Friday, November 23, 2007

Flashback: Hubert Learns the Joys and Woes of the Vice Presidency. You Die, I Fly was Supposed to be the Motto of the Job but Not with Hubert.

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

NOTE: These memoirs about Minnesota have caused a good many readers whom I knew in those years to write to this website—some asking how to communicate with me personally about those years. They may write to me at I thank them for their interest.

Make no mistake, the thought of being president stayed with Hubert Humphrey all the while he was vice president—and then some. He was so servile a vice president to Lyndon Johnson that, as Gene McCarthy said many times, he “lost his manhood.” But every vice president of the U.S. has to be deferential—even LBJ to JFK. Dick Cheney as well but then the world knows that he is his own man.

Besides, any view about Hubert’s vice presidency as sacrificing manhood, coming from Gene, a reservoir pool of bitterness, would have to be suspect. Gene resented anybody who had the job he wanted, and it was a sure thing that Johnson picked the right man. Gene’s nature was to be unreliable, dilatory and disloyal (bound to only one vision—his own). He was disloyal to Hubert to whom he owed a great deal to Hubert and didn’t recognize he did. He was disloyal to LBJ who pushed him from Gene’s earliest days in the Senate and didn’t recognize he did.

He was emotionally immature, very passive, far from a hard-worker and in a clinch couldn’t be expected to make a quick decision, had no real absolutes…as it proved even on the war in Vietnam... and was governed by a misty theology that sprang from a combination of his thinking and Godfrey Diekmann’s.

Neither Gene nor Godfrey could run anything, even a funeral procession. Hubert had at least been mayor, got things through a hostile city council, chase remnants of the Capone gang out and made it a wholesome city once again. Throughout his public life, Gene had the easiest job in the world—U.S. Rep, U. S. Senator. You vote on things, have no responsibility over anything other than you 24-member (or so) staff. There is a good reason why the electorate declines to elect many senators from the outset (only Harding and JFK in the 20th century). That’s because there is no administrative quotient in the job—it has the easiest job specs other than city librarian.

As a matter of fact, librarian probably has more administrative decisions to make: what books to buy, what newspaper subscriptions to take. The role of Senator, grandiose, is pathetic when considered as a stepping-stone to the presidency. Yet Republicans and Democrats recently seem to prefer senators—the Dems: Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama this year, John Kerry in 2004, Al Gore who had been a senator before veep; the Repubs: Nixon in `60 who had been senator before veep; Goldwater; Nixon again, Dole—Dole i.e. “Senator Bought,” ugh.

Hubert was only vice president for two days when his heart sprang up—thinking he would become president. On Jan. 22, 1965, two days after being sworn in, he was preparing for a trip to the St. Paul Winter Carnival the next day. But when he got home that night he was sneezing and felt rotten. He went to bed immediately and got up about 2 a.m. for a hot toddy (hot water plus lemon and a good shot of bourbon) to conquer the chills. Muriel said he shouldn’t go to St. Paul and he agreed. He just got back into bed and turned on his heating pad when his bedside “hot line” rang. It was George Reedy, Johnson’s press secretary, who said that LBJ was just taken to Bethesda Naval Hospital for treatment of an undisclosed illness.

Reedy really didn’t know what it was that ailed Johnson and he couldn’t find out—but as everybody knew, Johnson had suffered a severe heart attack when he was in the Senate and this could be another. So Hubert immediately felt better. He got up and sat in his kitchen with Muriel. Every vice president carries on in intolerable length of how they dread that call that the president is dead—and they all lie because they all want the presidency. All that is except one: Thomas Marshall who was genuinely petrified that Woodrow Wilson would, in fact, die, since he knew he wasn’t up to the job in any sense. An affable boozing nonentity known for the statement “what this country needs is a good five cent cigar!” he was as shallow as a pie-tin and knew it although he had been governor of Indiana and U. S. Senator. He has been known also for his statement that since more vice presidents have come from Indiana than any other state, “Indiana produced more second-rate men than any other.” And so with Wilson seriously incapacitated (so much so that he would lie in bed giggling to himself on occasion) and Mrs. Wilson (who had a fourth grade education) running things, ordering the cabinet around, Marshall never made a move to try to be an acting president. Too scared.

Aside from him, every other vice president loved the thought of succeeding to the top job. Even Harry Truman about whom a great myth was concocted when he said, “I tell you boys if you ever pray, do it now because I feel the whole world has fallen in on me.” Bunk. The only one who ever reacted honestly (aside from Thomas Marshall) was Alice Roosevelt Longworth who said when their family was notified that President McKinley had been shot, the kids all danced around and said, “hurrah! Daddy will be president!” TR tried to shush them up but it is all but certain that as a bear of an activist, he was as joyful as the kids. But like all others he had to put on a hang-dog face, be photographed looking wistfully to the horizon, wishing for all the world that this had never happened. Bunk. Nobody including John Adams (Thomas Marshall excepted) ever took the job without hoping he’d become president.

