Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Flashback: McCarthy Bows to Liberal Stereotype and “Walks the Milwaukee Ghetto.” The LBJ-Hubert Kabuki Dance, Johnson Ending His Career and Hubert Feigning Sadness. Martin Luther King is Assassinated and McCarthy, Who Didn’t Want to Go to His Funeral..

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

Gritting His Teeth, Gene Tours the Ghetto.

The resignation of two aides because of McCarthy’s insensitivity to black concerns was, of course trumped up: the two, including Seymour Hersh, who became a radical anti-war icon, wanted to bolt and go with Bobby Kennedy who had been their first choice anyhow. McCarthy knew this. There was a certain blunt honesty about McCarthy who despised the requisite liberal obeisance to convention that I always liked. He said, “This gesture is kind of a set pattern they follow in politics and they keep trying to put you into it. Like walking in the ghettos, which was all press stuff. It didn’t make any difference…This is the kind of thing that is entirely irrelevant to the campaign against Johnson—the question of who could get the biggest crowd in the ghetto…About once a week…a guy didn’t know what to write, he’d say Senator McCarthy was in Chicago today and he didn’t go into the ghetto area…Well it was pointless…I couldn’t get Negro votes away from Bobby Kennedy. I could have moved into the ghettos and stayed and it wouldn’t have made a difference.”

Right he was but there was a remarkable coldness as well which I couldn’t fathom. While his coldness found resonance with Eller, Blair Clark for one couldn’t understand it. For all the years I knew McCarthy, I wondered why he almost purposefully chose to ignore race. I have never really come to any understanding of it.

Nevertheless, against his will, Gene bowed to the dicta of Jerry Eller and Blair Clark and made a speech on civil rights, identical to one he had made in New Hampshire (which had very few black residents) and did take a five-mile walking tour through the Milwaukee ghetto and Polish areas for the press. The polls in Wisconsin on March 30, 1968, three days before election, showed McCarthy getting 63% of the Wisconsin Democratic vote. On Sunday, March 31 the president was scheduled to make an address to the nation on Vietnam. McCarthy suspected there was change in the air.

LBJ Stops by Hubert’s Apartment for the Kabuki Dance.

LBJ had signaled that he wanted to deliver a speech to the nation on Vietnam and asked his “wise men,” former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, former CIA director John McCloy, Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford (the old-line LBJ crony and Washington fixer) and 5-star general Omar Bradley to meet in Secretary Rusk’s office on March 26 and come up with some advice. Hubert was not invited to participate. By now Rusk had capitulated and followed Clifford’s tack that peace should be the central topic and they would scrap “winning.” They agreed that the peace theme wouldn’t be acceptable to the North Vietnamese but might defuse the domestic political situation in the U.S. (The idea of Omar Bradley being asked for political advice for the salvation of the Democratic party—and coming through with some ideas—boggles the mind). They crafted a scenario that would contain three points: (1) more force was not the political answer so Johnson would announce an end to U.S. bombing south of the 20th parallel; (2) the South Vietnamese would be asked to do more and (3) a general healing piece that would apply to domestic ghetto problems here as well as in Vietnam.

Johnson was satisfied with the speech. But he had written a new ending for it which he carried in his pocket. On Sunday morning, before the speech was delivered, the Johnsons stopped off at the Humphrey apartment overlooking the Potomac on the way back from church with a squad of Secret Service and James Jones, a political aide. Hubert was preparing to leave for Mexico City later that afternoon to represent the U.S. at a meeting of foreign ministers and sign for the country a protocol of a nuclear non-proliferation treaty that would later be submitted to heads of state. Johnson and Hubert went to a private room and LBJ showed Hubert the speech including the announcement of the end of bombing south of the 20th parallel. Hubert read it and enthused “That’s just great. It’s the best thing I ever heard you say.” Then Johnson reached in his breast pocket and produced a another piece of paper with a new ending that said, “accordingly I will not seek nor will I accept the nomination of my party for the presidency of the United States.”

Then began the Kabuki dance that James Jones (later an important Oklahoma congressman in the era of Bill Clinton) played to history to enhance the reputation of his old boss. It was a long formal dance with overtures to conventionalism that has long characterized hypocritical politics in this country. Johnson saw it as a chance to avoid humiliating defeat by McCarthy and a shattered party unity which, even granted he could be nominated, would almost certainly spell his defeat. So he had to put on a hangdog look and make it appear that he was putting the interest of the country ahead of his own political ambition. Hubert had to put on a shocked, even tearful response that this was a great tragedy for the country and the country needed Johnson. So the offensive act of role playing began. When Hubert read the words he said according to Jones, “You can’t do this. You’re going to be reelected.” Johnson said according to Jones, “Hubert, nobody will believe that I’m trying to end this war unless I do that. I just can’t get them to believe I want peace.” So the cynical overture to history was made.

