Thursday, February 7, 2008

Flashback: At the Salt Lake City Session to Plan his Break with LBJ, Rages until 4 in the Morning; LBJ: Give that Speech and You’ll Be [Explective]; Vice Presidential Seal Removed from Lectern and Hubert’s On His Own. Gene McCarthy...


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

The Turn-Around in Salt Lake.

With Gallup showing Hubert trailed Nixon by 15 points, a group of bickering advisers gathered late on the night of September 30, 1968 in Humphrey’s suite at the Hotel Utah. Hubert was sitting in his bathrobe and Freddie Gates had come in with the $100,000 to buy time on national television the next night. As with the controversy on the Vietnam war itself, the advisers split into doves and hawks. With the doves were Larry O’Brien, Sen. Fred Harris (D-Okla.), former undersecretary of state George Ball. and Ted Van Dyk. Arguing the hawkish stance were Humphrey staffer Bill Connell and Jim Rowe (an old friend of LBJ and Hubert). The debate raged until 4 a.m. The doves pointed to the fracture in the party and said that without a change in position, Hubert was bound to go down like a ton of bricks. The hawks argued that to change position immediately looked opportunistic, that it would incur the enmity of President Johnson which was bound to maim Hubert in the campaign. O’Brien said a speech was essential to woo the dissident McCarthy and McGovern faction; Connell and Rowe wanted no concessions to the doves and in fact argued that Humphrey should not even make the speech.

At 4 a.m. Humphrey kicked them out of his suite. “Everybody get out!” he said. “I’m tired of listening to all this argument. This is my life and it’s going to be my speech, not yours. I’m the man running for president not you. Get me a couple of secretaries to show up here at 9 tomorrow morning [he meant that very morning at 9]. I’m going to dictate the speech and give it to you. You guy fill it in with relevant statistics but what I say I will say. No changes.” He gave a hint of which way he would go by saying to Ball: “You be here at 2 p.m. to go over the format with me.”

The two secretaries showed up. He dictated rapidly, then caught a late morning brunch with some Utah Democrats and made a speech at the Mormon Tabernacle. (Intriguingly, in the off-the-cuff speech Humphrey described the moderate middle of the country as being composed of what he called “the silent majority.” He coined the phrase which Richard Nixon later adopted as his own to describe the same group after Nixon became president; giving no credit to Hubert, of course).

Finishing the speech, Humphrey dashed back to his hotel to meet Ball. Ball told him that he had contacted Averill Harriman who was trying to kick-start negotiations in Paris with the North Vietnamese that Harriman would keep his lip buttoned about the speech. Humphrey went to the TV station in Salt Lake city and waiting until fifteen minutes before delivery live, placed a call to LBJ at the White House. He tried to ease it to Johnson gently: “Mr. President, we’ve gone over this material before and I think I have sufficient protection in the language of the speech so that in no way will it jeopardize what you’re trying to do.”

Johnson was laconic and dubious. Then Hubert read over the phone the portions of the speech where he called for a bombing halt.

(DIGRESSION: It was one of the very few times that a vice president had contradicted a sitting president, the last time of great notice being when John C. Calhoun broke with Andrew Jackson over…what? Not slavery or the Bank of the United States but a woman—Peggy Eaton. Peggy O’Neale Timberlake was rumored to have had an affair with Jackson’s secretary of war, John Eaton. Her husband had committed suicide and she reportedly took up with Eaton. The cabinet wives led by Florida Calhoun, the wife of the vice president, John C. Calhoun who was named after the state of her birth, ostracized her because of rumors that Timberlake killed himself in despondency over Peggy’s infidelity because Peggy had allegedly became the mistress of Eaton before they were married.

(CONTINUED: The wives, organized by Florida Calhoun, refused to go to the wedding or the reception, saying she was an adulterous wife. Jackson, a widower, was incensed because their conduct reminded him of the treatment his own wife had received from society women. They charged them with living in sin and his wife Rachel with being a bigamist. Jackson had been a border in a Nashville rooming house run by Rachel and her mother, Rachel. Rachel, a vivacious type and popular with men, had split from a husband, Lewis Robards, who was insanely jealous of her and was always suspicious that she was having an affair. Rachel tearfully told her story to Jackson the border. One day she said her alienated husband demanded she join him in Kentucky. She said she feared he would beat her in a rage. She left. After she left, Jackson thought it over and decided he had fallen in love with her. So he saddled up and took off for Kentucky to rescue her from the insensately jealous husband Lewis Robards.

