Monday, February 25, 2008

Flashback: Hubert Flies Back to Minnesota and is Duped by Billboard Mixup but is Cheered Up and Prepares to Run for the Senate (and Maybe President) Again…Gene is Zinged by Lowenstein for Russell Long Vote, Opposes Warren Burger Dating from 17-Year Contro

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

Hubert Embarrassed, then Joyful.

On November 22, while he was still vice president but a lame duck who would become a private citizen in a few months, Hubert Humphrey flew to Minnesota for a speech to the Farmers Union Grain Terminal Association but also to meet with friends to decide what he would do in the future. He was depressed and thoughtful. On the plane word came from his staff that an insulting series of billboards had just popped up all over the Twin Cities: no picture or artwork but the cryptic words: Big Mouth is Coming!

Humphrey immediately figured that the Minnesota Republican party had set this up. Angered after losing the presidency by a handful of votes… having been chided for his loss by Lyndon Johnson who had him over for dinner at the White House and bluntly said the defeat was caused by Humphrey’s not listening to Johnson’s advice (when in fact the polls showed that splitting with Johnson over Vietnam was the issue that moved the election as close as it became)…outraged at the perfidy of California’s Jesse Unruh who sabotaged the Humphrey campaign in order to set himself up for a run for governor in 1970, Hubert was apoplectic at the news of the billboards. When he landed he was greeted by an avalanche of news reporters and cameras but he wasn’t the happy warrior any more.

He decried the vicious partisanship of politics and cited the mushrooming of billboards “Big Mouth is Coming!” as a wholly uncivil welcome from a GOP that knows no civility only abject vicious partisanship. It was then that a newsman told him that the billboards had no political significance at all. They were an advance promotion by Hamm’s Beer to announce the forthcoming introduction of a new bottle beer with a wider, more drinking-friendly top rather than the narrow opening on its other bottles. Hubert almost fainted. Here he had anticipated this appellation as a scurrilous reference to himself. It was the low-point in his career. The TV stations graciously underplayed his erroneous response because of their sympathy for the Minnesotan who came closest of all to winning the White House. The pass they gave was the last mark of civility of a fast evaporating bygone age when reporters could spare a politician they liked humiliation.

In Minnesota, Hubert had a few decisions to make about his future. He was told that the presidency of Columbia University in New York was open, that Brandeis wanted to give him lifetime tenure as a professor. Neither was interesting because this would require him moving from Minnesota where he intended to stage a comeback. His old friend Bill Benton (former Connecticut senator) offered him an assignment as a roving ambassador for Encyclopedia Britannica enterprises based in Chicago but he could fulfill them by continuing to live in Minnesota—which was exciting. DeWitt Wallace, founder of “Reader’s Digest,” was a major financial angel of Macalester College in St. Paul where Hubert had once taught (Wallace’s father had been president of the school) and offered him a teaching assignment there. Malcolm Moos, president of the University of Minnesota, a former speech-writer for Eisenhower but a college chum of Hubert, wanted Hubert to teach and conduct a university seminar at the U of M. So he brightened slightly: things were falling into place.

Muriel toted up the financial potentials. They had never been wealthy but some of these offers gave some financial independence. Let’s see, he was entitled to a federal pension of $19,500 a year. The endowed Macalester professorship would pay $30,000. The job with Britannica would bring in $75,000 with travel and other expenses paid for. Then there was an offer sight unseen for memoirs which would carry an advance of $75,000. As a private citizen, he could charge fees for speeches which could bring in, she estimated, income so that the total for 1969 could well be in excess of $200,000 which meant a good lifestyle by 1969 standards. And some corporations were offering some board directorships.

Muriel Humphrey was ecstatic with the prospects. And Hubert was still relatively young, only 58 so there could be opportunities to run for other posts (already the DFL wanted him to run for governor). Still, Hubert couldn’t shake the depression and some unaccountable bouts of nervous stomach which his doctor said was residual from the campaign. The campaign was over but his tummy didn’t know it. The doctor prescribed travel for the last days of the vice presidency—anything to get away from Lyndon Johnson with his sad beagle eyes, mournful hangdog look and continuing rumble that Hubert would be president if only he had listened to LBJ: nauseating.

Anyhow, he took the Macalester professorship and the Encyclopedia Britannica job; he signed off for a book and for a lecture bureau. But he had to get away. A Soviet official had offered to host him in the USSR which he decided would be a good tonic. Britannica volunteered to pay for the trip. He importuned his number one money guy, Dwayne Andreas of Archer-Daniels-Midland to go along with him and Muriel. After the agonizing U.S. Capitol experience of (as vice president) presiding over the casting of the electoral votes resulting in Nixon’s election (just as Nixon had had to do in 1960 when the electors picked John Kennedy), Hubert began teaching, winging every so often to Chicago to confer with Bennett on Britannica projects, then back for lectures at the U of M and writing his book: so he was pretty busy. Time passed but his stomach still hurt and he was often sleepless, rehashing in his mind in the middle of the night what he might have done differently to win the presidency.

