Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Flashback: The Johnson Tease Continues. If You Think Nixon was the Only Wacko President, Think Again as LBJ Dresses in his Bedroom with the Door Open so the Media Can See Him in his Skivvies.

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

The incredible vulgarity of Lyndon Baines Johnson which caused some to re-think his emotional stability continued as he tried to extract the maximum tease from his selection of Hubert Humphrey as his vice presidential nominee—gestures that demeaned both LBJ and Hubert in history.

After telling Hubert he was the guy in late afternoon of Wednesday, August 26, 1964, Johnson led Humphrey into the cabinet room where, incredibly, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk and National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy had been kept waiting for hours to complete Johnson’s little game. Johnson introduced Hubert as “the next vice president” and they congratulated the Minnesotan. Then he took Hubert back to the Oval Office where he placed a phone call to Muriel Humphrey, saying “you looked very pretty on TV this afternoon. We’re going to nominate your boy tonight. I want you to put on your best bib and tucker for him.”

Muriel could show that she was a phony, too, after she had railed about Johnson to her husband and others. She said: “Bless your heart. I’m going to put on my best bib and tucker for both of you!”

Hubert could only manage to say to Muriel: “How are you?”

Johnson and Muriel on the phone both laughed heartily. Hubert reddened. He was at a loss for words—the first time.

When I saw this in the newspaper the next day I remembered Art Michelson, McCarthy’s press guy, sticking his finger down his throat to try to vomit and felt sympathetic to this maudlin, disgusting exhibition where Hubert was made to jerk this way and that in front of his wife as if he were a puppet on a string.

At 7 p.m. Johnson, still strutting like Mussolini, called the obedient media to his office with Hubert, beaming, standing by his side and said, “Now I’ve made up my mind.” But he/ didn’t tell them who was the nominee. The media addressed Hubert as “Mr. Vice President” but of course Hubert couldn’t respond to that title by conceding it; he just said nothing. Then, glorying in his role, Johnson took Hubert and the reporters on a swing—two laps—around the South Lawn, before inviting everyone to his private living quarters for drinks and cheese sandwiches, plus caviar. Dazed, Hubert still couldn’t confirm or deny. Then Johnson strode to his bedroom, left the bedroom door ajar and changed into a new suit, standing in his skivvies and bawling out some niceties to the press.

Ann Terry Pincus, Washington correspondent for Ridder newspapers, was the only woman present. She was unimpressed to look beyond the open bedroom door and see the president of the United States in his blue-striped jockey shorts—big bony legs covered with black hair: an edifying sight. (This was probably the last time the media instituted a black-out for a president’s doings: if George W. Bush were to do this it would be on every front-page in the country). Seriously, something would break loose in Johnson’s cranium on occasion for him to do this; he was known to conduct conversations with the news media while sitting on the toilet—and thankfully with Ms. Pincus around, this was not one of those times. What was his purpose? Psychologists have pondered this for years. Best thought is that wanted to bring the office down to earthy level, feeling innately inferior (as he should have been) that he could not rise to the level it demanded so he brought it to his vulgar essence where he could feel comfortable. .

It was not until Johnson and his party, including Hubert, left Andrews Air Force base, boarding Air Force One, for Atlantic City that he finally confirmed the news: “Boys, meet the next vice president of the United States.” Two hours later he bellowed to the Democratic convention from the rostrum in Atlantic City: “I give you the best man in America for the job—Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota!” With that Johnson’s minions finally broke open the boxes of Johnson-Humphrey materials that had been stashed all over Atlantic City and Hubert watched the demonstration in his honor.

Stiffly, almost as if he was forced to ingest bitter medicine, Gene McCarthy walked up to the rostrum and in a restrained speech placed Hubert in nomination—the last official praise that he would make for Humphrey. The speech was low-key.

Later Gene and Abigail went off and had a violent row. They were in their hotel room, preparing to change into fresh clothes for a Minnesota delegation reception honoring Hubert. McCarthy started to toss around epigrams laced with vinegar about Hubert and Johnson. If Abigail was nothing more, she was an orthodox, regular Irish Catholic Democrat from Wabasha, Minnesota whose forebears had all been loyal Democrats. She listened to him for a while and then said:

“You know, you’re just a spoiled baby. You’ve had things too good, is what you’ve had it.”

Too good?

“Yeah. The brightest guy at St. John’s. The novice director tells you what he told everybody else—in the novitiate you have to tap maple trees and not sit around and rhapsodize over books. So as soon as he gets on you, you up and walk out.”

Well, maybe I should have stayed.

“No, you couldn’t have stayed, Gene because all your life from your own Mother on throughout your family and your friends everybody has been larding it all over you: You’re the smartest, you’re the best. Gene this and Gene that. It’s your goddamned ego. Hubert’s been at this business when he was an apartment house janitor. Not you. You’re a big shot; not Gene McCarthy. He was born dirt poor. You were born to a fairly rich family who owned a fairly well-to-do farm. He took some tough blows—had to drop out of college because the family was losing everything in the dust bowl. Not you. Your father set us up in a farm—no charge.”

Are you through?

“Not really. You couldn’t handle the farm, couldn’t run it.”

Are you telling me you loved the farm?’

“Hated it. Hated it. But your family got it sold and you were off scot-free. Not like Hubert. He was a janitor--.”

