Thursday, October 18, 2007

Flashback: Hubert Seems to Take the Liberal Lead as Challengers Fade Away; Gene and He Join Forces, Gene Nobly Defending Humphrey for “Not Looking Presidential.”

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

Hubert Girds for the Fight.

Hubert seemed at the outset to enter the race with the gods of luck smiling on him. The fallout from his Khrushchev interview was enormously positive. And liberal opponents seemed to be falling by the wayside.

He had been worried that he would have to fight his way through a thicket to become recognized as the bona fide liberal in the presidential race—but his strongest potential challenger, Gov. Averill Harriman of New York, a multi-millionaire, was defeated by Nelson Rockefeller in 1958. The second contender was G. Mennen Williams, the governor of Michigan, also a multi-millionaire, called “Soapy” because he was heir to two mens’ toiletry families—the Williams who owned Williams Shaving Soap and the Mennens who had pioneered the first after-shave lotion. He won reelection by a very narrow race which put into strong doubt his viability as a national figure.

In addition, the congressional elections of 1958 rewarded liberal Democrats hugely. Adlai Stevenson’s people saw Hubert as a good device—a stalking horse that kept anyone from sewing up the nomination which would be fortuitous to Stevenson if and when he decided to make a third try for the nomination. The other contenders were Senators Lyndon Johnson, Stuart Symington and John F. Kennedy. Of those, Hubert feared Kennedy but felt that Johnson and Symington might divert votes from the Massachusetts lawmaker.

If these were the good points, the bad ones for Hubert involved his own persona. There was a surprising amount of talk that he didn’t look presidential with his high forehead, diverting eyes, thin, snapping lips like a bullfrog and a rather ample (not obese but round) body. “Life” magazine, then a top news source, quoted ex-president Harry Truman as saying that Humphrey “didn’t have the bearing of a president.” This almost destroyed Humphrey emotionally because, seemingly, no matter what he did for Truman (in his mind the 1948 civil rights rebellion he led at the convention was a plus, making the Democratic party irrevocably for civil rights—although Truman who saw the Dixiecrats walk out disagreed; and the securing of Luther Youngdahl to the federal bench who kept Owen Lattimore from being prosecuted as a Communist), Truman was unhappy.

It was just becoming known that Truman had advised Adlai Stevenson not to pick Hubert for veep in 1952 and 1956. All the while Hubert thought sure Truman was in his camp; so sure was he that he would get the veep nomination with Adlai that he didn’t do anything to help it, becoming aghast when Adlai threw the question open to the convention to solve—which by that time Hubert wasn’t ready for a floor fight. True to Hubert’s style, he wasted a good deal of time reflecting and anguishing about Truman’s defection—too much time since, as Gene McCarthy told him often, Truman was a man of the past.

Then the “Saturday Evening Post” sported an article that had the writer, Walter T. Ridder of the chain that owned the St. Paul newspapers, saying the same thing-- “Humphrey just doesn’t look like a president.” This is what Humphrey had to deal with all the time—and as a jibe it was not particularly important although again Hubert turned into a near basket-case, brimming with emotional pain.

Gene to the Rescue.

It called for an answer, though, and Gene McCarthy was the one to give it. By this time, Gene was a very good news source so he tied into these slurs with excellent looking-down-his-nose snide rejoinders. Gene didn’t like anyone very much but he despised Kennedy: the idea of an Irish Catholic being considered for president who wasn’t Gene boiled him. He also was developing a scant regard for Truman believing that if Truman hadn’t made hash of ethics Adlai would have been elected in 1952. Commenting on the “Life” story, he said that “it is indeed a strange remark for Mr. Truman to make since exactly these points about his bearing…were made against Mr. Truman himself in the 1948 campaign.”

With the “Post,” he jested cuttingly: “What can a guy mean by a statement like that? What a man does and what he thinks is more important than how he looks. The one who looked most like a president was Harding. And the man who looked least like one was Lincoln.” These were ten-strike answers and were merchandised to the media by Hubert’s staff.

There was a second disadvantage to Hubert—which he could do something about if he wished. That was his long-windedness. His staff was disconsolate about this. One night in Richland, Washington he spoke for 75 minutes as the audience turned groggy with his rush of words and ideas. On the next night the staff grabbed him and fairly ordered him to be briefer. He was but still spoke 45 minutes. Gene talked to him often about it but shrugged his shoulders and gave up. Hubert, he said, can’t clear his throat in 20 minutes and is so exuberant with ideas that he can’t be shut up. But these were relatively unimportant. Other candidates, like Symington for example, had a dearth of ideas and sounded dull and canned full of platitudes no matter how briefly they spoke. With Hubert you had a one-man cyclone of energy and ideas.

