Friday, December 21, 2007

Flashback: McCarthy’s Answer to Hubert’s Declamation—in Eller’s Voice…I Attend McCarthy’s Announcement Although He Doesn’t Say He’s Running for President. When Eller’s Not There, However, Gene Gets Demagogic.


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

The McCarthy Answer to Hubert—from Eller.

At exactly 10:07 a.m. by my watch on November 30, 1967, Gene McCarthy took a podium in the caucus room of the Old Senate Office Building and announced a decision that (a) would change the makeup of the Democratic party and (b) wrest liberalism from the working class preserve of blue-collars, organized labor, Irish Catholics and the first generation post immigrant crowd. It is clear now that with the McCarthy campaign the Democratic party embraced an affluent, more liberal, decidedly more elitist and intellectual breed that was, and is today, not particularly enthused about U. S. exceptionalism. He began a movement that took the party from my Irish grandfather’s working class roots to the Harvard faculty lounge. But we didn’t realize it then.

I had flown in the night preceding, had dinner with McCarthy and Jerry Eller at our frequent haunt, the Montpelier Room of the Madison hotel. At dinner the night before, Gene ate hurriedly and went home early to work on his statement. He said that Abigail would be at the announcement and would, indeed, help him in the campaign. Both Jerry and I looked relieved when he said that but said nothing to him. After he left, Jerry and I had a few drinks and I quoted, without attribution, Hubert’s remarks to Bill Brophy about McCarthy.

I thought a McCarthy reply would be better coming from Eller than McCarthy. McCarthy was by far the thinnest-skinned politician I had ever met. Eller was the man who largely crafted McCarthy and made him attractive to great numbers of people. He wasn’t understood by the Irishmen in St. Paul who were conservative and interested in minimum wage and things like that. Eller kept their interest by telling them McCarthy was their guy (although they knew he wasn’t). And it was Eller who saw the real McCarthy and caused him to reach out to great untold numbers outside his congressional district. In a sense, Eller was the approximate of Jim Farley. Except Farley took FDR all the way. Eller would have taken McCarthy that far if McCarthy had heeded Eller in the last act of the drama.

I asked Eller to comment on these things.

On the issue of McCarthy always being for himself and not for the DFL party whereas Hubert had built the party self-sacrificingly:

“Oh, that’s a lot of crap. You and I know that politicians—all of them---are like wives, I don’t know about yours but certainly mine.. They say they’ve worked their fingers to the bone for you and you don’t appreciate it. Politicians work their fingers to the bone for our party and no one appreciates this. Hubert worked his fingers to the bone to build the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party in Minnesota to advance his own political destiny . Nothing wrong with that except that he ought to get over that crybaby stuff that he did it for the greater honor and glory of God. He didn’t; he did it for himself which is the way the system always works. He did pick McCarthy to organize St. Paul and Ramsey county because he thought McCarthy would be a superior candidate for Congress which would help him—Hubert—build the party there. McCarthy went out and did what Hubert expected he would do—built the party in the 4th district and got himself endorsed, nominated and elected. There’s no Jesus Christ factor in this, Roeser: I lay down my life for my friends. Hubert didn’t lay down his political life for Gene and Gene didn’t for Hubert.”

On Gene’s petulant attitude of non-forgiveness toward opponents, his failure to shake hands until the very end of the Democratic convention with Eugenie Anderson.

“They’re [politicians] are all thin-skinned. I wish Gene would have a more tolerant attitude but he doesn’t. All the same, Eugenie was running against his religion pretty strongly when he sought the senatorial endorsement. In a sense she was a pioneer in the bigotry that Jack Kennedy later faced. She passed the word that Gene would be an irreconcilable pro-war candidate in the Cold War because he was linked with the Catholic church which she said is in ideological war with “godless Communism.” Well, her assessment was wrong and it was bigoted. She attempted to cash in on the notion that dogged Al Smith, that Catholics aren’t their own people, that they are prone to take orders from the Pope, all the stuff that Jack Kennedy laid to rest.

“Gene was the first to face it and it was tough. Hubert was part and parcel of that effort. Don’t kid me: he had a neutral face but he was for Eugenie and he was behind the anti-Catholic stuff she was putting out. I don’t fault Hubert because he had a perfect right to support a multi-million heiress who staked him with dough to organize the state for his own aggrandizement. I would have done the same thing Hubert had done—would have stuck with Eugenie. We just decided we’d let Eugenie wait around for us to come down to the convention after we won the endorsement, that’s all. We eventually shook hands with her.

