Monday, November 19, 2007

Flashback: Johnson Emasculates Humphrey in the Nation’s Eyes…Gene Nurses His Scabs and Vows to Get Even.

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

Hubert thought and re-thought Muriel’s views about LBJ the egocentric bully during the full day of Tuesday, August 25 and indeed for years to come. Now as he worked during the day in his room, he remembered as a faint dream the phone ringing early in the morning with the news that Johnson had offered the vice presidential nomination to Mike Mansfield, a taciturn, tight-lipped Montanan who though he never went to church (nor did his wife) was a nominal Catholic. But that had been dispelled as another Johnson ploy to keep everybody on their toes as the occupant of the White House, very much like Captain Queeg, was rolling the steel ball-bearings in his hands, thinking up new forms of mental torture and insisting on ways his supplicants could grovel to him.

What it did was emasculate Hubert. So eager for the job was he that he watched himself perform gyrations for the job: unmanly.

Then that afternoon, Jim Rowe who was close to LBJ (an old FDR type, a Catholic, who had been in Hubert’s corner during the West Virginia primary) called him from his room at the Colony Hotel in Atlantic City. He asked Hubert and Muriel to come over which they did—with two aides, Bill Connell and Max Kampelman--Muriel grumbling all the way that this was more Johnson foreplay. There with much ceremony Rowe took Hubert into his bedroom, closed the door and said that Humphrey would be the nominee and that he was to stand by for a plane trip to Washington from Atlantic City that very night…a distance of 140 miles. Just as Humphrey was prepared to relax, Rowe said that was not all. Typically Johnsonian.

Rowe was to find a copy of the “Washington Star” which ran a background story dictated by Johnson to a reporter who acted almost like a stenographer, which outlined what Johnson wanted in a vice president. Johnson ordered Rowe to insist that Humphrey read the article. The only problem was that Rowe couldn’t find a copy of the “Washington Star” in Atlantic City; all he could find was the “Washington Post.” But luckily a story in the “Post” carried a similar—not identical—story. Rowe gave Hubert the “Post” and fiddled around while Hubert, slumped in an easy chair, obediently read it like a serf ordered to do so by his master. . It was a virtual job description for vice president. The vice president to LBJ must be (a) so loyal to the president that they were as to be one man; (b) have no public disputes with the president (redundant in view of the first); (c) must not lobby for special interests; (d) must support the president even if he had earlier advised against a decision that was made and (e) must share secrets with the president that he would share with no one else including Muriel.

Humphrey finished and said, all right, thank God it’s settled. Now I want to tell Muriel. No-no-no, said Rowe. Humphrey must tell no one including Muriel that he was picked. That is ridiculous, said Hubert. But those were the rules. All Hubert can say to those waiting outside this door is that Hubert was going to go to Washington to meet with the president—period. Hubert sighed and said okay but I hope to hell this stuff winds up pretty soon because I’m ready to fold up physically.

The others were watching TV and when Hubert said he would have to fly to Washington alone, Muriel said that the weather man on TV said the Atlantic City airport was fogged in. At that point Kampelman said he’d drive Hubert to D. C. No-no-no, said Rowe. It is forbidden; The president wants Hubert to fly. Hubert obediently caved in. He planned to go to the airport and wait for the fog to lift. But Muriel had had enough. “Well since he’s God Almighty, tell him to cause the fog to rise!” exploded Muriel. Everybody laughed. Then Hubert, to please Muriel, exploded in a fit of recriminations against Johnson calling him an arrogant bastard. Rowe nudged Hubert back to his room and said in a whisper: right now you’re a senator from Minnesota, Hubert but this time tomorrow you will be the vice presidential nominee and then you can tell Lyndon he’s a dumb bastard. Arrogant bastard, Hubert corrected. Arrogant bastard, then said Rowe. Hubert emerged from the room his head hung low, obediently.

Rowe ordered a private plane for Hubert. Kampelman escorted Humphrey to the private airline terminal and waited for the plane to arrive and the fog to lift but when it did, Hubert was to board it alone.

Meanwhile, Gene was whiling the time away as he sat in his suite at the Shelburne hotel. He had stashed away a few well-heeled friends at the Carousel Hotel in Brigantine, N. J. ten miles north of Atlantic City (where I was staying) including Howard Stein, the mega-millionaire head of the Dreyfus Fund, Stein’s wife and McCarthy aides Jerry Eller and Art Michelson (his press secretary who was my friend). The society leader Mrs. Stein was fascinated by Michelson and his unkempt, pre-hippie swearing and tough-guy talk, thinking he was fey.

