Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Flashback: LBJ Invites the McCarthys to the White House; Gene Angers Abigail By His Reference to the Hair in Johnson’s Nostrils.

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

The Hair in LBJ’s Nostrils.

In this somewhat overlong précis of Hubert and Gene, the one person I find myself siding with…indeed rooting for…is Abigail McCarthy. Because she’s genuine. Any man who has any knowledge of marriage whatsoever—even a Cistercian monk with no interest in women-- should be able to understand. Here she meets this tall, good-looking but remote egotist who had left St. John’s Abbey because the novice master tells him he has to tap maple trees for syrup, adding “you may have been first in your class in the university but you’re not big around here.” That was the reason Gene left: not celibacy or the vows of poverty and obedience; he thought he would continue being a big man on campus. So he walks out and become a high school teacher. At the high school, Abigail Quigley who had seniority over him was told to move down the row since the big intellectual is coming to teach. He pops into the faculty room, listens to their conversation and saunters out giving the idea that their topics are not remotely worth his time even to participate.

He goes to another seminary in a hope to recapture the adulation he had at St. John’s and it doesn’t work. So he walks out again; they renew courtship composed of Saint Eugene mumbling one-liners making fun of everybody and jibing at them. They marry and he wants to live with her in a kind of ultra-Catholic commune on a farm. His wealthy father gives them a farm and he—Abigail helps, though—goofs it up, damn near killing himself when he’s spray painting and it infects his lungs, she saving his life. She’s desperate to get out of there. She’s a small town girl from Wabasha, Minnesota with a definite literary skill, charm and sensitivity—in fact a much better writer than he is. So she gets him to apply at St. Thomas College in St. Paul. He’s accepted. No sooner does he teach than he says he wants to instill social justice on earth—but she’s wise to him. His ego again. So he runs for DFL chairman in Ramsey county and talks to Hubert who’s the mayor of Minneapolis. But when Hubert leaves the meeting, always the droll one-liners from Gene, making fun of him and a lot of people higher on the ladder than he is. There gets to be a pattern here.

He runs for Congress which means he has to take a leave from teaching—and he doesn’t like to hear any complaints about his lethargy and boring speaking style. He wins, gets an immediate boost in income (a Congressman’s salary) and they go to Washington. Abigail is just like any other wife—thrilled with the big city, the fact that of all people Lady Bird Johnson is nice to her and so is Muriel Humphrey. He serves in the House and then wants to go to the Senate. But one of Hubert’s friends, multi-millionaire Eugenie Anderson, wants to go, too. So Gene starts making epigrammatic digs at her. How dare she try to take Gene’s fancied job away from him. Hubert is neutral; of course he should be neutral: Eugene Anderson staked him big time with big bucks to build the party up. Gene can’t understand it so he starts poisoning the well with Hubert in conversation with his friends. Abigail says: for God’s sake, why are you so divisive? If you want to run against Eugenie then run against her but why this bitterness and cruel wit?

He gets the convention endorsement and won’t even come down from his hotel room to shake hands with Eugenie—a petulant ego-driven self-absorbed spoiled brat whose Mommy thought Gene was the apple of her eye. Abigail is always the smarter one. He finally shakes hands with Eugenie much later. He goes to the Senate and Abigail finds a world of social friends in Washington—this time a more powerful group, the wives of Lyndon Johnson, Frank Church, George McGovern and all the other senators. As Hubert goes up in estimation, Gene keeps drilling at him with sardonic humor. Of course Abigail doesn’t like it. She tells him he’s a big spoiled baby who always had his own way and can’t accommodate whenever life doesn’t cave in for him.

He gets bitter at the 1960 presidential candidates saying he’s twice as smart as Stu Symington and twice as Catholic as John Kennedy and he does his old epigrammatic bit making fun of Kennedy because he doesn’t know much about the Church and it looks like he’s going to get the presidency. Abigail tells him this isn’t going to work. People are going to get wise to this spoiled kid routine. So he drifts off and keeps company with The Little Sisters of the Media, a group of old maids—Mary McGrory, Nancy Dickerson, Marya McLaughlin, Shana Alexander et al who think he’s so precious and brilliant and devastatingly witty. Then Johnson has to pick a vice president and, knowing that the presidential convention will be flat and full, tries to instill some suspense into the vice presidential pick by pondering whether it will be McCarthy or Hubert. McCarthy passes the word that Hubert will not be constant on Vietnam if Vietnam turns sour. Imagine that: Hubert won’t be constant. Johnson leans to Hubert and McCarthy tosses in the cards spoiling LBJ’s fun. When Hubert is picked at the convention, McCarthy behaves so badly at the Democratic delegation celebration for Hubert that Abigail stays upstairs in her room—not going to be humiliated by this spoiled kid who can’t handle even a minor interruption in his road to glory.

