Thursday, October 4, 2007

Flashback: McCarthy Adopts the Soft Wisecracking Commentator Role on Legislation, Gaining the Reputation of Being So Smart He Doesn’t Have to Work a Lot…Hubert Becomes a Red-Baiter, Stealing Joe McCarthy’s Thunder and it Almost Does Him In with Liberals.


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

Wisecracking, Indolent Gene.

On the Ways and Means committee, Gene McCarthy won a reputation for being indolent, sitting back in his chair and taking desultory notes, tossing out one-liners in subtle whispers that cracked up politicians…but also picking the right friends—two members of the Texas delegation, Homer Thornberry and Frank Ikard (who when he retired became head of the National Petroleum Institute). Recognizing that Texas was where the power was, McCarthy would plank himself down at the Texas table in the House dining room where he would convulse Thornberry and Ikard, two pro-oil Democratic conservatives who extolled him to House Speaker Sam Rayburn. Occasionally Rayburn would drop in and enjoy the spectacle of a northern so-called liberal Democrat agreeing with them on the oil depletion allowance and other issues. That way McCarthy got the reputation of being pro-oil but also a witty heckler of Republicans to the Democrats’ huge enjoyment. He wryly commented when a Republican said that Agriculture Secretary Ezra Taft Benson was being burned at the stake like Joan of Arc, “ If I remember my church history, I think she was not burned at the stake for urging flexible price supports.” He also said that he got tired to criticizing Secretary of State John Foster Dulles because “all I have to do is to wait two weeks and he changes his position.”

All the while some of his constituents in St. Paul didn’t find his indolence funny at all—because he was very slow to meet their need for help on city matters. Take the issue of federal flood control for St. Paul. Delegations of business and labor seeking federal funds for this effort would pay a courtesy call on McCarthy but spend their valuable time importuning Hubert, Congressman John Blatnik (D-MN) on Public Works—or an old reliable conservative veteran, Congressman August H. Andresen (R-MN) who represented southeastern Minnesota (Winona, LaCrescent area).

Hubert the Red-Baiter Alienates Some Liberals for a Time as

Horrors! An Opportunist!

Now that his reelection in 1954 was relatively secure, Hubert Humphrey put his brain to figuring out how he could get some national attention for a future push to the presidency. He figured out that since he had ingratiated himself with President Truman, he might be picked to run with Truman for vice president. But that bubble burst when it became apparent that Truman was in the doldrums politically. In fact Truman asked Hubert to allow his name to be used in the convention of 1952 as Minnesota’s favorite son. Hubert’s heart leapt—but not long thereafter when Estes Kefauver, the Tennessee reform senator, beat Truman in the New Hampshire primary, the president announced he would not run again…so being Minnesota’s favorite son didn’t help Hubert particularly.

Hubert hoped that Bob Taft would get the GOP presidential nomination because he would be easy to beat (he thought). But when Eisenhower came back from Europe, he became convinced that the 5-star general would take the honors. In the meantime, Hubert had to decide where he was going to put his chips for the Democratic nomination. Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver had cut a great swath on TV with his anti-crime syndicate hearings, but Hubert was skeptical of him. In those days before politicians’ personal liabilities were not publicized unduly, Kefauver was known to Senate insiders as a heavy drinker and womanizer. So Hubert made a beeline for Adlai Stevenson and offered to indoctrinate him on the farm issue (Adlai was less than receptive).

At the same time, Hubert got Gene McCarthy to agree to place his name in nomination at the Democratic national convention…then decided to gin up a recycle of his 1948 civil rights battle. He led an unsuccessful fight to use a “loyalty oath” to block the seating of Southern segregationists—but the convention was wise to Hubert’s trying to repeat his role and quashed it. But it was not bad publicity. Gene placed him in nomination before the convention, saying “he does not support or offer a watered-down bargain basement variety of democracy.” He used a line Godfrey Diekmann OSB sent him from St. John’s about Hubert: “A man close to the heart of the people of America!”

