Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Flashback: Humphrey Starts Off as an Outsider in the Senate, Becomes a Firebrand and is Humiliated by His Peers for Which He Apologizes…McCarthy Enters the House with Cynicism, Dry Wit and Needling of Others.

[Memoirs of more than fifty years in politics for my kids and grandchildren].

In 1949 Hubert Humphrey became the first Democratic-Farmer-Labor U. S. senator in Minnesota history. There were three Democratic senators before him…far earlier: in fact two were elected right after statehood in 1858-- Henry Mower Rice (1858-63) and James Shields (1858-59). Charles A. Towne made it from 1900-01. All the rest were either Republicans or Farmer-Laborites. The state’s populists were divided between the Democrats and the Farmer-Laborites which resulted in Republicans being elected for almost a century. Today Minnesota is still the only state that does not have a Democratic party but what is officially known as the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party (DFL).

I See My First President.

In October, 1948, as a 20-year-old sophomore at St. John’s I hitch-hiked with two Democratic buddies, Harry Arth and Art Hessburg, the 75 miles to Minneapolis to see a president of the United States, Harry Truman, at a DFL rally (we stayed at a Hessburg’s parents’ St. Paul home that night). We all wanted to see a president of the United States (including me even if I didn’t agree with him). We went to Minneapolis Auditorium that chilly night and had no trouble getting in…no guards, no real police presence (outside of a few cops snoozing in a police car outside).

The rally was to honor Harry Truman, then all but counted out for election. In order to swell the crowd, Humphrey had scoured the highways and byways to fill the place and it was still one third empty. In desperation he called one of his pals who co-founded Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) to add some lift to the crowd. He was Hollywood screen actor Ronald Reagan who was emcee, who introduced Humphrey (with Humphrey taking the honors of introducing President Truman). So that night instead of seeing just one president, we saw two as well as a future vice-president who came very close to becoming president.

Many years later after Truman had become (improbably) an icon, Humphrey a national figure and Reagan called a great president, I am told the number of people who claimed to have been in the Auditorium that very night has swelled to the point where the dingy place could never possibly have held them all—almost like the number of old geezers who saw Babe Ruth point at the fence before he hit a home run at Wrigley Field. But of the three after election day 1948, Truman was certainly the most self-satisfied since the media prognosticators had counted him out, Humphrey was the most ebullient and Reagan probably the most thoughtful—thoughtful because he had long entertained doubts about liberalism. Before Truman’s 1949-51 term was over, he would be on the track to conservatism, volunteering to head “Democrats for Nixon” in 1950, “Democrats for Eisenhower” in 1952 and making the switch to conservative Republican by 1964 to campaign for Barry Goldwater.

Humphrey’s ebullience, of course, never changed. Originally regarded as a dangerous leftwing zealot by some fellow party members, he was in fact a centrist and one of the last leaders of the old anti-communist centrist factions of the Democrats—please God may they return soon.

People forget how financially hard-up Hubert was when he came to the Senate. He had resigned as Minneapolis mayor shortly after election and had no income, relatively speaking, until early January, 1949. He sold his house and came to Washington to find one, looking at 125 houses in eight days, finally deciding with Muriel on one in Chevy Chase, Maryland for $28,000. He used the money from his Minneapolis house as a down payment but still had to borrow from his father—the man he had been borrowing from for decades ($1,100) to pay the moving van before it would release his furniture which sat in a van on a Washington street for two full days. The vacating Republicans from the eightieth congress that they ruled had unceremoniously moved out and so there was nobody with authority to give newly-elected lawmakers interim offices—so Humphrey had to use the offices of lobbyist Paul Porter as a temporary headquarters.

The Humphrey family now included Muriel and their four kids—Nancy (9), Hubert (Skip) 6, Bobby, 4 and Douglas 11 months. President Truman gave the entire Humphrey family—with Dad Humphrey and his mother--a memorable personal White House tour on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve 1949. But aside from that, Hubert found the standoffishness of the Senate on both sides of the aisle distinctly chilly. This was because he was acting chairman of the ADA. Nobody cared for that organization or people associated with it. Conservative Democrats were still smarting from the whipping Hubert gave them on the civil rights issue at the Philadelphia convention and Republicans were siding with the establishment Democrats, feeling that the brash Humphrey was going to disrupt the Senate with his civil rights “demagoguery” as he did his own convention.

