heard about Benedict as if he had only recently died (he founded the Order in 529). When Gene went there the abbey was dominated by an early architect of liturgical renewal—Father Virgil Michel OSB.

Virgil (as he is still called around there although he died very early, in his 40s in 1938) was a living antecedent of Vatican II. When Gene went to St. John’s, Virgil Michel ran the place: spoke of vernacular in the liturgy, of social justice. When I went there, he had been dead six years and a counterbalance was setting in. I count myself lucky that I gleaned some of the pre-Vatican II stuff from Virgil’s inheritors but also the traditionalism of Virgil’s great counter-balancer, Father Ernest Kilzer OSB whom Gene never had a lot to do with since he was a Virgil disciple.

So while young Humphrey was vowing to work for a bigger federal government to stave off natural disasters and take care of people from cradle to the grave, Gene was poring over “Rerum Novarum,” the encyclical of Leo XIII and “Quadragesimo Anno,” a refinement of “Rerum” published 40 years later by Pius XI. Virgil took the encyclicals and spun up a social gospel which Gene ate up. I was taught by Ernie who stuck to the text and didn’t depart in flights of liberal fantasy. Ernie told me once: “I think Virgil was great but he went off the deep end, tied liberalism to Catholicism and took Gene and a lot of others with him.”

Humphrey the poor boy (not very interested in religion) who had to drop out of school (he returned much later) and had a fear of uncontrollable events which he wanted to allay with government…and McCarthy who was afraid of very little but tied Catholicism indissolubly to the liberal Democratic party with the feeling that virtue depended on implementing the outlines of the Popes’ social dogmas to politics. They were to meet later and clash in a fight that changed the course of the nation and their party.

More next time.

1 comment:

  1. ...these two great Democrats, Humphrey and McCarthy.

    I hope you will explain McCarthy's meltdown.

    And why intellectually superior candidates fail when in a political contest with clearly inferior candicates.