Well, the Republicans nominated Ike and Hubert privately despaired of any chance the Democrats would of electing Stevenson—but he decided to put the presidential campaign to good use anyhow. Once Adlai was nominated, Hubert decided to go on the campaign trail to get a feel for what coast-to-coast hustling was like. McCarthy was offered the same thing but he turned it down—too energetic a schedule for him. Hubert hit 18 states stumping for Adlai. While McCarthy’s House reelection was a cinch, he stayed home, making it out to St. John’s for October 20 homecoming and bunked over in the Abbey so he could eat with Godfrey and the other liberals.

On the trail, Hubert became to worry about the anti-Communist pitch that the Republicans were making. Joe McCarthy was coming on strong and even Ike was echoing the soft-of-Reds charge. Richard Nixon, Eisenhower’s running-mate, had made a formidable career out of it. Hubert pondered: what could Democrats do? He talked with Gene thinking that Catholics would have a great stake in opposing Communism. Gene talked with Godfrey Diekmann OSB but Godfrey was concerned about anything the liberals would do to abrogate civil liberties. Hubert listened to that palaver for a while and dismissed their civil liberties pap. He had one eye on Joe McCarthy and the other on Ike and Nixon and figured the Republicans are going to take the presidency and zero in on people like him in 1954. Humphrey would sit up at night worrying in 1952 what they’d be doing to him in 1954 as a soft-on-Reds guy. So he decided to quash it. He’d be a Red-baiter himself to stay in touch with the times.

This was not a new vein for Humphrey to tap since he had chased the Reds out of the Farmer-Labor party when he amalgamated it with the Democrats to form the DFL. Some hard-core union supporters were saying that the Democrats shouldn’t surrender the issue of fighting Communists to the Republicans. When he read the columnist Gould Lincoln in the “Washington Star” he got scared out of his wits. Lincoln, a conservative wrote, “There probably isn’t a Democrat in the Senate who the Republicans would prefer to unseat—for to them Sen. Humphrey is the epitome of the New Deal-Fair Deal party which they insist is leading the country down the path to socialism.” That did it. Hubert decided to inoculate himself against soft-on-Reds by becoming a junior grade Red hunter himself.

So he wangled a chairmanship of a Labor-Management subcommittee on Labor to conduct a hunt of Communist infiltration of labor unions. “I am starting as chairman with only one preoccupation,” he told the media. “There are certain Communist-dominated unions in the United States operating in defense industries and we must face up to what this fact means for our national security.” In the House, Gene McCarthy said privately Hubert was grandstanding a bit. Godfrey wrote from St. John’s to Gene that Hubert was an opportunist—but that didn’t tell McCarthy anything he didn’t know…and McCarthy was one too, to be truthful about it, but not about fighting Communism….about ingratiating himself with the oil depletion boys in Texas.

Hubert kept the fire burning for a year until his own reelection came round where a good headline would help him without offending organized labor. On August 11, 1954, five years into the Joe McCarthy era—with one eye on Joe himself who was working off a hangover--Hubert introduced a bill that was more extreme than anything Joe McCarthy had ever proposed. It was the brainchild of one Max Kampelman, his legislative assistant (who later became disarmament chief under Ronald Reagan’s presidency).

Kampelman reasoned that Hubert should pass a bill outlawing the Communist party…ending the issue for all time. To civil libertarians Kampelman argued the Communists were not a party anyhow—but a conspiracy to overthrow the U. S. government. Humphrey thought for two second and said, “we’ll go with it. But we have to keep the element of surprise.”

The Senate was considering a Republican bill to strengthen existing law against Communist-dominated labor unions. Humphrey arose with a statement that had already been circulated to the press gallery and said, “I am sick and tired of having people play the Communist issue. I want to come to grips with the Communist issue. I want senators to stand up and answer whether they are for the Communist party or against it.”

He introduced an amendment to outlaw the Communist party which was immediately cheered as a brilliant liberal answer to the Red baiters. Day after day Hubert dominated the press, particularly in Minnesota while his allies in the state told liberals “calm down! It’s a ploy! Nothing’s going to happen!” Godfrey said it was cynicism and even spoke against it in his classes. Gene decided to muffle through it and give the press such pro and con verbiage that nobody could interpret it.

