Monday, December 10, 2007


Hubert Returns from Vietnam with Over-the-Top Endorsement. “Tide of Battle Has Turned in our Favor.” Now it’s Gene’s Turn to Get the Shakes of Indecision on the War for which Even The Little Sisters of the Media Rebuke Him. Then He Fails at Trying to be Funny to LBJ but CBS’s Marya McLaughlin Thinks it’s Brilliant.

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

Before returning to Washington from his Southeast Asia travels, Hubert held a news conference in Australia and denounced Sen. Robert Kennedy’s suggestion that the National Liberation Front, the Vietcong’s political arm, be included in a postwar South Vietnam government. Such a concession would be tantamount to including “a fox in the chicken coop” or “an arsonist in a fire department.” Then, satisfied he had taken care of RFK, he boarded Air Force 2 for Washington. He arrived Jan. 24, 1966 and received live television coverage at the airport, a bear hug from LBJ and a reputation as a hero of the administration. “I return, Mr. President, with a deep sense of satisfaction in our cause and its ultimate triumph…The tide of battle in Vietnam has turned in our favor.” In reward he was given the task of selling the Vietnam war at home. The salesmanship began at 8 a.m. the following day.

Johnson had invited every member of Congress—half to come to the White House the first day, half the second—to hear Hubert. It was interesting that among the Senators only two, Georgia’s Richard Russell and South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond—agreed with Hubert. Humphrey’s top foreign policy aide, John Rielly (a fellow St. John’s grad, later to be longtime president of the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations and my longtime friend) said later, “I thought, my God, is this how far we’ve come in one year that these are our only friends!” At the meeting, Rielly (not a misspelling of his surname:) recalls Oregon’s Wayne Morse grumbling, “I never expected my vice president to make this plea for war.”

Was pragmatism the only reason he changed his mind from opposition to staying in Vietnam to a full-hearted backing of the president? Yes…without Johnson on his side he was politically dead… but he finally saw a chance that maybe victory could be had. He returned from the Asian trip enthused by the degree that other Asian leaders said we were needed in Vietnam. Said an aide Ted Van Dyk: “In this next year particularly [1966-67] he was most outspoken in defense of Vietnam policies. That was the point at which he really began defending the administration and you could see he began being taken back into the inner councils a little bit.” Finally LBJ took the wraps off Humphrey whose original directive was to concentrate on domestic lobbying to no longer have to clear his speeches with the White House. Humphrey was put back on the re-invite list to the Tuesday luncheons at the White House where Vietnam strategy was discussed.

McCarthy and Hubert, Gene and Abigail, Diverge More Widely.

Gene McCarthy debated, after a skull session with aides Jerry Eller and Art Michelson, whether or not to begin to oppose Vietnam more frontally. Abigail McCarthy was strongly opposed to this effort. There was no mention of his challenging LBJ at this point. The argument Michelson made was that an intellectual challenge to Vietnam now would spur a period of creative reappraisal among liberals.

The argument Abigail made was that it was the height of Don Quixote-ism to question LBJ when overwhelming progress would be made on liberal domestic programs Gene had cared about—the likely passage of Medicare for example. He should not let a disagreement about Vietnam cause a rupture so that he would be an outcast from an administration responsible for all this future progress. Gene was indecisive. So he gave signals to both sides. After Dean Rusk testified before televised hearings of the Foreign Relations committee on Vietnam, McCarthy said “I believe there is reason to be encouraged by the intensive efforts to work out some kinds of peaceful settlement and by the renewed emphasis of economic and social reconstruction in South Vietnam.”

But Humphrey’s zealous defense of the war and the necessity to win it as well as his shilling for what he called “a Johnson Doctrine for Asia” smattered Gene the instinctive foreign policy conservative. “If studied carefully,” Humphrey trumpeted, “the Honolulu Declaration has as much significance for the future of Asia as the Atlantic Charter had for the future of Europe.” Oh, really? And how was Europe faring at that time with the Soviets expanded over its eastern segment? Then Hubert added with typical enthusiasm that the U. S. can “defeat aggression, to defeat social misery, to build viable, free institutions and achieve peace” by launching an Asian “Great Society.” He said, “ I think there is a tremendous new opening here for realizing the dream of the Great Society in the great area of Asia, and not just here at home. And I regret we haven’t been able to dramatize it more.”

After the Humphrey return from Asia there was an effort by Oregon’s Wayne Morse to repeal the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that enabled the war. Morse was joined by some fresh allies: J. William Fulbright, the chairman of Foreign Relations; Stephen Young of Ohio. As an indication of his tentative, hesitatingly effort to dip a toe in, Gene joined the small group: he didn’t really want to but didn’t really not want to. Morse was overjoyed and hyped McCarthy’s joining to the media as a rebuke to Humphrey.