(CONTINUED: Well, of course, seeing Jackson rushing to her defense in Kentucky, Robards decided for sure that Rachel had truly been unfaithful. So he decided to get a divorce. In those days divorces were so rare and so no-no, you had to get permission for a divorce from the legislature for a man—not a woman—to sue his wife for infidelity. Dutifully the Kentucky legislature passed an enabling act allowing Robards to sue for divorce. But an enabling act is not a divorce, simply an approval for Robards to go to court to get a divorce. Robards took off without asking the court for the divorce. Jackson and Rachel, both 24, were so much in love they married immediately in 1791 (they were to have no children). Maybe they thought in backwoods country that no one would ever know but they were wrong, Jackson being, after all, a lawyer. He was on his way to becoming a pretty big hit in legal circles in Tennessee when Robards came back and alerted his friends that Jackson and Rachel was living in bigamy. Tongues started wagging and technically the charges were right which caused Rachel and Andrew much humiliation. Particularly Rachel.

(CONTINUED: So Jackson collared Robards and made him go through with the divorce which he did. Then Jackson and Rachel got re-married in 1794. But the story never died. Jackson became a political figure, a congressman and senator, then a national hero as the major general who won the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812, who defeated the Seminoles. The story still dogged both of them. It was blamed for helping to lose the presidential race in 1824. He confronted it again in 1828 when he overcame it and was elected president. Jackson’s story is that the rumors caused Rachel to have a fatal heart attack on December 22, 1828 when he was president-elect. Jackson in a towering rage never forgave Washington society women, seeing their attack on Peggy Eaton as a renewal of this cattyness which took the life of his wife. Jackson had sort of inherited John C. Calhoun as his vice president (Calhoun had served earlier with John Quincy Adams). Calhoun was a devout states righter; Jackson a devout preserve the union man. They fought over many things. But when Jackson saw that Florida Calhoun was getting his cabinet officers’ wives riled up about Peggy Eaton, he said to Calhoun, “John if you can’t control Florida, you’re no good to me as vice president or to the country. I demand you resign.”

(CONTINUED: Calhoun despised Jackson anyhow and decided he’d do better as a senator from his home state of South Carolina and an opening was coming up, so he resigned. All the other cabinet members decided to support their wives on the Peggy Eaton issue as well and all quit. All except Martin Van Buren the secretary of state who had no wife, was a widower and decided he could make a political benefit of this fracas. So Van Buren went to see Peggy and her husband, made nice-nice with them and became Jackson’s favorite. Van Buren became Jackson’s choice as a successor and won election to one term as the eighth president. Calhoun who went to the Senate never got anywhere with his presidential ambitions. After all that happened, Peggy Eaton got tired of the notoriety and convinced her husband to quit as secretary of war. He did. And that fuss for nothing. So much for trying to please your wife. END OF DIGRESSION).

LBJ: Hubert, You Give That Speech and--.

Back to Humphrey and Johnson. Johnson predictably went into a rage and who could blame him? He had placed as one condition for picking Hubert as vice president, Hubert’s loyalty. Hubert promised to be loyal and now running for president he was off the reservation. The other contestant for the vice presidency, Gene McCarthy had promised to be loyal as well which shows you how long loyalty goes in politics. With cold rage Johnson said, “Hubert,, you’re not asking me for my advice, I gather. You’re just informing me.” Hubert gulped and said: “Mr. President, I guess that’s about right.” Johnson said: “Hubert, you give that speech and you’ll be [explective]. I want you to take that vice presidential seal off the podium if you were planning to use it. And goodbye.” Click. An aide grabbed Hubert and said he was going on camera live in two minutes. The vice presidential seal came down.

Hubert began, warmed to his approach and said he was preparing to take three risks for peace. He looked at his script which said first, “As president I would be willing to stop the bombing.” He instantly edited it live on TV, saying, “As president I would stop the bombing of the North as an acceptable risk for peace because I believe it could lead to success in the negotiations and a shorter war…In weighing that risk—and before taking action—I would place key importance on evidence, direct or indirect by deed or word—of Communist willingness to restore the demilitarized zone between North and South Vietnam.”

He added: “If the government of North Vietnam were to show bad faith, I would reserve the right to resume the bombing.”

Two, “Careful, systematic reduction of American troops in South Vietnam, a de-Americanization of the war, turning over to the South Vietnamese army a greater share of the defense of its own country.”

Three, “An internationally supervised cease-fire and supervised withdrawal of all foreign forces from South Vietnam.”

Four, “free elections including all people in South Vietnam willing to follow the peaceful process.”

A tag line on the speech put there by O’Brien solicited funds. By today’s standards, funds raised forty years ago are insignificant but at the time, a quarter of a million dollars raised with the television program was almost unprecedented.

McCarthy scoffed at the speech because he rightly saw that it was not a radical departure from Johnson’s position, promising a bombing halt but insisting it could be recalled at any time—just enough to give a little daylight between Johnson’s and Hubert’s.

