Monday, January 14, 2008

Flashback: A Berzerk Monk Points a Pistol at McCarthy’s Head as Dem Convention Looms…Hubert Bound Head and Foot by LBJ, Hindering His Candidacy…McCarthy Fritters Away His Candidacy as McGovern Surfaces.


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

McCarthy Abandons Visit to RFK’s Hospital.

Historians may well point to this 1968 era…the summer of Bobby Kennedy’s death and prior to the Democratic National convention…where the stability of the nation’s oldest political party foundered. The old-line system where party leaders from urban areas picked presidential candidates to meet the needs of the nation, came to a screeching halt here.

Early in the morning of June 6, 1968, Hubert Humphrey was ensconced in the VIP suite of the Air Force academy where the next day he was to deliver the commencement address when he was awakened by his aide Dave Gartner who told him Bobby Kennedy had been shot. The next thing that happened was he got a long distance call from his wife Muriel who gave him a cogent political assessment. “Daddy, the shot that his Bobby has wounded you, maybe very seriously,” she said. “People are just going to be so sick of politics and so sick of Democrats, it will be impossible to do anything.” Hubert cancelled the commencement talk, got on the phone to Teddy Kennedy and on his own without checking with the White House and using the president’s name arranged for the Air Force to fly a brain surgeon from Boston to California to see if he could do anything for Bobby who was lingering between life and death. Secondly in the president’s name he ordered a plane to fly the Kennedy family that was in Boston and Washington to Los Angeles. Then he reflected once more that Bobby would have come over to his side after a tumultuous convention—but Gene McCarthy, he of the dark Irish soul, never would.

Believe it or not—and this is a symbol of how deferential Hubert was expected to be in the LBJ White House—even before the Kennedy burial the vice president caught a good burst of hell from an LBJ aide, Marvin Watson who angrily—yes angrily—asked why Humphrey hadn’t cleared the flights with Watson. If you can imagine the ridiculousness of the insult to the vice president…with Bobby dead and the nation in chaos…why Hubert didn’t obey protocol. Hubert briefly told Watson in scatological English that he acted as he should have acted but didn’t dismiss the angry aide by pushing him out the door which some on his staff wished he had done.

Later on in mid-morning of June 6, on the way to the airport in Los Angeles, Gene McCarthy stopped off at the hospital to express his condolences to the Kennedy family but his police escort kept the sirens on disturbing everybody at the hospital including the Kennedys. Hearing of their anger, McCarthy gave his entourage the signal to continue on to the airport, saying, “When you get into that kind of response, you just figure it is best not to try to prove anything anymore.”

On the flight back to Washington, his national campaign manager, a resourceful young pro, Tom Finney tried to calculate what they should do next before the convention but McCarthy dismissed discussion of any plans. “It’s not going to make any difference. What we have to do now is cut down and just see what influence we can bring to bear on the situation between now and August. It’s all over.” As they flew along, McCarthy looked out the window and said, more to himself than to Finney, “I think if I had won California against Bobby that that would have eliminated him as a candidate at the convention. It would have put them in a hard say not to pick me. But his people would have gone over to Humphrey at that point. Now that he’s dead I know we don’t have a chance. Once Bobby was killed, it is bound to be Humphrey.”

“No, I disagree,” said Finney. But then he decided to shut up. With McCarthy staring gloomily out the window it was useless to go on.

On the way to Washington, Hubert decided that he must manage a break with the LBJ administration on Vietnam. He had to wait until after the long days of Bobby’s funeral with the return of Black Jack, the rider-less horse with the stirrups turned back and the media agony that lasted for days. While this national angst was going on, Hubert kept out of range and decided that his only chance was to accommodate the anti-Vietnam sentiment in his party. True, there was good in that he had the Democratic nomination locked up. Bad in that he didn’t know whether it was worth anything or not since it was sure that Gene McCarthy would never reconcile. He had a glimmer that Muriel was right—that people were heartily sick of the Democrats. Now Bill Moyers who was publisher of the Long Island daily “Newsday,” wrote that Hubert would swiftly become a peace candidate and dissociate himself from LBJ. That was bad for Hubert. Hubert answered that this would not be so—he was not a hypocrite but inside he chafed about how he would cut loose from LBJ.