These disadvantages were dismissed in a major strategy paper by a truly sage Democratic near-genius, a veteran of the FDR administration, James Rowe. Rowe wrote a 25-page memorandum entitled “The Strategy of Hubert Humphrey.” You must remember that up to this time there were very few political consultants and hardly any media advisers. Rowe was an approximation of both and was the best that the era could boast of. He said the only way for Humphrey to win the nomination was to go the primary route (traditionally the Democrats like the Republicans preferred the old power-broker strategy). Rowe detested presidential primaries, saying that they ruined a good many candidates by burning them out before the general election—listing Kefauver and Stevenson as victims. He remembered that FDR was a creature of the power brokers. So was Lincoln and all the great presidents (the power brokers erred by shoving Teddy Roosevelt into the vice presidency, not imagining McKinley would die).

Getting power brokers on Hubert’s side was the ideal way to go—but they didn’t care for him, remembering the 1948 convention. This meant, theorized Rowe, that Hubert would have to enter a handful of primaries since there were only six major ones but they seemed staggering in number at the time—to Rowe and to Humphrey both. They are nothing at all compared to today’s multifarious primaries many of which are held on the same day—but Rowe hated this method of presidential selection.

He warned: Going the primary route would be physically exhausting, very expensive and politically risky but that was the only choice Hubert could take. “He has no chance whatsoever”—by which he meant no chance with the party’s power brokers—“if he does not take this stern and bloody path.” Rowe made no bones about the fact that Hubert’s prime opponent would be John Kennedy—fortified to the gills with his father’s lavish expenditures. Rowe knew Joe Kennedy well and recognized that the old man would not hesitate to pull out all the stops to get his son the presidency. Rowe dismissed all the other contenders as being minor—including Stevenson. The big Tuna was Kennedy.

Hubert agreed with Rowe on all points including the principal challenge to come with John Kennedy. He became determined to follow Rowe’s plan to the letter. Rowe picked the following primaries: the District of Columbia, important because of the public relations value of appealing to what were then called Negroes—and Oregon and Wisconsin whose electorate resembled Minnesota’s. He looked over the map and added West Virginia (heavily Protestant which could be disastrous for the Catholic Kennedy), South Dakota (where Hubert was born) and the windup being Wisconsin, next-door to Minnesota which could be waged at a low-cost (an important consideration since Hubert was not flush with campaign money).

If Hubert were to do well in these states, argued Rowe, by the time the real power-brokers would gather, just before the convention, they would have to be impressed—New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and Texas (a state which might want to defect from Lyndon Johnson as favorite son and hop on a bandwagon that was going somewhere).

In the afternoon and evening of June 11, 1959—with his formal announcement some six months away-- Hubert went to Duluth to take part in the opening of the Lake Superior port for the St. Lawrence Seaway. He gathered with Gene and a group of staff operatives at the rickety old Spaulding hotel, a firetrap if there ever was one. McCarthy was to hold a news conference from his office in Washington (all senators’ offices were used straightforwardly for political purposes then as were all congressional staffs) with Gov. Freeman on an antique version of a speaker phone. McCarthy’s assignment was to dislodge John Kennedy as only Gene with sardonic effect and command of Catholic liberalism could do. In the news conference Gene had maneuvered for the press to ask a question about John Kennedy. He made no bones about saying that Kennedy would be Hubert’s principal opponent—made so by the Kennedy mega-multimillion dollar fortune. If the media had any idea that Gene was soft on Kennedy because he was an Irish Catholic, they changed at that news conference. It was obvious Gene despised Kennedy.

About Hubert’s campaign, Gene said softly—but brimming with sarcasm to major effect:

“I have to tell you that Hubert’s campaign will not be financed by his father.”

About a month later, I popped in to see a few of my old school colleagues who worked in Gene’s office including Jerry Eller, his administrative assistant and Dick Boo. I was permitted a short visitation with the senator who was in his office signing mail. I brought up John Kennedy as a potential president.

“Well,” he said without looking up from his signing, “he will find it difficult making time for the affairs of state—distinct from his other affairs.”

I said: you mean…?

“Listen,” he said, “this fellow has an extra set of sex glands. Every girl on his floor knows about that. He’s not even discreet; a hotel maid while on a trip. Courtesans by the dozen. Hollywood starlets or tramps off the street. . They’re all the same to him. What is that old saying…?”

And he recited a Minnesota Iron Range scatological remark which one might hear in a bar after midnight to the effect that all females are fodder to womanizers.

This was the first time I ever got a glimpse of the dark side of what in the future would be Camelot, Kennedy the notorious womanizer who was known for his predilections by all who worked in the Senate Office Building. It was clear that Gene had enlisted in the Humphrey campaign with a full amount of passion. If there was to ever be a Catholic president of the United States, said Jerry Eller, it should be someone who is truly a Catholic and not a nominal one. He was thinking of his boss. It was probably the only campaign, aside from his own, that totally enlisted Gene McCarthy’s energies. He had made a private vow—it was clear to me—that fellow Irish Catholic Democrat Jack Kennedy would not become president. Defeating Kennedy was much more important than electing Hubert. It was Irish clan war to the fullest.

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