In July, 1969 they all left for the USSR. Benton, a multi-millionaire former head of the Manhattan ad firm Benton & Bowles had hired Ben Read, the former state department official who now headed the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, to plan the trip and go along as tour director. “Don’t give Hubert a lot of time to brood,” said Benton. Read didn’t. A skilled scheduler he arranged parties and gatherings with world leaders wherever they stopped. Ostensibly it was to be on Britannica business but it was a grand tour. They stopped at Claridge’s in London and hosted a party among whose 40 guests was Tricia Nixon, Happy Rockefeller and a number of junketing senators.

Hubert asked Read to take them to an unscheduled stop, in Geneva. They went and while the group enjoyed the scenery Hubert went to a business meeting where he made one of the more fortunate decisions of his life which saved him a lot of future embarrassment. He met with Bernard Kornfeld who invited him to join the board of Investors Overseas Services. Hubert was mightily interested but something inside warned him that he was becoming too involved in business—and there was something also that piqued him about Cornfeld. It was good luck because less than a year later Kornfeld’s speculative bubble burst and it could have taken Hubert’s name and reputation with it. The group then proceeded on to Moscow.

In Moscow key members of the Soviet leadership including Premier Alexsi Kosygin tried to get everybody drunk—Hubert, Muriel, the Andreases, Read. Read nudged Hubert who was not a prodigious drinker and said that this was to be a test. The conversation raged but whenever there would be a lull, Kosygin would rap his glass on the table and there would be a toast of vodka. Read told Hubert to dominate the conversation and keep rattling on so the drinking would be postponed—which Hubert, a superbly garrulous speaker, did. But even Hubert had to pause for breath and when he did, Kosygin would rap his glass and everyone would chugalug, bottoms up.

The radio was blaring and Neil Armstrong, the U.S. astronaut, was preparing to land on the moon. It was July 20, 1969. Hubert worried that Kosygin would be jealous of our advantage but after the seventh bottoms up of straight vodka, Kosygin said he didn’t really give a damn about the U. S. beating them to the moon; they were all brothers. Hubert drank to that and Kosygin drank to Hubert’s drinking to that. And so on.

By midnight Hubert and the party rose unsteadily to their feet and signaled they had enough. Kosygin and his guests pretended they were offended but Hubert said he didn’t give a damn: he had never had that much to drink up to now and if they were offended, they’d have to consider declaring war but by God he was going to bed. Kosygin roared good-naturedly.

When the tipsy Hubert got back to his hotel (Hotel National) he noticed that a group of Soviet soldiers were standing in the lobby listening to a short-wave radio. He was ready to turn in but even in his muddled state of inebriation he wondered what in the world could be happening now that the U.S. had landed on the moon that so engaged the Soviets who were giggling.

He tottered over to them and asked. What they told him instantly sobered him up and kept him awake all night with joy. They told him that while Neil Armstrong was landing on the moon, Sen. Edward Kennedy had driven off a bridge at Cape Cod and that a female companion in his car had drowned. Immediately sober, Hubert put on the greatest acting stunt of his life, feigned astonishment and then sorrow as the soldiers huzza’ed. He hustled to his room clear-headed and opportunistic, thinking cogently of all the options. Up to now Ted Kennedy was regarded as a shoo-in for the 1972 Democratic nomination but it was clear the way had opened up for Hubert. Hubert could get back in the game again. Let’s see, how old would he be in 1972? 61. Not bad. Just right.

Now he really wanted to get the hell out of Russia and go home. As they flew home, Hubert was clinging tightly to Muriel’s hand as they consorted about the future. An aide rushed down the aisle to him and said that Gene McCarthy had just made it official: he would not run for reelection to the Senate in 1970. Hey—Hubert said, break out the bottles. Muriel said: “huh? It’s only 10 in the morning.” He didn’t care. It was one helluva week: drank almost to the point of irredeemable intoxication with the possessor of the greatest iron bellies in Moscow, Alexsi Kosygin and lived to tell the tale. The U. S. astronauts land safely. His major potential opponent drives off a bridge and kills a girl: he’s dead meat. And McCarthy says he won’t run, leaving a seat open for Hubert. The plan would be to run for the Senate in `70, get elected in friendly Minnesota in a walk, go zipping back to the Senate and get ready for the presidency in 1972 for a repeat against Tricky Dick. Everybody stood up and drank with him. “Bottom’s up!” Hubert said in Russian, imitating Kosygin.

Gene Settles Old Scores.

