Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Flashback: Gene and Jerry Eller. Hubert and Rusk Warn of Red China’s Bellicosity. Gene Hits Hard at Rusk. Allard Lowenstein the Hippie and a Prosperous Lawyer Finally Hear Gene Say He’ll Run. But—Corned Beef on Rye for Breakfast? Eller Oversleeps...


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

Gene and Jerry.

When I entered St. John’s in the Fall of 1946—the first university class to enter after World War II—I had just turned 18 and had only started to shave a few years earlier. But I found myself overwhelmed with grizzled veterans…some still wearing old military dungarees…who had just been mustered out from active service and on the GI Bill.

They looked at us as they should have: kids. Here they had survived the greatest world war in history, had cavorted with death, and they were on the way to take over the campus. They wanted to drink, carouse and get going with their life. One of these was a dark-haired, brilliant youth named Jerome Eller, then 23. He had survived the worst of the battles in the South Pacific. He was an uniquely gifted young man, always needing a shave long before the time when 5 o’clock shadows were considered edgy and just starting to raise a luxuriant black mustache. He was from nearby St. Cloud which meant that he didn’t have to live on campus. Having seen the incidence of death almost daily in the South Pacific he was cynical in the extreme: but he also was almost un-redeemably brilliant. He has a quick, inquisitive mind, dark, darting eyes, a prodigious memory and evidenced a masterly inattention to detail. A handful of years older than I, he and I were nevertheless classmates in several classes. He slumped in his student chair (the ones with the prolonged arm extended for note-taking). I wrote notes prodigiously. He scribbled desultorily and drew pictures of gorgeous women on his pad as the professors spoke of theology, philosophy, the history of art—all the things that a then liberal arts university that was uncorrupted by modernism poured into us.

When I watched him at first as he scrawled lazily, sitting slumped and yawning frequently without covering his mouth and emitting a semi-loud gasp that made professors glower, , I decided that this guy would have to fail the courses we took together. Trying hard to adjust to university seminars after high school, I just barely survived in the first week—combating homesickness, a teen-aged bout with Glueck Stite 25% Minnesota beer, being on my own for the first time as an only child. But I was gratified that I survived the first 5 weeks which all of us had for probation. I managed a gentlemanly C. I glanced over Eller’s shoulder to see how he fared, imagining that he failed due to his slovenly appearance, utter non-participation in class and scowling almost contemptuous attitude. He had received straight A’s with the professor writing in tiny academic script: “Brilliant. See me!”

Later when I worked on the literary magazine I had the chance to edit Eller’s essays and beginning fiction. His stuff was like fine china, imbued with style like Thomas Wolfe (not Tom Wolfe but Thomas, the guy who wrote You Can’t Go Home Again. Eller had been a fledgling sports reporter for the “St. Cloud Daily Times” in high school and covered all the games while he went to Cathedral High for a few bucks per article. I am told he took very few notes as he watched a game but at the conclusion would sit down at a portable typewriter and knock out not just a quick overview of the game but analyses of the winning coaching style with comparison to the other side. The sports editor wanted desperately to hire the kid when he was 15 but of course that was impossible. He graduated from high school as a buddy with the kid who by all odds was the greatest high school athlete in central Minnesota—a star at track, football, a stunning baseball pitcher and pole vaulter. Both the star athlete and Eller showed up at induction the same day in St. Cloud. The star athlete was washed out because of a perforated ear-drum—but not Eller. He went island hopping with Douglas Mac Arthur’s finest. And Eller was hopping mad that he was running the chance of getting killed.

Midway in our college experience, he dropped in on a seminar I attended with a granite-jawed farmer who was running for Congress as a Democrat—in a hopeless race against the Republican chairman of the House Ways and Means committee. I was there as a Republican, even then scouting the farmer who was the DFL nominee. Eller camped by my side, sitting with his legs folded up under him. The Democrat wasn’t very good; I remarked as much to Eller who agreed. And when he finally unwound from his Indian squaw position, he asked the guy a question about the economy that stumped him. While the guy stumbled to phrase an answer, Eller helped him, saying that the statistic he was looking for was in such-and-such a document that had been turned out by the Ways and Means committee who ratified the guy’s hopelessly inadequate statement. The guy was very grateful and impressed with the question and the lifesaving technique that got him out of a jam.

