Monday, September 17, 2007

Flashback: 1948—Humphrey Wins the Senate Seat After Gaining National Attention in Civil Rights Speech at the Dem National Convention. In a Much Quieter Drama McCarthy Unseats Republican Devitt for Congress.

[Over 50 years in politics written for my kids and grandchildren].

Humphrey’s Brilliant 10-Minute Civil Rights Convention Speech.

Hubert Humphrey became a national figure before his election to the Senate because of a civil rights speech on the floor of the Democratic convention that caused his party to split forever from its 100-plus years of segregation—and thus changed the course, for all time, of U. S. history. . As such it ranks as one of the most important speeches in U. S. history—not just because of its eloquence but because it ended forever the stain of racism in his party’s presidential nomination process which neither FDR nor Truman had the resolve to end. When he returned to Minneapolis he was a national civil rights hero—and his election to the Senate prompted Harry Truman to carry the state. There are only a handful of times in U. S. history where one speech did so much. Excepting only the Lincoln addresses…the “House Divided.” Gettysburg and the Second Inaugural…one would have to go back to Daniel Webster’s Second Reply to Hayne in 1832 that stated the case against nullification of the Constitution: “liberty and union now and forever one and inseparable.” Humphrey’s magnificent 10-minute speech, delivered impromptu, irrevocably changed his party and its national agenda.

But before that speech, the Humphrey-for-Senate boom was launched in 1947 when AFL president William Green was rocked out of his socks by the Minneapolis mayor’s fighting address at the union’s convention in San Francisco. “He’s got to be our boy to run against Ball,” Green told his aides. The incumbent Minnesota senator was Republican Joseph Ball, highly erratic and little suited for the post. Ball was a shaggy-haired ex-newspaper reporter for the “St. Paul Pioneer Press” who with one story elected Harold Stassen governor, a fact that Stassen never forgot. To set the stage where Humphrey rose to defeat Ball, you must listen to some Minnesota history.

Stassen had been running as the underdog against Farmer-Labor governor Elmer Benson in 1938, a fiery radical tied to the Communists. Benson was speaking at a rural meeting in Red Lake Falls, Minn. when a man interrupted him to ask if it were true that Benson was a communist—a charge that had floated around the state because of Benson’s radical agrarian program. Benson shouted to the audience, “who is that man?” “I’ll tell you who I am,” said the interrupter, “I am Rev. Paul Berdorf, a Lutheran pastor.” Benson exploded: “If you really believed in Christian principles you wouldn’t come to a meeting like this and try to disrupt it. You preachers aren’t going to get away with this sort of thing in this campaign!”

A wildly impolitic thing to say even now—but then in heavily Lutheran Minnesota, it was fatal.

The only reporter who was in the audience was Joe Ball of the “St. Paul Pioneer-Press.” . He wrote the story that got big headlines across the state, summarizing “if Gov. Benson can get reelected after the show he put on in Red Lake Falls…then all the rules by which political candidates and parties have guided themselves in the past does not mean a thing today.” which was hailed by Stassen as “the turning point in the campaign.” Stassen shot the story around the state and said it was the turning point in the campaign. Accordingly whenever he wished he had great access to Gov. Stassen. On the death of Sen. Ernest Lundeen in an air crash, Stassen startled the state by appointing political reporter Ball to the Senate, a choice that was folly. A tall, shaggy-haired, craggy man who spoke slowly, Ball seemed like the reincarnation of Abraham Lincoln to Stassen—and to Ball’s own wife who bored everybody by making the reference over and over.

As an appointed incumbent, Ball ran against a three-man field in 1942, vestiges of the Democrats and Farmer-Laborites, and won heavily. But in the Senate he was erratically unpredictable. Astoundingly he announced he would not vote for Thomas Dewey in 1944 but for FDR. Later, to rectify the gaff, he lurched right. Although a militant member of the newspaper guild, he introduced strict anti-union amendments to the Taft-Harley bill and voted for it. He also voted against the Marshall Plan. Normally, Humphrey calculated, Ball would be duck soup for defeat in 1948 but the Minneapolis mayor made one of the few miscalculations of his life which could have sunk him. He worked against Harry Truman.

