Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Flashback: Humphrey and McCarthy—Their Contrasting Lives Detailed. With Wife’s Help, Hubert Graduates “Cum Laude” in 1939; McCarthy Teaches in Mandan and Ponders Career—Benedictine Priesthood or Marriage? Then GI-Style Monastic Training...


[More than fifty years of politics written for my kids and grandchildren].

Humphrey Making Up for Lost Time.

Hubert Humphrey arrived in Minnesota from South Dakota in 1937 flat broke, twenty-six, married but excited at returning as a late-student to the University of Minnesota, seeking a degree in political science. Muriel got a $50 a week job as a bookkeeper with a Minneapolis investment firm and Humphrey dug into his studies. He found part-time work as a pharmacist. All the while, he got straight A’s, won a Big Ten debating championship and satisfied the requirements for a bachelor’s degree in only two years, graduating “magna cum laude” in June, 1939. At the U of M, Humphrey met people who would be his longtime allies: a professor, Dr. Evron Kirkpatrick (married to a bright scholar, Jeane who was later to leave the Democrats when they became too liberal and serve as UN ambassador)…Orville Freeman, a future governor of Minnesota and Arthur Naftalin who would be one of Hubert’s closest advisers and become mayor of Minneapolis succeeding Humphrey.

Hubert had his eye on a Ph.D and a future teaching career from which he wanted to veer to become an elected official. He applied for a fellowship for the 1939-40 year at a number of schools and was accepted by Louisiana State. They moved to Baton Rouge; Muriel made sandwiches which Hubert sold to his fellow students for a dime each. One month they had to sell their refrigerator to pay the rent. “Let me say, going without refrigeration for a month in Baton Rouge meant we had to eat soggy cornflakes for almost all meals,” he told me. His thesis, “The Philosophy of the New Deal” got him a master’s degree and Phi Beta Kappa. He landed on the LSU debating team with Russell Long, son of Huey. He and Long (surprisingly) took the negative side of the question, “Should the U. S. go to the aid of Great Britain in the war in Europe”—challenging an Oxford University team, but not too much attention should be paid to side they took. “We had to take that position,” he told me years later, “because the Englishmen from Oxford had, understandably, demanded the affirmative. Russell [Long] and I didn’t care; we were in it for the experience.”

In June, 1940 Hubert and Muriel returned to Minnesota where he dug in to get his Ph.D. Muriel got her old bookkeeping job back; Orv Freeman, Humphrey’s school chum, was a lawyer and was rather flush for the times—loaning Humphrey enough money to buy a car. Having to get a loan from a buddy who was doing better than he was galled the hell out of Hubert. He wondered about the advisability of scrimping to get a Ph.D. When he would get it, what then? He wanted to be a politician, anyhow, not a teacher. About that time he landed a summer job conducting a political science seminar for high school teachers sponsored by the WPA. He left it reluctantly to go back to Ph.D studies but he decided, he told me, “the hell with it. I’ve been scrimping too long.” So in 1941 he took his first full-time job since he left Huron, S. D.—a $150 a month teaching supervisor for the WPA’s Workers Education Service. Polishing the apple with his friendships, he made his way up the federal ladder to become regional director of the War Manpower Commission.

Here we come to a point where I am frankly bemused. Humphrey was a passionate follower of FDR and an advocate of the U. S. joining the war. But he fought like a tiger against being drafted—and while he never admitted it to me, I don’t doubt he used some of his early political connections to avoid the draft. Later it would come up as an issue. He was married but they had no kids. Perhaps, having known Humphrey, he could have stretched his job with the War Manpower Commission as “essential”—but that would be a great stretch. At any rate he never served. (Neither did McCarthy).

McCarthy Ponders the Monastic Life.

It could be said that hurrying Hubert Humphrey…trying to catch up for years he had lost away from studies, helping his Dad in Huron, S. D….was not pondering overlong about philosophical and theological questions as was Eugene McCarthy during the same period. With a wife to support, a refrigerator conking out in Louisiana heat, hustling Muriel’s sandwiches to fellow students, writing a master’s thesis, serving on the debating team Hubert told me sometimes he felt he would collapse: but the joy of finally doing what he wanted to do—and Muriel’s love—kept him going.

McCarthy didn’t have such constraints. He took a teaching job at Mandan, N. D. in September, 1938 where he was hired as an English teacher and head of the English department. This ruffled the feathers of a young teacher who had come to Mandan two years earlier, Abigail Quigley. A young woman who could be described as a “looker,” Abigail was from Wabasha, Minn. in the southeastern part of Minnesota, of an Irish Catholic family that accepted the New Deal dogma straight. She was equipped to teach English and German, had graduated from the highly influential St. Catherine’s college in St. Paul Phi Beta Kappa. She won a college prize writing fiction. Abigail resented McCarthy coming to the school because he was promoted over her (she was a year older than he) and nabbed the English assignment which meant she had to keep on teaching German (a lot of families in Mandan spoke German principally).

She was amazed at her new English Department chairman for two reasons. First, her female colleagues told her he looked like the movie actor Robert Taylor (she disagreed, but told me later she allowed he was handsome enough). Second, she didn’t like his diffidence. The teachers were sitting around in the faculty room not long after he got there, gabbing. In comes McCarthy, picks up a cup of coffee, sits down, listens to them and ambled out. One of the girls said after he left, “well—ex-cuse me!” Abigail remembered thinking: a rather strange duck.