You said that.,

“He spent off-hours organizing the party. He ran for mayor. He lost. Then he won without a dime to his name.”

You forgot his role in avoiding the draft.

“Yep, he did that. And what did you do, Gene? You joined the CIA because you didn’t want to go.”

Not true.

“Not true my eye! I knew you then remember? I know you pretty well, remember? You know what you are?”

I’m sure you’ll tell me.

“A whitened sepulcher. Proud, haughty, cold, icy. Cerebral. Unfeeling. You don’t want to hear it but by god you will. Hubert—gets elected mayor of Minneapolis and takes a long chance and leading the fight for civil rights at the convention in 1948. I wonder if you’d do that, Gene. Take a chance like that?”


“Walking onto the Senate floor and the first day everybody walking out on him. Working his way back. Being turned down for vice president by Adlai. Getting licked in `56 with the presidential primary. Picking himself up. Coming back. I just don’t think you have the stuff to put up with any disappointments, Gene. And it’s too bad. You’ve had things too easy.”

Maybe you should have married him.

“See? See what I mean? Maybe you should have married him! How old were you when you ran for Congress? Thirty-two. When you ran for the Senate? Forty-two. Now you’re running for reelection with a sure-thing: fifty two. You just finished two weeks of big media attention as a potential vice president and you’re a child---an utter child because you didn’t get it. You’re vengeful, Mr. McCarthy: that’s what you are. And I’ve noticed something else about you. And you might as well hear it now.

Do tell.

“No self-deprecation. Everybody can laugh with Hubert about how garrulous he is. How driven he is! He tells jokes on himself. But not Saint Eugene McCarthy. He’s perfect. Nobody better laugh at him. Let me tell you something. Eugenie Anderson ran against you for the senatorial nomination and you’ve been bad-mouthing her ever since—not for any other reason than she had the temerity to run against the great, sainted Gene McCarthy. Who the hell do you think you are, anyhow, Mr. McCarthy? God? Maybe you confuse those poor dumb symps who think you’re a saint. Well you’re not fooling me. Underneath that scholarly demeanor is a proud, cold, terribly uncompassionate, self-driven egotist who’s--.”


“Icy, cold, calculating and unfeeling. Now you go to the delegation reception. I’m not.”

You’re not?

“No. I’m just a little worked up with your monumental ingratitude and going around harpooning Hubert and everybody else, picking up your bat and ball and not playing because you didn’t make it on the first try for vice president. You just get the hell out of here and go. Tell `em I’m sick. Tell `em anything. Tell `em I’m damned sick of you if you wish. I’m worked up enough to be sick—not that you would care. But I’m too worked up so I’m going to stay here and watch television while you go preening and hoping people will remark about your saintliness and your priceless intellectual depth.”

As he went to the door he heard her say:

“Believe me, Mr. McCarthy. If you could screw Hubert Humphrey and President Johnson and the Democratic party we both belong to and cause them to lose you would. I’ve seen this before. If Eugenie Anderson had won the Senate endorsement you wouldn’t have lifted a finger for her. It’s all you-you-you. That’s what Godfrey and you believe. The imperial self. You’re an ingrate and a monumentally selfish whitened sepulcher.”

He strode out. He shut the door softly and turned to see--.

Standing in the hall outside the door, waiting to escort the McCarthys --standing deeply embarrassed but too fascinated to move on—were Art Michelson and Jerry Eller, his aides. Both guys had had many worse fights with their wives—name-calling, throwing things, much worse than this, Michelson once grabbing his and threatening to shove her head into the oven unless she stopped kicking and punching him. After which they wept and made up. Eller’s wife who when she got fed up would scream, “Sh-u-u-t the hell up, Eller!”

But this was different they decided. The explosion from Abigail was unheard of. She was a Dresden beauty, a statesman’s wife with a face molded of porcelain—a beautiful woman, a gifted writer and teacher with a demeanor of grace and elegance.

Nobody had ever said these things to Gene McCarthy in their memory. Or even thought it. Michelson’s attitude toward McCarthy changed with that hearing; he realized that Gene’s pride was as insidious as Hubert’s penchant for making a fool out of himself by Lyndon Johnson for his political ambitions. Also that Muriel could call Hubert to task and often did but no one—utterly no one, least of all Abigail McCarthy—dared suggest that Saint Eugene was not perfect.

From that time on, Gene sipped wine and spent hours trading witticisms and collecting adulation from liberal female reporters who loved his humor and regarded him as Deep with a capital D. Most were Catholic. They went by the names “The Little Sisters of the Media”—Shana Alexander, Vasser grad, first woman columnist for “Life” magazine, liberal, witty, disarmingly aristocratic, cynical. Elizabeth Drew, first woman correspondent for “Atlantic Monthly,” Wellesley grad, intellectual, liberal. Mary McGrory, political columnist for “The Washington Star,” Irish Catholic, studiously liberal, a passionate hater of Lyndon Johnson and Hubert, former Boston Herald writer. Marya McLaughlin, Irish Catholic, first woman correspondent for CBS News, graduate of Catholic University. Pauline Frederick, UN correspondent for NBC-TV, ten years older than Gene, often a companion to the divorced Adlai Stevenson; graduate of American University, Washington, D. C. , Nancy Hanchman Dickerson, first NBC woman anchor, bright-eyed opportunist who later married a multi-millionaire and lived in a mansion in Virginia, ace political correspondent. .

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