After lots of Truman’s miscues—tolerating corruption, lending him to charges that he stood by an administration filled with pro-Red sympathizers, Humphrey became convinced the president could not win election in 1948. While he was putting down vestiges of the Henry Wallace faction in the DFL, Humphrey became very pessimistic about his party winning the presidency again. Not content with running his own campaign for the Senate and waging and internecine battle against pro-Communist Wallaceites that year, he joined with other national liberals (including actor Ronald Reagan) to form Americans for Democratic Action (ADA). Then he contrived with ADA’s Jimmy Roosevelt, FDR’s son, to try to draft Gen. Dwight Eisenhower to run for president as a Democrat, a move which had Reagan’s support as well. AFL president Green had yet another idea. Why didn’t Humphrey pass up the chance to run for the Senate and get labor’s endorsement to run as vice president and go to the Philadelphia convention as an anti-Trumanite who, if he failed to dislodge Truman for Ike, could end up running for vice president with Truman? Humphrey who had no limit to his ambition was interested.

A heady time for Hubert. He sent an emissary, Minnesotan Mrs. Eugenie Anderson, wife of the puffed wheat-puffed rice innovation her husband sold to Quaker Oats for many millions to Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt at Hyde Park who asked her whether being defeated for vice president in 1920 was a terrible career blow for FDR. Mrs. Roosevelt said no, running for vice president got her husband a separate constituency from his cousin (and her uncle) Theodore Roosevelt. Then Eisenhower announced that by no means would he entertain the idea of running for president. The ADA decided instead to concentrate on getting a strong civil rights plank into the Democratic platform—and Humphrey volunteered as point-man for the job. He didn’t announce his support for Truman’s reelection until July 11, three days before the Democratic national convention.

Humphrey went to the convention with the Minnesota delegation and announced that the bland, innocuous civil rights plank the regulars had contrived to placate both sides would not be acceptable to him. Everybody—including some of his own supporters—shuddered. The nerve of the brash guy! The suggested plank which came out from the platform committee with the tacit support of Harry Truman who wanted to avoid division, was a version of the 1944 plank which Humphrey denounced as “a sellout to states’ rights over human rights.” Senate Majority Leader Scott Lucas of Illinois called him “a pipsqueak.” It was decided that Humphrey would make a speech for the minority version of the platform—although most, including Humphrey himself, felt the minority version couldn’t be accepted. Many told Humphrey he was cutting his throat with party regulars and would be responsible for loss of the election in 1948 if the South walked out.

Before agreeing to make the speech, Humphrey sat down with his father who was a delegate from South Dakota. Dad Humphrey told him it was a foolhardy thing to do. But then looking at young Hubert closely, he said: “You really feel strongly about this don’t you?” Humphrey’s eyes welled with tears; he couldn’t answer since he was struggling and nodded. “Then,” said Dad Humphrey, “by God go ahead and do it!”

At the convention, Humphrey gave what in the minds of many has been viewed as the equal of William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech but is far more important than that. Bryan’s speech was good rhetoric; Humphrey’s changed the country forever in the same way Webster’s galvanized anti-nullification in 1832. I heard and saw the Humphrey speech on my family’s old black-and-white TV set. Startlingly, the speech lasted only ten minutes—a record in brevity for Humphrey. The capstone was the twenty-seven word sentence that became the most quoted-line he ever uttered:

“The time has arrived for the Democratic party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights!”

The speech was interrupted by applause 27 times. When he finished, a demonstration erupted that lasted almost as long as the speech. When the demonstration ended, the delegates voted down a Southern-sponsored states’ rights conservative minority report. Then convention chairman Sam Rayburn called for a vote on the minority plank Humphrey had spoken in favor of, but called it “the Biemiller resolution” (named after Wisconsin platform member Andrew Biemiller, a former congressman who was full-time lobbyist for the CIO. What exactly was the Biemiller resolution? .

