Friday, November 16, 2007

Flashback: The Rupture Between Hubert and Gene Begins…Hubert Has Anxiety Pains Again as He is Deputized to Work Out the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party Imbroglio with the Regulars.


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

As a new employee of Quaker Oats and an assistant to the Republican National Committeeman from Illinois who was the company’s president, I went to the Democratic convention in Atlantic City in 1964 to sniff around with my Democratic contacts. I had quite a few since the only game in Atlantic City involved Minnesota so I checked in with my contacts on Hubert’s staff and my friends on McCarthy’s (Jerry Eller, the administrative assistant and top strategist and Art Michelson, the press secretary). Both sides were open and free since I didn’t have a vote so I collected a good many observations. Including these:

Gerald Heaney, the Democratic National Committeeman who had made a pact with Gene earlier…getting him state DFL convention votes in return for which Gene would support him for federal judge one day…came to see Gene McCarthy carrying a message from Hubert. Why the hell didn’t Gene just solve the teasing game Johnson was playing between them and just announce he was stepping aside from the vice presidency for Hubert, the senior senator?

Gene was his old maddening ambiguous self with words as he answered Heaney: “Jerry, where do you want me to step? Suppose I go to the White House and tell the president I’m out of the running. He’s going to say: `well who said you were ever in the running?’ Just explain where and how you want me to step.”

The pretext of the remark was duplicitous. Everyone…the media, the Democratic party, the Republican party, anyone who hadn’t been on Mars, knew that Johnson had set up a rivalry between the two. And Gene knew it. The truth was he had become very interested in the vice presidency and he wasn’t about to step aside for a senior senator.

“The fact is,” said Bill Connell, Humphrey’s top political liaison, “Gene McCarthy is too lazy and too self-absorbed to be vice president.” And then he added something very interesting:

“He’s too much a party-liner on Vietnam. If the war goes against us, Gene as the Catholic anti-Communist will support pouring in more troops.”

Boy was he way off. He didn’t realize that Gene never, ever had any fixed position about anything but how it would affect him politically—and that meant either sticking with Vietnam or ditching it. Hubert was by far more reliable than Gene on foreign policy.

Anyhow, television added to the Johnson tease. On the day before the convention opened, Sunday, August 23, 1964, “Meet the Press” featured both Humphrey and McCarthy on the tube from Atlantic City. I got in the studio out there on a free pass from Art Michelson. It was humiliating for both because the audience contained only one person who would be impressed—and he was at home in the White House sucking on a beer, Lyndon Johnson.

The two senators tossed a coin as to who would be on first. McCarthy won the toss and went first (a decision I thought was strange since the last impression is usually the best and by being second he could capitalize on any goofs Hubert made). But Gene went first and said when asked: “The vice presidency is the kind of offer which no person who has been a member of the party can really turn down. I think it’s a matter of obligation apart from any personal feelings that one might have either by way of desiring the office or by the way of being particularly happy in the United States Senate.” Then he went on to flatter the president who was viewing it in Washington. When asked if he supported Johnson’s decision to make the appointment himself rather than allow the convention to make it, Gene said, “I think in this instance it reflects a confidence in President Johnson and the realization that…he will make a choice which will reflect the overall interests of the party and his good judgment in which we have confidence.” He said he hadn’t lobbied Johnson personally for the job but acknowledged that he had a case to be made. “As far as I’ve been making a case, it’;s been to try to be as sure as I could that the president had the knowledge of what kind of limited support I had and what my qualifications were if he were in any doubt.”

I thought McCarthy was absolutely pandering to Johnson in an embarrassed kind of way. He mentioned Johnson’s name laudatorily seven times.

At the end of the telecast Lady Bird Johnson called Gene and said “you’re my candidate.” Again, the First Lady playing along with the Johnson tease.

In his half-hour presentation, Hubert said there was little he could tell Johnson about himself that he didn’t know already. He said he had not discussed the vice presidency with Johnson (technically a lie since he had met with LBJ alone for an hour the previous Tuesday and again on Thursday). He said he was confident in Johnson’s ability to pick the best qualified man. Then John Steel of “Time” asked a loaded question: Reminding Hubert that he had made a bit of a floor fight in 1956 when Adlai Stevenson had thrown the issue open to the convention, Steel asked if Hubert was willing to do the same thing he Johnson didn’t pick him. Knowing how Johnson felt about floor fights, Hubert responded coldly. “Mr. Steel, why don’t you come around to see me if that matter develops and I’ll be more than happy to advise you.”

But if I had thought McCarthy was pandering Johnson, I was stunned at the outrageous foot-washing Hubert gave. I should have known that Hubert would never be outdone in laving on the praise. He mentioned Johnson 32 times. Johnson was “a patriot who loves his country…a president who seeks a great national consensus, a national unity… a president who rises above partisanship…” I thought the studio roof would fall in when he said that. “A president of all our people…a president who is not only a friend of the South but every other single part of America.” “A president whose reputation is so matchless that he doesn’t really need a running-mate.” At that point I looked over to Michelson, McCarthy’s press guy who was standing next to me in the Green Room, who was sticking his finger down his throat in a simulated effort to vomit. Well, I told him, Gene was bad enough but I had to admit Hubert topped Gene in cravenness.