So as Hubert was downing his second hot toddy—lemonade laced with bourbon—and feeling much better and more receptive toward life, the phone rang again. He grabbed it and said expectantly: “Yes?” It was Reedy again saying that Johnson was hospitalized with a heavy cold, that’s all. “Oh,” said Hubert, “I’m so glad!” Click. Buzz. Rats. The “Wall Street Journal” Washington staff already had written the story which was set in type ready to go on a minute’s notice, starting: “Hubert Horatio Humphrey, who yesterday became the 37th president of the United States as a result of Lyndon Johnson’s death, will run an unmistakably activist, liberal administration.” Changes that would come would reflect a different style from Johnson’s not content, the WSJ said and prosecution of the Vietnam War would continue to be imparted “vigorously.” Hubert could visualize the self-same story but it was not to be. Oh well.

With that late night jolt, Hubert got well all of a sudden and prepared to go to Minnesota, a cold or not. Reason: the health scare with LBJ hospitalized gave rise to the expectation that Hubert would be president one day and Hubert wasn’t about to miss out on that excitement in his native state no matter how sick he was. He got there and told the Minnesota press with the proper hangdog face, “I realized my fears and apprehension were unfounded and now I can smile again!” Bunk.

When he said that I once again thought of Michelson sticking his finger down his throat in a simulated preparatory vomit. But of course that is what the public—wise beyond measure to the hypocrisy of politics—still wants to fool itself and believe. If Hubert had been honest and had used his favorite expression “oh pshaw!” that Johnson didn’t die, there would be a seismic earth shock in public opinion. The public in other words knows better but wants a vice president to pretend the hypocrisy of faux sorrow and faux relief when told the chief executive would live.

Most vice presidents—with the exception of Dick Cheney who is truly the number two with all the accoutrements and power in the conceptual design of the founders—are kick arounds and usually chafe about it. Going to state funerals is their least favorite duty. But early on Hubert was planning in his mind’s eye for a big funeral he would go to.

That would be Winston Churchill’s who was lingering, lingering and ready to die at any moment. Heading the U.S. delegation and going to Churchill’s funeral would enable Hubert to rub elbows with all the world’s leaders and place him on a par with them which could be wonderful to shape public opinion that would see him as a future president. There he could return to his hangdog expression and raise misty eyes to heaven to thank it for Churchill’s life (gag again) and privately thank God he was sent to London. . But that wasn’t to happen.

After Churchill died, Hubert waited impatiently for the phone to ring with Johnson’s staff telling him he was to board Air Force One for London. But no call came. Hubert started to get stomach pains again out of anxiety, thinking that Johnson would send someone else to hob-nob with international leaders. Then the phone rang. Hubert said again , “yes?” But his face fell. It was Johnson all right but Hubert had to stay here. Chief Justice Earl Warren would lead the U. S. delegation. What got Hubert crazy was that the White House didn’t issue a word of explanation when there was a very good one at hand: with Johnson recovering from a heavy chest cold he wanted Hubert to stay in this country if he should have to become president. Well, Johnson wasn’t about to nurture that thought, obviously. The real reason may have been that LBJ couldn’t tolerate Hubert running around with all the foreign leaders. Show me a president who can.

But at least he could have used the excuse he gave Hubert to the press. Not at all. Not a word from the White House—and the media started playing the age old Washington game that the vice presidency was being downgraded.

Yet these were all minor league things. The real troubles for Hubert involved our strategy in Vietnam. After all the pledges Hubert had made about his undying loyalty, Johnson had every right to expect that Hubert would back him to the hilt in a hawkish approach. But the war was getting to be very unpopular and very expensive to future electability of one who would back it to the hilt. This would be a character test for Hubert. He was expected to see it through with Johnson and go down with the ship of need be. Well now the water was coming up through the floorboards. .

Gene His Old Epigrammatic Self.

Meanwhile the other candidate who had promised to stay loyal if Vietnam turned sour—and who doubted that his old patron Hubert would-- Gene McCarthy, was his old querulous and enigmatic self: spoiled, as Abigail had said in their hotel room fight in Atlantic City, having been told too often that he was the reigning intellectual of both parties. He missed the limelight as Destiny’s Tot. Where as a vice presidential possibility he traveled the country and in Chicago met and discussed things with Mayor Richard J. Daley and all the crowned heads of the media, now he was just another senator. Nothing more than a face card which was slipped back in the deck, consisting of, as The Little Sisters of the Media felt, 99 demagogues and Gene McCarthy. While he rubbed his scabs raw with misgiving, he tried to get his mind off his envy by seeking to influence the appointment of Hubert’s successor who would be the junior senator from Minnesota.

The DFL governor of Minnesota was Karl Rolvaag, a man whose sobriety extended daily from about 9 a.m. to a quarter to noon where it lapsed. Hubert got hold of Rolvaag promptly at 9:15 a.m. the day after he and LBJ were elected and didn’t ask, but gave it as his recommendation as the leader of the Minnesota party that Rolvaag should appoint the state attorney general, Walter (Fritz) Mondale to his Senate seat. Rolvaag agreed. Rolvaag owed much to Hubert. Others had tried to dislodge him from the gubernatorial nomination in favor of Mondale, the young AG on the strength of the rumors, all true, that Rolvaag was an inconsolable drunk. Hubert denied this and objected. Rolvaag was eternally grateful when Mondale didn’t run against him for the nomination—which was due to Hubert.