There was roiling confusion in the convention—and in the Illinois delegation, Sen. Paul Douglas and Jack Arvey feared that Rayburn, a southerner, was trying to slip a fast one through. Douglas who stood over six feet tall hoisted Arvey, who weighed only 100 lbs. or so to his shoulders and Arvey demanded to be recognized. Arvey shouted, “Is this the Humphrey resolution?” Rayburn said, “This is the Biemiller resolution!” Arvey blew up and shouted to his party’s Speaker of the House, “Don’t give us any of that stuff! Is this the resolution Mayor Humphrey voted for in committee and spoke for?” Rayburn answered, “I believe it is,” turned to a clerk at his right and confirmed it.

When the roll was called, Humphrey and his Dad were watching a tally sheet convinced there was no chance of getting the needed 617 votes for a majority. Then he conferred with his father, Hubert, Sr., a South Dakota delegate who told him his state was casting its eight votes for the resolution, a good omen. Biemiller’s Wisconsin delegation cast its entire 24 votes for it. The final vote was 651-1/2 for the liberal substitute and 582-1/2 against. Humphrey and his father danced for joy, hugging themselves. But South Carolina’s Governor J. Strom Thurmond then led a walkout of thirty-five southern delegates who later held a rump meeting and formed a new States’ Rights party just as Henry Wallace’s supporters had formed the Progressive party on the left. Humphrey had made a lasting impression on national politics—although at the time it was feared by many to be a Pyrrhic victory since it could spell the doom of the Truman candidacy.

By the time Humphrey was in full-swing in the Fall campaign to unseat Joseph Ball, I was back as a student at St. John’s. He came to St. John’s to campaign and I covered him as associate editor of the university newspaper, “The Record.” In his speech to a wildly enthusiastic student and faculty audience (where as one of the campus’ few Republicans I was a solitary onlooker, not participant), Humphrey laid out his campaign. He zeroed in on Ball’s role in passing Taft-Hartley and in opposing the Marshall Plan, capitalized on publicity from the Philadelphia convention. In that campaign for the Senate he traveled more than 31,000 miles by automobile, made 700 speeches. He traveled the state in a 1946 Buick driven by Freddie Gates, a penny arcade owner (and gambler: few knew this) who kept a wheel of Longhorn cheese and a loaf of bread in the back seat so Humphrey wouldn’t have to waste time stopping for meals. In November he beat Ball by 243,693 votes and helped send Eugene McCarthy and three other DFL candidates to Congress (McCarthy never really credited Humphrey with his election).

The frosting on the cake was that largely thanks to Humphrey, Truman won election by two-million votes despite the splinter candidacies of Henry Wallace and Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond. And by winning when ultra-right and ultra-left had abandoned the party gave Truman and the centrists of his party great leverage that lasted until the nomination of George McGovern. Humphrey alone had shaped the future of his party with one short speech and twenty-seven words.

Next—Humphrey goes to the Senate and finds first that he’s an outsider and next that he is despised—when all but two Senators walk out in the middle of his speech.

McCarthy Wins Nomination by 550 Votes and is Elected by the Humphrey, Truman Campaigns.

Eugene McCarthy, until two years earlier Fr. Conan OSB of the St. John’s abbey novitiate, ran for the DFL congressional nomination against a heavily favored John Barrett who had the support of the mammoth St. Paul Trades and Labor Assembly while McCarthy had only the then-small CIO for backing. McCarthy was not relieved of teaching duties and often by evening when he was supposed to campaign, he was tired: he never had much campaign energy. Abigail was ever-present but from the start, McCarthy himself made the decisions—although he was far from a perfect administrator. Abigail complained about his style, telling me later, “He made a lot of decisions on his own that he wouldn’t let me in on. You sometimes wondered what your role was.” To volunteers she was a constant nag whose ideas he tolerated but seldom adopted. Once he followed Ray Devine into a bar on University avenue and handed out his brochures, which triggered loud applause. She was appalled, shouting, “You don’t win elections in beer joints!” He didn’t give her much attention.