Hubert carried on the features of the Kabuki dance as related by Jones. First, when Johnson showed Hubert the paragraph, “he was downcast.” No one who knew anything about Hubert could believe this, with his dream coming true and the reality falling into his lap: the reason he wanted to become vice president and endure Johnson’s torture in the first place. Second, Jones reported Hubert said plaintively `there is no way I can defeat the Kennedy machine.’” Nonsense, in 1968 as Humphrey knew, the Democratic party was still in the control of the party bosses including formidable leaders from the South no matter what the primaries foretold. It was invented so as to create an aura of underdog.

Third, Johnson’s advice to Hubert: “If you’re going to run you better get ready damn quick. You’ve got to get moving.” As if Hubert hadn’t been preparing for this hour since he had become vice president and had to be told to get off his duff and try to be president. The press gobbled it up; it always has been a sucker for stories like this. But what Hubert did notice was that Johnson had not made any promise of getting his money people behind Hubert or lifting a finger to help Humphrey get the nomination. That was most significant.

Fourth, Hubert never told Muriel about this after the president left. They got on Air Force 2 with Muriel confused: what had happened at the session in their apartment? Reportedly Hubert kept a tight lip. No one can possibly imagine a chatterbox like Hubert keeping a tight lip to his wife who was his closest confidant. Fifth, when Hubert got on Air Force Two he brushed by the press, was not gregarious to them and locked himself in his compartment in the front of the plane. That’s true so as to create a matter of mystery which the media would remember when the story would come out with the Johnson speech that night. Sixth, on arrival in Mexico City Hubert went for a long walk with his physician, Dr. Edgar Berman. Then according to Jones (who wasn’t there) Hubert told Berman that Johnson was thinking of using the special version at the end, saying he would not run. Hubert told this to his doctor but not to Muriel? Ridiculous. They got to the site of the ceremony in Mexico City but first Hubert invited all to see Johnson’s speech on TV. He got a call from Johnson’s aide Marvin Watson saying that Johnson would use the vest-pocket version. Still he didn’t tell Muriel but only Berman! Ludicrous.

Seventh, when Johnson concluded the speech, watching it in Mexico City, Muriel burst into tears and asked Hubert “why didn’t you tell me?” Hubert is supposed to have said (according to Jones who wasn’t there): “I’ve been trying to prepare you for it all day but I didn’t know myself.” All hokum for the history books. What really happened was that Hubert, who was always very easy to understand, did tell Muriel after the president left their apartment that Johnson had talked about not running but they really didn’t know whether or not Johnson would read the secret ending of the speech or not—so when they saw him do it on TV it was a surprise. Earlier, before delivery of the speech, Hubert, the old blabber mouth, couldn’t restrain himself from not telling Berman his close friend on the walk around Mexico City. In short, Hubert was not reticent because he was not a reticent man.

Eighth, Hubert was worried that he could not get the nomination unless he adhered in lock-step to Johnson’s wishes since Johnson could cut off the money and influence with the party leaders if displeased. And on the other hand, he was worried that to allow Johnson to lead him would cause him to look like a robot which could jeopardize the election. Very true. Ninth, unrecognized by the mythologists, Hubert fully knew what he wanted to do in order to win. He should, he thought, adopt a radical dovish strategy rivaling Bobby and Gene McCarthy to outpoint both and get away with it without any retribution from Johnson. But he didn’t dare do that because he knew how vindictive Johnson could be. He misgauged: he could have won had he adhered to the original hard-line but he had lost his confidence and didn’t believe he could.

Enough old Humphrey people are still alive to keep the original Kabuki dance sanitized story going. They’re still willing partners in the old dance—Johnson the sorrowful martyr refusing to run for reelection because he valued bringing peace to Vietnam more than anything else; Hubert the loyal vice president who begged Johnson to reconsider; Johnson telling Hubert he should get his campaign for the presidency revved up; Hubert the tight-lipped man of sorrows keeping the news from his wife; Hubert the man of principle telling Jones he might not be able to beat the Kennedy “machine.” The only thing realistic about the events that happened was this: Hubert resolved to call all the power brokers of the Democratic party including Chicago’s Richard J. Daley, the union power brokers, the residuals of the Johnson people and get them on board.

“He Quit! Johnson Quit! He’s Not Running!”