They were a tiny group of five who supposedly opposed the effort—but when the heat got on, in deference to Abigail, McCarthy tried later to go AWOL. The effort was a dismal failure; the Senate squashed the Morse effort 92 to 5 but Gene weasled. In the middle of the parliamentary skirmishes, McCarthy voted with both sides incurring the anger of both. Abigail trumpeted that his joining “that group of kooks” as she put it was a mistake. (Two days later the U. S. troop commitment to South Vietnam increased by another 30,000 to a total of a quarter million, which would reach 380,000 by the end of 1966).

When the press tried to question McCarthy about his membership in the group of five, he wavered which didn’t satisfy anyone. Like John Kerry a generation later, he tried to have it both ways in explaining his views to the press: I voted for it before I voted against it. He said he voted against the motion to kill Morse’s amendment as a parliamentary procedural question but would have voted against the Morse amendment itself as well as another to reaffirm the Tokin resolution. Why? “Too much emphasis has been placed on resolutions like Tonkin. They tend to undermine the constitutional authority of the president and may be used to restrict and impede the Senate in fulfillment of its constitutional responsibility.” Then a startling opinion: It was not necessary to rescind or reaffirm Tokin because “I believe that the actions of the president in Vietnam are constitutional and legal without the resolution.” This may have been an attempt to justify his original support of the Tonkin resolution. But it all ended a blur and the image was coming through of McCarthy the pedantic, Hamletesque lawmaker torn by indecision.

Predictably, Abigail zinged him bitterly. When he fled to the Little Sisters of the Media for solace—particularly its youngish, good-looking, raven-haired chieftess, Marya McLaughlin of CBS-TV for consolation—they were no less understanding. “Oh Gene,” said Marya, “for God’s sake stop it! You waffled and that’s the end of it.” The “St. Paul Pioneer-Press,” his hometown paper, hit him in its editorial saying what he had done was “to completely confuse the public as to his real views on Vietnam. He didn’t offend the hawks by voting for the military authorization bill. He didn’t offend the doves by opposing the Morse amendment. He now owes the public a much clearer picture of just how he does view President Johnson’s Vietnam policy and what the future policy of the United States in Southeast Asia should be. He cannot remain an `ambivalent’ bird forever.”

All the while, Humphrey’s almost exuberant over-the-top support of Vietnam, giving it not just 100% but 200% enthusiasm—got some criticism in the liberal media and he made epigrammatic wit with it with The Little Sisters (not with Abigail). It proved Hubert was continually going over the top. After a Spring, 1966 speech to U.S newspaper publishers, he was asked about casualties and how the country could continue to tolerate a death rate of 200 a week plus several hundred wounded. . His answer: “I am happy to be able to tell you, sir, that out of every one hundred [American soldiers wounded], ninety-nine live.” Vietnam “is almost like the first voyage of an explorer into a new land. We are going to be in Asia for a long time.”

His parodies convulsed The Little Sisters of the Media but not Abigail. She said that she was obviously different from Gene: “I want our country to win this war.” The implication was he didn’t. The Little Sisters obviously and deliciously said they did not. Gene was in the middle. Gene continued plodding along by academic-sounding comments on the war. He told the “Minneapolis Tribune” this: “The public and private testimony of the administration has not been realistic. This war is not simply an extension of North Vietnamese or Chinese Communism. There is a much stronger element of a South Vietnamese civil war to it than the administration states.” In this he was, of course, wrong but it was a popular thing to say.

He did other interviews. To the “Washington Post” he said “the administration has not been proving its case for steady escalation of the war. The burden of proof for expanding the war rests with the administration and they haven’t proved it. In 1961 they talked about saving it with $50 million in aid with U.S. advisers. Last year, the story was we would win if we could get through the monsoon. Then we were told that bombing the North would do it. There is justification for asking explanations of why we have failed and why we haven’t negotiated.” Abigail ridiculed this saying it was defeatist talk (it was: it was in essence advocating the U. S. get out).

All the while Hubert was roaring full-throttle in support of the war. He gave an interview to Eric Severeid, a Minnesotan, on April 19. 1966. He thundered forth on the Great Society for southeast Asia theme. Severeid was incredulous, restating it in its most unattractive terms: “You seem to be saying that the Johnson Doctrine, if we may call it that, is proposing a relationship between this country and Asia, far away as it is, sprawling and diverse as it is—a relationship as fundamental, as long-lasting, intimate and possibly expensive as our historic associations with Europe. Is it of this scale, of this magnitude?” Humphrey: “I think so!” Marya McLaughlin to Gene at one of their growing longer times over coffee and wine: “Satisfied now, Sir Eugene, that this thing is getting out of hand?” At home Abigail was saying: “We must win this war.”

