Friday, September 7, 2007

Flashback: Restless Hubert Humphrey runs for Mayor of Minneapolis. Disconsolate McCarthy Decides to Leave the Novitiate.

[Fifty years of politics for my kids and grandchildren].

Restless Hubert.

Not long after he was named supervisor for the WPA’s Workers Education Service, Hubert Humphrey doubled as the caretaker of a four-plex, doing work that allowed him and Muriel to live there on a reduced rate. I asked him what he did. “I swabbed out toilets, repaired the roof, fixed the plumbing, cleaned the sewers, shoveled the snow” he said, “in addition to work eight hours for the WPA.” I asked how he stayed out of military service. He said he had a double hernia. In checking much later I was told he tried to enlist but was designated 4F from the hernia. I dunno.

But on the other hand, an Illinoisan born the same year as Hubert, Ronald Reagan (an Army reservist since 1937) went on limited service when the war started because of near-sightedness and spent the war making training films and going home after work to his Hollywood house every night which meant he had clout as well from Warner Brothers.. So it balances out with two political leaders who were co-founders of the Americans for Democratic Action (Reagan was from his early years as a liberal Democrat).

In Minneapolis, in addition to working at the WPA and being his apartment building’s “Super,” Hubert went to political meetings and spoke every night (how he found time to sleep no one knew). One Vincent Day, a former aide to the late Farmer-Labor governor Floyd B. Olson who was a Hennepin county (or state) judge got fired up by Hubert’s speeches and exerted pressure on him to run for mayor of Minneapolis when the election came round in 1943--coming to Hubert in December, 1942. I knew Vince Day who was just this side of being a Commie. Anyhow, Hubert wanted to run but he had premonitions.

Strange to recall now when Minneapolis has such a reformist and pristine reputation, but it had been torn with violent labor strikes in the late 1930s and was a place where out-of-town underworld figures including some Chicagoans would flee when the heat was on. Humphrey stewed and vacillated for several months but then finally filed on April 17, 1943 just nineteen days before the primary election. He went to city hall and plunked down the $10 filing fee. Then he became the Hubert Humphrey all of us remembered—starting with the first speech at a breakfast at 7 a.m. and the last one of the day at 1 a.m. He was designed as the “labor candidate.”

There were nine candidates in the primary which was technically non-partisan. Hubert surprised himself and everybody else by coming in second to the incumbent, Mayor Marvin Kline who was basically a Republican. Hubert put together a rag-tag committee of former students and professors plus labor union volunteers who had little or no money and drew largely Democratic, union and old Farmer-Labor adherents. He tried to appeal to Republicans by getting himself photographed reading a copy of Wendell Willkie’s “One World.” He lost to Kline by only 4,900 votes—stunningly close for a newcomer who had just moved to Minneapolis a few years earlier. The papers said his was an indication he had a future in politics which kindled the feeling that he had to try again. But he was heavily in debt from the campaign and had a $1,300 printing bill to be paid.

“You know how much I had in my bank account?” Humphrey told me one day in the mid-50s, “it was $7.00.” So he took a number of jobs—a news commentator for a Minneapolis radio station, worked as a part-time pharmacist and joined two buddies in a tiny p. r. agency that was a front for the next mayor’s race.

Looking around after the defeat, Humphrey knew that what hurt him was the fragmented nature of the liberal movement. The state had a history, through its Scandinavian heritage, of being a populist state. But there were too many divisions. There was a Farmer-Labor party that was very radical. There were old Non-Partisan Leaguers who wanted rural cooperatives and who were not so radical. Then there was the old-line Democratic party that was stodgy. The Republicans played them off against each other and won.

So he borrowed $77, took a Greyhound bus to Washington, D. C. and wangled a session with a family friend from Huron, S. D., an assistant postmaster general. Ever since FDR the postmaster general was also the Democratic National Chairman. Humphrey sold the assistant on his plan to unite the dissident factions in Minnesota to become one united front—the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party so they could get people elected.

The family friend took him in to see the postmaster general-DNC chairman, Frank C. Walker who worked for FDR. “My God it was the biggest office I had ever seen in my life!” Hubert told me. Walker said, “young man, you got a crackerjack idea! Tell ya what: I’m going to send a staffer out there to help you. We need Minnesota in the next election in 1944. If what you say is true, we ought to be able to put together a fresh party with the help of some patronage.”

Well it kind of worked out but didn’t. The Washington, D. C. Dems cracked some heads together and there was a fusion meeting, the founding of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party in time to help FDR win a fourth term. But the old radical-left Farmer-Laborites were furious at Humphrey; they thought he was Machiavellian and too moderate ; the old line Democrats thought he was Machiavellian and too conservative. Everybody thought he was too much of a pusher of his own destiny for having arrived from South Dakota a few years earlier. So after the national Democratic staffer left, everybody got together and decided to push Hubert off a cliff.

They decided to draft him to run for governor. Harold Stassen had just left the governorship to go to the Navy as Bull Halsey’s chief staff officer and the lieutenant governor, Ed Thye, was a very popular Republican. Humphrey looked around as they were pushing him and called a halt to it.

“No!” he said. “I’m going to yield to a draft, all right—but not your draft. I’m going to get my hernia fixed up and enlist. Ladies and gentlemen, you cannot deprive me of this chance to serve my country!”

