Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Flashback: Meeting in a Rathskeller on St. Paul’s West Side, McCarthy and Humphrey Finalize the Putsch: Then Gene Pulls a Fast One.

[More than 50 years of politics, written for my kids and grandchildren].

Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey excused himself one afternoon early in 1948 to drive himself over to a Rathskeller on West Seventh street in St. Paul…away from the media…where in a private room off the bar he and former Benedictine novice Conan aka Eugene McCarthy decided two things. Fritz Mondale brought in the beer in foaming steins (aside from Heinrich Rommen and Joe Gabler, a friend of mine, the only observer) as they decided (a) that early results of a statewide organization to stack precinct caucuses looked extremely favorable based on help from Washington, D. C. CIO staffers who were nudging the bleating sheep to the caucuses…(b) the takeover of a pro-Truman DFL would culminate in Humphrey being crowned as the endorsed candidate for the U. S. Senate in May, later that year.

“Okay, that’s settled,” said Humphrey as he sipped the froth off his stein.

No, said McCarthy. That’s two things decided. There’s a third.

Which is?

“I want to tell you that I’ll run for Congress later this year,” said McCarthy, “against your friend Bill Carlson and I think it would be prudent for you to remain neutral. I intend to challenge him at 4th district convention—the same one where I’ll gave through the endorsement for you…if we’re lucky.”

As 4th district DFL chairman, McCarthy would be running the convention which he would ask to endorse him. Bill Carlson was his biggest competition.

State Rep. Bill Carlson, an early lieutenant of Humphrey’s, was the first man McCarthy talked to when he got involved in DFL politics. A firm Humphrey friend, Humphrey was grooming him to run for Congress against the Republican Ed Devitt (a graduate of St. John’s who had voted for Taft-Hartley).

“Now wait!” said Humphrey, “Bill has planned on running and I’ve been encouraging him! He’s in the legislature! He got you started in this business just a few months ago for God’s sake! There’s such a thing as precedence. You just moved here eighteen months ago, Gene! Now you’re party chairman of Ramsey county and chairman of the 4th district. The proper thing for you to do is to support Bill for his run this year. It’s precedent. If he doesn’t make it--.”

“No,” said McCarthy. “You’re mistaken about precedent. There’s no standing in line in this business. If we were to follow precedent, Hubert, we’d not be trying to overthrow the party. If we were behaving precedentally, we wouldn’t be working this putsch and trying to get you endorsed by the convention, both mine and the state’s; we’d be standing in line hat-in-hand. You came here from South Dakota a few years ago, elbowed your way in and ran for mayor, pushing some people aside. I know who they are and you know. When your enemies tried to push you off a cliff to run for governor against Ed Thye you knew it was wrong from your standpoint. Now I know this is the right thing to do from my standpoint—and this year not in two years. I’m the logical one to oppose Ed Devitt who’s an Irish Catholic. St. Paul is an Irish Catholic town--and he should be opposed by one who can tie him in knots concerning the papal teachings on the rights of labor.”

“What the hell is this a religious war? Anyhow, Carlson happens to be Catholic,” thundered Humphrey.

“He turned Catholic to marry his wife. He knows nothing about the encyclicals. And he’s not Irish.”

“What the hell do the encyclicals have to do with it?”

“A whole lot in this town where a Republican Catholic votes for Taft-Hartley in a Republican Congress.”


“Listen,” said Humphrey, at last. “Where’s Fritz? There he is! Fritz, nothing goes with beer better than a ham sandwich. Go next door to the bar and get me a ham on rye, would you? You want the same thing, Gene?”

“Just cheese on rye for me, it’s Friday.”

Mondale disappeared—on the mission.

“Christ,” said Humphrey, “I feel terrible about this. All this time I’ve been telling Bill he should run. He and his wife are my earliest supporters over here.”

“I’m not asking you to endorse me; I’m saying be neutral.”

Humphrey groused and went into a long litany of what he owed Bill Carlson.

“Then if you feel you must stand with him,” said McCarthy, “do it. I had thought it would be helpful to you to have Ramsey and the 4th district endorse you for the Senate, that’s all.”

“You’re a hell of a tough guy, Professor McCarthy.”

“I just plow a straight furrow, that’s all.”

The sandwiches arrived.

“Nobody envisioned you running for Congress,” said Humphrey after taking a big bite. “The guy who’s been out in front in our faction here in St. Paul is Bill Carlson. He’s an East Sider [blue collar neighborhood] and he’s a mainstay with labor. He’s a state Rep. Carried the water. Now all of a sudden you’re running. The Trades and Labor Assembly will support him, Gene. You better wait.”

