Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Flashback: LBJ Asks Hubert to Bring his ADA Friends into Line but They Don’t Go Quietly (As Hubert Sits by Silently). Hubert Tries to Please but Can’t Avoid Johnson’s Ire. Gene Has Too Much Time on His Hands So He Has Great Fun with Hubert. Then...

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

Hubert Can’t Do Anything Right.

Hubert Humphrey and Lyndon Johnson waged sort of a Cold War on Vietnam. It got worse when “Rolling Thunder” got underway—the sustained air strikes against targets in North Vietnam below the 19th parallel which opened the door to massive U. S. involvement in the war. Because he was in dissent from LBJ’s policies, Hubert wasn’t invited to the hush-hush “Tuesday Luncheons” where hawks would share ideas with the president. Hubert felt he was definitely on the outside—and he was. Then on February 17 a few Senate liberals made floor speeches in the Senate urging the administration to work harder for a negotiated settlement and rely less on military pressure. One of the senators was Gene McCarthy, signaling his first formal questioning of the Vietnam policy.

Then Johnson asked Hubert to work as an intermediary to get the Senate liberals —Wayne Morse of Oregon, Ernest Gruening of Alaska (the only two who voted against the Gulf of Tonkin resolution) into the fold along with Hubert’s next door neighbor, George McGovern (South Dakota), Gaylord Nelson (Wisconsin) and Stephen Young (Ohio)—to at least get them to shut up about their dissent if they wouldn’t get into the pro-Vietnam camp. Johnson purposely didn’t ask Hubert to work on his colleague McCarthy, saving that job for himself.

Hubert said he would try and herded the above-mentioned five to his office to be briefed by McGeorge Bundy the national security adviser. There he sat silently at his desk as Bundy started in. “I’ve gone through the Congressional Record and read what you gentlemen have been saying,” said Bundy. “They’re all very reasonable and thoughtful speeches on Vietnam but when this gets in the papers and then to the rumor mills over in Vietnam, it gives a totally different impression that the country isn’t behind the president.” Nelson took umbrage and asked Mac Bundy: “Does this mean we give up our freedom of speech because some dictator overseas doesn’t understand it?” Bundy said no but it was clear that was exactly what he meant and the meeting broke up with more bitterness than when it began.

Next Johnson asked Hubert to bring in his fellow members of the ADA (Americans for Democratic Action) executive board when the group held a session in Washington. Hubert did. They came in on April 2 for a session that was to last only 15 minutes but which extended to an hour and a half dominated by a Johnson monologue. Now Hubert felt he was being pulled at cross-purposes. Rather than the ADA group understanding his silence to mean that he agreed with them, they felt he was becoming a weak tool in Johnson’s hands and was afraid to express himself. This got Hubert to worrying that he would lose, of all things, the Left in the next election.

It seemed like he couldn’t win: he was on LBJ’s black list for being silent and on the ADA’s as well for holding his tongue. Johnson thought he could pacify the ADA by telling them in advance what he would say five days later in a speech at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. He (a) reaffirmed his commitment to win the war, (b) his readiness to begin peace negotiations and (c) his pledge to invest a billion dollars for economic development of Southeast Asia. LBJ thought that would put the dissent to rest—especially the big spending to rehabilitate Southeast Asia. It didn’t. Johnson blamed Hubert for not rallying the liberals to his side and the liberals blamed Hubert for failing to get Johnson to agree with them. So Hubert couldn’t win for losing.

“Goddamn,” Johnson told Hubert, “you were uncharacteristically silent at that meeting. I thought you were the guy I could go to the well with; well, I guess not.” So Hubert decided to go more on the record with support for Johnson where he could honestly be supportive. Then, on April 28, there was a rebellion in the Dominican Republic; the ambassador talked to Johnson on the phone while crouched under his desk. Johnson sent 30,000 troops to quash the rebellion there. Hubert rushed out to make a speech defending Johnson, saying that the U. S. intervention was justified by the need to protect U. S. citizens liing in Santo Domingo. But liberals blasted him, saying Johnson hadn’t gotten the approval of the Organization of American States before sending the troops, saying also that a year earlier Hubert had made a speech against a hard-line approach in Latin America and now had changed his tune, because he was Lyndon Johnson’s pet poodle.