That speech lifted a huge burden from Humphrey’s shoulders and generated the long-stalled Democratic presidential campaign. With that speech Democrats started coming back home. McCarthy stayed adamant but the polls reacted immediately. Richard Nixon cannily reacted by exploiting the breach between Humphrey and Johnson, saying he hoped Humphrey’s speech had not jeopardized peace negotiations in Paris. But it didn’t bother Hubert. Liberated in spirit, he launched an immediate attack on George Wallace, severing labor’s emotional tie to the Alabama governor, calling Wallace “an apostle of hate and racism, the creature of the most reactionary underground forces in American life,” reminding labor that Wallace’s Alabama had one of the lowest wage scales in the nation, the highest murder rate.

Then he ingeniously tried to tie Nixon to Wallace. There were only five weeks to go to election. “I know that in his speeches, my Republican opponent appeals to the same fears…the same passions…the same frustrations which can unleash in this country a torrent of unreasoning hate and repression.”

Phony Poll Numbers Generate Good Pundit Press Which…

All the while Bill Connell, who had opposed the speech went to work to support the speech he had fought against. Looking at the crowd reaction as they traveled across the country, he rationalized that there were 14 “probable” states with a total of 194 electoral votes that Humphrey could count on, 9 other states tagged as “real possibilities” and that if he carried all 23 he’d have more than the requisite 260 electoral votes. Connell invented out of whole cloth certain “private polls” that contradicted Gallup and armed with those bogus polls engendered a public relations program called “the swing is on to Humphrey” with key columnists, writers andc financial people. A torrent of news stories appeared based on the phony numbers saying Humphrey was coming back with a vengeance.

…Produce Real Poll Numbers Tightening the Race.

The amazing thing is that by mid-October, 1968 the public polls were beginning to reflect the bogus numbers Connell invented. Harris on October 10, the first after Salt Lake City, showed Humphrey was moving within five points of Nixon—40% to 35%., Wallace at 18%. Then Gallup following suit narrowed Nixon’s lead from the 15 points it gave him originally to 8—44% to 36%. Connell then used the polls to raise money from once disheartened Democratic sources. By October 21 another two million was raised for Humphrey.

All the same, Johnson was closing the money spigot in Texas. Governor John Connally refused to host a fund-raising dinner there. Johnson was sitting on $700,000 for the party raised through a fund-raising book. Johnson refused to release the money, telling Humphrey’s people, “Nixon is following my policies more closely than Humphrey.”

Gene McCarthy still held back adamantly. Humphrey’s speech is “good openers for 25-cent poker” but it is not “significant.” One of his fans, Shana Alexander of “Life,” saw that the magazine hired him to cover the 1968 World Series between St. Louis and Detroit. McCarthy then drew up a list of four conditions for Humphrey to observe before McCarthy would support him—publicly support an immediate and unconditional halt of U.S. bombing in North Vietnam, free elections in Vietnam with participation of the National Liberation Front, the political arm of the Vietcong; reform of the U. S. Selective Service laws including provision for conscientious objection to certain wars and restructuring of the Democratic party. Obviously they were so extreme as to be unacceptable. Gene then told the press who interviewed him at the World Series an epigram that was indecipherably vague so no one used it.

Humphrey was rapidly closing the gap by use of phony poll numbers which generated widespread press which in turn became a self-fulfilling prophecy. If he could have gotten McCarthy to endorse him, McCarthy who had access to General Motors heir Stewart Mott’s mega-millions (in those days thee were no limits on expenditures) and if Johnson had freed up the $700,000 in the party’s coffers, he could have won. He had already demolished George Wallace. But Johnson’s anger and McCarthy’s droll sense of unforgiveness, the harboring of ancient hurts…stemming from his being turned down for vice president in 1964…was threatening to elect Richard Nixon the 37th president of the United States.

In those last days of the campaign, Hubert tried to see Johnson but was repeatedly told the president was too busy. An aide told him after many requests, “Mr. Vice President, it’s my guess that the president may disagree with some elements of your campaign.”

Really, said Hubert. And would he rather have Richard Nixon become president?

The aide said: Uh, you’ll have to ask him.

Hubert said, that’s what I want to do. Can I?

Sorry, that’s just it, said the aide. He is too busy.


  1. Will Shakespeare couldn't much improve on this saga of A Great American Tragedy.

    I was busy trying to support a family, make a buck, be a "contenda."

    Meanwhile these miserable bastards are getting many thousands of American men killed, and want to throw in the towel just to get elected. I need to go to Confession, but luckily I don't have that burden to carry there. Barf

  2. Lovie's LeatherFebruary 7, 2008 at 6:16 PM

    I just wonder if this story has any relevance to this year's race? We'll see in time, I guess.

  3. Tom,

    I am wondering how you felt as a cub reporter covering the Andrew Jackson campaign. Thanks for the memories.


  4. These stories are gems. Keep 'em coming.