No One Wanted to Introduce Hubert Around.

The Senate of 1949 was Democratic, presided over by Vice President Alben Barkley. But Democratic or not, traditionally, a new senator is led into the chamber by his colleague from his state. When Humphrey showed up to sit in the gallery prior to his being sworn in, he was spotted sitting up there but no one would volunteer to bring him down to the chamber and introduce him around. Joe Ball whom he defeated declined—an ungracious act. Humphrey’s soon to be colleague, Republican Ed Thye was not interested and made himself very scarce: very ungentlemanly. Nor were there takers on the Democratic side. The only two who might have done the job—Sen. Paul Douglas (D-Ill.) and Sen. Herbert Lehman (D-N.Y.) were in committee. Others declikned since they had an eye on not alienating the big southern powerbrokers, Harry Byrd (D-Va.) and Dick Russell (D-Ga.). Lyndon Johnson (D-Texas) was too busy brown-nosing Dick Russell and the other conservative Democratic elders—so none other than Sen. Lister Hill (D-Ala.)…a maverick, anti-civil rights but pro-internationalist…did the job and took him around. The press Humphrey got on the first day didn’t help him. “Time” magazine called him a “brash, bustling…hard-working, fast-talking fireball from the Midwest” who was also a “glib, jaunty spellbinder with a `listen, you guys’ approach.”

The bipartisan reaction was very chilly. Hubert listened to his father Dad Humphrey and shut up for a few months. But by March he had enough. Ironically on March 14, when he made his maiden speech (in behalf of a bill to establish a Missouri Valley Authority similar to the TVA) he said Congress was guilty of talking too much and getting too little done. A little ironic coming from the voluble Humphrey.

Sen. Harry Flood Byrd, chairman of Finance, turned in his chair, removed his spectacles and stared steadily at Hubert, then glanced over meaningfully to Sen. Bob Taft (R-Ohio), the uncrowned Senate leader who smiled and shook his head sadly. Humphrey was telling them they talked too much! Afterward Illinois’ Paul Douglas walked over to Hubert and clapped him on the back—which didn’t help either as Douglas was regarded as an impractical dreamer-theorist. But Humphrey didn’t give opprobrium much mind. In June he spoke for seven hours and 46 minutes against an amendment to the Taft-Hartley “reform” bill causing Bob Taft to charge he was conducting a filibuster. No, said Humphrey, “it just takes that much time to analyze one of the one hundred mistakes of the Taft-Hartley Act!” which got Taft’s temper up; the overstatement was typical of Humphrey: far from as “slave labor act” as Humphrey and Truman described it, Taft-Harley has continued to be the major labor management act even today.

In his first year, Humphrey introduced a plan that ultimately became Medicare; he got named rather late in the first year as chairman of a labor and public welfare subcommittee which sent out the first “impacted areas” school aid bill aimed toward federal aid to education. He boosted a FEPC (Fair Employment Practices commission) and said ominously, “if this bill is beaten, it will be our Southern colleagues who will be to blame” which antagonized the conservatives even more. The bill was beaten; Humphrey asked Truman to appoint an FEPC by executive order but Truman refused. Humphrey growled privately and rustled up a lot of press as a Young Turk (he was 37). But by the time he was 38, he got into a battle that threatened to derail his effectiveness for good.

For years Harry Byrd had run his own fiefdom called the Senate “Committee on Non-Essential Expenditures.” It was a sacred cow and regularly made headlines much like Sen. Bill Proxmire (D-Wis.) did for many years by issuing press releases on “golden fleece.” Humphrey trotted down to the Senate floor one day and as the press exulted made a fiery speech introducing a bill to end the life of the non-essential expenditures committee. He charged the Byrd committee was itself a non-essential expenditure spending more than a million dollars (even then not a major sum) in its existence each year, saying that many of its charges of federal waste were “undocumented.” He hadn’t given it much thought but made the speech in response to some of his allies at the ADA who didn’t like Byrd’s criticism of Truman’s fiscal and foreign policies. And he also hadn’t done his senatorial courtesy homework. Protocol required notifying Byrd that he would attack the work of the Byrd committee on the floor. That was a no-no. Everybody in the Senate canyon whispered that this was a brusque Midwestern rube.

