Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Flashback: Part II of the Comparison of Humphrey and McCarthy—Their Small Town Years.


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

This tract is much too long, I know—but to chop it up would destroy the cadence. Turn away from it if you choose but those who stay to read will, I think, learn much that has never been written before.

Peppery, Joyful Hubert.

Eighteen-year-old Hubert (born in 1911) was called home shortly after he started at the University of Minnesota in September of 1929 (his older brother Ralph was allowed to finish) about the same time 13-year-old Gene McCarthy was at St. Anthony’s grade school, readying himself to go to St. John’s prep. Hubert had to help his family run his Dad’s drug store in Doland, S. D. (population: 550). The family had found no Lutheran church in Doland so they went to the Methodist one. Hubert’s father was a real crackerjack in the town’s civic life, heading everything from the chamber of commerce to getting elected mayor.

Then the senior Humphrey learned that Walgreen’s in Chicago was thinking of establishing an outlet in Huron, S. D. He hated chain-stores but there was nothing else to do. The little Doland store was going broke. He rode a train to Chicago, met with the Walgreen’s people and got the franchise for Huron to compete with five other stores. So the Humphreys moved to Huron. Hubert, Sr. got $5,000 worth of merchandise on credit from a Minneapolis drug wholesaler and moved the drugstore and family to nearby Huron. The rules were to hang a Walgreen’s sign out front—but old man Humphrey wouldn’t do it. He hung a “Humphrey & Son” sign and put the Walgreen’s moniker on a second line in smaller print. Nobody in Chicago seemed to care.

Humphrey cherished a lifelong hero worship of his father, Hubert, Sr. During the early days of the Depression a lot of people owed the Humphrey drug stores in Doland but the old man wouldn’t send out bills, saying people steer away from coming into the store if they feel you know they owe you, so instead of saying to the customers “you can charge it” he would say, “Here’s what we’ll do. Here’s a slip. Here’s how much it is. You keep it. If you can pay it sometime later, pay it. If not, forget it.” He told young Hubert, “You know, we’re no better off than they are. If they’re broke, we’re going to be broke in the future. When they come around to foreclose on us, those half-empty prescription bottles back there that have the seals broken on them won’t be worth anything anyhow. So we might just as well give it to them and a lot of them right come back.” Almost all his debtors paid their bills after times got better in Doland—by which time the Humphreys were in Huron.

Hubert, Jr. yearned to catch a train out of Huron during the Depression and never come back—and it affected his health. He’d have fainting spells and stomach aches. God, that small drugstore in Huron seemed like the end of his life—that he’d never get out of it. Once he saved up enough money to go to the Chicago World’s Fair (1933-34). His plan was to hitch-hike. But his father refused to let him do it. They had their only big argument and young Hubert engaged the old man in a shouting match where he threatened to leave the home for good—and to vent his anger he smashed some glasses behind the lunch counter. Then he wept and his father wept. “Just when it seemed the most miserable for me, something else happened,” he told me.

That was a broken love affair. At 22 he became engaged to a Huron girl who was studying music in Minneapolis. He had saved for a year to buy her a diamond engagement ring. She broke the engagement and never returned the ring. The fainting spells and stomach aches returned—and they were to come back at least one more time.

But then as the New Deal’s federal spending took hold, relief checks started t trickle in. Dad Humphrey scraped together $200 to send young Hubert to the Denver College of Pharmacy. Hubert zooned through the two-year course in six months, memorizing all the English and Latin names and recommended dosages in the druggists’ “Pharmacopoeia.” He got back to help his father expand the soda fountain into a restaurant and added veterinary services—putting the picture of a pig on the storefront sign.

The entire family pitched in to earn their living. Mrs. Humphrey and her daughters served blue-plate lunches that cost 25 cents, sandwiches for 10 cents—and then for 8 cents to beat the competition. When Ralph returned from college he and little brother Hubert would make the rounds of the Beadle county farms with Dad Humphrey to inoculate hogs and cattle.

“The biggest job was the one I had,” Humphrey once told me the first day I covered him in St. Cloud, Minn. “That is to stuff a pill down a chicken’s throat. You every try that, Tom? No? You haven’t lived until you at least tried that. You grab their heads and pinch your two fingers together like this—[demonstrating]—and when they open their little beaks to squawk you pop the pill in like this [demonstrating]. Nothing to it.”

