Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Flashback: Gene Knocks Off a Dissident Senate Primary Opponent and Polishes off Republican Ed Thye to Become a U. S. Senator. Hubert Hones his Foreign Policy Skills and Runs into a Burst of Good Luck—Nikita Khrushchev in a Face-to-Face Session for 8 Hour

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

Gene Ascendant.

Once Gene McCarthy was endorsed by the DFL convention, all serious intra-party opposition to him melted away. Mrs. Eugenie Anderson pledged fealty. Hubert and Gov. Orville Freeman moved to his aid. Gene groused about Humphrey’s so-called “neutral” position and took at least two weeks to get over it (some say he never did but it’s wrong to surmise that this led to the later rupture between the two). Humphrey got Gene some money because he served as vice chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee—and Freeman, running for reelection as governor with only token GOP opposition, tied McCarthy’s kite to his own impressive bandwagon. At the same time it is interesting to note that Joe Karth was seeking McCarthy’s seat in St. Paul against a few challengers. Karth wanted McCarthy’s endorsement for his campaign literature—something that talked about Karth’s credentials. “We asked Gene to make a strong endorsement statement and he finally gave us a statement to use on our campaign literature,” said Karth. “I can remember every word of it: `Looking forward to campaigning with you this fall.’”

The farm issue was big in 1958—much more so than the religious issue concerning McCarthy as a Catholic. Gene always used Thye’s vote to confirm the controversial Ezra Taft Benson as agriculture secretary. But the media talk was the religious issue where 68% of Minnesota was Protestant—but it was over-hyped. Back in Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kennedy was reportedly watching to see how an Irish Catholic Democrat would do—although it was also viewed as important as well to Hubert who was preparing to run for president in 1960. But the campaign against Thye was actually dull. Thye was, as I had described earlier, a man of generally liberal intention who was severely limited by his lack of education as well as the view among some that he had gone “high hat” in the Senate. I tried to help Thye that year, traveling with him on occasion and performing press chores. One of my best friends was his campaign manager, Bob Forsythe and we teamed up to do everything we could in his behalf. There was a fissure in the state GOP that stemmed from discontent on farm policy…the conservatives supporting Benson and his free-market program and the pragmatists feeling that their fellow pragmatist, Thye, was right in supporting more rigid price supports.

Thye made an effort to distinguish himself from McCarthy—viewing Gene as a big city boy (St. Paul)—but Gene was raised on a farm in Meeker county so that wasn’t very effective…but when he ran a farm himself with Abigail it was a disaster. Thye also tried to sublimate the religious issue by citing his wife’s Catholicity. A Lutheran minister wrote a letter to the newspaper picturing Thye as a humble man who always sat in the back of his church. McCarthy made a typical sardonic wisecrack, “He sits in the back pew so he can leave early to pick up his wife at the Catholic church.” The sort of comment about which there is only one accurate comment—and it is scatological so I’ll clean it up: chicken excrement…reflecting smallness, pettiness and personally cutting, illustrative of an inner bitterness that no one really knew where it came from.

Just as Catholics had overwhelmingly reelected non-Catholic Hubert Humphrey in 1954, two-thirds of them voted for McCarthy in 1958 while 54% favored Lutheran Thye. McCarthy won election to the Senate 608,847 to 535,629.

Hubert Ecstatic.

All the while Hubert, dismayed by not getting the 1956 vice presidential nomination with Adlai Stevenson, had decided to veer left—at least in foreign policy. Having been rebuffed by Stevenson (and Truman) for his energetic support of civil rights, Hubert got together with the grand old lady of the Democratic party, Eleanor Roosevelt and other liberals. They presented a 16-point program of action for the Democratic party to consider leading to 1960. Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson and House Speaker Sam Rayburn were angered, feeling that this group Humphrey had joined was usurping the congressional leadership’s policy function. On the Senate floor, LBJ cut Humphrey dead with a snub and when Hubert came to him like a puppy dog with his tail wagging wondering what was up, Johnson said stonily: “You broke faith with me, Hubert.” Hubert was miffed and gave him some lip. Then he re-thought the matter and applied Johnson’s own technique, pointing his finger at the taller man’s chest and giving him what for.

Hubert handled him just right responding: “Lyndon, you are a great, great leader. I’m just trying to make you an even better leader.” Suffused with praise, Johnson forgave (a mark of all great leaders) and Hubert typically let bygones be bygones as well. Soon in 1957 they were putting their heads together on putting together the first major civil rights package of the 20th century—which Hubert convinced Johnson to push if LBJ would satisfy his wish to become president one day (which Hubert privately didn’t believe would happen). Hubert said Johnson would have to move off the dime from just being Dick Russell’s boy (Russell the patriarch of the South, the Senator from Georgia) to being a national leader. Hubert had long ago decided that 1960 would be his year. With Adlai Stevenson out of the way (having lost twice) there was a new generation of Democrats from among which Hubert decided he stood out particularly well.

So in between helping Johnson pass civil rights, Hubert wanted to continue polishing up his foreign policy credentials. He had worked hard to become a foreign policy spokesman for his party based on his chairmanship of the Senate’s Disarmament subcommittee of Foreign Relations. But the Senate had a habit of disbanding what it called “special purpose subcommittees” after each session—and Disarmament was scheduled to fall by the wayside. Hubert tired everybody out trying to save it so that Bourke Hickenlooper, the ranking Republican on Foreign Relations, from Iowa, grumbled, “aw, we might as well let Hubert keep that goddam subcommittee until he finds out whether he’s going to get the nomination.” Hubert won that one but he was experiencing bouts of depression. Everything was so hard—even keeping a subcommittee that was his in a Democratic Senate. Why was everything so hard when for somebody like multi-millionaire Jack Kennedy things seemed so easy?

Just then Hubert was deluged with a bucket of good luck. Right after Gene McCarthy won the Senate seat (which Hubert took credit for, notwithstanding he had covertly backed Eugenie up to the party’s endorsing convention), he was invited to go to Europe—to a UNESCO conference in Paris and a nuclear test suspension parley in Geneva with a tail-end visit to Moscow. . In Geneva he met a Soviet official he had known for a long while. Hubert told him that he was going to Moscow and wondered if he could meet with Premier Nikita Khrushchev—with little expectation that the answer would be yes. The official said he’d forward the request and Hubert forgot all about it. But when he was in his Moscow hotel room on Dec. 1, 1958 his phone jangled. The Soviet official said he was down in the lobby and that he was empowered to take Hubert right that minute over to meet Khrushchev. Just as he had done so often when he felt important news was popping, Hubert couldn’t wait for the elevator and trotted down five floors of stairs. Breathless he was pinching himself as he piled in a car filled with several Soviet thugs and was driven to the Kremlin.

At 3 p.m. he was ushered into Khrushchev’s office—with only one other person present, Oleg Troyanovsky, Khrushchev’s interpreter. Thus launched a marathon conversation that lasted eight hours and twenty-five minutes. It was, all-told, the best thing that ever happened to Hubert since the decision of Luther Youngdahl to accept a federal judgeship. It was the longest session Khrushchev ever gave anybody and Hubert was in the center of the publicity. His campaign for the presidency was launched—by an improbable source—Nikita Khrushchev! All other presidential candidates—from Vice President Richard Nixon to a bevy of competitors to Hubert on the Democratic side—were green with envy.

No comments:

Post a Comment