Monday, October 22, 2007

Flashback: On Wisconsin—and then to West Virginia…Humphrey Has No Illusions: “If I Can Just Stay Alive Until the Convention I Might Beat JFK.” But How to do it Without Much Money or a Big Daddy to Generate Funds is the Question.

Surprised and Flattered.

Following Jim Rowe’s strategy paper, after Gene McCarthy and Gov. Orville Freeman joined in a news conference urging him to run for president, Hubert pretended he was “surprised and flattered.” It was the absolute last time that any presidential candidate could get by feigning that he was being importuned by others to run—a tradition that began with the start of the convention system in the 1840s and going through Lincoln’s “surprise” at being nominated in 1860 and all the way through the Eisenhower “surprise” primary votes that “convinced” the 5-star general to run. Joseph Alsop, then the premier political columnist, wrote with tongue in cheek—certainly the best ironic prose of the time:

“With all the shy hesitation of a moose in the mating season, the presidential candidacy of Hubert Humphrey has now crashed out of the secret glades into the open glare of day.”

Rowe’s instructions were that after the initial “surprise,” Humphrey should jump into the race with both feet. Agonizingly, Humphrey resisted for a long time. Why? Teasing potential financial contributors that he might not run after all. On being honored by the NAACP in New York city the day after the importuning by McCarthy and Freeman, he was introduced by a black preacher as being “the John the Baptist” of the civil rights movement. Hubert couldn’t resist quipping: “Thanks but all of you know what happened to John the Baptist.” He was right at the time; the money started coming in to convince him to run.

Still Hubert delayed making a formal announcement. Throughout 1959 he traveled around, testing his support while Jim Rowe burned in anger. Weeks went by and Rowe threatened to quit. Hubert said: “Give me just a little more time. Lyndon has invited me to speak at the Texas Farmers’ Union convention and I have every hint that he will give me an inkling of where he stands. If he backs me, I’ll jump in immediately.” Rowe said: “He won’t back you! Don’t you understand? You’re intimidated by Lyndon because as majority leader you think he’s your boss. Well let me tell you the job you want to run for requires you to be intimidated by no one.”

“No,” said Hubert, “I’ve got to know whether I’ll be facing Johnson as well as Kennedy. I know I’ve got Kennedy with his daddy’s multi-millions. If I can certify that Johnson won’t be all that active, I’ll announce. I promise you. I’m not intimidated by Lyndon.” Well, he was, of course and Rowe was right: Hubert never got LBJ to back out. Hubert finally agreed to announce in December, 1959 no matter what Johnson told him.

There was one last chance to get LBJ to bow out. Hubert flew to Texas with Patrick O’Connor a Minneapolis lawyer and fund-raiser and were picked up by helicopter and taken to the LBJ ranch, He made a luncheon speech which was a hit and returned to the ranch for the next night. Johnson said they should stay later because he had invited a group of wealthy oil men to meet with him the following night. Obediently, Hubert stayed and LBJ gave them cowboy clothes to wear.

They went to bed that night ready to be awakened the next morning at 5 a.m. with the egomaniac Johnson waking him and O’Connor up, announcing that they were going to go on a deer-hunting expedition immediately after breakfast. When they gathered for breakfast, Johnson announced that all the food they were eating came from the ranch. “The eggs were laid here, Hubert; the honey on your hot rolls was produced here by my bees. The butter came from my cows; the bakery at the ranch produced the rolls. The ham comes from Johnson hogs.”

With Hubert’s mouth full of eggs and rolls, Johnson turned to him and said in a defiant way: “Well, Hubert, are you going to do me out of the nomination?”

Hubert almost choked on his food and he took a long time to swallow it. Then he said plaintively: “ Lyndon, you have all this—you have the majority leadership, you have the ranch, the eggs from your hens, the butter from your cows, the ham from your hogs, the honey from your bees. Why not let me have the nomination?”