All the fainting spells and stomach aches ended after he got his diploma from the Denver College of Pharmacy, he once told me. He even forgot about the girl who jilted him and kept his ring. By 1934 at age 23 he became a man about town in Huron, S. D. The New Deal had set up some relief measures and the checks started perking up Huron. He became scoutmaster for the local Methodist church troop; he became active in Young Democrats. Now he and older brother Ralph were largely running the store while his father took to the road selling pig serum and veterinary supplies to farmers.

The second major fight he had with his father came when the old man bought time on a local radio station to advertise his drug store. That meant that young Humphrey could interview some people in the store—which he liked. But the old man insisted on paying for classical music to be run on his program. Hubert, Jr. shouted “People aren’t interested in that stuff!” Hubert, Sr. retorted: “well, goddammit I’m paying the bill and I like it!”

One day a girl name Muriel Fay Buck (whom everybody called “Bucky”) came into Humphrey’s drug store with a girl friend for a coke. She was 22 and the daughter of a Huron butter-and-egg dealer. Hubert served her and entertained her and her friend; he was kind of a cut-up. “I thought he was pretty silly,” she said later, “but—well, he kind of grew on me and I’d go in there to kid around with him always bringing a girl friend along with me.” Then they dated, going to Lampe’s Pavilion on the outskirts of Huron. Friday the band played “Old Time” which was polkas featuring a New Ulm, Minn. outfit headed by the bandleader, “Whoopee John” Wilfahrt (I went to St. John’s with “Whoopee John’s” kid much later). But Saturdays which cost much more for dancers featured Lawrence Welk (a South Dakota native) and Wayne King (the Waltz King).

The biggest thing in Hubert’s life up to then came when the Methodist church got enough money together to send the Boy Scout troop to Washington, D. C. with Hubert, the scoutmaster, as tour conductor. He was a-gawk. He looked down from the Senate gallery and saw none other than Sen. Huey Long (D-Louisiana). He had his Uncle Harry (who was working at the U.S. Department of Agriculture) take him to the Jefferson Memorial. (Uncle Harry had got Hubert’s big sister, Frances, a job at the USDA in Washington).

Hubert wrote a letter back to his fiancée in Huron. That letter is in the Humphrey archives in Minnesota—written in the summer of 1935. “Maybe I seem foolish to have such vain hopes and plans, but, Bucky, I can see how seriously if you and I just apply ourselves and make up our minds kto work for bigger things, we can live here and Washington and probably be in government politics or service. I intend to set my aim at Congress. Don’t laugh at me, Murial.. Maybe it does sound rather egotistical and beyond reason, but, Murial, I know others have succeeded. Why haven’t I a chance?”

Muriel responded by saying yes, but you have to go back to school. They married in September, 1936. Bucky saved $600 from her pay as a billing clerk for the electric company. Humphrey joked, “I married Bucky for her money.” They took their Model A Ford to Minneapolis (although Hubert’s sister, Frances, spoiled it by hitching a ride with them to the Twin Cities where she caught the train to Washington, D. C. They gladly put her on the train and headed for a honeymoon in northern Minnesota. They stopped in Duluth and Hubert bought a bottle of bourbon to celebrate.

How can you dislike a kid…and later a man… like that? And so long as I knew him, Hubert never stopped being that kid from the Depression—gawk-eyed at possibilities and wondering how he could make it if he just gave more than his best. Hubert listened to Bucky and returned to the University of Minnesota to continue his education in 1938—she working to pay the tuition.

Intellectual, Moody Eugene.

There were few men less alike, I believe, than Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy. One sprang from Depression’s discontent with the system and ended up defending it; the other from a philosophical grounding in Christianity’s oldest structure, inherently conservative at the time, and ended up overthrowing the system of his own party—and beginning a skepticism about patriotism…a ninilism…that lasts today.

Eugene McCarthy, born in 1916 to a not rich but fairly comfortable family in Watkins, Minnesota, never received any mark less at St. John’s prep or university than an A. He compiled the all-time perfect academic record at the school. When he graduated “summa cum laude,” with a major in English and 262 honor points, he had 234 more than needed for a degree, the most brilliant ever achieved (including up to this day) by a St. John’s student. He matched his academic prowess with athletics, receiving great notices for playing first-base on the Johnnies’ football team and especially as a hockey player. All the time he barely said a word. So quiet was he that some of the school’s monks worried about him. Without much more than a murmur, occasionally a soft-spoken jest, the tall, introspective Watkins, Minnesota farmer’s son captured attention for his academic excellence at St. John’s, the majestically beautiful Benedictine college and monastery deep in 2,500 acres of woods surrounded by two silver lakes.