On June 7 Gene McCarthy asked for and received an appointment for a secret meeting with Hubert. In the meeting to which McCarthy came via backstairs, he asked if Hubert was willing to change his mind on Vietnam in which case McCarthy would feel right about withdrawing his candidacy. But Hubert, distrusting McCarthy, would not agree to it. Four days later McCarthy arranged a private, backstairs meeting with Johnson, the first time he would meet with the man he forced out of the presidency. Johnson said he felt the Viet Cong was getting desperate and that he wouldn’t change tactics, saying that he could gain peace through strength—“the same old stuff,” McCarthy told Eller who relayed it to me. Both LBJ and Hubert seemed to be holding firm for the war.

With Bobby buried and the nation calming down somewhat, Gene held a news conference to say that the campaign would still continue on the same theme: “Vietnam and the militaristic thrust of U. S. foreign policy.” At the same time, Hubert sketched out the dimensions of a speech he was to give at the National Press Club on June 20. Gene re-tooled re-launched his campaign with a curt speech advising LBJ to “take our steel out of the land of thatched huts”—a line from the poetic theologian Fr. Godfrey Diekmann OSB of St. John’s.

Now McCarthy seemed to put his campaign on “idle.” Jeremy Larner, his speech writer (the man who wrote the film script for “The Candidate” and a biography of Gene) wrote: “ `He has left his lottery ticket in the big barrel to await the hand of God. But he has never addressed himself to this moment. He stands all this summer passive and self-absorbed in the wind-down of his campaign…Now in the heat of a lost, hot summer while millions hoped for him and waited, Gene McCarthy regressed to his balanced presentation of self, to the sacred ceremony of his personality.”

Abigail Now Says: For God’s Sake Go! Run and Get Elected!

There now came a complete change that came over Abigail McCarthy. She, a Wabasha, Minnesota Irish Democrat, had gone on an emotional roller-coaster. She first started strongly opposing his running against LBJ because she felt it is incumbent of a patriot to support his party in time of war. But McCarthy didn’t listen to her. She resolved to be a good soldier and helped him—although she suffered greatly with the opprobrium from her close friends, Lady Bird Johnson and Muriel Humphrey.

Gene ran and scored a technical knockout of LBJ in New Hampshire. Then the Kennedys decided that since McCarthy had won, Bobby would push him aside and challenge Johnson. This highly offended Abigail: the Kennedys were never known to be gentlemanly when their own interests were involved. Now Abigail changed; she didn’t Gene to buckle to Bobby. Then Bobby was killed and the country was in disarray. Now Abigail felt that since Bobby was dead, Gene owed it to himself and to a re-formed party to press ahead and try to get nominated. But here was Gene now in a strange kind of torpor. This angered her and she cursed Robert Lowell the poet whom she blamed for it all. A hippie was making her husband a hippie. Her husband, who against her will started this revolution against the Dem establishment and complicated her life was now falling back, unaccountably. She suggested that Gene needed a few days of retreat-time. In their Catholic circles, this meant going to the monastery in the woods—St. John’s.

Gene began fulfilling bunched-up speaking commitments but agreed that he was in need of recharging his batteries so he arranged to make a different kind of retreat at St. John’s in Collegeville in July. Some praying but swimming in the two mirror-like blue lakes, some conversation and recharging of the batteries. His staff scheduled him there.

Until then, much more was about to happen. .

On June 18 although Gene was rather desultory, the New York primary gave McCarthy 62 out of 123 delegates, compared with 30 pledged in memoriam to Bobby and only 12 to Hubert.

