Thursday, February 21, 2008

Flashback: McCarthy Has to Decline Nixon’s Cabinet Offer but Bit by Bit He Gets Even with Democrats and Liberals who Abandoned Him. Cutting the Notches in His Gun, One by One: Teddy…Mansfield…Fulbright

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

A favorite parlor game of post Vietnam War liberals was to try to figure out Gene McCarthy. Was he so mistreated by the Democrats that a man of his superb intellect had to rebel? Answer: no. He was pushed to the head of the line by Hubert Humphrey and Lyndon Johnson when they were in the Senate. Was he humiliated by Lyndon Johnson at the time he was considered for the vice presidency? Answer: of course not. Being considered for the vice presidency was an honor and got McCarthy more attention than he had heretofore. Was not being picked an unsettling blow to his psyche? Answer: yes. As Abigail mentioned many times, her husband was the kind of man who ridiculed others but circumspectly avoided his own liabilities. Any time he lost…whether it was on the baseball field or the very minor tussles he had at university…he resented and became embittered. Then on reflection he was imbued with the desire to get even. He was, she concluded, a very spoiled, selfish, self-centered individual who entertained no loyalties. Her judgment has been the conclusive one with those who knew him, including by me.

Nixon’s Offer—UN Ambassador.

Following his inauguration on Jan. 20, 1969m Richard Nixon with his often too-clever-by-half strategizing, met with Gene and received Gene’s assurance that McCarthy would be loyal to Nixon if Gene was appointed as ambassador to the United Nations. Accepting that pledge was surely one of the more stupid things Nixon did, considering Gene’s earlier pledge to be loyal to execution of the Vietnam War if he were made Johnson’s vice president, and what happened when Gene resolved to get even. But Nixon, a dark, brooding Irishman himself, thought it would be fun to twit the Democrats with a McCarthy appointment to the UN and hopefully capture Gene’s following for himself in a 1972 reelection bid.

The deal was set; the two shook hands and Gene saw himself giving the bird gesture to the entire Democratic party that had treated him (in his mind) so awfully as to deny him the presidential nomination. But there was one major hurdle. Gene had to resign from the Senate to take the post, of course, but his replacement would have to be appointed by the governor of Minnesota. That governor was a Republican, Harold Levander. And when contacted surreptitiously, Levander very candidly allowed that he would appoint a Republican to fill Gene’s seat. In that light, Gene’s acceptance of Nixon’s offer would be regarded as not just heresy but treason to his party and could easily—probably certainly—deny him the votes for confirmation. Enough Democrats were made at Gene anyhow for challenging Johnson, running against Hubert and holding back his support of Hubert until the last minute when Hubert died on the vine. To usher in another Republican in the Senate would kill McCarthy’s confirmation chances. This drove Gene up the wall quite irrationally to the point where he disliked his Democratic colleagues: he sorely wanted the UN post with which to make political points on television in debates with the Russians.

So to spare himself ignominy by failing to get confirmed by the Democratic Senate, he passed up Nixon’s offer. To content himself he spewed ridicule on Gov. Levander who he announced had a surname which when spelled backwards was “red navel.” Only a Gene McCarthy would come up with that. But the impossibility of naming Gene to the UN was one of the luckier things that happened to Nixon for there could be no doubt that as Nixon fought to end the war on the basis of saving the country’s honor, Nixon became unpopular. If he remotely thought an ambassador Gene McCarthy in the UN would be more loyal to him, a Republican, than Gene had been to LBJ who had promoted him in the past, Nixon would have to have another think coming.

So, frustrated by having to pass up the UN and sticking with the Senate until his term would expire in 1971, Gene decided to get even with a whole lot of Democrats in the Senate and journalistic liberals whom he blamed for insufficiently recognizing his greatness. At least one observer from those years told me recently that McCarthy’s actions were free-form and unpredictable, not unlike the shooter at Northern Illinois University or the one at Virginia Tech: at random and without reason.

Liberal darling Ted Kennedy had been serving as Democratic whip (assistant Democratic majority leader) not for his sagacity but only because he was a Kennedy, in recognition by his Democratic colleagues of John and Robert’s assassinations. He was regarded as the heir to the Lost Prince, the inevitable president-in-waiting. McCarthy had disliked John and had actively hated Bobby but had had excellent relations with Ted. In fact at one point before the 1968 convention, he tried desperately to get Ted to run with him as vice president; later when it was clear Gene couldn’t be nominated, he actively supported the recruitment of Ted for nominee—anything to beat Hubert. McCarthy told Ted that he would not consider doing this for Bobby (which didn’t make a big hit with Ted as one would expect). Ted turned it down, of course, since he was trying to recover emotionally but was grateful to Gene for the thought. Now Ted was running for reelection as assistant majority leader, being touted as the liberal white hope.

Liberals cherished the all-but-certain reelection of Ted Kennedy as Senate Democratic whip. Having lost the presidency, the young heir to Kennedy charisma was a definable hero they could pin their hopes on for 1972. Even more exciting for liberals was that Ted was being opposed for reelection as Democratic whip by none other than Russell Long of Louisiana. Liberals smacked their lips and made Ted’s reelection as Whip a major “moral issue.” Long was a super-hawk on the Vietnam war and had been the go-to guy on oil and natural gas interests. They were sure Gene would support Ted Kennedy and indeed Mary McGrory of “The Washington Star,” a charter member of the Little Sisters of the Media and idolater of Gene’s regarded that Gene’s support was not even to be questioned.

