Monday, September 10, 2007

Flashback: McCarthy Fresh from Almost Being Blinded, Starts the Fall, 1946 Semester Teaching at St. Thomas for $2,750. AColleague Interests Him in Politics. While Abigail Thinks He’s Doing it as an Intellectual Exercise, He Isn’t.

[Fifty plus years in politics written as a memoir for my kids and grandchildren].

McCarthy: Rural Life to Big City Democratic Leadership in a Little Over One Year.

Before leaving Watkins, Minn. for St. Paul and college teaching, Gene McCarthy and Abigail decided to spray paint their dreary stucco house with a white concrete-like paint called Bondex. The spray gun backfired while Gene was high up on the ladder and he was blinded by paint and pain. In terror, Abigail thought of one only thing to do: rinse his eyes continually with cold water until the paint was out and call the doctor. The doctor, Edwin Emerson, said Abigail’s quick action saved Gene’s sight.

Hubert Humphrey was well underway in his first term as Minneapolis mayor when in 1946 Gene took a job as instructor of sociology and economics at St. Thomas College, a then small liberal arts college run by the archdiocese of St. Paul. Gene was earning $2,750 a year which wasn’t much. They were living in what was called “Tom Town,” a village of two-family-sized Navy Quonset huts on campus, several blocks of huts. The McCarthy’s lived in Hut 8-A; next door lived his good friend Raphael Thuente and his wife (Raphael was the brother of my prefect at St. John’s). McCarthy moonlighted by teaching Saturday morning at St. John’s. He would drive in late Friday, grab dinner with Fr. Godfrey Diekmann OSB, bed down in a room and teach an 8 a.m. course in economics that I, as a freshman, took.

After the first year he quit teaching at St. John’s…and I lost touch with him for a while. Abigail, nicknamed Abbey (who sometimes came with him to St. John’s and sat in on the course, which is when I first met her) got a job teaching at St. Catherine’s College in St. Paul so they had a little more money. They could move out of Hut 8-A and into a small house. Also he had become interested in doing something else with his free time—dabbling in politics in Ramsey county’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor hybrid party that only a few years before had been coalesced by Hubert Humphrey. Abbey thought the extra-curricular DFL work took up too much time from what she deduced was his real interest, the development of a moral nature to work for social justice—but she told me not to tell him that.

Gene’s good friend and teaching buddy who shared a cramped office with him at St. Thomas, Marshall Smelser, had talked up the need of both of them to get involved in Democratic politics. The new DFL was encrusted in old-style patronage politics and was dominated by its left-wing. The left-wing of the DFL in those days was almost unabashedly pro- Communist…literally, and this is not a Joe McCarthy charge—a factionalism that Humphrey was trying to eradicate, fearing that the admitted Reds would destroy any chance for liberalism to take root. The Reds had moved in during World War II when the Roosevelt administration had encouraged joint cooperation which traded on wartime alliances. The Reds stayed and bitterly opposed any attempt by President Truman to chastise the USSR.

Smelser convinced McCarthy to visit with a state Rep from St. Paul, Bill Carlson. To devise a strategy, Carlson sent them to Mayor Humphrey of Minneapolis. Thus the first time McCarthy and Humphrey met was early in 1947 at Minneapolis city hall. McCarthy and Smelser asked his advice on how to go about purging the Reds without destroying party unity. The Reds were against the Truman Doctrine which pledged aid short of war to counteract Communism in Europe.

Humphrey told them correctly that they could not; he had purged many of the Reds out of Hennepin county’s DFL who were against the Truman Doctrine and had earned their enmity but that was what they should expect. . Humphrey instructed them about the nature of precinct caucuses to elect delegates to the Ramsey county DFL convention where the purging would take place. So McCarthy and Smelser recruited about twenty-five or so to attend their home precinct caucuses, most of whom were in their 20s or early 30s. McCarthy, following Humphrey’s advice, pulled his chair up within the circle and took over the conduct of the meeting, getting himself elected a delegate to the county convention from that caucus. This was his first political act. Smelser, in another caucus, did the very same thing and got himself elected to the convention.