On Sunday, March 31, Gene McCarthy and his wife and daughter went to Mass in Milwaukee and started out on a full day of campaigning in Wisconsin. He was slated to give a speech at Carroll College outside Milwaukee and paused in an anteroom to try to catch Johnson’s speech. He caught only the beginning and then went to the auditorium to give his own. He told the group, “frankly, I don’t want to sound overconfident but I think the test is pretty much between me and Nixon now.” He didn’t mean that because no one could realistically say this since Bobby was in the running—but it showed confidence, more confidence than Gene had, actually. Twenty minutes after he began and when he was parsing answers to questions, reporters from Milwaukee TV and newspapers ran into the assembly hall and shouted “He quit! Johnson quit! He’s not running!” More than anyone else, McCarthy was surprised, stunned. Hubert had expected it long before it happened. Gene had always thought Johnson would be in until the end and that Bobby and the Kennedys would try to push Gene out to get a shot at him.

McCarthy went back to Schroeder hotel and found that Abigail had seen the TV show. Abigail was an old line Irish pol from the all-Irish town of Wabasha, Minnesota. She couldn’t fathom Gene running against his old patron LBJ but as the good soldier involved herself in Gene’s campaign anyhow. And when Bobby entered the fray with such arrogance, Abigail was offended: a rupture of party civility. Now, however, with the withdrawal of the president she was touched. She always felt there was a lot of decency in Johnson and particularly loved Lady Bird. So on the spur of the moment, Abigail placed a call to the White House, using a special number Lady Bird had given her in friendlier times.

Surprisingly when the phone rang, the special number was picked upby LBJ himself. Abigail expressed as warmly as she could, her respect for him as president. He was courtly and dignified. He then passed the receiver to Lady Bird. Lady Bird was quite cold and aloof to Abigail which Abigail fully understood.

When Gene got to the hotel room he was surprised greatly that Abigail had talked to the president and Lady Bird. Nothing like this would have occurred to him. Turning to his own matters quickly, he decided not to talk to the TV reporters in the lobby but that he would go to the studios. But he was in no great rush. . He went up to their room and told Eller, “Just tell the TV stations to put on a little music until I get there. This is a night for reading poetry—maybe a little Yeats.” Typical anti-hero stuff. He went to the studios and said “the president now has cleared the way for the reconciliation of our people…and for a redefinition of the purpose of the American nation.” Rather an overstatement, that. “I have not been seeking a knock-down, drag-out battle with him up to this point. On the other hand, I have not been seeking an accommodation….I really had just begun to adjust to the entrance of Senator Kennedy. Now I think I will remain quiet for a while until we see whether there are any other entries [anticipating Hubert]. Then we will reassess our position.”

Not a word of respect for any of the supposed good Johnson had done earlier in his career—including, let it be said, the shepherding of a new Senator into the Senate club, Gene McCarthy. Even the consideration of him as a potential vice president which was actually a great political coup for an unknown McCarthy though McCarthy didn’t see anything in it but a rebuff when Hubert was chosen. There was no such thing as gratitude or feeling in the statement from Gene: just unemotional recitation of fact and some baffling comment such as “on the other hand I have not been seeking an accommodation”. By not choosing Gene for vice president, LBJ had forfeited any accommodation from Gene who in cold political realism had got even by ruining his onetime mentor’s career.

With Johnson’s pullout there was a 7% drop in McCarthy’s numbers. But In Wisconsin, on April 2, 1968 he defeated Johnson by 412,160 to 252,696 or 56.2% to 34.6%. McCarthy had counted on LBJ staying in through the California primary and beating him first in Oregon and finally in California. Then McCarthy had calculated, Bobby would get in and the three of them—McCarthy, Bobby and Hubert—would go to the convention and fight for the nomination there. He reasoned Hubert would be unable to cut it and would be jerked out of line by LBJ who had to decide whom he hated the lesser—Kennedy or McCarthy. Gene figured the answer would be himself and that he would get LBJ’s nod. Now Johnson was out and Bobby in. Gene thought Hubert would be easier to beat but a fight between Bobby and Gene would be bitter and hinge on personality and who would be more likely to win. But he had little time to think about anything else than his travel plans. He flew immediately to California and planned to start campaigning there on April 4. That evening he was meeting with a group of labor leaders at the San Francisco Hilton when he was informed of the assassination of Martin Luther King.

King’s tragic death left McCarthy as other things had—unmoved.