But at the Shelburne, once McCarthy saw on TV reports of the favorable resolution to the Mississippi Freedom Democratic party fight he knew what to do. He would end this charade and pull out. Humphrey as stage-manager had nailed the vice presidential nomination. He confirmed it with Eller and Michelson on the phone late that night. Very early the next morning—August 26—he sat down and wrote a telegram to Johnson saying that the qualifications he listed in the paper were those who could most ideally be filled by Hubert. He called Jerry Eller at the Carousel, read him the wire and asked that Eller send it immediately to the White House. Then Gene got a message at the hotel desk from Washington that ordered him to take the same plane Hubert was to take, to Washington.

Gene was more manly than Hubert. Tired of the game, Gene ignored the summons.

Meanwhile, Eller, as fed up with LBJ’s tactics as Gene, decided on his own not just to send the wire but to call Walter Jenkins at the White House and personally read the wire to him. Jenkins blew up because Johnson’s devious game was foiled. He asked Eller to destroy his copy of the wire and not release it to the media. Eller—my old classmate of whom I was very proud—said: “too late, Walter. I just released it.” Jenkins said: You dumb bastard, the president wants your guy to fly to Washington right now and now you and he screwed it up!”

Eller who was his own man and never remotely Gene’s clone said: Well, Walter maybe you better tell His Highness that he’d better play things straighter the next time, get me? This cat and mouse stuff may go okay on the banks of the Perdenales river in East Texas but not here and not even in Minnesota. Goodbye.”

Johnson had wanted McCarthy to fly to Washington at the same time as Hubert and be standing there before the press when the Great I Am (LBJ) would pick one of them—purportedly Hubert and leave the other humiliated (in Gene’s view). McCarthy didn’t know Eller had said this but he was glad Eller did what he did.

So later that morning Gene went to a breakfast at a restaurant near his hotel with several members of his old 1958 House Democratic class. While he was eating, he had a call from Art Michelson his press guy saying the media were heading to the restaurant to interview him. Heartily sick of the whole thing, McCarthy gulped down his coffee, excused himself, went to the Men’s Room, jimmied open the window, climbed out and walked down the fire escape to the ground. Then he loped around the building and hailed a cab to take him to his hideaway at the Carousel Hotel to avoid the press which had staked out the Shelburne, mentally and emotionally giving Johnson the finger in the process. At the Carousel he got a swimming suit and swam with his son Michael and relaxed all day. All the while frantic Johnson aides were trying to get hold of him. He thought: screw `em.

When he returned to his room from swimming, McCarthy’s secretary was ringing his room and had been every five minutes saying that the White House was trying to get hold of him. McCarthy returned the call and a chastened Johnson said that he had had made the decision for Humphrey before he got McCarthy’s wire—which was right. McCarthy hung up and said to himself and also aloud to the man who was standing by overhearing it, Maurice Rosenblatt: screw him (meaning Johnson).

To show how weird Johnson was, he had to find a second man on the plane to Washington to give a sense of heightened theatrical suspense. So he held up the plane and commandeered Connecticut Sen. Tom Dodd, a Catholic, who was at the Atlantic City convention to go to the airport, catch the plane and fly to Washington with Hubert. Dodd had no earthly glimmer as to why he was going to Washington. Johnson was stage-managing it in hopes that the press would play the two—Hubert and Dodd—like an ocarina and he, Johnson, the Great I Am, would select the running mate, Hubert. When Hubert saw Dodd running to the gate to get on his plane he had one momentary bit of panic that Dodd would be the nominee. He took one more obligatory swipe of Pepto and fell asleep, snoring with his mouth open, his head virtually falling on Dodd’s unwilling shoulder, so emotionally drained was he, all the while Dodd was wondering what the hell he was doing going to Washington without a change of clothes. .

All the while, Gene McCarthy was developing a first-rate case of supreme bitterness over the episode. These were his feelings as he later told me which I noted and translate this way. He nurtured…

1. A cold, dark Irish hatred for Johnson for toying with him and trying to humiliate him, making him play the part of the supplicant and hoping that, spurned, Gene would take it in good nature. He hated himself for being so craven, almost “unmanly.” His words.