At the convention, delegate Smelser nominated McCarthy as the ad hoc leader of the so-called “conservative” or anti-Red faction. Smelser romanced the Irish, Catholic conservative Democrats by telling them of McCarthy’s work as a cryptographer in the War Department—using patriotism as a come-on. Then he moved over to the flinty-eyed Farmer-Labor radicals by telling them McCarthy the former farmer plowed many a country furrow. He got McCarthy elected the head of the “conservative” movement at the convention but things went sour. McCarthy and his supporters were massacred on the convention floor and went home a few days later without having won a single party office in the county. The radicals had won. But in the media at least, McCarthy was called the leader of the pro-Truman forces aligned with those who supported the Truman Doctrine, including Hubert Humphrey. Not a bad media connection.

McCarthy got promoted to acting head of the sociology department which meant a little raise. He then conspired with Smelser for another go at reforming the Ramsey county Democrats the following year. McCarthy extended the discussions to interested faculty members from adjoining colleges—Hamline, Macalester, Concordia. McCarthy went to Mass each morning and cooked meals when Abigail (called Abby) was pregnant with their first daughter, Ellen.

It was at this time that both McCarthys became influenced by another contemporary Catholic thinker—one with an international academic education--who supplemented the views of Godfrey Diekmann OSB. This was Heinrich Rommen, a new member of the St. Thomas faculty who had gained fame after fleeing Nazi Germany in 1938 for refusing to write an article favoring Hitler. Rommen had just completed his third book which made him popular in Catholic academic thought, “The State in Catholic Thought.” Rommen was also popular on the campus of St. John’s where he was invited to lecture—popular as a latter-day prophet but also as a German at a school whose heritage was heavily Germanic. I caught his lecture there; he was really something. Godfrey listened to him with mouth agape.

Rommen’s thesis was similar to Fr. Godfrey’s but it expanded where Godfrey’s had left off. He did his doctoral thesis at the University of Bonn on Francisco Saurez, the 17th century Jesuit theologian who pioneered opposition to the divine right of kings in favor of the quality of all men, which heavily influenced Catholic views of democracy (later codified in prose by Fr. John Courtney Murray). . To Rommen the perfect way to serve God was not via sole adherence to a rigid, self-absorbed religious life but to realize that man has an obligation to follow what Rommen called “the superior morality of love of God and neighbor” from which would come fulfillment and peace of mind through accomplishment.

There is nothing contradictory to Catholic dogma here but its stress lies with the secular as the vehicle for sanctity—a dangerous supposition which can be highly relativistic. Thomas More, for example, Lord Chancellor of England, who paid for his refusal to sanction Henry VIII’s divorce with his life, lost his head because he scrupulously adhered to the dicta of his Church first…whereas if you read Rommen carefully one could conclude that secular activity is the means with which to attain sanctity…and that possibly, very possibly, More could have risen above principle to fight on a broader field against Henry. The vagueness of the distinctions are never ironed out in Rommen. But McCarthy sat at Rommen’s feet when Rommen came to visit the McCarthy’s in Hut 8-A or when the McCarthys visited the Rommens in Hut 14-C.

Rommen picked Plato over Aristotle as his favorite philosopher based on Plato’s views concerning the ideal ruler, declaring that Plato was correct in that the elite should rule since they were so entitled by reason of intelligence. McCarthy who had been schooled in Thomistic hence Aristotlian precedents, changed to conform to Rommen. When he went on the archdiocesan lecture circuit in off-hours as a member of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine lecture team that discussed Catholicism at church gatherings, he sounded like Rommen. Thanks to Rommen and others, McCarthy captured control of the 4th congressional district (Ramsey county-St. Paul) DFL and became chairman during the winter of 1947. Hence Humphrey controlled not only Minneapolis as mayor but the 5th congressional district DFL and McCarthy the Democratic party of St. Paul and the 4th district.

How did a new guy who moved to St. Paul only a year earlier capture control of a major party in a heavily Democratic city? St. Paul was—and is—heavily Catholic and the mystique that here was the prototypical Catholic intellectual, pushed by Catholic lay groups, glorified him. . In a whirlwind year, McCarthy (a) went to all the city’s major parishes with the CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine) program and (b) spoke to city university groups—Catholic ones like St. Catherine’s, secular but liberal ones like Macalester and Hamline…moving in to Catholic organizations on the University of Minnesota campuses. Looking like a priest, acting like a priest, reflecting intellectuality from the academy, binding relationships from the Benedictines to the College of St. Thomas, radiating the social teachings of the Church, he got almost all the pastors to look at him as the pro-typical Catholic layman of the future, imbued with the papal teachings on charity and justice, the Just War as he applied the struggle to communism. It was an unmatched performance.

