Friday, September 21, 2007

Flashback: Hubert Brilliantly Re-Draws His Image to Be Accepted by the Democratic Senate...

...Becoming Liberal Establishmentarian, not Bomb-Thrower. He Spurs His Staff to the Best Constituent Service in Washington. Then He Gets the Scare of His Life—a Republican Who Could Easily Beat Him in the Next Election.

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

A Bid for Acceptance.

After throwing himself on the mercy of the court, apologizing to every Senate member for his brashness, Hubert Humphrey was still an outsider although a penitent one. In desperation he sat down with Sen. Russell Long (D-La.) his old classmate with whom he served on the debating team at Louisiana State and asked Long what he should do.

“Russell and the others, including fellow freshmen like Lyndon Johnson, Bob Kerr and Lyndon Johnson had friends in the South. Muriel and I were very young. We had a young family and we weren’t very social. We didn’t go to a lot of parties and the few we went to weren’t very helpful. We were lonely and bitter. I was particularly bitter at the president [Harry Truman]. Every time I went to the White House, he would spend part of the time telling me what a menace Harry Byrd was to liberal government. Here I took Byrd on—and where were my liberal friends when I took on Byrd and when I was getting beat up?”

For a time Humphrey was so unpopular that even Russell Long, his old colleague, didn’t want to seen helping him. Things got no better—and in fact worse when Humphrey got into a shoving match with Indiana’s Republican Sen. Homer Capehart when Capehart pushed Humphrey out of the Senate’s radio studio in the basement of the Senate Office Building. Capehart insisted Humphrey called him a “S. O. B.” The Senate establishment, Democrats and Republicans, instinctively took Capehart’s side. It even got to Alben Barkley, Truman’s vice president. One day when he strode through the cloakroom in his cups, Barkley (a former majority leader) said in tones Humphrey could hear: “Say, that’s a great thing Minnesota has done for the country. First they sent us thei Ball. Then their Thye. Now their goddamn hindend!”

When Russell Long finally got down to advising Humphrey, he told him that what he must do is to show mastery of detail on some legislation—but not become so cocky about it that he would offend. He said, “there’s a way to show you know everything there is about a bill but not stick your chest out and brag. It’s up to you, Hubert, to find out how to do that.”

Humphrey decided to do it with the 1951 tax bill. He boned up on it by the hour, staying in the office well into the night as the cleaning crew mopped up. He decided that zero in on eliminating so-called corporate loopholes that, he would maintain, cost the government billions of dollars. So he went to the floor and introduced a series of twelve amendments. Immediately he was assailed by two fiscal leaders of the Senate—Georgia’s Walter George (D-Georgia), chairman of Finance and Colorado’s Eugene Milliken, the ranking Republican. But this time Humphrey gritted his teeth and was not just civil but graciously humble, declaring his deferentiality to them but nevertheless engaging in a debate over minutia. Long watched from the sidelines and every so often would give Humphrey a thumbs-up. The result: some of Humphrey’s amendments were accepted—not all but some.

Humphrey made only one mistake when his old cocksure attitude resurfaced. He invited Sen. George to teach him about finance and George agreed: it started as a lovefest but then Humphrey added, unnecessarily, “yes, I welcome the tutorial from the chairman. I’m magna-cum-laude. I can learn. Teach me.” To this Long stood up and gestured with an angry thumbs-down. Fortunately the braggart’s words passed by George and Milliken unnoticed. By the time the debate was complete, George and Millikin both walked over to his desk and congratulated him.

When Long decided Humphrey was on the way to being rehabilitated, Long, who was Hubert’s next door neighbor, took him out walking in their neighborhood late at night. Long said, “Hubert, you’re coming along okay. Now what yhou have to do is to stop going into the Senate’s dining room for lunch but go into the little private dining room in the back where the leaders eat.”

Well, said Humphrey, they don’t like me.

“So what? Go in there anyway and get `em to like you! I’ll be there to try to help along.”

So the next day Hubert went into the private dining room and sat down at the table with the leaders of the Senate, all Democrats—Walter George, Harry Byrd, John Sparkman (Alabama), Burnet Maybank (Maryland). Long recalled that as Hubert sat down and smiled, his hands were trembling. Long then told a joke and Humphrey responded with one that was highly self-derogatory. Everybody roared.

Stirring Up the Staff to High-Powered Service.