Now Hubert tried to change the subject and become a law and order guy plus a Marshall Plan-for-the-cities advocate. At the National Press Club on June 20, with the nation in chaos over Bobby and the ghettoes still erupting on weekends, Hubert avoided mention of Vietnam in his formal remarks and instead stressed “law and order.” He urged stronger gun control laws than were supported by the administration, called for greater expenditures for the ghettoes and hinted strongly his earlier call for a Marshall Plan for the cities” which had got him into trouble with Johnson. LBJ had been enraged by the Kerner Report believing that it gave him too little credit for recognizing the disparity of the races. Thereupon Hubert said Kerner’s language that there are two societies, “one black and one white, separate and unequal is open to some challenge.” Inwardly he cursed LBJ who was holding him close to the vest.

Hubert Bound Up Tightly by LBJ.

In the Q and A following his speech at the Press Club Hubert was asked “to what extent are you committed to the policies of the administration that you have been defending?” He responded by citing his son Skip (Hubert Humphrey IV) in the audience, saying “I don’t ask him to live his father’s life. I ask him to live his own life. The president of the United States has not asked me to live his administration when I am privileged to have the Humphrey administration. And there will be, if I have anything to say about it…a Humphrey administration with its own program, its own nuances, its own sense of direction, its own perspective, its own objectives.”

The “Washington Post” headlined it: “HHH Sees Himself as `Man of Change.’” But the anti-war movement targeted him with ferocity. Unable to satisfactorily explain how he would win or end the Vietnam war, he was forced to cancel a rally in Los Angeles because 2,000 anti-war demonstrators showed up. When he returned to speak to the California chamber of commerce, at the Century Plaza hotel, 5,000 demonstrators were on hand, some carrying placards “Hitler, Hubert and Hirohito” and “Help Hubert Hibernate.” By July 20 a Harris poll showed him barely beating Richard Nixon 37% to 35% and trailing Nelson Rockefeller by three although Gene McCarthy topped Rockefeller by four.

It was imperative, to Hubert, that he craft his own course on Vietnam. He drew together a group of advisers—John Rielly (a St. John’s classmate of mine), Harvard professor Samuel Huntington, Ted Van Dyk, William Welsh, John Stewart, attorney David Ginsburg and Orville Freeman, the secretary of agriculture. Ginsburg had the job of negotiating a Vietnam war plank in the convention in Chicago. Hubert’s speech called for an immediate halt to the bombing of North Vietnam. Hubert approved it. That night he went over to the White House and showed it to Johnson. Johnson blew up. “Hubert, if you do this I’ll just have to be opposed to it and say so. Secondly, you shouldn’t do this because we have some things underway in Paris now that can lead to very important developments. Third, I have two sons-in-law over there and I consider this proposal to be a direct slap at their safety and what they’re trying to do.”

Humphrey and his task force reworked it. He softened the passage on the bombing halt by saying it should be ended when there is reciprocity from North Vietnam. Johnson still didn’t like it saying, “You can get a headline from this , Hubert and it will please you and some of your friends but if you just let me work for peace, you’ll have a better chance for election than by any speech you’re going to make. I think I can pull it off. I think I can possibly get negotiations going and possibly get the beginnings of peace. If I do, that would be the greatest thing that ever happened to this country and the greatest thing that ever happened to you.”

But Humphrey felt this would not happen. He was being held prisoner—as he always felt he had been in the vice presidency. Moreover he feared that LBJ might try to do an end-run around his earlier statement that he would not accept re-nomination. Just as with Franklin Roosevelt who in his fourth terms bid gave the convention the order that it could decide for itself but pulled back on the reins, Hubert feared LBJ would do the same thing and end up with the nomination again.

While Humphrey fretted, Gene was coming back to life and this encouraged Abigail. A Harris survey of 1,524 voters in late June found him with great personal appeal, with Harris saying “McCarthy is a more appealing candidate personally than Humphrey. Second, the vice president has yet to project himself as a decisively dominant presidential figure.” McCarthy started to draw huge crowds—50,000 at Boston’s Fenway Park, the largest crowd held there for a political event up to that time. But while the circumstances seemed ripe for a revolution that could get McCarthy the presidential nomination…albeit a long-shot…he was undergoing a subtle transformation from political candidate to nihilist and political hippie. I can testify that it was something that came to him from St. John’s…the same St. John’s I went to.