The Trades and Labor Assembly was the biggest unit of organized labor in St. Paul.

“Trades and Labor Assembly will support him but the CIO Council will support me.”

Humphrey jolted.

The CIO, although new and inexperienced, were the younger guys, the vim and vigor guys, guys whom Humphrey needed for his run for the Senate. The Trades and Labor Assembly was AFL, the more conservative group. Humphrey needed both but the CIO had the idealists.

“You’re bound to do this?”

“Just as you’re bound to run for the Senate. “

“But I’m Mayor of Minneapolis.”

McCarthy’s lip curled. “Big deal. Hubert, I’m for you. The question isn’t if you’re for me but will you be neutral. In the words of the gospel, you’re either for me or against me. If you won’t be neutral, now’s the time to let me know now before we in the 4th district spend any more time on your candidacy.”

It was la cannon shot across the bow.

“Who’ll tell Bill? Not me.”

“You should. I’ll call him next,”

“He’ll run anyhow. Even if he doesn’t get endorsed. There’ll be a primary, Gene. He’s better known than you are.”


“No? What do you mean?”

“He won’t run in a primary if he fails to get the convention’s endorsement. The district party won’t forgive it.”

And McCarthy was chairman of the 4th district.

“ The AFL’ll kill you, Gene. They aren’t bound by the district. They’ll run somebody against you!”

“Ray Devine [a prominent member of the AFL] will give the nominating speech for me.”

“Okay. You’ve done the spadework I can see. When you tell Bill I want you to tell him what I will tell him—that I fought like a goddamned tiger for him.”

“Hubert—you weren’t listening You tell Bill.”

“What will I--?”

“You can say you can’t stick your nose in St. Paul’s doings. You’ve always been a friend of Bill Carlson and still are—but you can’t stick your nose in St. Paul’s doings. You can tell him the truth—that your endorsement by our convention requires your neutrality.”

“Well, thanks a helluva lot for telling me that now.”

“Our first order of business is to get you endorsed by the Ramsey convention and later the 4th district convention and then to get the state convention to endorse you for the Senate. Your only order of business is to keep hands off—in thought, word and deed—and let us handle our own affairs…or I dare say we’ll have to decide to pass on the Ramsey county endorsement for the Senate because we’ll be spending all our time fighting Bill Carlson.”

“Okay. I’ll call Bill. Now you just go out and get you and me nominated and I’ll be neutral.”

“No. You be neutral and we get you nominated by the convention.”


“We prefer to certify that through this formal statement I prepared that says you’re neutral”—and McCarthy reached in his pocket and produced a typed paragraph.

As Humphrey read it, McCarthy said: “We want you to have the benefit of a united party, Hubert, when you run for the Senate.”

Humphrey said, “all right.” He handed the paper back.

“No, we want you to sign it.”

“What is this, the papal `we’?”

“You can put it like that, yes.”

“Don’t trust me?”

“No, of course not. Just sign here and we will. . We have two copies. Here’s a pen. Sign them both. Keep one for your purposes. The other is ours.”

Scratching with a fountain pen.

Handing one copy back to McCarthy, Humphrey looked over at Rommen.

“Where did you guys find this professor, Doctor.? A tough guy.”

Rommen said with his German accent: “Ja, I advises-ed him!”

Humphrey imitated a German accent: “Dots vat dey do in Chermany, huh?”

Everybody laughed and the tension was broken.

“What else do you want, Professor McCarthy? said Humphrey. “My first born child? I gotta get out of here. I got a speech in two hours. I’ll call Carlson soon.”

“Whenever you wish, Hubert. My announcement goes out tomorrow morning with your statement of neutrality.”

“So I better call him as soon as I get home—before you issue it.”

McCarthy said, “a good idea.”


After Humphrey called State Rep. Bill Carlson that night Carlson said he’d fight for the 4th district endorsement. But if not endorsed, he’d not divide the party and run in the primary. When McCarthy called the next morning, he said the same thing.

Then he waited for McCarthy to say the same.

McCarthy said, “well, you have a state legislative post to return to. I have to go back to teaching so it probably would make no sense for me to challenge you in the primary.”

“Probably would make no sense.” Not a promise.

Finally, he told McCarthy, “if I get beat in the convention, don’t think the Trades and Labor will endorse you. They won’t. You’re too conservative for them. They’ll go for Frank Barrett.”

“Okay,” said McCarthy. “Let `em.”