2. A cold, dark Irish hated for Hubert, so patronizing and Uriah Heap-like that he demeaned himself and threw himself at the feet of that ignorant Texas peasant who would defecate on a toilet while conferring with aides (a fact), cheapening both Hubert and Gene. He was unmanly and the onus carried through to him.

3. A cold, dark, Irish hatred for the Kennedys whom he judged had put Lyndon up to picking Hubert on the basis that they were the true Catholic legatees to the presidency, a burning coal anger that burst into flame whenever he fanned it. Gene appeared unmanly in the media when he was compared to them. Now he despised them.

4. A cold, dark, Irish dislike for Abigail who was so passionately eager for him to be vice president, so regular-Democrat like, just like all of the Quigleys in Wabasha, Minnesota (her home town). Partially to please her, he allowed himself to be inveigled in this thing. Unmanly.

4, Finally, a cold, dark Irish hatred for the system, rather irrational since he had been well rewarded by it, but a nihilistic view of the worthlessness of it all, reinforced as he read Thomas Merton poetry. It was at this point that he resorted to the football coach analogy. Being good at politics was like a football coach being good at football—you have to be smart enough to call the winning plays but dumb enough to think it all really matters. It was boilerplate cynicism that stayed with him ever since. Playing up to its expectations was unmanly.

On all these matters, black-hooded and malevolent, he was preparing to sink the dagger into them all—LBJ, Hubert, the Kennedys and the discredited system.. The only thing good that came out of it, he decided, was that his own reelection in Minnesota for 1964 was greased due to the SuperBowl coverage he had received as a possible vice president. But it wasn’t enough. .

LBJ’s treatment of Hubert as a serf continued when the plane carrying him and Dodd landed in Washington at 4:30 p.m.. Johnson’s press secretary had told the media that there would be a meeting outside Johnson’s office that afternoon---but the Great I Am didn’t want to bump Lady Bird’s arrival at Atlantic City so another serf, Jack Valenti, picked Hubert and Dodd up and drove them around Washington before they came in at the White House east gate.

There they parked and Hubert fell asleep again. Dodd sat uncomfortably chatting to Valenti with Hubert snoring alongside. Then there was a tap at the car window. Hubert awoke with a start. It was Johnson. He invited them in. A final jolt to Hubert’s heart: Johnson invited Dodd to come into the Oval Office first without Hubert. As Hubert sat outside wondering if this meant Dodd had the job, he rethought Muriel’s crack about Johnson’s cruelty in teasing. The Great I Am. Then Dodd came out, told Hubert to go in.

Johnson, his leathery face breaking out in a wide smile, put his arm around Hubert’s shoulder and said: “Hubert, how would you like to be my vice president?” Then they sat down and Johnson gave him tutoring lessons on what he wanted, concluding with: “Hubert, if you didn’t know you were going to be my vice president a month ago, I’d have said you’re too dumb to hold the office.”

Meanwhile at the Carousel, Gene, hoisting drinks with Eller, Michelson a host of others—and me—sprayed bitter epigrams around about Hubert, Johnson and the political process. I did think: well, that’s going to be fun some future day or other. Maybe it’ll even lead to a Republican presidency—not in 64, that was hopeless. But in the future.

It did.


  1. I have a friend who is a graduate of the Notre Dame University College of Law and a resident of Connecticut. I consider this man, who is also a probate judge to be reliable. His family attends Mass at a parish in Farmington. Senator Christopher Dodd (D-Ct) attends the same church. According to my friend, although Dodd attends Sunday Mass when he is in his home state Dodd never seeks to receive Communion. He remains in his pew while others receive the Eucharist.

    While I have not revisited the topic with him lately to learn if this is still the case, I think that it is to Dodd's credit that he does not present himself for communion as a result of his stance on abortion. This does beg the question, however, if he knows what is morally wrong on Sunday, how can he support immoral positions as a legislator on Monday? Clearly, the man is in conflict with himself.

  2. This saga is reminiscent of a cartoon I once saw (The New Yorker?) of a sad sack type walking along who notices a bird flying on high. "I wonder what it's like to fly," he thought.

    The bird looked down and thought, "I wonder what it's like to grovel."

    In spite of his many faults, at least Gene McCarthy didn't grovel!