The McCarthy Campaign Becomes Nihilist anti-Political.

The McCarthy campaign…with the help of the flaky, alcoholic Robert Lowell and Gene who was becoming somewhat poetic and flaky as well…was becoming more of a nonpolitical, ideological movement protest rather than a campaign for the presidency…taking on the coloration of the modern left: not just against the war but against the whole style of U.S. politics: the pretensions with a sizable hate-U.S. dimension. The movement side began to make fun of the minor league small flatteries and the small bargains of which the convention process was composed. I saw McCarthy in early July in Washington and found him scoffing at the pretenses, indicating that if he had to do a lot of pro-forma things perhaps the nomination wasn’t worth it.

As the practical politicians gave way, the nihilists took over. Finney was fired three times and hung on but in a diminished capacity. He had been a law partner, after all, of a secretary of defense but McCarthy was not hearing him. Curtis Gans the movement leader was fired five times and hung on but increasingly he was being listened to more heavily. The campaign split into two camps—the movement idealists like Larner and Lowenstein and Gans who felt he was a man of the left, and the pragmatic politicians like Finney and Abigail McCarthy who felt he had to do certain things and massage certain backs to gain support. Jerry Eller somehow never identified with one or the other—but in my view he had absorbed enough of the old St. John’s theology to become a nihilist. Because I was never as smart as the rest of them I had a different theology professor so I was spared, Deo Gratias.

In the nihilist spirit, McCarthy, imbued with battle fatigue and Lowell’s poetry, snubbed the powerful and the little guys with impartiality. While the powerful UAW was interested in Hubert, its leader, Walter Reuther, had a deep interest in McCarthy. The McCarthy pragmatists begged Gene to call Reuther who was interested in talking to him about the 96-member Michigan delegation. Leonard Woodcock of the UAW called urgently and said that a 3-day UAW conference was scheduled and Reuther might be interested in pursuing an endorsement. McCarthy called, Reuther was out. Reuther called McCarthy five times in the next three days but never got another call back. McCarthy had gone on the “retreat” to St. John’s. McCarthy’s key contact in Chicago scheduled a meeting with Mayor Richard J. Daley but McCarthy canceled. Another meeting was set: McCarthy canceled again to go on the retreat. Sen. George McGovern called saying he was interested in giving an endorsement. McCarthy never called back. Can you imagine a John Kennedy or Bobby not getting around to calling important pols like these?

McGovern was mightily miffed as well he should have been. Then a few of Bobby Kennedy’s staff, unable to swallow McCarthy, approached McGovern to run for president. McGovern gulped; he was already running for reelection in South Dakota and said he couldn’t. To prove his loyalty, he asked McCarthy to speak for him at the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Dinner in Huron, S. D. while McGovern went to the conference of the World Council of Churches in Sweden. McCarthy said he’d appear but canceled at the last minute, leaving the dais empty. When McGovern got back from Sweden and heard the debacle that was made of the dinner, he was outraged. Then he was accosted by Jesse Unruh of California who commanded the largest Kennedy delegation and Ted Sorenson, ghostwriter for JBK and Bobby. McGovern agreed to at least make a symbolic run for president for a short time to give the Kennedy people somebody not McCarthy to rally around. “Bang!” went a chunk of potential McCarthy delegates to, of all people, George McGovern.

The St. John’s Retreat. An Erratic Monk Goes Berzerk.