Six-feet two, handsome with dark hair and deep-set eyes (he grew to be one of the more handsome of men, resembling in his younger years the actor Ray Milland)… he was the quietest boy the school ever had—and that includes up to this very moment. When he came to St. John’s Prep at age 15, he was influenced by the teaching if not the personal charisma of Fr. Virgil Michel, OSB whose view of Catholicism was inextricably tied to the social encyclicals. Michel’s life was cut short in 1938 and his teaching was continued by Fr. Godfrey Diekmann, OSB who himself was a charismatic teacher and homilist. More than any other monk at the Abbey, Godfrey dominated St. John’s until his death in 2002 at age 93—and does to this very day at the Abbey. His lectures were heavily attended and whenever he traveled across the country, liturgists gathered to hear him. He was the voice of liturgical liberalism in the Church. He became also, possibly more than he wished, the most intellectually prominent voice of dissent.

It is likely that McCarthy’s religious formation was guided by the magnetism of Godfrey—at least Godfrey’s name was frequently mentioned by him whenever I met with him. Godfrey, six foot three, an athlete and gregarious leader of men (born in 1908 in Roscoe, Minn. , a town next to St. John’s), was educated at St. John’s Prep, them St. John’s University and later at the Benedictine College of St. Anselm in Rome. He returned to St. John’s as a priest and doctor of sacred theology in 1933)—two years after McCarthy enrolled there as a student in the prep school. With the death of Virgil Michel in 1938, the young Godfrey Diekmann was his heir apparent, taking over the editorship of his magazine (“Orate Frates” which Godfrey changed to “Worship”) and teaching patristic theology.

Godfrey spent six decades at St. John’s, teaching liturgy and early Christian writers and was probably the most powerful theological fomenter of Vatican II (where he served as a “peritus” or expert) and was probably the greatest single force in drafting the “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” the document that has had the most impact on contemporary Catholic worship. In other words, Godfrey lay the foundation for the anarchic revolution in liturgy from which we are just now emerging.

. He, more than anyone else, pushed the adoption of the liturgy to English—a laudable enterprise, surely…but which led to other more radical reforms which Godfrey cheerleading all of them: inclusive language which tortured the cadence of the gospels, acceptance (ultimately) of women priests, acceptance of improvised liturgies (he himself invented the “hootenanny Mass.” . He was one of the first to dispute Paul VI’s edict banning artificial birth control. He stood by the aptly named Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee (a Benedictine Abbot) even when Weakland stood condemned by the facts for a homosexual affair in which he spent diocesan money to shut up his ex-lover. Not that Godfrey was gay; not so. Essentially, he became a very voluble, joyful heretic eager to attract attention—expounding heresies which everyone seemed to ignore, all the while being celebrated as an authenticist.

I can still see him in my mind’s eye as he was when a young man (and I a student there) moving in a cassock and white clerical collar under which was a black turtle-neck sweater—prematurely whitened hair with a face that was sculpted and serene, with a quick smile, witty. He was the architect of the ICEL (International Conference on English in the Liturgy) and pushed I did not know Godfrey well but his elder brother, Fr. Conrad who was my faculty adviser when I edited the literary magazine at St. John’s (and whom I ignored all the time). It was good that by fate I missed taking a course from Godfrey. His message was mesmerizing—but as it came to be, Left-wing apostasy. I was educated by, for the most part, Fr. Ernest Kilzer OSB (known as “Ernie”) who was the great opposite to Godfrey—without much of a following (although I followed him). More of Godfrey’s likely influence on Gene McCarthy a few paragraphs down. .