McCarthy got hold of Rolvaag at 2 p.m. the same day but was greeted with a happily fluid governor with an attention deficit. McCarthy wanted Rolvaag to concentrate on the fact that he should name to the Senate Congressman John Blatnik from the Iron Range. Blatnik probably was the better choice. Rolvaag had trouble concentrating an answer and the conversation was unsatisfactory. Actually Rolvaag not only agreed with Hubert but felt rightly that he owed as much if not more to Mondale than even to Hubert. It involved a hideously salacious story that both covered up.

The famous story relayed onlookers from the media, Adolph Johnson of the Associated Press, Arv Johnson (no relation) of WCCO radio, Bob Doder of UPI and Art Michelson then of WTCN-TV and repeated by others who were there, is thus: They were all together covering a DFL parley one hot summer day in 1962 in Brainerd, a tourist resort town. Rolvaag was running for governor. After the parley, they went as guests of the DFL to a luxurious resort. Rolvaag started drinking although this time it was vodka so his breath wasn’t detectable. Mondale arrived at the resort late in the afternoon on that incredibly hot day, wearing a spiffy white linen suit. It was boiling hot and Rolvaag suggested, as the gubernatorial nominee, to impress Mondale with his sobriety that while the others on the ticket were engaging in drinks, he and Mondale forego this and go out on a speedboat to the middle of the lake and cool off. Mondale readily agreed, gratified that evidently Rolvaag had eschewed the drinking (not realizing that the lieutenant governor had had consumed far more than his quota).

The lake had been dredged to make it deeper at the shoreline to accommodate deep hulled tourist boats, the depth exceeding twelve feet. Mondale got in the prow of the boat, sat looking speculatively out to the lake while waving at the swimmers and boaters who were cruising by…confident that Rolvaag who knew a lot about speedboats unhooked the sturdy padlocked chain that tied the power craft to the concrete pier. Alas, Rolvaag had not remembered to do this.

Instead, the lieutenant governor sitting in the back, grabbed the tiller, gunned the powerful engine and roared off. The chain reacted against the concrete and the power of the engine—jerking the boat violently. The violent backward snap could have broken Mondale’s and Rolvaag’s necks but instead pitched them high into the air and then down to the lake bottom in an instant. There, Mondale, stunned and imagining that he may have had a stroke, touched the lake bottom and was preparing to zoom up when he saw Rolvaag flailing at his side. He grasped the situation in an instant. When they both came up for air, Mondale found they were the subject of mixed mirth and astonishment from the tourists who had just seen two major Democratic-Farmer-Labor party officials nearly drown. Rolvaag was gratified to be on the surface. He was instantly sober and contrite. But as he was helped to shore, Mondale’s attitude toward the lieutenant governor, resorts, boats and starchy linen summer suits that crumble like a wet newspaper in the water, changed forever.

Mondale only cursed lightly after he and the lieutenant governor paddled ashore because he did not wish to add to the newsworthy-ness of the occasion. Having provided sufficient levity for tourists that afternoon, he ordered his aide to drive him immediately back to Minneapolis, stopping along the way for dry clothes, after which he reportedly made some pungent observations about Rolvaag’s illegitimate ancestry (inaccurate since Rolvaag’s father, properly married in Lutheran rites to the lieutenant governor’s mother, was the immortal novelist Ole Rolvaag who wrote the landmark “Giants in the Earth” in Nowegian, translated into English, a study of immigrants in Minnesota which is still required reading in public high schools of the state).

Mondale reportedly called Hubert to allay the news that Rolvaag had quit drinking. Now Gov. Rolvaag who felt guilty about the matter could repay Mondale by agreeing with Hubert and naming his former sodden swimming partner to the U. S. Senate. Gene was not happy about Mondale’s appointment, saying to his coterie, The Little Sisters of the Media: “Fritz is the new brand of Senate liberal. He’s like that toothpaste that comes in a plastic bag with a brush—you get it all at once.” What did that mean? Like most of Gene’s devastating comments: what you want to make of it. But it captivated Marya McLaughlin of CBS-TV his favorite vehicle of transmission. She carried it through political circles where it reached Mondale’s ears—and Humphrey’s--within a day.

Abigail bit her lip. The Little Sisters of the Media and their closeness to Gene were getting her goat. With Gene’s irreverence they were seeing that he was collecting a lot of Democratic enemies—Hubert, hundreds of delegates and convention guests who saw him acerbic, ungenerous, petty, bitter and the bad loser at the Minnesota post-convention party, President Johnson, now Fritz Mondale.

This bitterness would culminate into what?

She would find out along with many others.


  1. Can't wait for the next installment - boy, you sure know where all the skeletons are buried!

  2. How did you find this stuff out? Is it historical fiction?