Johnson roared with laughter. Then he told Hubert that while he wanted the nomination, he couldn’t spare time from the majority leader’s job to campaign. That evening one hundred leading Texas businessmen including oil men gave Hubert a standing ovation. On the plane back to Washington, Hubert decided that Johnson would be a passive candidate and that his only worry would be John Kennedy. But that was a big worry indeed.

When he formally announced on December 30, 1959 Hubert passed the word to the media as to his strategy. It was not pompous or inflated but ruthlessly honest. He knew and advertised correctly that Kennedy had millions of dollars at his disposal. He knew he would lose some primaries “but if I can just win in Wisconsin which shouldn’t be all that difficult and stay alive until the convention in July and no one else comes in, the cold-eyed boys looking around for someone as tough and energetic and as mean as Nixon, they just might try me.”

Humphrey did his own issues analysis for his campaign. No one was better at it. He had no big time media specialists. He stated the goals of the campaign clearly before the National Press Club. It is fascinating to re-read his speech and to contrast it with the speech Democrats who seek the presidency today. He said

1. As result of the Eisenhower-Nixon record of the past eight years, there has been an age of defense complacency with the Soviets gaining over us in space and military arms. There must be a militarily stronger U. S. to win the war with the Soviets and new intellectual armaments in the form of ideas to engage them in strategic competitions throughout the world. He leaned on his first-hand knowledge of Nikita Khrushchev—making a very convincing argument. No one in either party could match the time he had spent with Khrushchev. He was also the first to detect a fissure between the USSR and Red China. There is a need to keep up the country’s guard with China and yet encourage her to take an independent course from the USSR. Here I must say it is inconceivable that one can make the point of our lack of military preparedness when the president was a five-star general of the army (retired)—but as one who lived through the media hype of the time, grave doubts were cast about Eisenhower’s capacity to govern, he being viewed as a semi-retired chairman of the board.

2. He contrasted himself with John Kennedy, JFK being the rich man’s candidate. He declared flatly that there was no limit whatever on what Kennedy and his wealthy family would spend to buy the presidency: “I want to set the record straight on that right now.” He hinted not just of formal contributions but the indirect, under-the-table ones that Old Joe was capable of making.

3. In a brilliant analogy, he compared his campaign with “a corner grocer running against a chain store.” He staked out his original attack on the Ezra Taft Benson farm program as his own. Kennedy had voted for the Benson program of flexible supports while Hubert had taken Benson on.

4. He most certainly restated the domestic principles of the New Deal—but it is surprisingly restrained in view of what was yet to come. There was, of course, not the slightest mention of the possibility of affirmative action—only equal opportunity. As a matter of fact, the programs that Hubert espoused were the same that continued in the administration of Ronald Reagan, his old co-founder of Americans for Democratic Action.

The primaries listed by Jim Rowe were largely irrelevant because Hubert didn’t have enough money. In fairness, campaign expenditures were only a microcosm of what they are now because television was in its infancy and candidates usually got on live TV when they appeared in various states. Still even by the reduced standards of the time, Hubert was strapped. He did the District of Columbia primary and easily won that but the budget meant that most of the other states would have to be scrapped—but two. The first should have been easy for Hubert. That was Wisconsin, right next door to Minnesota. Hubert was well-known there; he had an ally in Bill Proxmire but a disadvantage: Wisconsin had a lot of Catholics as well.

The Kennedy people accepted the challenge. came in not just with tons of money in that era when there was sparse and scarce finance reporting…when off-budget monies were used and corporate funds recruited surreptitiously by Old Joe in Boston were applied. And the Kennedys had skilled troops—Larry O’Brien, the Mafia (“Massachusetts nicknamed pols but also the real kind), Ted Sorenson the speech-writer and the first-ever pack of TV consultants. They had an elegant, attractive, charismatic candidate who was advanced by stories that he was a war hero, a Pulitzer prize-winning author, the first Catholic candidate for president since Al Smith and the scion of a near billionaire.