No sooner was he gradually being accepted in the Senate, then Humphrey turned his attention to his staff. He addressed all of them early one morning, from the lowest bottom-runger to the top administrative assistant. This is what he said as he paced around:

“I am pleased with your facility in answering the mail and in returning phone calls—but there is much more we should be doing. I want this office to be the world’s best at solving problems for our constituents. That means when someone drops a postcard asking for help, you call them up on the phone, identify yourself and tell them Sen. Humphrey read the postcard and has asked you to call. And then by God I want you to break your [deleted] to get it done. Meg, I want you to look at the mail for me and have one objective. If there is an old lady who needs help, I want you to have me call her—and if I’m not around you call her. The hell with this replying by mail unless you absolutely have to. You can’t imagine what a thrill it is for some of these old people…and young, too…to get a call from either a Senator himself or someone who says the Senator had to go to committee but “asked me to call.”

“At the same time, Darlene your job is to read the weekly newspaper and clip `em. If there is somebody who’s celebrating a 90th birthday in Dundas, Minnesota, I want you to clip it and write a letter for me to him or her. I want everybody who has a baby to get a baby book from HEW, sent with my compliments, right from this office. While she’s looking through the papers, Andy, your job is to follow her up and look for news that we can capitalize on. If a town’s water tower leaks, I want…by God…you to call out there and offer to be of help and see what we can do to get federal aid. Then you keep it in a book by county and town.

“To Neil who’s whose in charge of federal grants. I want you to nail down all the granting agencies and find out where the requests are from Minnesota and get an early indication of when the grants will be decided. And I want you to get over to the press secretary and have the press secretary write releases that Sen. Humphrey announced today that as result of the pressure his office has placed on the government down here, a new post-office is going to be built in Faribault starting next summer.”

He sipped some water. “Now as you know the USDA issues a handbook of agriculture—a beautiful, leather-bound volume entitled `Food’ which tells everything from how to grow it, how to cook it and all the nutrients. Each senator has an option of getting a thousand. I want more than that—I want to get 10,000. The USDA is very stingy with the books and doesn’t like to exceed the quota. But I want 10,000 to be shipped out to every farmer, every expectant mother, every new bride in the state. I know how to get the 10,000—but I’m testing you. How do we get the 10,000?”

Silence. Then there were some suggestions. The office tries to get hold of some assistant secretaries of agriculture and cut a deal. No, said Humphrey, won’t work. Next suggestion. How about if we go to the Government Printing Office and cut a deal? No, said Humphrey, that’s illegal. Next suggestion. They were stumped. Then a kid working in Humphrey’s mailroom raised his hand. Yes, said Humphrey.

“We’re an agricultural state. But Rhode Island isn’t. Not only that but House members get a small allotment—250 for each congressman. We should cut deals with big city congressmen where nobody needs the books. What about Chicago, New York city, Philly, Detroit? We should see if they give us their allotment we do something for them!”

Humphrey leapt up on a chair. “Terrific! There are all kinds of things big city House members want that we can supply. Republican House members with little access to the White House for constituents’ tours want our passes—and we can get enough passes to fill a warehouse! You’re nominated to make deals with all those urban House people. That’s the kind of creative thinking I want!”

When the town hall meeting was over, he jerked a thumb toward his administrative assistant who followed him into his private office.

“I want that kid promoted as soon as you can do it to get him out of the mailroom and into constituent service,” he said. The kid was running Humphrey’s entire constituent service, linking Washington to his three state offices—Minneapolis-St. Paul-Duluth and Rochester--18 months later.

The Fright of His Life in the Next Election.

Humphrey woke up every morning thinking how much time he had left before the drive for reelection would begin. He was elected in 1948 and took office in 1949. By 1954 he would have to face reelection. Although he built the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party from a wretched fragmented group; of eccentrics into a viable political party, Humphrey knew the Republicans had the one person who could defeat him…defeat him easiy, almost by a landslide—and that person was positioned to do it. He was the Republican governor, Luther Youngdahl. Youngdahl was a magnetic, prematurely grey, stunning handsome man, with great bearing and an oracular mien that could very well outdo Humphrey on the stump. He was presidential caliber; an ethically pure, total abstainer with no faults anyone had ever identified: great family man, he made his pledge to never taste liquor or smoke on his twelfth birthday in his Lutheran church, in the presence of his parents and his pastor.

Moreover, Youngdahl was far from a conservative but as liberal as Humphrey and had made a national reputation in cleaning up the mental health facilities that had suffered for years under DFL as well as Republican hands. He toured the mental hospitals, found that some inmates were being put in strait jackets. But a new day was dawning in the treatment of the mentally ill—with drugs not strait-jackets.