After the show I went out to dinner with some of the Hubert people. Hubert had gone to his hotel and had a call from Johnson. It sounded good but it wasn’t and had given Hubert another anxiety attack. The vice presidency wasn’t mentioned but Mississippi was. Mississippi, its old segregated self, had elected a largely white delegation. A rump group called the Mississippi Freedom Democratic party composed largely of blacks (called Negroes then) and a few white civil rights workers was challenging the regulars’ seating since they were largely, except for a few black tokens, white. In contrast, the Mississippi regulars agreed that they wouldn’t walk out and would support the nominee of the party. The Freedom Democratic party was really a protest group not a party and the regulars had established a right to be seated basis their agreement to support the nominee. But the public relations would be awful if the party that would nominate Lyndon Johnson were to kick the blacks out and deny them votes.

Johnson asked Hubert to settle it. Hubert took to his bed with growling pains in his abdomen but he had to do it. Tossing on his hotel bed and swigging the pink saccharine sweet Pepto-Bismol to settle his stomach, Humphrey devised a rationale. Humphrey determined that (1) the 100-person member credentials committee headed by Pittsburgh mayor David Lawrence, an old man, might botch things up so (2) a subcommittee should put together a compromise before the full convention had to decide the answer which would have to involve giving the Freedom Democratic party maximum attention which meant a solution that (3) seat the 68 duly elected Mississippi regulars as delegates and (4) seat the Freedom Democratic party people as honest guests but without votes while at the same time (5) the whole convention would rule that the next parley in 1968 would have to refuse to seat any delegation that had been selected by discrimination because of race, creed or color.

The White House called his room to see how he was faring but just as the phone rang, Hubert had to run to the bathroom to throw up. When he came back and swigged some more Pepto, he was told that the phone call said that two Johnson aides were on the way to Atlantic City to help him—Walter Jenkins and Tom Finney who worked for Clark Clifford’s law firm.

Hubert kept swigging the pink stuff and got Walter Mondale, the 36-year-old Minnesota attorney general on the phone and asked him to come to his room. Mondale was aghast when he saw Hubert’s face but Hubert brushed that concern aside. Hubert had decided that Mondale would head up a subcommittee of old man Lawrence’s committee and forge the Humphrey-crafted compromise. Mondale got the subcommittee together and they agreed on Humphrey’s compromise which went for ratification to the whole credentials committee.

Humphrey, ashen faced, was at the credentials committee when the Mondale subcommittee made its pitch and things looked greased. But then a fly in the ointment. Oregon’s Congressman Al Ulmann (a future Ways and Means chairman who would die early) popped up and moved a substitute motion that both delegations be seated with the Freedom Democrats given two of the state’s 24 votes. Mondale thought Hubert would head for the exit to find a nearby toilet to throw up in except that he noticed Hubert’s eyes were twinkling. Mondale thought he liked the Ullman idea but in reality he was thinking of another one. In Jenkins’ hotel room working through the night until 4 in the morning, Humphrey hammered out a fresh proposal—that all the Freedom Democrats vote in the convention but as members of a special at-large delegation affixed to no state.

The plan was rejected by both Mississippi parties and Hubert got ready to head for the bathroom again—but he paused and guessed that no matter what the two parties did, the full convention might buy it Then on the phone Hubert got Walter Reuther, Martin Luther King, Jr., Al Ullman and Roy Wilkins to agree to let the full convention decide. Then a haggard Hubert got Mondale to push the plan through his subcommittee which brushed aside the denunciations from both regulars and Freedom groups.. From there it went to the full credentials committee which similarly brushed aside the opposition from both Mississippi groups.

The full convention joyfully ratified the Humphrey plan. Thus, as Hubert was the symbol of revolution for civil rights in 1948 he became the symbol of unity for civil rights in 1964. He went to bed at dawn, awakened only by the phone that said Johnson had offered the vice presidency to Mike Mansfield of Montana, the Senate majority leader and a (nominal) Catholic. This time Hubert told the caller he really didn’t give a damn because he was going to get some sleep. When he woke up a few hours later, the story was true but it was just old Lyndon playing his teasing game on Hubert and McCarthy again. Muriel Humphrey began to tug her husband’s sleeve and say what the hell kind of monster is this guy Johnson who you want to work for anyhow?

Hubert, sick, pale and weak, couldn’t honestly answer her. All the while Gene was giving epigrammatic witticisms not for attribution to the media, making fun of him.

1 comment:

  1. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction!
    Why do people, as Robert Service wrote,
    "Go in the chase of Fame,"?
    or somesuch--