Thursday, November 1, 2007

Flashback: While Gene Fiddles Privately with the Oil Boys but Publicly Espoused Hefty Liberalism, Hubert Undergoes a Public—and Private--Pro-Business Conversion.

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

A Fork in the Road.

At this stage—1961--two very remarkable things happened to our senatorial Dynamic Duo. Gene was fiddling privately with the oil depletion boys…supporting it privately but arranging on occasion to vote “against” the allowance when he was sure he would be out-voted…and scheduling himself not to be anywhere near the floor when it would come up so as not to interfere with the end result…he was all the while listed as a very liberal Democrat. At the same time, Hubert, having won a reputation as an anti-big business liberal, came to the distinct realization that big government was not the answer.

I found this to be the case when, working for the Republican governor of Minnesota, I came to Washington to importune him to do two things. First and mainly, to throw his weight behind a state constitutional amendment to tax taconite…a slag off-put of the iron ore mining process…at the same rate as manufacturing…because it had to be manufactured after being taken from the ground—and the amendment would give steel companies the incentive to invest millions in the Iron Range. . To refuse to do this and to crusade against the villains of U. S. steel which Democrats had done since the heyday of hell-for-leather populists and far-lefties Floyd B. Olson and Elmer Benson, would be to condemn the Range to continued hard times and poverty. In meeting with me, Humphrey quickly agreed. He told me that the longer he stayed in Washington, the more disenchanted he had become with Big Government. He said: “There was a time when we would get letters complaining about government insensitivity and we’d kind of feel it was a conservative knee-jerk. Now, I tell my staff it’s probably the truth and go after these goddamned bureaucrats. And you know what—so far almost 100% of the time when my case workers investigate, government is at fault!”

At the same time, Gene McCarthy on whom I called next was enigmatic and generally unsympathetic. Later when I expressed mystification to my friends in Humphrey’s office, one said: “Well, what’s in it for him?” The onus was clear: with the oil depletion issue, there was. I quickly followed up, saying, “why? What do you mean?”

Nothing, was the answer communicated with a wry smile. As the time was near for the annual homecoming game at St. John’s, I made it a point to go and see McCarthy’s guru himself, Fr. Godfrey Diekmann, OSB. He said, “uh, you never took one of my theologies, did you?” I said, no I was too dumb so they gave me to Ernie [Fr. Ernest Kilzer, OSB]. Why?

Nothing was the answer communicated with a wry smile. It was clear that the Godfrey dictum of social justice was regnant: in the sliding scale of non-absolutes, one must protect the Imperial Self so as to be viable for the giant social revolution that is to come.

This was not to say that Hubert was a candidate for Thomas More sainthood or that he wore under his starched Brooks Brothers and next to his pink skin a hair-shirt. Not so. Hubert could play the game better than most. The year 1961 featured a big proposal from him—pushing the Kennedy administration to relax the Eisenhower-dated ban on selling wheat to the Soviet Union. I had been schooled by Walter Judd to understand that the maximum force should be exerted against the Soviet Union at all its weakest points, and the inability to feed its masses was one of them. Hubert had unveiled this just about the time I saw him and after we talked about the Iron Range he brought up the fact that the Minnesota GOP (with which I was not formally connected) had been zinging him for this concession which it said was a “weakness.”

I expressed surprise that the GOP had turned out the statement (although in my off hours I had written it).

“Sounds like your old boss,” he said, meaning Congressman Walter Judd, a hard-line cold warrior. “Or you.” .

With hypocritical eyes to heaven I swore in good political style it was not me.

But even if it were, I said, why would you want to ease the pressure on the Soviets when their system is breaking down and there’s a risk of famine.

“Ever hear of humanitarianism? Is it foreign to you Republicans?”

I dare say it would be more humanitarian to allow the discontented and hungry masses to overthrow tyranny.

“You can’t hold people hostage when they’re dying of famine.”

It’s a risk to take to try to unseat that regime.

“I won’t debate you on this but, Tommy, we’ll get you on this—will get you where you live.”

The second request I made was to secure his support for the administration’s designation of an atom smasher that would be ideal for Minnesota.