Six days later, Byrd responded after making a great deal of preparation to get Republican and Democratic sympathizers mobilized. Turning on Humphrey without much observance of senatorial courtesy, he declared Humphrey was guilty of ‘nine misstatements in two thousand words, averaging a misstatement in every 250 words” and saying “the senator speaks like the wind.” He pointed out that Humphrey had asked for a $250,000 appropriation to investigate the coal industry only the day before attacking Byrd. Then Byrd went personal in words that rank with some of the bitterest ever spoken in the Senate:

“As the senator from Minnesota is a publicity expert himself, his statement, though not intended as such, should be regarded as a compliment from one who welcomes and has been singularly successful in creating publicity for himself and his objectives. If he has ever hidden his light under a bushel, I am unaware of it. And I have not observed any indication that he is of a shrinking violet type, evading publicity.” Then all the Senate patriarchs of both parties got up to defend Byrd and assail Humphrey—from Walter George of Georgia to Taft of Ohio to Milliken of Colorado to Tom Connally of Texas to the Democratic majority leader Scott Lucas of Illinois. The roll went on and on while Humphrey frantically tried to secure recognition from the chair which ignored him. George of Georgia, probably the most distinguished of all, thundered: “It was the height of reckless irresponsibility for any man to suggest the Byrd committee is nonessential.”

When Humphrey finally got recognition, he sputtered, “The Senator from Minnesota is no shrinking violet and before this debate is over he will not be an apple blossom either!”—a jibe at Byrd’s ownership of a prosperous apple orchard in the Shenandoah Valley. Then mixing his metaphors: “When I introduced the bill I knew I would set loose a hornet’s nest. I was advised I’d be mowed down. There has been some lawn mowing going on today but the shrinking violet has not been clipped!”

Then, as Humphrey was rolling on excitedly in self-defense, almost the entire Senate got up and trooped out.. Only New York’s Herbert Lehman and Illinois’ Paul Douglas remained. The vacating of the Senate was a stinging rebuke. In fact it was the first time in the modern era that this had been done in the history of the Senate. Humphrey wrote a long letter to “The New York Times” defending his position but notwithstanding this, whenever he spoke, a number of senators walked out. His future effectiveness was in grave danger. Gradually, tough as it was to do, Humphrey realized he had been grossly wrong on two counts—first, he had not mastered his subject, had used sloppy ADA research which was easily answered; second, he learned that how you say a thing is more important in the Senate than what you say—that the protocol demands referring to colleagues as gentlemen.

“It was the most miserable period in my life,” Humphrey later said to the press—a comment he repeated on occasions to me. He had to go virtually to each senator hat-in-hand and confess his brashness. But he did it. And he learned to apply witty self-derogation about his brashness and verbosity. Later he even speculated as a frail cancer victim, when there was a possibility surgeons would replace his bladder with a rubber one, that his Senate colleagues feared this could mean he could delay interminably a trip to bathroom, allowing him to speak even longer which would keep the Senate in overtime.

Next: How Humphrey rehabilitated himself in the Senate to become a key member of its Establishment including the South—and how he changed his style without sacrificing his liberalism.

McCarthy in the House: Ironic Wit, Proud Detachment.

Gene McCarthy began his career in the House not making such a rash mistake as did Humphrey. But even if he had, he would never have apologized. He never, so long as I knew him, made fun of himself—never. It was because of Godfrey Diekmann’s Doctrine of the Imperial Self. Under that doctrine, traditional grounding in doctrine was supplanted by personal identification with social justice on a make-it-up-as-you-go basis. McCarthy’s reputation as a theologian—part of his aura in the late `40s-- was undeserved. Rather he applied Godfrey’s scorning wit and jests directed to others (not imitating Godfrey who could also laugh at himself). With the quiet, reflective but inwardly proud McCarthy, there was no room for self-derogation.