I said: “Well, Eller, you stumped the guy and then saved him.” He agreed and then muttered “now I’d like to help him get elected.” I said: “That dumb guy?” He said yeah. With that he went over to the guy and offered his help. The guy accepted and by the end of the week Eller was out of St. John’s, never having received his degree. The guy who had virtually no chance then sailed into the stratosphere with some pointed press statements, very liberal and demagogic, that assailed the Ways and Means chairman. In November history of a sort was made when Republican Harold Knutson chairman of Ways and Means went down to defeat to be retired by a farmer named Fred Marshall who had exhibited a winning way with argumentation.

The winning way was Eller’s. In November Congressman-elect Fred Marshall asked Eller to go to Washington with him and become his top assistant, telling him he would (a) have to shave, (b) keep the mustache if he insisted, (c) shuck the U.S. army dungarees which hadn’t been washed since school had begun in September, (d) get a haircut and keep on getting them and (e) buy at least one suit. Eller took the job which then paid—oh, a spectacular sum when we heard it—upwards of $8,000 a year. He decided to marry his girl-friend and by mid-December left for Washington, D. C.

Shambling in to Marshall’s office at 9:30 a.m. every morning, he took over command of a clerical and case worker staff that had worked for a number of other Congressmen and invented new protocols and procedures. While the staff kept after him to keep up with the haircuts and suit pressings, after the first year he had built Marshall into a fine public servant who would serve in the House for 30 years. The Brookings Institution hired Eller part-time to put on a class, training new staffers of both parties on how to be effective for their bosses. He did this for a while but became bored. With Marshall on the road to a full-time career, Eller had to find something or somebody to keep his attention. He found Gene McCarthy who had been elected to the House the same year Marshall did and who had gone to St. John’s. McCarthy was the same kind of guy Eller was—diffident, seemingly bored, cynical but in a vague way…not as Eller was. McCarthy hired Eller away from Fred Marshall. Eller told McCarthy not to expect that he—Eller—would arrive before 10 a.m. and not to even hope that he would stay much beyond 5 in the afternoon.

Neither McCarthy not Eller were particularly religious. Gene found that out when he chafed at the rules in the Benedictine novitiate and at a second seminary and when he fallaciously believed he and Abigail could run a quasi-Christian commune on a farm his father had given him. Gene was not an agnostic but what he was deeply interested in was literature and the cadence of poetry and rhetoric. Eller was decidedly unreligious but not an rebel. He’d go to church on Sunday and fight with his wife for the rest of the day, she screaming at him “Ell-er! Ell-er! You take out the garbage goddamn you!” But Eller had an even greater sense of poetry and literature than Gene. It was Eller who would match Gene stanza by stanza with Yeats poetry that the both of them loved. Imbued with poetry—and McCarthy converted to the doctrine of the Imperial Self vis-à-vis Godfrey Diekmann, OSB (like me, Eller didn’t have much time for Godfrey), McCarthy became a kind of pseudo intellectual sensation. But the real intellectual…the genius…was Eller.

Eller’s lackadaisical non-working habits were okay with McCarthy who was no workaholic himself. But he was fascinated when his new administrative assistant reorganized his office, invented new systems for processing case work faster and devised new methods of communications so McCarthy would be in the press in St. Paul almost daily. The two were two peas in a pod although Eller was smarter. Much smarter. And he was the only guy—and I mean the only guy—Gene McCarthy would take even a smidgeon of criticism from…including his own wife.