Next Hubert decided to scrub speaking out on foreign affairs altogether and concentrate on Johnson’s Great Society policy domestically which he could wholeheartedly support. So he set a dizzying pace of speeches—averaging twenty five major ones a month, receiving and sifting through at least a thousand invitations a month. But Johnson was driving him crazy—either calling up for long tete-a-tetes in the Oval Office which kept Hubert from making all his appearances and then not getting in touch with Hubert for weeks. Also Johnson would alternately be a bully, berating him or oily and warm, driving Hubert nuts. So to please Johnson and give himself some needed sanity, Hubert proposed to Johnson that he set up a coordinating council, headed by Hubert and outfitted with a tough White House staff which was to see that individual government agencies were implementing the Great Society agenda.

Johnson said that was a great idea and Hubert went home and had the first good night’s sleep in weeks. But the next morning he was told that Johnson adopted his coordinating council plan and gave it to Joe Califano, a New York lawyer who was going to become Johnson’s super-grade top assistant for domestic affairs starting in July, 1965. Hubert began to get anxiety pains again. There was a big announcement with Califano to be the top staffer and Hubert the head of it, made in July. But by October, 1965 the whole thing was disbanded by Johnson, decentralized and referred to the various agencies. Hubert was left standing around without his portfolio, looking ridiculous.

Okay so Hubert turned again to rushing around the country making speeches. But Johnson became angry that Hubert was stealing the limelight. Hubert had a 45 member staff and Johnson, like a child, said it was too big and filled with publicity seekers for Hubert, depriving LBJ of needed press. Hubert decided then to downplay the media but stay in touch with them anyhow, so he scheduled a trip on one of the presidential yachts filled with journalists for drinks and dinner. But as they went down the Potomac river they passed Johnson in the other presidential yacht with his own guests. The captain of Hubert’s boat then received a phone call from the captain of Johnson’s, saying, “the president wants to know who in the hell has his other boat out.”

To remedy this, Hubert decided that if he wanted to use a boat he’d have his military aide contact a presidential aide who would put the request in LBJ’s overnight reading file. Answers would come back on occasion saying “no” which meant that Hubert had to scrub his plans. Same thing with use of planes. Hubert had to write one memo per speaking engagement to Johnson, meaning that if he had three out-of-town engagements he had to write three memos for Johnson’s overnight reading file. Every so often the memos would come back marked “no” which would mean that Hubert would have to cancel the speeches.

All right, Hubert decided, I’ll make a speech defending his Vietnam position—anything to get this guy off my back. He did so on the night of July 27, 1965 at the National Governor’s Conference in Minneapolis, making an emotional pitch for Johnson’s plan and praised a future increase in our military role. There, Hubert told himself, that’ll do it. No sir, Johnson called up shouting that Hubert had made the announcement for more troops before Johnson had—topping the president once again.

Then to make matters worse, Hubert goes to a White House reception and is greeted warmly by Johnson; then as he is relaxing with a drink, Johnson speaks to the group, pulling a news ticker story from his breast pocket quoting Hubert as saying there’ll be a troop buildup and personally excoriating Hubert for being publicity-hungry…in front of a large business group including many of Hubert’s friends from Minnesota. To make matters worse, he was at another gathering at the Mayflower when Gene McCarthy saunters up and in the earshot of many complimented Hubert for getting more publicity than any other vice president in the history of the republic. It was a typical McCarthy jest. This family website cannot report in specifics what Hubert responded to Gene even though the Internet is free of censorship (exposition of what exactly Hubert told Gene to do would test that rule).

Gene Scoffs but Death Isn’t Funny.

Gene McCarthy kept murmuring his dissatisfaction with Johnson and Hubert, making priceless jokes at their expense and sharing drinks with The Little Sisters of the Media, particularly Marya McLaughlin who was interested in Camus and existentialism and importuning Gene with how she could relate her Catholicism to both the novelist and the philosophy. They spent some time reading from Camus and finding pertinent citations from Aquinas—fun for Gene and delightful for her. She wasn’t married and had a lot of time to listen to him, bursting with laughter at his funny asides which pleased him greatly.