It couldn’t have been done today because the Church is much more fragmented, divided, with lay groups at war with themselves. Then—right after World War II—its younger clerics were animated with what was called Catholic Action. There were varied groups—the Young Catholic Students, the Young Christian Workers, the CCD, which McCarthy towered over in a phenomenally short time. It was a forerunner of what he would do twenty years later in intellectual and academic circles when he ran for president.

McCarthy and Humphrey Merge.

In St. Paul he did it his way; in Minneapolis, Hubert did it his way with a blatantly secular, far more concrete, meat and potatoes, blue-collar approach. Each in his own way was excellent.

But still the challenge loomed ahead. The overwhelming majority of the state DFL party was not in their hands but in the hands of people who more nearly preferred Henry A. Wallace and his pro-Soviet negotiations line than that of Harry Truman’s anti-Communism. Wresting control of the state party would require the utmost of cooperation between Hubert and Gene plus a whole lot of out-state Minnesota groups falling into line.

As Humphrey had predicted, in tossing out the radicals, McCarthy and his allies gained enemies in St. Paul. Most of organized labor in St. Paul had been affiliated with the radicals—but the newer, younger leaders such as those who were organizing for the CIO at 3M supported him. Humphrey then called McCarthy and with a group they plotted over how to take over control of the Minnesota DFL and drive the radicals out…those who by their pro-Communist militant tactics were preventing any hope of the Democrats to achieve statewide power. The secret meeting was held in early March, 1948 in Minneapolis. Doors were shut; the media weren’t told; ad hoc emissaries came and went. Phone calls were made from the meeting. It went on for many hours while their wives sat up waiting for them. In line with the old politics, it was men only.

In the group were Humphrey, mayor of Minneapolis and DFL leader of the 5th district (Hennepin county); McCarthy, chairman of the Ramsey county DFL and party leader of St. Paul; Larry Merthan, (a fellow student of mine in our freshman year at St. John’s who would become a top McCarthy aide in Congress and later the lobbyist vice president of Pfizer); Darrell Smith, a CIO organizer detailed from Washington, D. C. to Minnesota to help the Humphrey revolution; Bob Hess, head of the CIO union at 3M; Walter Mondale, a Macalester student who would come running in and out with coffee (which he ended up doing throughout the years); Orville Freeman, a Minneapolis lawyer, secretary of the 5th district DFL and a Humphrey clone who later was to become a two-term governor of Minnesota; Joe Karth, a 3M employee who would ultimately become 4th district congressman; and G. Theodore Mitau, a Macalester poly sci prof.

How did McCarthy fare in that group of hard-eyed realists—he an abstruse professor in town only a year? Like a duck to water. He was a competitor just like he had been a baseball player. Reflecting ruefully later, Abby McCarthy (who wasn’t in the room) later wrote that the only time she got a scary, unreal view of him in their marriage was when she watched him play hard-ball, league baseball in Watkins…when instead of passively playing he’d play for keeps and run up and bawl out the umpire. “I had a feeling I never knew him; I was frightened,” she confessed. This was the McCarthy who met with the pols in Minneapolis that late night. Even Humphrey was blitzed by this supposedly reflective theologian-type professor. “This guy’s really something!” he enthused. He’d learn much more later.

They decided on a statewide caucus-campaign, more like a putsch to wrest control the DFL statewide during theApril, 1948 party caucuses, which were usually humdrum affairs. They planned to catch the enemy, the Henry Wallace radicals who ran the party, napping. At each of the many hundreds of caucuses slates of delegates would be passed out and iron discipline exerted. The goal was to take control of the party so as to make it safe for President Truman’s reelection. It was important because the Wallace people who were in control of the state apparatus were self-assured that they controlled the party from top to bottom. They were coasting although itching to defeat Harry Truman later that year. And Humphrey and McCarthy plotted that the Wallaceites must be surprised, overwhelmed and the party would fall in one fell swoop leading to the ultimate election of a new state DFL chairman pledged to Truman. It was one of two times they really worked together and clicked: the second being the campaign for Adlai Stevenson in 1956…but I am ahead of my story.