“But no, I can’t entirely defend Gene’s rather dark Irish nature of non-forgiveness, no, any more than Larry O’Brien can defend the Kennedys’ non-forgiveness. You know what would happen to you if you ever got on the wrong side of Bobby Kennedy? Or Jack Kennedy? Hubert was on Jack’s wrong side in West Virginia and Jack and Bobby had FDR, jr. alleging Hubert was a draft-dodger. Far worse than Gene McCarthy would ever think of doing.

“But don’t mistake the fact that anti-Catholic bigotry was rife all around that Duluth convention in `58 and it was stirred up by that iron butterfly socialite Eugenie with the conscious aid of Hubert. I’d damn sight have Gene defending the church than Hubert with his country drug store attitude niggering us as Catholics and then turning his sunny face the other way as if surprised.”

On Gene’s laziness.

“[Sarcastically]. Yeah, he’s really lazy all right. A congressman at 30, a senator at 42, a presidential candidate at 51. Not widely different from Hubert, though who was mayor at 34, senator at 37, presidential candidate at 49 and vice president at 53. In addition to his phenomenal drive which is unobserved by most people, Gene’s habits of mind are reflective and so he reads poetry and philosophy and adds a deeper dimension to the craft of politics rather than reading polls. If he can absorb the nature of a hearing without sitting through it for four hours but goes out after two hours, that’s not lazyness; that’s conserving time.”

On Gene’s not being an intellectual at all—just playing one.

“Is Gene one? Yes. What we learned at St. John’s, Tom. One who believes there’s a transcendent moral order, a divine tactic at work in society, who seeks to uphold the principle of social continuity, who believes in the principle of prescription which came from the wisdom of our ancestors, who are guided, like Plato, with the principle of prudence. And yes, one other: chastened by the principle of imperfectability. Is this Hubert? I think not.. For Hubert, the purpose of life is to be somebody. He’s still the Huron, South Dakota pharmacist who’s scooping chocolate chip ice cream cones and trying to get people to like him. Nothing wrong with that. But there is something beyond just personal advancement in this business and if you’re caught questioning it or thinking it through, yes you’re an intellectual.”

On Gene’s lack of loyalty to the party and its president.

“That goes to Hubert’s concept of elephants in a circus. You see the elephants tramping around a ring in a circle, each grasping the tail of the one ahead of it. To Hubert that’s loyalty. You put in your time and you defend the wars your party gets your country into. Let me tell you, that’s old fashioned stuff.

“There’s a higher loyalty. It so happens that in this Cold War the Democrats—and I’m one—asked their party to do a lot of elephant walking. We did in Korea. Harry Truman in order to fight the Joe McCarthy charge that he was weak on communism, ordered troops to Korea and everybody stood up and saluted and grabbed the tail of the elephant ahead of him walking in a circle. That war was not justified and a lot of people—good people—lost their lives. I know pretty much what war is because I was island hopping throughout the war in the South Pacific. That war as bitter as it was for me was justified.

“But had I been involved in Korea or had I lost someone in Korea just simply because Harry Truman wanted to make a show of his bellicosity to Communism, I would be bitter. The same thing here—in Vietnam. You can’t show me that this war is moral or justified. Lyndon can’t and Hubert can’t. And the fact is that Eisenhower held it down in numbers of troops to only 700 advisers which is to his credit and blocked Vice President Nixon when Nixon wanted to escalate.

“Between Kennedy by escalating it to 16,000 and Johnson to a half million and Hubert pronouncing that to be 100% good Americans we’ve got to fight the Red Chinese, I think—and Gene thinks—it’s bellicose rhetoric and unworthy of this country’s mission. There is a new day dawning, a day when Democrats will decide themselves what wars are pertinent. Republicans are more the grasp-the-elephant’s-tail type but we’re not. And what Gene is doing is not to aggrandize himself. I don’t imagine he’ll get the presidency this time around; as a matter of fact he may very well end his career by doing this although if I have any breath left in my body I’ll see he doesn’t. .

“All I can say is if things were reversed, you’d never see Hubert challenging the pretext of the war as a senator.”

Why, because he is too patriotic to do so?