The strange duck was rather unhappy—not because he thought twice about Abigail but because he really didn’t know what his vocation would be. Raphael Thuente, his buddy who lived in the same Mandan rooming house, would notice McCarthy’s light on in his room well into the morning—but he’d still be at 6:15 a.m. Mass. He grew privately rather angry at some of the German kids. He was trying to read a poem to them, “Ode to a Waterfall,” when they started giggling and gabbing in German. He slammed the book shut and walked out, down the hall and then came back. He asked his buddy Thuente to do only one thing—give him advice on buying a car. Thuente located a green 1937 Chevvy with only 4,000 miles on it in Bismarck, across the Missouri river from Mandan. He had the hardest time getting McCarthy to part with the $350 the car lot owner wanted. “Listen,” said Thuente, “it’s a bargain! Take it.” McCarthy finally coughed up the money. Ten years later when he and Thuente were teaching in St. Paul—with prospects markedly better—McCarthy was driving the same car.

Thuente said, “Out of boredom, nothing else, McCarthy then asked Abigail out for a date. I thought the walls would cave in!” They drove to Bismarck, N. D. to catch a movie but both of them thought it was stupid so they walked out of the show fifteen minutes later.

This must have been the most un-passionate courtship in political history. What really got them interested in each other was that McCarthy had been thinking of working in a rural cooperative, with rules families had to follow much like the ideal of St. Benedict who was big on rural life…and she eagerly got involved in that idea as a young liberal idealist. All the time he was far more religious than Abigail, the only one she knew who went to Mass every weekday morning. She then decided he would be a saint (an idea she thoroughly dispossessed herself of much-much later when they separated after his presidential run). Well, anyhow, he asked her to marry him and she accepted.

But they didn’t have enough money to get married. When Abigail told me that much-much later, I doubted it. If you want to get married you find a way—look at Hubert and Muriel. But McCarthy and Abigail felt they couldn’t—or maybe McCarthy did. He landed a job the next year teaching economics at St. John’s, his alma mater—a big step up since it was a university job. She got a job teaching English in Litchfield, Minnesota—not far away. They got together for dates but marriage seemed vaguer and vaguer…until--.

Until McCarthy told her he had decided to become a Benedictine monk at St. John’s. She took it harder than she thought she would. They still saw each other until he entered the novitiate at St. John’s in the fall of 1942 (that settled whether or not he’d be drafted for World War II: he would not). In those years the novitiate was far more than a seminary. You donned a religious habit, you are given a religious name (McCarthy’s was Frater Conan). For a full year you stayed away from all current events, you practiced silence like the Trappists unless you were asked a question (McCarthy thought he could handle that: he was never a gabby one); all outside influences were stripped away and in addition to your studies you did physical work—like tapping maple trees for syrup, shoveling the walks with a hand shovel, sacristan for the altars, scrubbing toilets--consonant with Benedict’s dictum “Ora et Labora”—Work and Pray.

McCarthy thought the novitiate would also give him a chance to rejoin the old seminars run by Fr. Godfrey Diekmann OSB, the monk who was compiling a vivid new theory about humans being divine—and Diekmann had succeeded Virgil Michel OSB, who died at age 48, as editor of “Orate Fratres.” Diekmann was the man who—compared to everyone else across the country in the liturgical revival movement—was truly radical. His radicality and his mesmerizing lectures, seemed to transform St. John’s theology from one controlled by quiet, bewhiskered monks who revered the authoritarian Constantine Church to advocates of reflexive political liberalism—and later to instinctive anti-Americanism…in favor of peace-peace-peace…all simmering in a broth of religious fervor.

McCarthy hoped to savor this once again as he had an undergraduate—but as a novice now he was subject to non-intellectual authoritarianism of the old days. The novitiate was no place for deep thinking and the novice master was a tough old German, ultra-conservative, Fr. Basil Stegmann, OSB who felt the popes weren’t tough enough.. He took the measure of young Frater Conan and the rumor around the Abbey was, he said to himself: here’s a smart Irishman, with the highest academic average ever to hit St. John’s, a high school principal at age 19, a good athlete, an intellectual. The Abbot hired Basil to generate humility in the novices—and by God he was good at it.

So Gene’s hopes were shattered with Basil (tough as nails, I knew him well; his reputation was that of a tyrant but he wasn’t that. He was sort of a Basic Training Drill Instructor, to beat the ego and sublimate the candidate to humility). After you made it through his tough drill and were ordained, he was a human being to you again (he was tough on Virgil Michel and Godfrey who took it and later laughed about those days with old man Basil).

Tough old Basil Stegmann OSB said this to Frater Conan:

“Listen, if you think we’re going to fall all over you as they did when you were an undergraduate here, forget it. Benedict wouldn’t have stood for it, the Abbot won’t and I won’t either.. You’re going to tap maple trees until your arms ache and after that work in the carpenter shop. If you think you’re here to write books or be a great professor, think again—and decide to leave.”

It was par for the course—Basil did this to everybody and most of them took it on the chin and came up smiling. Not Gene McCarthy. He wanted to master the novitiate but he also wanted—he told me—to kill Basil Stegmann. I know exactly what he meant. I never had a vocation but even if I had, I’d be out of there in two days…and before I’d leave I’d pull old Basil’s cowl and say, “Farewell, Charlie.”

McCarthy stuck it out for nine long months. How did he do it? “God,” he told me, “it was a premonition of Hell.”

1 comment:

  1. That church photo is so displeasing and ugly that I thought the concrete abstraction belonged in the Skokie Sculpture Park on McCormick Road!