Eller hated war because he had seen so much of it in the South Pacific. McCarthy had no firm opinion of war since he had avoided it by working for a variant of the CIA after he had gotten out of the monastery but he listened to Eller a lot. Eller ridiculed Hubert Humphrey who had strenuously avoided getting drafted by not repairing a double hernia that continually got him deferred. Hubert had a neophyte’s support for Harry S. Truman’s anti-Communist foreign policy. One time when Hubert spoke to a group of Democratic staffers just after he had gotten elected to the Senate, he was ready to turn on his heel after having delivered what he had imagined was a fantastic defense of Truman’s Cold War strategy when a hand was raised and for 45 minutes Hubert tussled with Eller as the crowd sat fascinated. Afterward Hubert said to somebody, “who the hell is that guy? I don’t agree with him but he’s so bright I sure as hell want to hire him!” He tried but Congressman Gene had first dibs. Then Congressman Gene went to the Senate, listened to Eller much of the time and blossomed into a full-blown critic of Vietnam.

Later I found out—from Eller who was a good drinking buddy of mine whenever I would come to Washington—that Gene’s apparent vacillation was due a tug of war between Gene who wanted to go early and Eller’s insistence that he pull back until the time was ripe to run for president. Eller was the intellectual and tactical superior of Gene. Eller believed in a few absolutes; Gene believed in none. That gave Eller a superior hold over Gene. Gene most always obeyed Eller but sometimes followed his own instincts. That was responsible for the jerkyness on his presidential candidacy…one day Gene virtually announcing he was ready to run, the next day countermanding it. It was Eller pulling him back. Now Eller was ready to go. Hubert and the Johnson people were fooling around with a possible war with China. Eller nodded, winked at Gene and he was on the road to becoming a candidate. (Postscript: The only time Gene didn’t follow Eller was during the presidential challenge—but that comes later).

Red China as Yellow Peril.

The Johnson administration did what the George W. Bush people did in 2007: while waging one war, they warned about other possible threats, either a courageous or politically foolhardy thing to do depending on how you see it (I’m a Bush man through and through). Undergoing severe criticism on Iraq, earlier this year the president and Dick Cheney warned Americans about Iran’s possible development of a nuclear weapon, smote also at Syria. But Bush does his on principle. LBJ and Hubert did theirs to scare the bejesus out of the electorate so as to justify the Indochina war.

On Oct. 11, 1967, Hubert declared in a speech in Doylestown, Pennsylvania that our role in Southeast is to stabilize the region against Red China. China, he said, “is the center of militant, aggressive Asian communism.” He said if we lost Vietnam “the entire power structure of the world would be destroyed.” The very next day, Dean Rusk, the secretary of state held a news conference and defended our action in Vietnam as essential for the containment of Communist China. “Within the next decade or two,” he said, “there will be a billion Chinese on the mainland, armed with nuclear weapons, with no certainty about what their attitude toward the rest of Asia will be.” Eller took note of that and conferred with Gene. Now you swing at them but at Rusk now, not Hubert.

Gene struck back at Rusk’s remarks on Oct. 15 in the Senate but not referring to Humphrey’s. He said that Rusk’s “careless or intentional abuse of the language can swerve only to raise the emotional level of the debate, obscure the issues…and cause further frustration and division within the country as well as between Congress and the executive branch.” He said a very dramatic thing (for Gene): the administration had decided, he said, on a strategy of containing China through encirclement. That was a very provocative thing to say for a senator and China’s news agency used the statement profusely. He also conveyed the possibility that the Johnson administration was resorting to racism by raising frights of China. It is “the ancient fear of the yellow peril,” he said—another quite draconian statement to be made by a senator of the same party as the Johnson administration and this statement was also echoed by the China news agency. Then the denouement by McCarthy: To carry through such a strategy, he said, the U.S. would have to maintain from 100,000 to 200,000treoops in South Vietnam for from fifteen to twenty years after the fighting stopped. He declared in yet another sentence promulgated through Asia by the Chinese government: “The process must be reversed before the temporary recommitments assumes the character of a permanent establishment.”