The Senate combined the two bills—the Republican tough-on-Commie labor unions one and Hubert’s outlawing the Communist party. It passed the combination 84 to 0. Humphrey was shown as ecstatic in the press. The House softened the bill and knocked out the Humphrey proposal. Hubert and Gene had words because Gene was supposed to uphold the Humphrey position but he had a cold that day and didn’t. Hubert got to work and restored his proposal in the Senate. When it went to conference, the House members weakened it again so the outlaw portion was a mishmash. The bill was signed into law by Eisenhower on August 24 as “The Communist Control Act of 1954” but it was such a jumbled patchwork of dubious constitutionality that it was never enforced.

But the bill snapped back to bite Hubert in the posterior. In one day he switched from the liberal champion who had outfoxed Joe McCarthy to being condemned by liberals as a dastardly sell-out by throttling civil liberties by outlawing a Communist party. The Republican Alsop brothers (Stewart and Joseph) chortled their praise for Hubert, writing in their syndicated column said it was “the most cleverly conceived, ruthlessly executed and politically adroit of all the sudden Democratic raids that have been such a feature of this Congress.”

Yet praise like that curdled the milk of the liberals, Humphrey’s allies. The ADA hated it. Gene McCarthy privately said behind Humphrey’s back that t it was an inexcusable departure from principle. Now the focus turned to Humphrey the weasel opportunist—one who would sell out for any price to get reelected. Humphrey the fox had seemingly outfoxed himself. He met with the civil libertarians and said, “gentlemen, the Communist party isn’t a party at all. It’s a conspiracy to overthrow the United States government!” They said: aw, Hubert, we loved you when you were unpopular. Now that you’re cuddling up to Joe McCarthy you’re just another hack.

Twisting and turning, Humphrey flew back to Minnesota and denounced Joe McCarthy but it sounded hollow. But who was going to beat him in Minnesota? Nobody. I was covering politics then and I knew Hubert was going to win. I met Humphrey in St. Cloud, in central Minnesota, for what would be a statewide coverage circus for my newspaper.

When I first met him that day he was looking at a report from his campaign manager that said: surprise! Nobody cares about outlawing the Communist party at all—they want to boost farm prices…and unless you do something about attacking Ezra Taft Benson the conservative secretary, you might be sent out to pasture to join Joe Ball (the Republican Hubert beat six years earlier).

Remarkably, the one thing I liked about Hubert started from that day on. He spoke off-the-record and so trusted me that I never tried to rim him by quoting him correctly (he later got out of that habit). He said:

“Well, pshaw”—an old Hubert aphorism from South Dakota—“so they want somebody to go after Ezra Benson instead of the Commies, do they? Well, hang on kid—we’ll give it a good old fashioned try!”

What fun for a 26-year-old Chicagoan who knew less about the farm issue than anything else! Soon I was phoning in stuff that sounded like I knew what 100% of parity was.

I got to understand it though as this ex-pharmacist gave farmers lessons in farm economics, pounding his fist into an open palm. By the time he finished, farmers thought Ezra Taft Benson was the closest living relative of Satan Incarnate.


  1. HHH was tough on Communism - he was a Liberal and not a Progressive.

    Joe Lieberman is a Liberal and therefore Red Meat for the Progressive.

    Reds do Fine in America. It is a Free Country.

    Progressives want to change that.

  2. Once the Soviet files were opened up it was shown that he Commies were there. Joe McCarthy was right. But today commies have changed their calling to environmentalists and are the champions of the global warming mania and the "nanny" state. They figured out how to control the population through environmental regulations. We call them Watermelon people: Green on the outside-red in the middle.

    And then there are those Hollywood commies.... well many came over from Europe during and before WWII to work in Hollywood. But problem is that Joe McCarthy unearthed a real pest hole of Commies in Hollywood: Actors, producers, writers, etc. etc. Today they are still there with the likes of Barbara Streisand, Norman Lear (People for the American Way).. It is always a good feasting ground for donations for people like Hillary and Obama.... If the rest of us say anything about it... well we are called antisemitic, rightwingers,
    red-baiters, etc. And don't forget all those lefty rants during the Oscars! By this time, being a commie leftie liberal in Hollywood is probably genetic!

  3. Lawrence-
    I appreciate you composing a post in American English (at my lower level)that I fully appreciated, and agree with- Keep up the good work-