“No. Because Hubert like Johnson and the rest of the Cold War gang believe that communism is monolithic, that there is a domino effect whereby when one country turns communist its neighbor will and soon the entire world will be communist. That theory is wrong and will commit us to unending wars if it continues, in Southeast Asia when Europe is done, in the Middle East when Southeast Asia is done. . Hubert wouldn’t challenge it because he is in lockstep elephant-style with his trunk grasping securely the tail of the elephant ahead of him in line. It takes somebody like Gene to challenge that fallacy. Maybe it takes a Republican—I don’t know…a Republican like Bob Taft. But he’s dead and the Republican party is fixated with the domino style as well as Johnson and Hubert. That’s why this campaign is dramatic and historic. I don’t expect you to understand because you’re a conservative Republican. But at least you can tell your kids you were on hand when this thing got challenged as it will tomorrow.”

The McCarthy Announcement.

McCarthy who had never been to Vietnam said he was going to run in New Hampshire (where he had also never been to). And he never really announced that he was running for president; instead he said he was challenging President Johnson, saying:

“I am hopeful that this challenge I am making, which I hope will be supported by other members of the Senate and other politicians, may alleviate the sense of political helplessness and restore to many people a belief in the processes of American politics and of American government. On college campuses, especially, but among adult thoughtful Americans it may counter the growing sense of alienation from politics which I think is currently reflected in a tendency to withdraw from political action and talk of nonpartisan efforts; to become cynical and make threats of support for third parties or other irregular political movements.”

The moderate nature of the challenge was reminiscent of Taft-thinking. McCarthy refrained from attacking Johnson, stressing it was the issue of Vietnam on which he was concentrating. He stressed that he was a loyal Democrat and eschewed the words “dump Johnson” saying “The words `dump Johnson’ have never been one of my words. I think they are bad words. I think they are inexcusable. I think it is one of the things the press does that tends to interfere with a proper discussion of problems. The first question you get is, `do you want to dump Johnson?’ Well, I don’t want to dump Johnson.”

Gene met with Robert Kennedy often before announcing. He said he didn’t ask him what he was going to do; he wasn’t “worried as to whether I’m a stalking horse for [him]. I left it open to him. He didn’t give me any encouragement or discouragement. He just accepted what I’d said.” Eller who had been in the meeting with Kennedy was not so sanguine, believing that Kennedy was willing to see how McCarthy did before committing himself to superseding McCarthy with a challenge—an observation which proved right.

The condition of the campuses was quickly being radicalized. Eller accompanied McCarthy to one campus where the senator’s aide was assailed by a hippie type who said, “Bullshit! McCarthy’s just a front for Lyndon and he’s just trying to keep the campuses quiet. When McCarthy betrays us in Chicago we’ll burn the place down.”

McCarthy’s Off Base Criticism of Johnson.

Eller was the architect of the original McCarthy strategy—not to announce that he’s running for president as such, to state that he was entering the New Hampshire primary. As such his was far the better argument than the one Gene articulated when Eller wasn’t around. In a meeting with the Knight newspapers’ editorial board where Eller wasn’t present, Gene said: “Truman wouldn’t send up a Korean resolution. Harry said, `to hell with it; it’s my responsibility and I’ll do it.’ Johnson brings Westmoreland back to give a political speech. Truman fired Mac Arthur for giving a political speech. Truman said, `we’ll take over the steel mills.” Johnson calls the steel guys to the White House and says, `Now look, if you fellows want to fix prices, it’s illegal. But it’s all right as long as you do it in my presence.’ It’s like the calling in the barons and saying, `Now look, fellows, we have laws for the people but they don’t apply to you and me.’”

That kind of talk was far more draconian, less analytical and more demagogic not to say more downright inaccurate than Eller’s approach i.e. Johnson never said that to the steel executives but he may have implied it. And Johnson was surely on a sounder constitutional basis vis-à-vis Vietnam by sending up a resolution than Truman in ordering a “police action.” Was Gene saying that Truman’s unilateral declaration of war without Congress’ approval was the better course? Sounds like it. That’s what happened when McCarthy operated without Eller. But McCarthy was on sounder ground when he charged that Johnson misled the Senate on the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. “If the Foreign Relations committee has the nerve to really investigate the resolution, it seems to me the confidence of the public will be severely shaken.”

“Aw, I can’t be with him all the time,” Eller said to me. “My wife’s mad at me enough the way it is.”

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