In the primary campaign, heavily Catholic and Democratic St. Paul and environs (which made up the 4th congressional district) was engulfed in a kind of religious war. The views of Fr. Godfrey Diekmann OSB (who stayed in constant touch with the candidate and campaign) were at war with those of more orthodox Catholics. In a sense it was an “aggiornamento” that sought a constant warfare against those who clung to the “outdated” church beliefs—which McCarthy whether purposefully or unwittingly was exhibit A. Godfrey’s liturgy cut through centuries of tradition and seemed to embrace an historical Jesus, unmediated by the Church, in which political action in behalf of social justice held sway.

There is little doubt that Humphrey’s emotions in the 4th were on the side of McCarthy since he had the backing of the CIO—but Hubert would not have cried himself to sleep had Barrett won. Frankly Humphrey was a little tired of hearing about Gene’s being a variant of “a Jacques Maritain Catholic (“whatever the hell that is,” he told me much later—but didn’t want to be told, since he was bored) and kept hands off the district except once in a while talking to his friend Bill Carlson. McCarthy relied on volunteers, motivated by progressive Catholic parishes and the CIO as well as students and some professors. He was pushed to provide some help to the McCarthy campaign but out of loyalty to Bill Carlson he didn’t. He was asked to give the campaign an old sound truck but refused. Without a sound truck, there was no one to herald Gene’s imminent arrival in his rickety 1937 Chevrolet that he owned before he went to the monastery (and which he tried to palm off on Abigail as a gift when he left, which she refused). On the front seat, McCarthy had a stack of mimeographed campaign leaflets entitled “The People’s Voice.” He had a leaky window on the right side that sent the wind whistling through it which the heater vainly tried to fight.

He was so boring and academic a speaker two volunteers—Martin Haley, a later friend of mine and Joe Dillon (later a St. Paul mayor) who went to all his speeches to swell the crowd, groaned and put their heads in their hands. Nothing they told him seemed to help. One volunteer—later to become 4th district congressman himself, Joseph Karth—fell sound asleep and had to be roused after the meeting. Abigail tried to help but could do nothing with him.

On primary election night, the McCarthys waited for the election returns at Ray Devine’s house (he was the dissident member of the Trades and Labor Assembly). When the news first came in, there was a firm report that Barrett had won. Abigail groaned because to her it meant Gene’s chairmanship of sociology was in doubt since he had made himself anathema, in her view, to St. Thomas College’s principal donor I. A. O’Shaughnessy who would now give all his dough to Notre Dame (that was her woeful prediction: actually he gave some to St. Thomas and much more to Notre Dame). When the radio said that Barrett was ahead by 5,000 with only about 3,000 votes left to be counted—almost sure defeat—one of McCarthy’s volunteers, Elizabeth Dunn suggested they say the rosary. Since everyone was Catholic and had nothing else to do they agreed including Gene. The time would come when the more sophisticated McCarthy backers would snicker at that suggestion—but that was in the future.

When they were on the third decade of the Joyful Mysteries (the birth of Christ), the phone rang and Dunn answered while everyone else was praying. It was Tony Blaha, a McCarthy volunteer at the courthouse who said, “I got good news!” Dunn said, “don’t tell it to me, tell it to Gene!” When Gene took the call, Blaha told him there had been a mix-up and they had counted the 11th ward—(Barrett stronghold)—twice. McCarthy announced it. They finished the rosary and drove down to DFL headquarters at the Lowry Hotel. Twice they stopped to pick up newspapers: one edition said Barrett won, another McCarthy. By the time they got to the Lowry, he was ahead and a few lawyer volunteered to watch his interest in the canvass—which he won by 550 votes. Barrett wanted a recount but the Trades and Labor Assembly wouldn’t hear of it. They didn’t want any further division because they wanted unity to beat Ed Devitt in the general election. Humphrey called up to congratulate him—and then said he would donate the old sound truck to herald the candidate’s future coming.