To face this onslaught, Humphrey imported Minnesota DFL volunteers to Wisconsin who tried to run the campaign by phone and on weekends. At the same time, Hubert’s campaign was hobbled by internecine battles. Jim Rowe the old FDR strategist tangled with the fellow ADA liberals headed by Joe Rauh. Everybody waited for the big Humphrey-Kennedy debate. There would be none.

Kennedy wisely refused to debate Hubert. Kennedy said he wouldn’t debate because he admired Hubert and there wasn’t much difference between them. Hubert rejoined: “The hell there isn’t!” He waved a pamphlet showing their different voting records to crowds: “I hate to do this but I’m tired of hearing there’s no difference between us! I didn’t come to Wisconsin to see if I could be the most pleasing man in the world. I came here to talk about public policy, public voting records and public purpose! We’re in politics. We’re not making love!”

Hubert’s dog-tired image and shouting contrasted with Kennedy’s which was the embodiment of the cool, Ivy league-trained, movie-star handsome candidate with JFK’s similarly trained Ivy League helpers being paid to fly in and go throughout the state including his seeming endless list of sisters and nephews, all with the Back Bay accents. Not for a second did Hubert yield to suggestions to go subliminally anti-Catholic: “If you have to have campaigns based on bigotry, innuendo and smear, you can have your politics!” he said in Fond du Lac. “I don’t want any part of it!” Hubert spent $150,000 in Wisconsin—a fifth of what Kennedy spent…on the record, that is.

When the votes were counted, Kennedy won—and it was just short of humiliating for Hubert—476,024 (56.5%) to 336,753 (43.5%)—a blow coming from a neighboring state which Hubert had tried to serve as its third senator but insufficient to knock him out of the box. Hubert cited the positives—he won four out of ten congressional districts, narrowly losing a fifth. Rowe huddled with him and said: “Hubert, it’s almost all over but you have one more go-round. It’s West Virginia.”

Hubert had spent the wad in Wisconsin and was $17,000 in debt for West Virginia.’

“Let’s do West Virginia!” said Rowe. “Hubert, it’s an economically depressed state—a natural for you! And it’s an overwhelmingly Protestant state; more than that, these hillbillies hate Catholics!”

Hubert said: “Cut it out, Jim! I don’t want to win that way!”

Rowe who had a Catholic background himself said: “I know—but let us mobilize the Protestant vote the way these Kennedys do the Catholics, huh?”

“Okay,” said Hubert. “We’ll find the money some way. But the only thing I got left is my reputation. No—and I mean it—anti-Catholic rallies or I’ll tell you what I’ll do Jim, I’ll denounce the hell out of them even if I have to go after you!”

I understand, said Rowe.

His people decided privately to rise above principle and find some hillbilly white ministers to demagogue a bit, getting some financial resources to them off-budget—somehow. When they went to them, Old Joe’s people had beat him to it.

“Jim,” said one of his allies, “Goddamn, old Joe is solving the poverty problem for these ministers right out of his cash drawer!”

A few of them decided to use bigotry—which in some quarters could equal money--and if caught deny they did it. Torn, a Humphrey strategist reached out to Gene McCarthy.

He said: We might win in West Virginia if we…er-er-er.

McCarthy who hated Kennedy like poison got the drift.

“Let’s say,” he intoned, “I’d grant you absolution. You’re not going to direct them to do it.”

Then he ticked off the qualifications to mortal sin—grievous matter, sufficient reflection, full consent of the will.

“If they want to do it without your sanction, is it a grievous matter? Not particularly. Unenlightened, yes. Is there about this act a sufficient reflection? I would guess not. Full consent of the will? Of course not; you have Hubert’s order that it not be done and you will have stated that sufficiently. Views communicated by word of mouth if done in a balanced way—no. Not by a long shot..”

The staffer felt relieved at that. Hearing it from Gene was like hearing it from a priest. (At St. John’s, Fr. Godfrey Diekmann OSB went AWOL from Hubert here: rather mesmerized by Kennedy and the prospect of a Catholic president, even though he wasn’t Gene—to Gene’s utter discomfiture).