When McCarthy got back home, the birds were twittering, the milkmen delivering their bottles. Before he went to bed for a two hour period of shuteye prior to teaching, he called Rommen…at 4 a.m….and gave him a major assignment to recruit people to go to the precinct caucuses throughout Ramsey. .

But peppery Hubert Humphrey wanted more than to make the state safe for Harry Truman. He wanted a grand-slam: a takeover of the state DFL that would endorse him for the U. S. Senate in 1948 against a weak Republican, Harold Stassen’s flunky, Joseph Ball. On the phone, quickly grasping Humphrey’s grand slam idea, Rommen told McCarthy that 1948 was the year he—McCarthy—should go for Congress against Republican Ed Devitt and make it A REAL GRAND SLAM!

McCarthy mumbled in such a way that no one else understood but Rommen, canny German that he was, knew was assent. Then he went to bed and lay silently next to the sleeping Abbey, determining without telling her that he was going to be congressman.

Abby McCarthy had not an inkling. Sleeping soundly, she was cheerfully being a new mother, part-time teaching at St. Catherine’s and believing that her husband was doing this DFL stuff as an intellectual and theological study. After all, he was now permanent chairman of the Sociology Department at St. Thomas, given yet another raise and was regarded as a faculty comer. As chairman he would meet every so often with senior faculty which was trying to coax an even heftier grant for the school from one Ignatius A. O’Shaughnessy, a hugely wealthy St. Paulite was trying to decide whether he would give a lot of his dough to St. Thomas or Notre Dame. McCarthy and a few others would meet with theold man and seemed to have an easy way with him.

But O’Shaughnessy was a conservative Republican and Abbey was worried that Gene, as the Democratic county chairman, could eventually be carried away into the practical side, straying from the theoretical—so as to alienate O’Shaughnessy, hurt his school’s chance of getting the dough and his own role at the university in the process. But how practical he was becoming she hadn’t a clue.

Believe it or not, astute an Irish Democratic politician as she was (coming from the Quigleys of Wabasha, who could count votes in their little village about as well as the Daleys in Chicago), she missed all the clues: that her husband was getting candidate fever to run for Congress from St. Paul to dislodge the Irish Catholic Republican one-termer, Ed Devitt (also a graduate of St. John’s) who held the post. While Gene was mumbling sage aphorisms from Aquinas and Augustine and telling wry intellectual jokes nobody much understood, the blue-collars of St. Paul were getting used to his professorial ways and decided he was a pretty classy guy. In fact they were so afflicted with inferiority complex that because they couldn’t understand him they thought he was deep. So while they couldn’t follow much of what he said or meant, they decided he wasn’t a Commie anyhow and he’d be an ideal candidate for Congress in the tradition of what they felt was the “new Catholic” social direction.

All this failed to catch Abby’s otherwise sharp eagle eye, so busy was she with a new baby, part-time teaching, enjoying the faculty wives’ teas and thinking of her husband sitting maybe on the right hand of multi-millionaire cum billionaire Ignatius A. O’Shaughnessy and, who knows, becoming dean of St. Thomas College one day.

Poor girl.

She was so wrong. She was later to say to me, “I rued the very day Gene got close to that damned Hubert with his insatiable ambition! But it all worked out.” It didn’t for her, as she found out later.

She still hadn’t grasped that Gene caught election fever on his own, quite apart from Hubert—and it was a much colder fever than Hubert’s. Gene’s ambition was such that in cold revenge for getting passed up for veep in favor of Hubert, he would topple the sitting president of his party and refuse to endorse Hubert’s bid for president causing his defeat. The incarnation of the “moral man in politics” trumps all others…including his once-firm ally Hubert, his once closest friend in the Senate, the majority leader, LBJ now president of the United States. And in a classic get-even ploy, which squared with the Rommen view…and the advice of Godfrey Diekmann OSB…McCarthy brought their whole house down.

With the baseball player analogy in mind, she’d learn how fierce, unyielding, unforgiving and vengeful a competitor her husband was—not now but one day.


Next: The Grand Slam with the Henry Wallace Radicals-- Biff! Bam! Boom!

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