“Let me tell you this, Gene. I deeply resent this. Less than a year ago you came to me and couldn’t wipe your goddamn nose in politics. And now this.”

“Well, this is what makes life interesting. Will we continue to work for our mutual friend Hubert?”

“For him yes. But you damned reluctantly.”


The 4th district DFL convention held at the Ryan Hotel was turbulent. Gene gaveled it to order and the endorsement for Hubert Humphrey went through without surprisingly little trouble. Then, for the first time in many years there was a battle for the congressional endorsement.

Four competitors: McCarthy, Carlson, Frank Starkey a former congressman and Barrett. McCarthy turned the gavel over to a surrogate and sat down, rested his head on his hand like a priest hearing confession.

The oratory screamed all around him—some speakers with praise for him, others calling him a flash-in-the-pan and boring college professor. Throughout the night it raged. He was a savior, an arch-conservative, an intellectual, a pain in the ass to the workmen.

When the convention failed to deliver two-thirds majority to any of the four candidates—McCarthy, Carlson, Starkey and Barrett—a screening committee was named to make a recommendation.

McCarthy won by one vote.

Heinrich Rommen, the German, an alien, smiled. He had swung the deciding vote with his wife’s friend. .

Barrett immediately said he’d run in the primary. None others would. Three of them shook McCarthy’s hand; not Barrett who said he’d see McCarthy in hell first. But the big threat—Carlson—was out of the game…a big win for McCarthy, by only one vote.

In Washington, hearing the reports, Republican Ed Devitt saw a sharply divided DFL and cheered, feeling he had a good chance to be r reelected, given Truman’s unpopularity and the challenge by Henry Wallace and a likely one by southern Democrats. He sent some emissaries privately to see if Carlson could give him some quiet help against McCarthy the Usurper.

“No,” said Carlson to the Republican agent, “I lost fair and square. But I never thought for a minute Gene would run against me. I thought I was nurturing him for the future. I know people think Gene double-crossed me but I never really felt that way. We had a temporary falling out but I don’t think we stayed mad long. Actually I was kind of relieved because I had a fairly safe seat in the legislature and I wasn’t sure I could beat Ed Devitt. The longer I stay in politics I’ve learned to just assume you’re supposed to get screwed in the end.”

But it wasn’t that way with Carlson’s wife or Abigail McCarthy.

Abigail got a snotty letter from Virginia Carlson saying McCarthy betrayed her husband. Abby answered: No one can make a claim on public office because of seniority. The question is who can beat Ed Devitt?

Virginia called her on the phone.

“Let’s leave it like this, Abby,” she said. “You know and I know that Gene will put everybody to sleep. So you got the endorsement and you’re welcome to it. You better think of what happens next when this whole town yawns and reelects Devitt.”

Abigail got hold of Ray Devine who placed McCarthy in nomination at the convention.

“I’m not exactly tickled, Ray,” she said. “Gene is head of the sociology department and if Gene loses, his future at St. Thomas is in jeopardy as well as his relationship with A. I. O’Shaughnessy. So thanks a lot. We just moved here from the hinterlands and if this doesn’t work, Gene may lose his job and we may have to move back. So once again, thanks, Ray. Truman is highly unpopular. Ed Devitt, the congressman, is highly popular. You’ve done me a great favor, Ray. Thanks.”

The next thing she did was ponder how to give her husband a shot of pzzazz. His speeches were so dry, she thought, they were like powder. How could he ever win?

In Minneapolis, preparing for the state convention, Humphrey set up a consolation private séance with Carlson. He told him he had been trapped and had no recourse but to stick with the letter McCarthy had him sign.

“I understand that,” said Carlson, a good soldier who would spend the rest of his life rising no higher than county auditor.

“Bill, I’ll tell you frankly,” said Humphrey. “Whenever I hear about Gene, I hear Catholic stuff. Catholic this and Catholic that. Now for example, when I heard Fulton Sheen, that monsignor of whatever he is, talk here last year, I got goose-bumps…”

Carlson said, “you heard Fulton Sheen? Where?”

“He was at the Basilica downstairs one Sunday speaking to the Holy Name Society. I popped in to say hello. Can’t hurt I say. When he talked, I got real goose-bumps! But I’ll be damned if Gene McCarthy, Catholic as he is, is anything like Fulton Sheen! Between you and me, his thing won’t fly. Stick close. You’ll have your shot at Congress in 1950—a better year anyway.”

He gave Carlson a hug. His eyes were watery, Carlson noted, tear-filled because he had to do this to his friend.

Which shows how both Humphrey and McCarthy—partners--really trusted each other.

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