“Way ahead of you. I think I can say that the president has indicated it’ll go to Minnesota when it’s funded—which will be long after you and your Republican governor will be out of office.”

He was right there. My boss would be defeated for reelection in 1962 after the nation’s longest recount—four months. And defeated by 91 votes out of 1,250.000 cast. Mostly paper ballots.

On the way back to Minnesota I wondered about his elliptical “we’ll get you on this—will get you where you live” in reference to support for ending the Russian wheat embargo.

But I found out once I got back to Minnesota. The public policy chief of Cargill, the big Minnesota-based grain company and a big source of funds for Republicans, called me and said that in the firm’s view the overwhelming public interest and international polity would benefit from relaxation of the ban which would mean several millions to it and to call off our dogs.

I asked: Did a high Washington official from Minnesota urge you to call me?

He stuttered and obfuscated. What official? Who? Huh? But no doubt.

So I sent a note to Hubert at his personal box in the Capitol where he got a lot of political messages that read:

“Touche, Hubert. I just heard from your humanitarian friends at Cargill.”

A few days later a note came to me at the governor’s office on majority whip stationery. It read:

“I’m getting softer on big business by the day!—Hubert H.”

On the second item of importance, the atom smasher, Hubert played jump-ball against Illinois’ Everett Dirksen and thought he won. Hubert indeed had Kennedy’s word that it would be designated for Minnesota. But things changed after Kennedy was assassinated on Nov.22, 1963 and Lyndon Johnson took over. Dirksen muscled out Humphrey by going to his old colleague LBJ and saying that if the president expected cooperation, it would be helpful to grease the way. Johnson did and it was a key component of Johnson’s getting his massive program through the Senate—so with Hubert in the lurch, Johnson gave the atom smasher to Illinois. It is now known as Fermilab, a landmark particle accelerator, 4-miles in circumference which didn’t make it to Illinois until 1967 (long after Hubert was vice president).

Jump ahead to 1963. My boss had lost and I was back at my old stand, handling press releases and strategy for the Minnesota Republican party…wondering what the future held for my pregnant wife and two small kids. What future was there to be sticking in a staff position for the GOP after I had held that job earlier? I figured I’d like to be out of there and into another job before mid-1964 (I was but the future was not mine to see).

On Nov. 22, 1963 Hubert were having lunch at the Chilean embassy when White House aide Ralph Dungan phoned him saying, “the president has been shot.” Hubert, stunned, asked: What president? The answer: “President Kennedy.” Hubert wept as he told the luncheon guests what happened. That night he waited for the plane bearing Kennedy’s body and the new president, Lyndon Johnson, to return from Dallas.

Johnson passed the word he wanted to see Hubert as soon as possible along with Majority Leader Mike Mansfield and Florida’s George Smathers. After the meeting, Johnson asked Hubert to bring Muriel to the Johnson home in northwest Washington where they and Johnson’s two daughters reviewed the events of the tragic day just ended—sitting there until 2 in the morning. The day before (Nov. 21) Hubert had spoken to the National Mental Health convention at a downtown hotel and said—with stunning prescience—“The emotional insecurity of a single man, if left untended, could impose monstrous penalties on our society.”

On Nov. 22 Gene McCarthy was having lunch with an old friend and liberal hack, Maurice Rosenblatt (of the Committee for an Effective Congress) at the Plaza hotel near the Senate when Gene was called to the phone. He returned and said, “The president’s just been shot in Dallas. He’s in the hospital. It may be fatal. I’m going back to the floor of the Senate.” A few minutes later in an improvised speech to the Senate he said:

“The president’s killing is too great to be borne by one person or nation. Instead, the burden of guilt must be shared by all who through the years have excited and stirred the simple and the anxious, who have raised questions and turned them about until they became suspicious, who have nurtured doubt until it bore the fruit of accusation and false charges, who have spread themselves to make a shade of fear and to save it from the light of truth until it grew to be a despairing fear of fear; by all who stood in silent acquiescence or who protested softly ,too little and too late; by all who envied him or any man or wished them ill.”

It sounded okay but I’ll be damned if I can understand what he meant. Can you?

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