Now with LBJ is trouble over Vietnam and Hubert trying alternately to get us out of there and please Johnson by sounding like a hawk, Gene is making fun of them all the time—causing the Little Sisters of the Media to convulse with laughter. Abigail has just about had enough of it. Just when she thinks all her friends…the wives of other Democratic senators…will start turning her off because of Gene’s spoiled kid attitude, an invitation comes from LBJ to go to the White House. It’s a last-ditch effort to try to salvage the old relationship with Gene. She looks forward to it hugely. They go and a number of other senators and their wives are there along with the secretaries of state and defense and Hubert and Muriel who are very nice to them. Muriel is kidding with Abigail something she hadn’t done in a while.

. Then, after dinner, LBJ maneuvers around, gives Gene a high sign that he wants to talk with him and they go to the other side of the room where the president—about the same height as Gene—stands on his tiptoes and, raising his head so he can look at Gene through his bifocals, starts conversing with him. Everybody notices that the conversation is getting long. Hubert and Muriel are talking with others. Abigail is impressed. Highly so. They talk for a long-long time. Abigail is fascinated. Gee, her husband is the source of all that attention from the president Maybe they’ll work it out and everybody will be friends again.

On the ride home—Gene told me this—she asks excitedly, “what did the president want? And what did he say? What did you think of him spending all that time with you?”

As he steered the car home, he said laconically. “Well, for one thing I didn’t think anything. Just looking at all the hair in his nostrils.”

She said, “Pardon me?”

“Just looking at all the hair in his nostrils. Why doesn’t his barber--.”

“Are you kidding me? What the hell is this, you trying to be gauche? You mean you got nothing whatsoever out of a one-on-one with the president of the United States?”

“Not especially.”

By now he had pulled his car into the driveway. They walked to their front door and there waiting on their front porch was Jerry Eller, his administrative assistant, who had been waiting there for them to come back. He had a package of office stuff for Gene to look at. I got the rest of the story from Eller.

“Jerry, I don’t think I want to look at it now,” said Gene.

“No, Jerry,” she said. “Come in. I want you to hear this. I want you to hear it. You’re part of this operation. You’re the administrative assistant. This is a perfect time. Let me tell you what happened tonight and let Gene tell you. And you decide how mature this is.”

Oh, Lord, Eller thought. Did I just walk into something. They unlocked the door and Eller (my old classmate) goes in somewhat reluctantly knowing that he is going to be eyewitness to a marital dispute.

Then as he sits down on the divan Eller hears the whole thing. Gene’s total unimpressed state with Johnson, his not listening to what the president has to say because he’s peering at the hair in his nostrils. When she gets exasperated, Abigail can swear pretty well and she does.

“Tell me,” she says with her hands on her hips (she was a very attractive, dark-haired Irish woman who had a number of beaux before she made a hell of a mistake in trying to lasso this very-very strange duck. “Tell me what the hell you are trying to accomplish by p-----g off the president of the United States…the leader of your party…when he’s obviously making a play for your support…when we’re in the midst of a war and he needs your support. What do you get out of this, Gene? This is all about you, isn’t it? Not the country, not the party; not anybody but you.”

“That’s what it’s all about for you,” he said. “Your social friends.”

“My social friends. They’re not my friends particularly. They’re--.”

“Of course they are. They mean everything to you.”

“Let me finish. What’s your rationale for this spoiled child stuff Gene? What did you get out of it when you put on that spoiled brat act after Hubert got the vice presidency? What’s it all for, Gene? So you can charm the pants off Little Sisters of the Media with your goddamn intellectual insights all the while for that little titillation…”

“Little what?”

“Titillation. I take it that’s all you’re getting out of it. I don’t know.”

I’m going, said Eller.

“No,” said Gene, “stick around. What you have here is a Washington society matron upset because her party didn’t go well.”

Goodbye, all, said Eller. See you in the morning. Jesus, he thought, maybe they’re going to split up. What about the fine upstanding Catholic lawmaker then?

They were still going at it as he deftly closed the door behind him.

Hubert Goes on a Mission for LBJ.

All the while Hubert Humphrey’s state of mind wasn’t much better than the McCarthys. Finally he gets an okay from Johnson to go overseas—to the December 30, 1965 inauguration of President Marcos of the Philippines, with additional stops in Japan, Taiwan (then called Formosa) and Korea. Humphrey is given the mandate to get commitments from each of the four nations he visits to help us in Vietnam—to prevent a Communist takeover of Vietnam. Humphrey was estatic.