McCarthy turned out a statement lamenting King’s murder but his cool, unemotional temperament was in sharp contrast to that of Bobby Kennedy. He had even resolved not to go to King’s funeral—an amazing decision supposedly (his friends said) consistent with his cerebral approach to emotional issues but which was truly not cerebral but unfeeling. Abigail and Eller turned him around. He went to the funeral and sat directly behind Robert Kennedy. But all the same there was a strange lack of feeling and empathy in McCarthy that convinced blacks and others that he was too chilly and remote a customer for the White House. They were entirely right. It was a quality that had come from his background at St. John’s with which I was familiar—in Eller, in one Emerson Hynes (more about whom later) and Godfrey Diekmann OSB and some others from that same era at the school.

Kennedy Composes a Brilliant Tribute on the Plane.

With little or no time for consultation with key staff but having in his plane files a homemade compendium of the best of Ted Sorensen and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. quotations that had been collected for JFK , Robert Kennedy largely by himself composed a mournful statement on a plane headed for Indianapolis as soon as he heard of the killing. There were those who didn’t want to expose him to a crowd there while assassination’s news was in the air, fearing that he himself could be killed in the melee. He spurned that advice, wisely. He landed in Indianapolis and was greeted by a cheering crowd which hadn’t heard the news.

With the crowd in an upbeat mood, Kennedy broke the news and heard the tumult and sobbing of the crowd. Here he made one of the best almost impromptu and nearly extemporaneous speeches in modern political history.

“Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings,” he said. “He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it is perhaps well to ask what kind of nation we are what we direction we want to move in.” His speech was a masterpiece. “For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed buit he was killed by a white man.”

His peroration: “What we need in the United States is not division. What we need in the United States is not hatred. What we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness but is love and wisdom and compassion toward one another and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country whether they be white or whether they be black.”

A touch of the classics here borrowed from Sorensen’s file: “My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote `Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the grace of God….Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago”—lifted from Schlesinger’s contribution to the JFK file and not used as of to this point: “to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of the world.”

That brilliance of thought and majestic delivery contrasted with the frigidity of McCarthy’s spotlighted the difference in the two men that historic day. There are those—me included—who, examining the reactions of the two men after the King tragedy, felt that McCarthy was somehow born without the ability to experience emotion. Earlier, I had been struck with the coldness of his mind when, in concert with a good friend of his, Emerson Hynes who was a professor of mine at St. John’s, he developed a stunning theory. It was the talk of the school for a time. Using a variant of Aristotle (which Hynes taught), they believed that animals are oblivious to pain since to really experience pain it takes complete possession of human faculties. Don’t ask me how they annotated this; it’s been more than fifty years…but anyone seeing a puppy dog whimpering after his tail is caught in a door would understand animals feel pain. Yet Hynes and McCarthy argued animals did not and resulted in their chilly, laboratory specimen view of animals (as well as humans, if you ask me). There was a subzero callousness to suffering and death that marked the two men and I noticed it often.

Many years later, I saw it up close in McCarthy, signifying he had not changed. A man we were both very close to, died: Art Michelson in the early 1980s. He had been a close friend of mine for years, beginning as a TV reporter in the Twin Cities, then the press secretary for McCarthy for many years. Michelson died after a long illness and willed that his body be cremated. His farewell was held in a bizarre way—no religious observance, just a secular ceremony of reminiscences conducted before an urn whose lid was lifted by an attendant to show his grey ashes. It was held in New York and McCarthy went (the ceremony such as it was, was completed before I in Chicago had heard of Arthur’s death). Not long later McCarthy and I had dinner in Washington. I had just heard about Arthur’s death and asked if McCarthy had known of it. Yes, he said. In fact after the ceremony he, in fact, went over to the urn and lifted the lid. He sifted the remains through his fingers.

You know,” McCarthy joked to me, “what they looked like to me? What’s the stuff they sell to defuse the smell of cat excrement? Oh yes, Kitty litter.”

The utter depraved coldness of that remarked concerning a man who had loved him and served him well and about whom I would imagine felt the same way, appalled me. There was utterly no milk of human kindness or feeling in the man. While Hubert’s eyes would well up at a tender fairy story that evoked maudlin pity, with Gene nothing—just the chilliness of sardonic humor. Gene’s attitude appalled me.

It still does. Is it possible to be born and live without any remorse or feeling? McCarthy seems to have proved that it is.

1 comment:

  1. Franciscan Nuns taught me the Church's decree that all humans are subject to sin, which I found to be self evident.

    Therefore, to be without remorse would be to cancel any chance of pardon, as remorse is a basic for confessing your sins and asking God's forgiveness.

    Ergo, if McCarthy thought Mr. Michelson's ashes felt like kitty litter, he must certainly be "burnt toast," but who knows the breadth of God's mercy?