Thursday, October 18, 2007

Flashback: Hubert’s Marathon Conversation with Khrushchev Gives His Presidential Campaign Impetus…McCarthy Gets Star Treatment in Senate from Majority Leader LBJ. And Moving to 1959, a Year Before the Presidential Election.

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

A Humphrey Coup of Coups.

Hubert’s long discussion with Nikita Khrushchev was more than a coup in 1958, it was the most sustained discussion ever conducted with the Soviet dictator ranging over every conceivable aspect of U. S.-Soviet relations and foreign-defense policy: trade, disarmament, peaceful coexistence, NATO, Berlin, the Middle East, China and the Soviet leader’s intimate views of American and Russian leaders.

Hubert was allowed to take notes and wound up with 23 pages full. They had dinner—caviar, pheasant, chicken, beef, fish, fruit and rich desert. Far from being just a courtesy call, Khrushchev gave Humphrey the first indication that a split with China was about to take place. And there is no doubt that the conversation put Hubert’s presidential bid in high gear. When he arrived back in Washington, he was greeted by 200 reporters and a forest of television cameras. Hubert said he had learned two “secrets” from the conversation that he would have to transmit personally to President Eisenhower. The two secrets turned out to be three. They were (a) that Russia had a missile that could travel 8,700 miles, (b) that Khrushchev had an idea on how to solve the Berlin crisis and (c) that the Soviet leader would welcome an invitation to come to Washington, D. C. to see Eisenhower. Eisenhower was very gentle with Hubert but said he knew all about (a) and (b). But (c) was new.

With the Khrushchev meeting, the last barriers to Hubert’s being inducted into the Senate club fell away. He spent 80 minutes with Eisenhower in the Oval Office and then flew to Minneapolis where a huge crowd greeted him with banners, “Humphrey in 1960.” None of the other Democratic potential rivals for president…including Adlai Stevenson (who was interested in trying for a third time), John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, Lyndon Johnson and Stuart Symington…were remotely able to claim such foreign relations expertise as Hubert did from that marathon meeting with Khrushchev.

McCarthy Greeted with Open Arms in LBJ’s Senate.

Probably no other state with the possible exception of Illinois had two such stars as senators (Illinois with Everett Dirksen and Paul Douglas) as Minnesota with Hubert and Gene. Unheard of for a new senator, Gene was named to the prestigious Finance committee. Less than a year later Johnson made him chairman of the newly-created Senate Committee on Unemployment Problems, authorized to make “a full and complete investigation of unemployment conditions in the United States.” This was despite McCarthy’s sardonic humor directed behind Johnson’s back. Gene described the election of liberals like himself as necessary to push Johnson to the Left, saying, to a labor union audience in International Falls (where he thought his remarks would go unrecorded): “Lyndon doesn’t lean with the wind, he leans ahead of it.” Johnson protested to House Speaker Sam Rayburn who passed the word to Gene that such irreverent words wouldn’t help him in the Senate.

But despite that unfortunate crack, Johnson favored McCarthy—as he did after McCarthy opposed LBJ on the first big fight of the 86th Congress when liberals fought (as they did ritualistically) to revise Senate Rule XXII to make it easier to close debate on civil rights bills. McCarthy was allied with other first-terms such as Ed Muskie (D-Me.) and Vance Hartke (D-Ind.). Both Muskie and Hartke were banished to more minor committees but McCarthy, forgiven, got Finance and later the special committee on unemployment—proof that he was a kind of golden boy in Johnson’s view.

But it was not all sweetness and light after Gene got to the Senate. Massachusetts’ John Kennedy was managing the big Landrum-Griffin labor reform bill (which came as result of Sen. John McClellan’s special committee to probe labor abuse). Gene’s union backers in St. Paul convinced him to oppose an amendment that would ban the use of union funds to defend union officials accused of violating the bill’s provisions. Gene decided to take over the opposition to the amendment and convinced Kennedy and others to go along including Illinois’ Paul Douglas. But when the McCarthy provision came up for a vote, McClellan—with all his authority as head of the Labor Rackets committee—opposed it. Immediately JFK switched and with him went most of the votes Gene had lined up. Gene lost 85 to 7, a rather humiliating experience.

But being caught between the switches (and this was the only time for Gene) is to be expected in the Senate. Everett Dirksen, as practiced an eye as he was, occasionally was as well. But for Gene this was an insult—a characteristic of his unduly thin skin. Walking off the Senate floor, Gene talked to a legislative assistant (Emerson Hynes my old ethics professor at St. John’s). Gene said, in a voice loud enough to be heard by the others: “Well, I’ve learned one lesson about the Senate today. In the House when you give your word, it’s good. Over here it means nothing.” Someone else would say the hell with it and have a drink with Kennedy. Not Gene.

Yet all things being equal, Gene’s first year as a Senator was a great success. His chairmanship of the unemployment committee took him on travels throughout the country where he held hearings. What ultimately became the Manpower Development and Training Act came into focus because of the committee.

The Humphrey Presidential Bid.

On December 31, 1959, Hubert, then 48, formally launched his first formal presidential bid in the appropriations hearing room of the New Senate Office building after having crossed the country many times talking to Democratic groups. He decided to run as the candidate he was—one of limited financial means, the candidate of people like himself “who lack the power or the influence to fully control their own destiny.” Speaking invitations poured into his office at the rate of 100 a week ever since his meeting with Khrushchev. His staff was studying the political terrain in the six presidential primary states he deemed important. He had signed Gene up as co-chairman of “Humphrey for President.” Adlai Stevenson, Gene’s favorite, had disclaimed (playing coy) any intention of running again but who was toying with supporters. . Humphrey told a news conference it would be an uphill fight. When asked if he could truly see himself as president, Hubert said: “God no! I should be back in Huron running the drugstore.”

He was the only non-millionaire among the five leading Democratic candidates (Kennedy, Johnson, Symington, Stevenson, Michigan Governor G. Mennen Williams). Still there was the innate insecurity about Hubert that communicated non-presidentiality. Maybe it was his high forehead, darting eyes, bullfrog snapping mouth and bulky form that made him appear smaller than his 5-foot-11-inch stature. But he was in the fight to the end he said. Besides, now he could point to twelve productive years in the Senate, his survival in the snub he endured from Southern conservatives and his acceptance in the Senate Club. Now Nikita Khrushchev had made him a national figure—giving him publicity that the others would die for.

When he started off there was a sickening repost from his anticipated ally, Gene McCarthy. “Time” magazine quoted Gene as saying this:

“Why don’t they just nominate me? I’m twice as liberal as Humphrey, twice as Catholic as Kennedy and twice as smart as Symington.”

Gene denied saying it. But the crack sounded exactly like the things he had been saying under his breath for a long time. He was forced to write two letters to the magazine to deny it. But his longtime legislative assistant, Dick Boo (a good friend of mine with whom I graduated from St. John’s) said:

“He was using the line around the office a long time before it appeared in print. He always enjoyed taking potshots at anybody who moved up in the limelight.”

No comments:

Post a Comment