Great, he says, anything to get the hell out of here. Anxiety pains immediately eased up. Muriel was overjoyed. But somehow the “New York Herald Tribune” got word that he was going to Saigon as well. Nobody had said anything about Saigon. They printed it. Johnson flew into a rage and told his press minions to deny it; Hubert’s not going to Saigon. Johnson decided Hubert had leaked this in order to put pressure on LBJ to send him to Saigon. Not true. Hubert asks a friend: “Tell me, am I so duplicitous acting that I’d leak going to Saigon when I’m not?” No, said the friend, but Johnson would if he were in your shoes and he’s judging everybody by himself. Nobody is as tricky as Johnson; he’s so crooked intellectually and morally he can’t lay straight in bed at night so he thinks everybody else is the same way he is.

Jack Valenti, an unctuous Italianate presence to Johnson, a Uriah Heap, groveling character who, it was plain, would do anything to serve his chief—even risk his manhood—called Hubert on the phone and said he was to accompany Hubert on the trip. Purpose: of course to report to the Chief everything Hubert did that was good or bad—particularly bad. The idea of being on a respite from Washington vanished for Hubert then. Muriel started to worry about his health. Well they went together and Valenti told Hubert he was going to give him good marks in his report to the boss. Hubert said to others; sonuvabitch, I’m vice president of the United States…second in command…land this little creep tells me if I play my cards right he’ll give me a good grade.

But then he gets a break. He no sooner gets back in this country than he has to grab a change of clothes and go back to Asia for the funeral of Indian Prime Minister Lai Bahadur Shastri in the second week of January, 1966. This time Valenti doesn’t go along. Hubert and his aide David Gartner get to New Delhi 27 hours later and Hubert’s invited to participate…along with Dean Rusk… in a meeting there with Soviet Premier Alexsei Kosygin, which is the first major face-to-face between U. S. officials and the new premier. The meeting lasts 1-1/2 hours and is a success. Then while taking a walk around the garden of the Indian presidential palace with Gartner and two secret service agents, Hubert rounds a corner and almost bumps headlong into Kosygin who’s doing the same thing. Kosgyin’s English speaking daughter and two bodyguards are along. The daughter translates and Hubert gives him some vice presidential cufflinks. They talk about Vietnam and Russian intentions there. On his own, Hubert sets up a meeting with Mrs. Indira Gandhi, the sister of Pandit Nehru. It was fortuitous because Mrs. Gandhi rose to power overnight just a few days later and Hubert has a relationship.

Now LBJ is overjoyed. He believes Hubert is a great emissary. Besides he didn’t get much press on the trip so that’s all to the good for LBJ. In reward the president now sent him on a 14-day, 43,000 mile trip to nine Asian nations—this time including South Vietnam. First stop Honolulu where U. S. and South Vietnam leaders agreed to what is known as the Declaration of Honolulu which said that the U. S. approach to South Vietnam would be based on social and economic development goals. Now, said Hubert, we’re cooking. But when he got back Johnson wasn’t mad at anything, just worried that Robert Kennedy was stealing Hubert’s leftwing buddies in preparation for 1968. Then he clapped Hubert on the back and sent him forth once again—to Honolulu where he wold pick up South Vietnamese premier Nguyen Cao Ky, chief of state Nguyen Van Theiu, special ambassador Averill Harriman (who was starting to be doddering) and McGeorge Bundy along with the creep Jack Valenti. They would all go once again to Saigon, other stops in South Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Pakistan, India, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines and Korea. Hubert put on a display that topped any other vice president’s visit including that of Richard Nixon for Ike and Lyndon Johnson for Kennedy—calling hogs in Vietnam, teaching Bangkok kids to say “okay” and “goodbye,” to share views of the dustbowl days of South Dakota with the drought in India and kissing babies in rural rice paddies and Saigon slums.

Meeting with the press in off-the-record talks, Hubert grew expansive and reverted to his old anti-Commie views when he beat the Communists in the Farmer-Labor party of Minnesota. “I fought those bastards then and I’m going to fight them now,” he said as he popped down a few cool ones. “We licked them then and we can lick them now. They’re not the forces of freedom. We are.” Then he sounded a lot like the George W. Bush of today.

“If we don’t stop `em in South Vietnam they’ll be in Honolulu and San Francisco.” Back home when he heard these words repeated by one newsman who was in the habit of serving as an emissary to Johnson, LBJ was happy. He had finally got Hubert to be a man you could go to the well with.

1 comment:

  1. Could Gene be a precursor of Dubyah's looking into (Ras)Putin's Soul? Just saw the forest--