President Johnson was not giving up to woo McCarthy to his side before the Minnesotan would come down finally against the war. Lady Bird and said that Abigail favored the war so Johnson invited them both to the LBJ ranch for dinner after McCarthy had delivered a speech in Austin. The guest: Richard Helms, then a nominee for deputy director of the CIA. McCarthy was then pressing in the Senate to bring the CIA under closer congressional supervision because of its purported promotion of the Vietnam war by creation of a special bipartisan committee. Dick Russell who ran an ad hoc committee objected that McCarthy was trying to “muscle in” on presidential prerogatives in foreign policy. McCarthy objected to Russell as believing in the “psychosis of the Inner Ring.” Marya McLaughlin who reported on it for CBS-TV as a brave McCarthy initiative. He allowed her to buy him a white wine the next day at the Carroll Arms. The Foreign Relations committee approved by 14 to 5 McCarthy’s initiative. As expected, it was defeated by 61 to 28 in the full Senate as Hubert lobbied against it, the two barely nodding as they passed in the corridor), after a 3-hour debate where no media or recording stenographers were present, only the second held by the Senate since World War II.

At the LBJ ranch dinner at which Abigail was thrilled to be part of and whose views Johnson personally welcomed, Helms, who would become the next CIA director, told McCarthy and Abigail that we were following the best course on Vietnam. Abigail was quite pleased with this but was stunned when her husband pointed to yellow flowers at the table and asked Helms to identify their species. Helms could not. McCarthy nodded to the goblet of wine and asked Helms if he could identify the vintage they had consumed at dinner. Helms could not. “James Bond would have known the answer,” exulted McCarthy. LBJ frowned; Lady Bird looked away in embarrassment. Helms didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. It was an attempt to be witty and to embarrass Helms and Johnson—but it was not Gene’s more memorable lines. And on the way to their Austin hotel, Abigail let her husband have it: “What was that nonsense all about? Was that supposed to be a bright, repartee response when you couldn’t think of an answer?”

But when he related it to The Little Sisters of the Media, they—particularly Marya McLaughlin—thought it brilliant.

Disunion in Minnesota DFL Politics.

Back home in Minnesota, Karl Rolvaag…who had launched the motorboat full gain from the concrete pier in Brainerd without unfastening its chain…sending both he and then Attorney General Mondale to exploring the lake bottom…was still secretly imbibing as governor—and heavily. No one could get him to stop nor could they get the attractive First Lady of Minnesota, Florence Rolvaag, to stop drinking (she later died of alcoholism). Bright young Lt. Governor A. M. (Sandy) Keith, 37, undertook to challenge his chief, a bleary-eyed 53, for the gubernatorial endorsement in 1966. Hubert was called in to mediate. He suggested that Rolvaag step aside for Keith (no takers), that Keith allow Rolvaag to serve another term with the understanding he would not run again and Keith was the heir apparent (no takers). Hubert then tried to get Rolvaag appointed as ambassador to either Sweden or Norway but news of Rolvaag’s drinking had preceded him. There was a possibility of, of all things, God forbid, Iceland but Rolvaag wasn’t interested.

So the DFL convention roared on in discordant enmity with Keith defeating Gov. Rolvaag for the endorsement after 21 ballots. Rolvaag vowed to run in the primary anyhow. He did and defeated Keith for the nomination—but lost to Republican Harold Levander in the Fall, a grievous blow to Hubert. Rolvaag in defeat and still in his cups finally took Iceland and flew away to become our ambassador.

To make matters worse, with Democrats facing challenges in the 1966 midterms concerning inflation, crime in the streets, a so-called challenge to LBJ’s credibility and the war, Hubert became the point man on all fronts. Chilled by a Gallup poll showing that Robert Kennedy was more popular than either LBJ or Hubert which led to speculation that RFK might replace him on the ticket in 1968, Hubert replied to a press question by saying Johnson wanted him to continue as his running-mate. He was called on the carpet by Johnson for saying this and a chastened Hubert had to clarify that a president has many options and that “I don’t predict whom he will want in 1968.” Hubert campaigned in 26 states saying that the only danger is if the Democrats “weasel or wobble” on the war. Then LBJ said he had to go to a conference of Asian leaders on the Vietnam war following which he would go to a hospital for minor throat and abdominal surgery (causing Hubert to privately exult that his chief would probably not run in 1968).

Hubert was sickened when he went to college campuses to be greeted by picketers and demonstrating students chanting, “Hubert-Hubert, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” Johnson’s Asian trip and coming hospitalization were welcome inducements to Hubert to get off the campaign trail. Things weren’t going too well on the campaign trail anyhow, so Hubert with a dramatic flourish cancelled his campaigning to return to Washington to remain there during the president’s absence in Asia and during his surgery.

In November the Republicans won eight new governors, three new senators and 47 new House members. Things looked bleak for the Democrats in `68 unless the war could be ended, law-and-order returned to urban streets, student riots quelled. Only solution: if Bobby Kennedy would be on the ticket they could win.

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