Youngdahl spotlighted his reforms, got the legislature to appropriate huge sums, traveled the state and had strait-jacket burnings. Families of the mentally ill had color photographs of him hanging on their walls. Not only was Youngdahl a governmental and public relations marvel but his entire family was involved in the Lutheran church. His brother Reuben was a nationally know pastor of Bethany Lutheran in Minneapolis. Not only that but Youngdahl himself was a near-operatic tenor. Often when he went on the stump, he would talk brilliantly, then swing into song with the crowd joining in. In my first day covering the Iron Range of Minnesota where Finns, Norwegians, Slavs, Lithuanians, Romanians and other mine workers lived, there was a favorite homemade song that chorused from one saloon to another. It went in the miners’ own semi-literate, highly lilting Scandinavian mixed with eastern European broken English:

“Wote fer Loot’er! Wote fer Loot’ter! Wote fer Loot’er Youn-da-ha-dahl! Ve vill poot him in da stat’house, in da stat’house in Zem Paahl!”

This was a man who could write his own ticket for reelection in perpetuity, without worrying about what conservatives thought. He was so confident of himself that when Truman fired Douglas MacArthur…an event that riled up thousands in Minnesota… Gov. Youngdahl wrote the president a letter and released it to the press—saying Truman did the right thing. And there wasn’t a peep out of the conservatives, they were that much in awe of the Republican governor.

For a man with an outward bravado, Humphrey at his core was frightened and insecure about his lack of finesse. Luther Youngdahl was like a 6 foot 4-inch Nordic God who typified the best of Minnesota’s Scandinavian strain. Humphrey was a transplanted 5 foot 10-inch South Dakotan, half Celtic, half Norwegian. He was not particularly affiliated with any church and even if he were, it wouldn’t help him against Youngdahl. Youngdahl could polish off his speeches with singing. Humphrey couldn’t carry a tune.

Lord, said Humphrey to his chief fund-raiser, Ray Ewald, Twin Cities a multi-millionaire dairy owner, I know I can’t beat Youngdahl. I know it.

“Aw sure you can,” said Ewald.

No, Ray, said Humphrey. I am fated to lose to somebody like that. Everything I got I had to fight for. Everything Youngdahl has comes to him by Dame Fortune: his looks, his stature well over 6 feet, his singing voice. I tell you, I’ll wage a good fight but I don’t think I can--.

“Stop that talk,” said Ewald.

But as the time got nearer to reelection, he would confess to his confidant, Russell Long the same thing.

“Hubert,” said Long, “you’re gettin’ yourself sick thinkin’ like that. Cut it out!”

Then one day, the rotund, beaming Ray Ewald bounced into Hubert’s Washington office after flying Northwest from Minneapolis without telling Hubert he was coming.

“The senator’s in committee, Mr. Eward,” said he secretary. “What can we do for you?

Get him out of there as soon as you can, said Ewald. I got news that he must hear!

The ex-mailroom kid, now duked up as top constituent-service officer, wheeled out the door and raced down the hall, just making the elevator before the door slammed shut…then on the first floor raced again, dashing through the traffic like it was an obstacle course, , dodging between orderlies pushing mail carts, zig-zagging around old Sen. Theodore Francis Green of Rhode Island, the 89 year old patriarch with a cane…putting on a last burst of speed to get to the committee room. The minute Hubert saw him from the committee stand…the kid puffing out of breath… he arose and excused himself knowing instinctively that something was up..

“Sir--Mr. Ewald…Mr. Ewald’s here to see you!”

Hubert was 40—reasonably fit--and he and the constituent-service officer ran as fast as their legs could carry them, the kid leading the way joyously…tourists and visitors appalled at seeing them racing down the corridors without dignity…past Theodore Francis Green with his cane, he calling after Hubert to ask what the hell was up…to the elevator and both of them—the boy and Hubert—raced against each other to the office door. The boy won; Hubert stopped, laughing to catch his breath, then burst in.

Hubert didn’t know why Ewald had flown in but it would have to be of overriding political importance since Ewald was terrified of flying.


Next: What Ray Ewald says changes Minnesota history…and that of the Democratic party…indelibly.


  1. Tom,

    Please consider some day taking what you've written for your kids and grandkids and turning it into a book. There's stuff that deserves to have a wider readership.

  2. I agree, Dave. I wish Don Tomas would pen a 'parallel lives' of British and American Statesmen.

  3. Re-Draws Image........ sounds like a notable Chicago area pundit who fell in with the neo-cons......

    ...oh why not, its the "thing" to do these days! Think of the popularity, the ego trip, the accolades, and most people are too ignorant to notice the change.... but then there are some who watched what happened like a hawk
    .... and they squawk... and will keep on squawking.....

  4. These columns should be in a book. It's a history of liberalism that failed (mixed with a midwestern conservative isolationism) and failures always offer lessons.