The rather dramatic (for Gene) nature of the remarks electrified people who eagerly wished to see a challenge to President Johnson. In short order Gene was contacted by one Gerald Hill, a San Francisco attorney and head of the 33,000-member California Democratic Council which could only be described as a far-left group. The organization had voted the preceding March to run a slate of delegates against Johnson in the June, 1968 California presidential primary if nothing had been done to disengage our presence in Vietnam. Hill also contacted—in addition to Gene--Senators Robert Kennedy (New York), Frank Church (Idaho), George McGovern (South Dakota) and Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanaugh (who in some circles was regarded as a presidential possibility) asking if he could confer with them. Gene said he would meet with them that very month (October). He came and brought Eller, of course.

Acting concertedly with Hill yet following the beat of his own inner drummer, 38-year-old Allard Lowenstein, a former Senate aide to Hubert, shaggy of hair, totally disheveled in appearance, careless in demeanor, eccentric. Lowenstein was now utterly turned off by Hubert and Johnson, was racing around the country with independent financing by a covey of wealthy people trying to scare up a candidate to run for president against Johnson calling his cause the “Dump Johnson Movement.” Lowenstein and Curtis Gans, a former Miami newsman, Yale law grad and ADA staffer met with Hill in San Francisco and got some funding to hire Gans and set up an office in Washington under the aegis of “Conference of Concerned Democrats.” Lowenstein then went “interviewing” possible anti-LBJ candidates, exhibiting a great deal of chutzpah for someone almost entirely unknown to the party. He interviewed Gene, Kennedy, McGovern, Church, Congressman Don Edwards of California, even Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith, retired Army General James Gavin and a number of governors and university presidents.

Kennedy told Lowenstein no as did Edwards and Church. Galbraith said he was willing, even eager, but was Canadian-born thus not eligible. Gavin wanted to run only as a Republican which didn’t interest Lowenstein. McGovern would like to have done it but he was up for reelection in South Dakota in 1968 and thought it would be impossible to do both. Lowenstein argued it was possible, spent some time in South Dakota and had to acknowledge that it would be very difficult to begin running for one post and then switching without losing both. Together McGovern and he looked at a list of senators who were doves but not up for reelection in `68. One was McCarthy. Lowenstein went to McCarthy who was in his Hamlet mode. But McCarthy was preparing to fly to Los Angeles, there to meet Hill. He took Jerry Eller with him. Lowenstein managed to crash the meeting with Hill, held in McCarthy’s suite at the Ambassador Hotel (the same hotel Bobby Kennedy was killed in less than a year later). Looking at Lowenstein, Eller immediately decided he was a flake of flakes—Lowenstein had the same view of Eller. Lowenstein was wrong; Eller right.

Lowenstein looked and acted like a vintage hippie but that isn’t what bothered Eller. Lowenstein got in the suite and kept quiet during most of the breakfast, listening to McCarthy spin epigrammatic one-liners (part Eller, part McCarthy that had been run by Eller) which kept Hill laughing during the breakfast. Everybody knew that there was a strange one in their company when the waiter came in to take orders for breakfast. Everybody ordered bacon and eggs except Lowenstein who asked for corned beef on rye. Eller and McCarthy looked at each other as if to say how did this guy get in here. Anyhow the conversation was decisive. After asking a series of questions, McCarthy listened to Hill tick off a list of possible candidates.

Then Gene excused himself, winked at Eller and the two went out for a walk. After an hour and a half Gene returned and while Eller fixed himself a drink, he said almost absently,”You guys have been talking about three or four names. I think you can cut the list down to one now.”

Eller and he had decided finally: no tugging and hauling. Gene was a presidential candidate. Eller stretched, yawned and went to bed that night forgetting to set a call with the hotel front desk. When McCarthy called him up from the lobby, he had just gotten up. They missed the plane but that gave them more time to plot.

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