Well, they were mollified. Humphrey had the double hernia repaired. By now he was a father and classified 3-A. Somehow he was reclassified 1-A but now they found minor lung calcification caused by childhood pneumonia and color blindness. Rejected again. The left-wing Farmer-Laborites charged that the FDR people fixed it for Humphrey. He denied it. Anyhow, Washington acted again and got him assigned to teach Army Air Force cadets at Macalester college, St. Paul. In all, that bus trip to Washington, D. C. and the visibility he got with Frank C. Walker led to the FDR administration backing him in reorganizing the party—so it was the best decision of his life.

After his bravura performance about “you can’t stop me from serving my country”…and after the heat was off and somebody else was found to lose to the Republicans for governor…Hubert took on the campaign management of the FDR presidential campaign in Minnesota in 1944. He concentrated on building a strong base in Minneapolis. Then, the next year, he ran for mayor of Minneapolis again—this time with some financial help from Washington, with help from Truman’s Labor Department to galvanize union workers. He announced that as a private citizen he would “clean up this town and make it once more a decent place to raise our children.”

He campaigned on law and order (vestiges of the old mob surfaced just at the right time to prove his point) and in August, 1945 Hubert at age 34 became mayor of the fourteenth largest city in the United States—the youngest mayor the city ever had. He was finally on the road. He was very young but he had endured enough hardships to equal a man twenty years older.

He had only one appointee—chief of police. He gave a tough Irish cop, Ed Ryan, the job and backed him strongly. He announced that unfortunately Minneapolis had the reputation of being the “most anti-Semitic city in the U.S.” I doubt that was true but he fought for the first FEPC, settled strikes, showed up like LaGuardia and personally boarded up a school building deemed unsafe for kids, became self-appointed arbiter of labor-management in the city, got the city to approve a $2 million program for veterans and low income housing, reformed the city’s outmoded charter, revised its fiscal practices, set up dozens of mayor’s committees, pioneered race relations, called for grand-jury investigations of syndicate controlled liquor traffic, ended prostitution.

In the next election he was reelected with a record ,52,000-vote majority and received accolades as the best mayor Minneapolis ever had. It was 1947 and the whole world was his oyster.

Disconsolate McCarthy.

By 1944, Eugene McCarthy aka Frater Conan, OSB had his belly full of Fr. Basil Stegmann, OSB. When meditation time came, novices were supposed to lower their heads and pray; Conan had slipped a copy of “Orate Fratres,” Fr. Godfrey’s magazine, in his black habit and would read it. “What that?” Basil said one day. “You reading—that?” So on May 19,1943 Frater Conan said the hell with it. He packed up; Godfrey was appalled, saying, “it’s like losing a twenty-game winner!” But if he was fed up with Basil Stegmann’s tough basic training, McCarthy wasn’t sure he was finished with the priesthood. So he decided to be a regular diocesan priest and enrolled at the regular seminary in Milwaukee. No soap. After a month he walked out. He hunted up Abigail Quigley who was going to the University of Chicago and they started dating again. But McCarthy now was eligible for the draft.

Just as Hubert became 4F because of an old hernia, McCarthy was classified as 4F temporarily (subject to reclassification) by his Meeker county draft board because of an acute case of bursitis in his feet. But when the draft board indicated it was ready to review the matter. he took a job in 1944 with the War Department in Washington as a cryptographer which made him an essential civilian. They put him to work trying to decipher Japanese codes for the Army Signal Corps. In this he had more of a reason to explain why he didn’t go to service than Hubert (who never really satisfied me for one that an old hernia had been sufficient to keep him out). He kept writing to Abigail who was in Chicago and when the war ended, in 1945, he took a job briefly teaching high school on Minnesota’s Iron Range.

In June he was fed up with high school teaching and once again asked Abigail to marry him. She was now rather concerned about the peripatetic nature of her beau—and she wasn’t quite over the time he broke their earlier engagement to try to become a Benedictine monk, but. This time he returned again to the notion that the two of them could start a rural life cooperative. His idea was to practice Virgil Michel’s and Godfrey Diekmann’s ideas of religious and social reform based on a religious form of communal living. Abigail told me she wasn’t wild about this but she wasn’t getting any younger, marriage prospects were fleeting so she said okay. All told it was the worst—utterly the worst—period of her life. McCarthy tapped his father and bought 80 acres of land near his Dad’s farm south of Watkins. They moved there and determined to begin a rural life cooperative. The Catholic high school in Watkins had closed because the nuns couldn’t staff it. So the McCarthys wanted to re-open it with lay teachers and combine teaching with working on the land.

Ducky for Gene; not for Abigail…and she didn’t mind telling me about it later. The church didn’t cotton to Gene setting up a school taught by lay people: another reason for Gene to get angry at stuffy Catholic authoritarianism. Abigail didn’t mind; it was kind of a reprieve. But she and Gene weren’t cut out for farming; he had a deuce of a time harnessing the two horses; their chickens died. They raised clover but the bees got to it before they and devoured it.

Then they lost their first child who was still-born. Abigail got after Gene to get a job teaching to pay the bills. Just as he was dickering with the school principal and superintendent at tiny Eden Valley, Minn. Abigail decided she would die if he were to be hired in another godforsaken small town (having tasted St. Paul and then Chicago, she sought the bigger cities for cultural reasons). She investigated and discovered that the parish priest in Watkins knew people on the faculty of St. Thomas College, in St. Paul. Abigail pushed Gene for the job; he turned down the Eden Valley people, wrote a letter to St. Thomas College and got hired to teach there in St. Paul.

Terrific, she thought; at last we’re out of this godforsaken place. Gene was signed up for the 1947-48 school year at St. Thomas. He had the inkling of an idea he gleaned from Godrey Diekmann that the true religious experience was to be gained in politics but how to do it eluded him. And he was not a glad-hander. Not at all.

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