In contrast to Hubert who burst on every scene like a bombshell, Gene McCarthy wisely informed his constituents he would probably use his first term in the House for “building and learning.” Accordingly he never appeared to be in a rush or overwhelmed with the importance of congressional work. In fact, he got tied up in traffic at the Capitol and almost missed the swearing-in ceremony. He wanted to be named to Foreign Affairs but wasn’t—ending up on the unglamorous Post Office and Civil Service. Because he was not brash in the slightest sense but had a dry, needling wit directed at (a) the Republicans and (b) some of the more pompous governmental figures, he became—to his surprise and that of his staff—quite popular with his first-term colleagues. His tall good looks, Ray Milland-like appearance and genial manner and a forerunner advance publicity of Catholic progressivism slowly generated around the Hill.

One fellow-first termer was Ohio Democrat Wayne Hays. A not-too-bright ex-Belmont county official from Flushing, Ohio, Hays was a kind of loner because of first term insecurity; McCarthy was a loner and first-termer as well but he was very secure, just intellectually bored with a lot of the debate on the floor. Hays and McCarthy would sit together in the House chamber. Hays recalled that every so often McCarthy would whisper to him: “This is a hell of a way to make a living, huh, Wayne?” Also, on occasion McCarthy would nudge Hays during an acrimonious debate and whisper, “why don’t you say something?” Hays later told an interviewer, “Once or twice I did and I immediately got into hot water.” McCarthy seemed to enjoy Hays’ discomfiture. Hays added: “I found out that Gene was a great guy who, as my father would say, would mould the bullets and get somebody else to shoot them.” It was obvious that Gene was having droll fun with the gullible Hays.

Hays overcame his insecurity to become one of the more arrogant panjandrums of the House He stayed in Congress for 14 terms, becoming chairman of the Administration committee which handled the housekeeping for the House: its parking facilities, restaurants etc. When he was angry at someone, he would order the air conditioning be shut off in the congressman’s office. He continued as a tyrant until 1986 when the divorced Hays hired a blonde clerical worker for the administration committee, Elizabeth Ray. She couldn’t type or take shorthand but was given the understanding that she was to be his mistress. This lasted two years. When Hays got remarried he failed to invite Ray to his wedding, leading her to pout and tell the media she was good enough to be his mistress at an annual taxpayers’ pay of $14,000 in place of clerical skills--but not fit to attend his wedding. He confessed all and resigned from the House. So much for a first term congressman, uncertain and insecure who became pompous and demanding. Gene McCarthy never adopted that attitude. He was always quiet and introspective.

In his first term, Gene set a pattern for a generally liberal voting record he would follow in Congress—supporting the Truman anti-USSR program in foreign policy and also the Truman progressivism on domestic. When he could, he switched committees—to Agriculture. It was not as strange an assignment as many thought: Ramsey county had a vigorous truck farming industry that existed in what are now suburbs, Gene had come from as farm background…and, of course, if he had any thought about running for the Senate he’d have to understand agriculture.

He soon caught the attention of House Majority Leader John McCormack of Massachusetts for one purpose and one alone: Gene was an Irish Catholic markedly different from another Irish Catholic House member also from Massachusetts--John Kennedy. McCormack despised Kennedy and vice versa (the Kennedys and the McCormacks had long been at odds). Gene soon discovered the animosity and maneuvered his way into McCormack’s good graces by trading on the old man’s hatred of Kennedy. Gene would sip some bourbon in a back room off the floor with the older man. McCormack had very slight formal education but learned politics from the streets of Boston. Kennedy, of course, had gone to Harvard—so Gene ridiculed Kennedy with devastating humor that tickled the old guy enormously. But he was careful not to jibe at Kennedy frontally with the result that he was one of the few Congressmen who was invited to Kennedy’s wedding to Jacqueline Bouvier. At the same time, McCormack, a late learner about Catholic social justice principles, got McCarthy invited to make speeches for the Democratic National Committee…while Godfrey Diekmann who rustling up speech opportunities, to the National Catholic Education Association in Cleveland, to write occasionally for “Commonweal” magazine—where he wrote that governmental interference in matters of personal morality is a greater danger than interference at the material level.

Next: How Gene met the rise of Sen. Joe McCarthy and anti-Communism amid charges he had been weak on internal security and Red subversion—the challenge coming from a Kennedy.

No comments:

Post a Comment