The regimen at St. John’s was almost unendurably strict (I caught the tail end of that disciplinary era when I started in 1946). One night a week, a bus—the Johnny Blue Bus—took high school and university students to St. Benedict’s college down the road, a Benedictine college and academy. There under the watchful eyes of the nuns, a phonograph was set up and boys and girls were allowed to dance while the lights beamed on in the girls’ gymnasium, bouncing off the polished floors to a blinding degree. If any improper action occurred at those dances, a man would have to be a magician to pull it off—but this was the only boy-girl society available (ten miles away from St. Benedict’s,. St. Cloud, population: 18,000, with its secular two movie theatres and bars patronized by beer-drinking German farmers, was off limits).

When he was at Prep school and at the university, Gene McCarthy was so dedicated a scholar and bookworm that despite his will he became known as the school’s most disinterested near-saint. When on Saturday nights virtually the entire Prep school bordered the buses to visit the “Bennies” (the girls at St. Benedict’s academy), they could look back through the bus windows and see at Benet Hall (the only lay students’ hall: the only lay students’ hall when I went there as well) only a few lights burning. There was a row of four lights—these were the washrooms. Then there was the room of the lead prefect, Fr. Walter Reger, OSB (one of the university’s few conservatives, a great church scholar) on the first floor…and one solitary light on the second floor, that of Eugene McCarthy. He was studying and reading through the night. The word quickly passed that Gene McCarthy would become a priest—most probably a Benedictine monk. (Many a time, a decade later, as I rode the bus to St. Ben’s for a little R&R I looked back at Benet and saw only Fr. Walter’s light burning; McCarthy had gone on to other things).

McCarthy was interested in very little but literature and theology at that time (unless it be baseball or hockey which showed him to be a stiff competitor). After talking with him much later in life, I realized he was powerfully influenced by Virgil Michel and Godfrey Diekmann…as were some of my classmates including some who are no longer Catholic.

After the learned all there was to be swallowed from Aquinas, Augustine and others, McCarthy drank from the Godfrey Diekmann well—which taught this (and I don’t know if it means very much to you but it contains the essence of nothing less than a new Catholic religion—far different from the one in which we were raised). Here are his words from his memoirs:

“My main point in teaching was to make my students realize what Christianity is—that it’s not just being good with the grace of God helping us, but it means real transformation—that you are sharing the divine nature. This must be taken seriously.”

Consider this again: “that you are sharing the divine nature.” That is not remotely what the Church has taught or teaches. But of course when Godfrey taught it, it was seductive because it convinced his listeners that they have a divine mission.

Continuing: “What does it mean to say that we are members of the body of Christ? It means that in some absolute, almost contradictory, way we are sons and daughters of God and not just as a figure of speech. The very fact that we casually keep on talking about being adopted children is God is proof that obviously we don’t have the faintest idea of what this is about—because adopted, by itself, in present usage, can only mean a matter of the law.” But “we acknowledge that Christ, of course, is the true Soln of God. But we are now also true sons and daughters of God but by a gift—buy adoption—and this is actually sharing the life of God. That is a staggering thing and for many Catholics is completely new.”

Now comes the revolutionary part which led to all the battles of the 1960s to the present in the Church—all defined by Godfrey:

The main source of conflict during and after Vatican II in the Church, that of being a highly centralized and hierarchical model was based on St. Robert Bellarmine’s image of the Church as a “perfect society.” It was enshrined by the Council of Trent in 1563 and bolstered by Vatican I in 1870. It was a proud and isolated medieval castle/cathedral/fortress at the height of its triumphalist stature. The Catholic Church was the oldest, largest, wealthiest and most authoritarian institutional religion on earth—and for many, Godfrey taught, was also divinely ordained and infallible and changeless. Get that “for many”—the secret little heretical poison.

He taught that such a structure was not rooted in the New Testament but in Emperor Constantine’s decision in 313 to make Christianity the state religion. (Note: this is the germ of Garry Wills’ writings now which are merely drawn from Godfrey—and also Father Greeley’s). Where before Constantine the Church was a countercultural force, under Constantine it became the guardian of the status quo. Bishops became territorial or diocesan governors, a corruption of their original “servant” roles and, Godfrey taught, “a blow to collegiality.” In his words, “From the time of Constantine until Vatican II, you had an uninterrupted development of clericalism and centralization.” So he advocated unplugging this ecclesiology so the Church could set a bold precedent for institutional change worldwide.