Then came the pressure from the Kennedy people to get Hubert to withdraw. California Governor Pat Brown (a Catholic) called Minnesota Governor Orville Freeman remonstrating that Hubert should step down; he can’t win. “Don’t let him go to West Virginia.” Freeman hung up and said to an aide “another one in the bag to the Old Man.”

Walter Reuther of the United Automobile Workers (UAW), a big Humphrey backer got hold of McCarthy.

“I would really urge Hubert if I were you to reconsider, drop out and support Kennedy,” he said.

“The Old Man got to you, too?” said Gene in exasperation.

Labor leader Reuther who had been beaten and shot (one arm permanently maimed) by scabs hired by old Henry Ford and was not a man to take that lying down, interjected: “Gene, I really resent that.”

Gene didn’t back down either.

“Well, you’re of little faith,” said Gene. “Not a chance. We’ll remember that once we get in, Walter. I have been told I have a knack for things like that even if Hubert doesn’t.”

Fully aware of McCarthy’s dark Irish penchant for recalling even minor offenses for many years and what it could mean for the labor movement, Reuther butted out.

Robert Kennedy, JFK’s campaign manager, gave private briefings to the Big Foot press—Reston, Rowland Evans, the Alsops, Teddy White, even George Tagge of the “Tribune.” He said: What more do you want to see? We beat him in Wisconsin, a state my brother hardly visited before the campaign while Humphrey’s been camping there incessantly. We beat him fair and square. Now Humphrey is going to West Virginia? For what? To be the beneficiary of an anti-Catholic campaign? Not that he would churn it up but it’s bound to redound in his favor. Does he want this? He is running the risk of being a spoiler. He can’t be nominated or elected and his only purpose will be to deadlock the convention so the winner is Stevenson whom we’ve had twice before or Symington (boring) or Johnson (a one-time segregationist).

When Hubert heard of the briefings he called a news conference:

“Jack will have plenty of chances to speak for himself without handouts coming from his brother Bobby. Politics is a serious business, not a boy’s game where you can pick up your ball and run home if things don’t go according to your idea of who will win.”

Yes, said the media to Hubert, but what money do you have to mount a campaign in West Virginia?

“My cupboard is bare,” said Hubert.

He liked referring to himself in the third person.

“My treasury is in the red and the only thing running good will be Hubert Humphrey himself. We are operating on Humphrey’s energy and Humphrey’s ability to campaign—and not on other people’s money!”

To protect himself from alleged bigotry, Hubert sent a number of Catholics from Minnesota including Gene—well-known there but nowhere else--to start the campaign. One was red-haired Joe Dillon, the mayor of St. Paul. Dillon went calling on a West Virginia weekly newspaper editor and said he was working for Humphrey.

“Don’t worry,” said the editor, pointing first at his shoes and then at his head, “From the bottom of my soles to the top of my head I’m a Protestant. Do you think I’d vote for that goddamned Catholic Kennedy?”

Phoning from Wheeling, McCarthy got wealthy Stevenson contributors to help Humphrey under the theory that it would be in their interest to block Kennedy. But as Teddy White reported later, Connecticut Governor Abe Ribicoff, acting on Kennedy’s instructions, told them if they helped Hubert in West Virginia and Kennedy won Adlai would not be considered for secretary of state (he wasn’t anyhow). All the while Connecticut chairman John Bailey threatened retaliation against a financial booster of Hubert’s, William Benton.

Gene McCarthy had an idea to filter cash unobserved. He phoned from Charleston to Lyndon Johnson, convinced him that LBJ’s interest lie in stopping Kennedy so the convention might possibly choose Johnson in a deadlock. Gene got him to send some of his prime Texas operatives to West Virginia with a bucket of money to feed it through a willing Bobby Byrd and from him to Humphrey indirectly.

Later he would tell me: “It’s really a disadvantage when our side is weighted down with scruples.

Well, Gene wasn’t.

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