In the U. S. Senate, in January, 1969, lame duck Gene McCarthy had still more old scores to settle. Rubbing his scabs and ruminating about past slights to his pride, he saw that Allard Lowenstein, the anti-war radical who had defected to Bobby Kennedy—now Congressman Allard Lowenstein—was blaming Gene for voting for Louisiana’s Russell Long, the oil and gas industries ambassador to Washington, against Ted Kennedy for Senate Democratic Whip. The press called McCarthy for a comment. McCarthy, master of repartee, figured he would dominate this confrontation. He said, with all the sarcasm he could muster, “I see that Congressman Lowenstein has been in the U. S. House. Five days teaches you a lot.” The press thought it was cute and raced over to Lowenstein for a counter-comment.

Lowenstein had had it with McCarthy. Like Gene he was no slouch in the sardonic department. As the cameras moved in on him the reporters recited McCarthy’s acid comments: Lowenstein had only been in the House for five days.

Lowenstein said: “True. I have a lot to learn. But I don’t need five days to tell the difference between a Russell Long and a Ted Kennedy.” That crack took care of McCarthy and no longer was Gene the idol of the reformist left. Note: Only in 1960s liberal Democratic party circles would a vote for Russell Long be regarded as horrible. Long happened to be one of the more outstanding members of the Senate and was (as this history earlier described) a very good friend of Hubert Humphrey dating from the days when both were debaters on the University of Louisiana team. Long’s representation of oil and gas interests would be as normal for Louisiana as an Iowan’s representation of agriculture.

McCarthy made a note to scratch Lowenstein off his favorite list (the two never reconciled. Eleven years later in 1980, Allard Lowenstein, still a Congressman, was shot to death by a severely mentally disturbed man who was found not guilty by reason of incorrigible insanity. Lowenstein has been the last U. S. member of Congress to be assassinated).

Now Gene had at least one old score to settle. In 1952 South St. Paul lawyer Warren Burger was campaign manager for a long ago Republican candidate Roger Kennedy. He represented Kennedy in a debate with Gene when McCarthy was seeking his third House term. The issue was McCarthy’s having supported a measure to wipe clean alleged U.S. security risks from federal employment—a legitimate issue. McCarthy grew bitter at use of the issue so years later he voted against Burger’s judicial nominations. He voted against Burger for the U.S. Court of Appeals and as justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Now Burger was up for chief justice of the Supreme Court. McCarthy became one of only three senators to vote against him.

The McCarthys Separate. Their Imperial Selves.

Shortly after Gene announced that he would not run for reelection (July 22, 1969) both McCarthys told the media that they were separating. Their best friend, Bill Carlson said that it was evident since the 1968 convention they were not getting along—but their disagreement had extended far longer than that. Essentially Abigail was an ambitious, bright—even brilliant—wife who wanted a successful political career for her husband and recognition in her own right: she was a gifted writer and speaker. As a Democrat, she was an Irish liberal from Wabasha, Minn. who could be described as a worldly-wise sophisticate suited for friendship with the Burkes—Ed and Ann, probably more liberal than Ann.

But while in 1960s terms Abigail became pretty much a woman of the left, she saw no need in tearing down people who helped them along the way and could be a very forgiving person. As we have seen, Gene was less his Irish father’s easy-going man than his mother’s son (she a cold-hearted German who lavished her praise on him). If you helped Gene along the way get to where he wanted, you were his friend; if your agenda collided with his, you were not his friend and he would detour in his tracks, knife you and walk away with an epigram on his lips. She was appalled that Gene regarded Eugenie Anderson as despicable when all Eugenie did was run against him for the endorsement. The marveled that Gene had this “how dare she run against me!” attitude to which she responded, “well who the hell do you think you are anyhow, Gene?”

There was no such thing as forgiveness, let’s-make-up-and-start-over with Gene. He saw himself in no debt to anyone who helped him; he was vain, unutterably proud of his intellect, wit and good looks. While classified as a “devout Catholic,” he was in fact a devoutly relativistic post-Vatican II Catholic who believed in few if any absolutes except the adulation of self. This was in part a legacy and in part an invention that he put together with Fr. Godfrey Diekmann OSB. Diekmann was as far off the mark of authentic Catholicism as is possible to imagine. Abortion held no horror for him because it was a sacrament of the Left and he wouldn’t give the right the satisfaction to criticize it, not would he dream of leaving his party over it; homosexuality (though he was decidedly not gay) was no different than the color of eyes. He was an admirer of Rembert Weakland OSB, the Milwaukee archbishop and once abbot primate of the Benedictines, because the two hated ecclesial authority; it was immaterial to Diekmann that a partial reason for Weakland’s retirement as archbishop was the revelation that he paid blackmail to an angry gay ex-lover from diocesan funds.