But while Godfrey was teaching this, I was taking my theology from a far less charismatic source where the dumber kids took theirs, from Fr. Ernest Kilzer OSB. I probably wasn’t sent to Godfrey’s course because at St. John’s I was an indifferent student and only the bright ones were recruited for Godfrey (for which I now say in retrospect, “Deo Gratias”). Ernie, whose academic credentials not only rivaled Godfrey’s but exceeded his with a doctorate also in philosophy, didn’t buy Godfrey’s rationale for a minute. He pointed out in our small seminars (down the hall from Godfrey’s big audiences) that Godfrey’s vision was almost entirely political. To Ernie, the hierarchical nature of the Church was formed since Constantine—but so what? The Catholic faith is a cluster of beliefs surrounding Jesus Christ, beliefs that form a harmonious synthesis. That view is altogether different from Godfrey’s more colorful populist vision.

Sure, Ernie said, it would be nice for bishops not to be politicians or stakeholders—but the real essence is this: In a real sense, the Church began with the birth of society. The Church corresponds on the level of grace to our social existence on the level of nature. It was, paradoxically, far more of a theological vision than that of Godfrey (who had the greater reputation). With all the folderol about “authority,” the greatness of the Church came not from bishops at all but from Christ and the people who were His servants—Aquinas, Augustine, Benedict, Francis of Assisi, Ignatius Loyola, John of the Cross, Teresa of Lisieux.

Godfrey’s populist or political vision dovetailed automatically with the social teachings of the popes—and from there, inevitably (and he made little effort to distinguish) to the vibrant liberal dogma of the Democratic party.

One of the last things this old monk did was to go to Rome at age 88 in 1996. His devoted assistant was Fr. Ronald Krisman. Krisman went to the Pope’s chapel one morning where John Paul II meditated after celebrating Mass. Only a few were there. John Paul II was in his “prie-dieu,” kneeling in prayer and reflection. Here was the man who revitalized the spiritual under-girding of the Church and is revered by Catholics and non-members alike for his warmth and sanctity, who helped topple the communists; the first pope in 400 years with a gripping international reputation for sanctity.

Seating to the side was the aged Godfrey, both hands on his cane, staring intensely at the Pope (who was unaware that he was being watched so closely). Krissman writes that Godfrey was staring so hard-eyed at the Pope that he seemed to be rude. Afterward when he asked Godfrey why he had been staring down the Pope in such a fashion, Godfrey replied: “You all know that I am not happy with much of that man’s leadership of the Church. For that, I don’t like him. But I was not staring at the Pope. What I was doing was willing myself to love him.” This Krissman published when he returned in the St. John’s Abbey Press no less.

If that doesn’t tell you about this monk’s failure to understand the Church…and his vision of the Church as an earthly political institution rather than a spiritual one…nothing will. The revolution of nonconformity Godfrey started at St. John’s led to decadence in less than a lifetime, failure to adhere to the monastery’s old rules and, indeed, the confession of an Abbot that he was a homosexual. Godfrey’s pride, born of sixty years of misinterpretation, did it all. Pride.

This was the infinitely proud man who molded yet another proud man—Eugene McCarthy.

As an undergraduate, Gene McCarthy absorbed it all but said very little. He graduated at age 19 in 1935 from St. John’s with overwhelming honors—unrivaled even now--(the year Hubert Humphrey made his first trip to Washington D. C. and wrote his fiancé Bucky of his dreams to be in Congress). McCarthy wanted to be an English teacher but there were few openings that summer during the Depression. He had become more interested in sociology and economics, anyhow, probably to ratify Godfrey’s vision to Christianize the world. So his father agreed to send him to the University of Minnesota to get a master’s—this time in sociology and economics. McCarthy whipped through undergrad and grad in record time. Now with master’s in both.

The next year a St. John’s graduate who was the high school principal in Tintah, a small town, died. Gene McCarthy was hired, still at age 19, to be principal (still an all-time record) of the high school.

Then he took a job teaching at Kimball, Minnesota. While he was teaching at Kimball, Hubert Humphrey passed a few miles away on his way back from Huron, S. D. to go to the University of Minnesota—an early conjunction of paths for two who would help change the course of U. S. history in 1968.

How these two young men faced problems by radically different means—next.

1 comment:

  1. At the risk of being labeled a pysncophant (could never spell) --
    This is some of the greatest modern history I have ever read. In the name of truth and justice, get these memos published (with few changes)!
    Your friends and others will be glad to finance the book, I'm sure.