At this time Gene was thinking that he was a pretty lucky guy with a fan club across his state, a way to make big bucks from honoraria and the adulation of The Little Sisters of the Media—but then sadness hit. Death of people hit Gene hard: almost like he hated to be reminded that we all must go someday. Remember, he had been having lunch with a disciple who also thought he was very funny—this time a man, Maurice Rosenblatt of the National Committee for an Effective Congress, who would gratefully pick up the tab for Gene’s lunches, dinners and drinks.

He had been lunching with Rosenblatt on November 22, 1963 when the bartender at the Carroll Arms received a call, walked over to Gene and said that his office was on the phone. Gene went over to the bar and was told that President Kennedy had been shot. While never a fan of JFK, Gene was shaken—thinking, as he always did, of this happening to him: not that he would get shot but that he would die—almost as if it came as a shock. He rushed to the Senate and made a speech that was one of the worst of his life (although he thought it was good at the time), saying that we all shared in the “guilt’ of Kennedy’s death. At that time he thought the murder was due to the right wing in Dallas. When it was revealed that Lee Harvey Oswald was a hard-line Communist, trained in the USSR he never mentioned the guilt again.

Well this time, on a hot July 14, 1965, Gene was having lunch with the very same Maurice Rosenblatt who was buying his lunch and drinks at the very same Carroll Arms when the bartender gets a phone call, comes over to Gene and says it is from his staff. Gene walked over to the bar and took the phone call. Then he walked back to his table, finished his scotch and said with soft irony, “Maurice, I’m not going to have lunch with you anymore.” Why not? Rosenblatt asked.

“Adlai Stevenson just dropped dead on a street in London,” McCarthy said. Together they left the bar.

In his eulogy to Stevenson delivered off-the-cuff in the Senate that afternoon, Gene typified his passive, existentialist philosophy of no definitive beginning or end.

This is what he said. The words are illustrative of one who prefers thought to action—a line which both Marya McLaughlin and Mary McGrory who pondered life’s meaning loved:

“We must speak as he would speak—of the strength of our nation, but at the same time, acknowledge the limits of strength and even more importantly, the limits on the use of the strength which we do possess. Adlai Stevenson accepted the role of the statesman which is never to attempt to write the third and final act of the play in history but rather to continue to direct the action of the second act so that none in our own time may be moved or given the opportunity to write the final act which, on the record of history, has generally ended in tragedy.”

If that isn’t a nihilistic, fatalistic, existentialist and indeterminate skepticism where there is no purpose, I never heard it. Can you imagine a president saying this?

Stevenson’s sudden death—more dramatic in its way than a murder—just dropping dead minutes after having been interviewed by the BBC (which film was played over and over in this country as his body was being shipped back)—shook Gene to the utmost. A few days later he himself became ill. He stayed home, experienced pain in urination. He went to the doctor and was rushed to Georgetown Hospital in severe pain. It was a urinary tract infection and for a time he didn’t seem to respond to the antibiotics. Then doctors decided his trouble was prostate. They operated. McCarthy asked a close friend to take care of Abigail and his children were he to die. The friend scoffed. No-no, he said, I’m serious. I want you to do this. I want you to take care of them.

For some reason my old classmate Jerry Eller, his administrative assistant, decided to change the nature of the illness and said he had been operated on for a back ailment. Back ailment, urinary, prostate: soon the word got all over town that Gene was riddled with cancer on all fronts. That squared with a rumor set out by the Republicans who were running the campaign against him the year before that he had leukemia—because his pallor was somewhat ashen even at age 49. Cancer, leukemia: nothing like that. Prostate when caught early is not fatal nor is an inflamed urinary tract.

He lived 40 years after that and died at age 89 cancer free. Eller knew he was the same old Gene when, once recovered, he returned to Minnesota for a speech. He said of the welcoming committee: “They didn’t want to shake my hand—they wanted to feel my pulse.” Mordant wit from a relativistic skeptic.


  1. If Hubert croaked of cancer in 1978, and Gene went on cancer free until 2005, then there maybe something to "Only the good die young."

  2. Meant no offense Blogmeister. Live Long and Perspire!
    Son of Spock