In July McCarthy, alone, went to St. John’s for three days of relaxation, took a room in the monastery, swam in the lakes and read poetry while his secret service detail played softball with the monks. Gene mingled with the monastic community all of whom he knew from his days as a Benedictine novice when he was called Frater Conan. At Mass one morning he read Paul’s epistle to the Phillippians (“I am not talking about shortage of money; I have learned to manage on whatever I have. I know how to be poor and how to be rich. I have been through my initiation and now I am ready for anything anywhere; full stomach or empty stomach, poverty or plenty”),

Learned how to be poor or rich but not to cope with a nut. An old monk, grown senile and eccentric, once a good friend of McCarthy’s (and mine, a former Dean of Men and Dean of the University who taught the both of us economics) had been acting strangely for the last year but no one really paid attention. Now he walked up to the candidate when the monk community was gathering before Matins. He pulled out of his robe a small black gun, held it up to McCarthy’s head and pulled the trigger, yelling “Bang!” It was a water pistol but all the same the monks and Secret Service pinned him to the ground, took the gun away from him and led him away while he babbled that it was all a joke. He underwent an extensive psychiatric examination as a deep shudder went through the monastery. To say McCarthy was unnerved is an understatement.

Actually, the prank was part of a strange tissue of similar ones that had beset the university with black humor for many years including when I went there. I remember in 1947 when a classmate was tapped to recite the beginning chorus line for Shakespeare’s Henry V [1.1]. It was the beginning line of the entire play, designed to provide the dramatic setting. He would recite it to us as we ate breakfast, lunch and dinner and he had it down perfectly. I can still hear him as he would prattle:

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend/

The brightest heaven of invention/

A kingdom for a stage, princes to act/

And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!

Then should the warlike Harry, like himself/

Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels,

Leash’d in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire

Crouch for employment. But pardon, and gentles all

The flat unraised spirits that have dared

On this unworthy scaffold to brihng forth

So great an object: can this cockpit hold

The vasty fields of France?

We got so tired of hearing it day and night that I decided, evilly, to confuse him. When he began “0 for a Muse of fire…” I would say, “0 for a Fuse of Wire.” He would say, “wrong! You can’t confuse me, Roeser!” But whenever he tried to recite from the beginning all of us would say “0 for a Fuse of Wire!” Well, you know what happened. On the opening night of the play while the entire faculty and student body was in attendance, he came out, gave me a subtle finger privately, looked confidently at the audience and pronounced—“0 for a Fuse of Wire!”

When the play ended, he shot out from behind the curtain, chased a few of us down and with his friends beat us until their arms ached and then beat us again—but we, evil ones, didn’t care. That was the mischief that lay barren in that old Catholic university. And sadly, Fr. Martin Schirber OSB, our Dean who had gone eccentric and dotty just followed through. It was a joke but it was many months before he was released from the rubber room.

It was all too much and was a sad parody on what had happened in the real world. It didn’t add to McCarthy’s personal comfort. Here he had gone to the monastery to nurture a sense of calm and had an old professor who taught him long ago frenetic with crazyness. When the retreat was over, Gene left and so far as I know never made a retreat there again.

The story never really surfaced in the papers. When I heard it via the grapevine of the alumni, I called Eller.

“Roeser,” he said, “you had Martin for economics, didn’t you? A free market guy. Well see what happened? He tried to pop McCarthy with a water pistol. He’s going to be gone in the rubber room thanks to the feds you’ll never see him again. When I saw him pull that gun I thought I was having a stroke.”

I commented (as he fully understood since he was a co-conspirator with me on it: “O for a Fuse of Wire.”

He said, “I know but this was too much.”

Agreed. What effect did it have on Gene?

“Made him turn more to Robert Lowell than ever before. He’ll never be the same after Martin put that pistol to his head.”

Don’t tell me Lowell was in the monastery.

“Too drunk. Was caught trying to snitch sacramental wine. The monks kicked him out. But after Gene left the retreat, he found Lowell and they had their own retreat reciting Dantes’s Sixth Canto. Lowell thinks it’s hilarious. I tell you, Roeser, this is an odd year. When the former Dean goes after you with as water pistol and says “bang-bang you’re dead!” there’s something wrong somewhere.”

True. Something wrong with the Democratic party that year from which it has not yet recovered.

1 comment:

  1. McCarthy sounds like he ought to be Richard III, far removed from Henry V-

    Wonderful history, Tom!