The paramount issue was anti-authoritarianism, the leveling of authority in the church from the Vatican to the people in the pews. The people in the pews, that is, who agreed with Godfrey—not the others who were invincibly ignorant. All others i.e. “Wanderer” readers were banished to the outer limits of hell. But as often been said here, it is unfair to blame Godfrey Diekmann for Gene McCarthy; it may well have been Gene McCarthy who exerted more influence on Godfrey since they were roughly the same age.

Given that Gene had that kind of mind-set, it would logically lead to disruption with Abigail who saw it essential that he—and she—become a power in the Democratic party. His decision to run against Johnson and become stridently against the war worried, then excited, her but his haphazard way of running the campaign repelled her since she knew that he would destroy the Democratic party for a time and imperil its—his and her—rise in it.

Because of Gene, she lost some good friends in the press like Joe Alsop and her friendship with Muriel Humphrey, Lady Bird Johnson and with the largely influential leaders of the left in Georgetown; she was regarded for a time by other pols and labor people of the middle class who liked the Great Society as the wife of a man who was weird, a freak. She begged him to be more serious in his run for president; when he did, she tried to help but his hippie style of rhapsodizing with the nihilistic alcoholic poet Robert Lowell scandalized her. When he did so well in the New Hampshire primary she had a momentary surge of hope; indeed she was outraged at the Kennedys when they tried to usurp Gene’s role after New Hampshire. In her heart of heart, the decline of the Kennedys (Bobby’s death, Teddy’s subsequent fall from grace) had created an opening for Gene but he was maddeningly incapable of capitalizing on it.

Gene’s awful behavior in Chicago where he wouldn’t shake hands with Hubert at the convention was the last straw. And she regarded his purposefully holding out his endorsement of Hubert so that it would kill his chances of election as despicable, savage, cold-hearted, mean-spirited, anti-Christian and almost inhuman for a man who had been befriended by Hubert. Hubert at bottom a great gladiator against the hated conservative Republicans but inside the Democratic party little more than a very friendly fuzz ball; not so her calculating, Nixonian-style husband.

Gene’s friendship with The Little Sisters of the Media—Shana Alexander, Mary McGrory and Marya McLaughlin—didn’t bother her because, frankly, she couldn’t stand their sycophantic ways with him. She fully understood that Gene McCarthy had many faults but that he was not a lecher. If anything he was still a remote, semi-celibate monk with them—hugely enjoying their adulation at his epigrams. She subtly checked up on him to see whether he was being unfaithful to her with McLaughlin but found instead that they were English lit soul-mates rather than lovers. When later he moved in with McLaughlin she felt it was more of a roommate, poetry quoting society. Her friends told her she was surely wrong there, but who really knows? He was a very-very strange man.

When the two of them finally had it out, he told her a stunning thing: that he could not be faithful to her or anyone else for the remainder of his life. By this she took it not to mean sexual; it had not been faithful to any other absolute heretofore so why should it be different?. In her autobiography “Private Faces, Public Places” [Doubleday: 1972] here is how she put it:

“Gene left our home in August of 1969. He had long since come to the conclusion that the concept of lifelong fidelity and shared life come what may--`for richer, for poorer, for better, for worse, in sickness and in health until death do us part’ to which we agreed in church—was no longer valid. And many people do find this—or any permanent commitment—an impossible ideal.” Quite a benevolent comment on one who was trained in Catholic theology, one who now says any permanent commitment was impossible. Perhaps the falling away of permanence involved them both. With that comment she returned to the subject of the book—herself.

She added: “I do not regret that for thirty years, in the words of Simone de Beauvoir, `I spontaneously preferred another existence to my own.’ I think I am a richer person for having shared that existence and because of the sharing that my own existence developed dimensions otherwise outside its scope.”

So with Abigail as with Gene, whether there was a parting of a marriage or not, it was always…always…all about “me.” Get this: she was a richer person because of it. Strangely, it seemed they were more alike than they believed—both supremely self-centered with no absolutes save self.


  1. Having grown up in MN, I remember, abeit in a disinterested student hustler way, the oratory of Hubert. It could make a farmer and his wife cry while turning his cows to give more liberally. He in churn/turn promised to support every price except raising their naughty daughter.

    Tom- At that time I believe it was Hamm's (The MN beer) with the Big Mouth can, but I may be wrong. I prefered GRAIN BELT, the excellence in Mid-West Pilseners! Long gone alas, but I bought a shortie glass (7 ounce for chasers) at an auction long ago.

  2. Schell's Beer from New Ulm, Minnesota was not bad. Schmidt's was more than passable. Grain Belt was still being produced, but the quality suffered under its new corporate owner. This was a trifle odd since all three brands were acquired by the same company.

  3. Fascinating stuff, Tom. Keep 'em coming.