After he became the Democratic nominee, St. Thomas College allowed him to take an official leave and Abigail arranged for others—not her—to give McCarthy hell about his boring speeches. One night Gene came over to Ray Devine’s house and as he usually did stretched out on the davenport, kicked his shoes off and listened, mumbling assent or dissent. That’s when they told him: “Gene, goddammit you’re talking over everybody’s head!” They knew they made an impression when he raised up on one elbow and then sat fully up as they dished it out to him.. From that time on, he gradually changed---talking less like a teacher and employing some humor.

The big weapon that McCarthy had in the general campaign was Devitt’s vote for Taft-Hartley, which rang hollow in that heavily Democratic and union labor district. McCarthy also was helped by a heavy avalanche of Democratic votes for Hubert for the Senate—and at the tag end of the campaign, for Harry Truman. By 9:30 p.m. on election night, it was clear that McCarthy was elected—by 24,902 votes (he estimated he might win by 5,000).

One way to get McCarthy’s dander up many years later which I used on occasion was to suggest that he won because of Hubert (which was true since Devitt was a much better campaigner). But that is not to underestimate McCarthy who sort of grew on people, like moss on a tree. His campaign spent $5,000---much less than Devitt’s.

Before the McCarthys left for Washington and his then handsome $12,500 salary, he drove his 1937 Chevrolet with the cracked front window to Ray Devine’s house and said—“it’s yours. Never mind paying me.” Devine gave him a lift to a nearby dealership where he bought a new Nash. In a Minneapolis “Star” interview just before he left for Washington, he told the reporter, a good-looking, raven-haired Jewish liberal, Geri Hoffner (who would marry a multi-millionaire and become very close to Humphrey triggering rumors about their closeness and ultimately Minnesota’s Democratic National Committeewoman), “There are altogether too many technicians in Washington”—adding “I guess I agree with Plato that it’s the philosopher who should rule.”

Later as a very rich Minneapolis matron, the wife of Burton Joseph, she told me: “I thought then and think now—he’s a very strange duck. If this guy could win an election with that heavily understated manner, anybody could. I always marveled as how hard Hubert works and how lackadaisical Gene seems to be—both in the same profession and all.”

The statement, “I guess I agree with Plato that it’s the philosopher who should rule,” undoubtedly pleased Fr. Godfrey Diekmann OSB who read it in the abbey library at St. John’s. Diekmann’s own once firm reliance on a belief as a young cleric in a Church that was once the most self-confident, solid and enduring institutions in the world to a personalist ego-assertion creed—against most of institutional history, laws and creeds—was changing to a conversation (if not acceptance) with secularists about “co-marital relationships” and sexual therapy in non-marital encounters. It would lead Godfrey to make such remarks as “we must value the ancient truths but always test them in the present and examine to see how they serve in the future”—a kind of man-centered spiritual relativism.

In essence it was the substitution of the imperial self for a Catholic tradition that respected the continuity of generations and what the church historian Dr. James Hitchcock has described as the modern prayer of the Pharisee: “Thank God I am not like the rest of men—racists, war-mongers, male chauvinists. I am on the mailing list of dozens of liberal organizations. I campaign for the right candidates. I have walked labor and peace picket lines and written letters to the newspapers.” The old model of ecclesiastical leadership was fast becoming obsolete (at St. John’s and in the mind of its most distinguished graduate)—supplanted by something known as “social justice” where the egocentric exercise of moral authority was not just possible but warranted. Many of my old classmates made the same trek—most of them in the footsteps of Gene McCarthy.

Next: Gene uses his devastating ironic wit to ingratiate himself with the House majority leader and to tease a first-term colleague so he gets into trouble.

1 comment:

  1. Am I mistaken, but is it correct that Humphrey was the first Democrat elected to the US Senate from Minnesota? I think that Republican Senators dominated until his ascendancy. As such, his election was a watershed for the DFL.