That’s where Mary-Mary-quite-contrary was wrong. The ultra-sensitive McCarthy hated to have his support taken for granted—so he pulled it. Gene announced that he would support Russell Long for whip which came as a thunderbolt to the liberals. Mary McGrory was hugely offended and enraged. A melancholy, ironic, poetically inclined Irishman herself, she ruminated that early in his career, Gene was befriended by Long and placed on his Finance committee with help of the oil and natural gas lobby. Now McCarthy had gone back to his fat-cat lobbyist roots. So she wrote: “Last year’s shining knight has become this year’s old politician.”

The real reasons McCarthy supported Long were four --based on realism and a financially secure future. First, while Teddy had the charisma, he didn’t have the legislative skill or work ethic of Russell Long. Second, oil and natural gas could come up with some interesting future consultancy opportunities for McCarthy when he would leave the Senate. Third, if McCarthy decided to take another run at the presidency in 1972 it would be helpful to have Kennedy who was sure to be a rival pulled down a peg or two. And there was a fourth reason which McCarthy never mentioned but Long blurted out: he never doubted that McCarthy would back him because of Long’s past help as finance chairman to Minnesota industry. The same reason led to four other Democrats to fall into line for Long: Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin (a progressive); Gale McGee of Wyoming, a conservative; and conservative Clinton P. Anderson of New Mexico with moderates Joseph Montoya also of New Mexico.

Ted Kennedy was reelected whip and McCarthy relied on an old tactic: dissing the importance of the Senate whip job and wondering why the media and liberals were making so much of the contest. Holding the number two Senate leadership job was not good for Ted Kennedy. Looking forward to his inevitable presidential candidacy in 1972, his insecurities won out and his drinking and partying proclivities increased round the clock. This led to the Chappaquiddick disaster of July, 1969 which removed him from the presidential lists. McCarthy could breathe a sigh of relief. There would not be another Kennedy to spook him out of the nomination were Gene inclined to try for it in `72.

Scoring himself (like making notches on his gun handle), McCarthy had (a) zinged the last surviving prince of the Kennedy clan, had taken care of his earning power in retirement and (b) got back as liberals who abandoned his presidential run for Bobby Kennedy. Now he was ready for (c): getting even with those Senate liberals who hung back when he ran for president and neglected to support him, preferring Hubert instead. One was Mike Mansfield the Senate majority leader and good friend of LBJ and Hubert. Another: J. William Fulbright, chairman of Senate Foreign Relations. Fulbright talked a good peace game but didn’t lift a finger to help Gene against Hubert, playing it safe. Now Fulbright depended on McCarthy’s liberal votes on the committee and counted on Gene hanging around on the committee to help with the hanging of Richard Nixon—until Gene’s term would expire in 1971. Mansfield headed the powerful Senate Democratic steering committee which ladled out committee assignments on which both Fulbright and McCarthy satr.

Fulbright ruminated often privately to McCarthy that he would prefer a smaller, more cohesive Foreign Relations committee and Mansfield wanted a smaller committee as well, which could produce more unity among Democrats.

Both Fulbright and Mansfield, a vocal dove but still LBJ and Hubert friend when it counted, complained the committee had a lot of dead wood, a lot of conservative Democrats who supported the war and he’d like to dump some of them off the nearest pier. Wyoming’s Democratic Gale McGee, a war supporter and super-hawk, had been on the committee but had to surrender his seat because Republicans had picked up a few Senate seats in 1966 and the Democratic majority on the panel had to be reduced. Mansfield and Fulbright didn’t mind losing McGee at all but McGee wanted to come back and Mansfield said yeah, sure, when there’s a Democratic opening, figuring it wouldn’t come very soon.

Now once again, McCarthy startled all the Democrats on the Steering Committee by announcing that he was going to give up his seat early and switch to Government Operations. An astounded Mansfield leaned over and whispered, “do you know what this means? I must offer the seat to McGee who supports the war.”

Well, whispered back Gene with a sardonic smile, you shouldn’t have trouble with him since you and Bill Fulbright got along so well with Lyndon and Hubert, Bill wanted a smaller committee anyhow; just tell McGee it’ll be a smaller committee and he’s not coming on.

You know I can’t do that, pleaded Mansfield in his plaintive whisper. I gave him my word.

Ah, said McCarthy, so you have. Well, Mike, I know you and Bill will work it out. You guys have been talking for a long time about how you’re going to take care of this Lyndon supporter and an enthusiast for the war. Now you have been given a way. You guys have a knack of getting along with supporters of the war. I gotta go to Government Operations now. Have a good day.

On the way out the door, Fulbright bolted over to Gene, motioned that he wanted to talk to him outside the committee.

Gene, he said, you can’t do this. It’ll drastically change the character of the committee.

Well, said Gene, keep McGee off and keep it smaller.

We can’t do that and you know that. Mike [Mansfield] has promised Gale would get first consideration for--.

Seems to me, said McCarthy, that you guys say one thing to some people—that you’re for peace—and something else to others. You guys are great critics of the war but you are good friends of McGee and tell him you’d support him coming back. Tsk-tsk, it’s a bit embarrassing but you work well enough with hawks so you’ll figure out how to do it. I must run to Government Ops. Thanks.

Fulbright stormed back to the committee and looked at Mansfield. Mansfield’s lips moved silently in words which were not prayerful. Mansfield had to keep his word and invite McGee back.

McGee went back on the committee and regained his voice as a vocal supporter of the war, driving Fulbright nuts by opposing everything the chairman wanted, making votes against Nixon’s foreign policy very dicey and causing trouble for Mansfield on the Senate floor.

Gene was very happily ensconced on Government Ops, learning the domestic management of agencies having mastered foreign relations earlier. He didn’t much care if Fulbright and Mansfield were mad. As for Mary McGrory of the Little Sisters of the Media, who cared? The others—Shana Alexander and particularly Marya McLaughlin laughed a lot at his jokes and understood where he was coming fro

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