Monday, March 10, 2008

Flashback: Hubert Recaptures His Stride with 1972 in Mind as He Prepares for Another Presidential Run as Media Forgets an Earlier Shrouded Bout with Bladder Cancer…McCarthy Dawdles, Reads Poetry and Thinks About a 3rd Party Challenge..

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

After chafing at his newfound junior status in the U.S. Senate over which he used to preside as vice president, Hubert Humphrey decided to relax and enjoy it. After all, now he could afford to be a little more extravagant in his oratory and less responsible than he was as vice president when he was curtailed by Lyndon Johnson. His only worry was what Eli Segal, unwatched by an idealistic George McGovern, was doing to the delegate formula for the Democratic party which might turn the party over to the kids and the radicals—both groups of which distrusted him. But he couldn’t do anything about Segal although he would have loved to push him off the nearest pier.

When you’re a junior senator you don’t have to worry about much more than going to committees and issuing press releases which he did the last time he was a freshie in 1949—so he announced he was introducing a bill to stamp out cancer, a bill to pour billions into fostering the arts, a revenue sharing bill where the feds would take over all welfare. Ed Muskie chaired his old disarmament subcommittee of foreign relations. Hubert couldn’t get on foreign relations but he innovated by appearing as a witness before the subcommittee and made headlines. Then Hubert sold out. He did it cheerfully and without guilt—something I marveled at and questioned him about on one of my trips to Washington. He signed up for the McGovern-Hatfield resolution urging a pull-out from Vietnam of all troops by the end of the year (1970). I asked him how in conscience he could support that kind of thing when as vice president he was generally in favor of toughing it out. Inconsistency didn’t bother Hubert. “Aw will you quit that [explective referring to solid waste],” he said. “It’s time we get out!”

No that’s not what he meant. He meant it was time we get Vietnam off his back so when he would run for president again he’d not have to answer old questions about it. It was not his most shining moment. It was the moment when expediency and lust for the presidency overcame everything. He would be only 61 in 1972, not old for the presidency, but something within him told him he wouldn’t be around long and he wanted to make a last hurrah of it. At his sixtieth birthday (which I attended as our PAC bought a ticket), Edie Adams (who was always Hubert’s dream lover in his unconsummated heart of hearts) sang a song in his honor, lifted a glass to champagne, tossed her golden hair and said, “Sixty—going on `72!” The house applauded. I didn’t sip a drop out of pique. When that toast was made he had finished whirlwind presentations around the country on unemployment, the Nixon administration’s “lack of monetary restraint” and deficits (although no one should be more ashamed to talk about deficits than the Senate’s biggest spender).

Humphrey’s Hidden Cancer.

The polls began to show he was a major contender. The media still kept referring to Ted Kennedy as a candidate but Chappaquiddick had taken its toll. Even so, Kennedy came in first but no one expected he would run; Ed Muskie was second and Hubert close behind him. Not many people talked about Hubert’s health problem. In those days you could put a lid on stuff like that and the media had paid very little attention to what happened to him in 1967 during the vice presidency aside from a few stories that were generally discarded. That couldn’t happen today. But in June of that year he awoke with a stinging pain in his groin. He urinated blood and woke his physician, Dr. Edgar Berman. “Doc, what do I do? I’m peeing blood.” He went without ostentation to Bethesda naval hospital where a tube was inserted in his penis. Surgeons found multiple tiny polyps growing inside his bladder. They snipped them off and took a biopsy. Hubert was back in the office three days later but one of the polyps was found to be malignant. The media were allowed to think it was routine prostate stuff with a touch of a bladder infection.

Dr. Berman sent slides to eleven consultants for an opinion. Only one recommended removal of the bladder. Understandably, Hubert went with the preponderance of medical opinion (I probably would have done the same) but in retrospect of what we now know of bladder cancer, the bladder should have been removed. One major reason Humphrey didn’t go with that idea was political: the urostymy or removal of the bladder would have been a major operation and thereafter he would have had to discharge his urine into a bag worn externally. Humphrey was damned if he would run for president the next year (1968) with that inconvenience and also with the fear that the grisly details of his wearing a urine bag attached to his leg would harm his campaign. So he settled for semi-annual examinations to watch for any recurrence.

Gene McCarthy, by 1967 a critic of Humphrey and LBJ and an announced candidate for president, offered up a true inside and cruel joke on the issue that ultimately took Hubert’s life. He said that the rumor was that Hubert would be outfitted with a rubber bladder which was expandable to twice its size. The nation is in peril, said McCarthy, since this would allow Hubert to continue his orations without limit since the only cut-off now was the call of nature to urinate. But with an expanded rubber bladder, audiences would perish of boredom and long-windedness as the bladder would expand almost unlimitedly. A sample of McCarthy coldness to others’ adversities.

The brief snipping of polyps was categorized as negligible and promptly forgotten by the media. In 1971 with him preparing to run for the presidency again, there were a flurry of critics but no one cited health. They were all concerned with the onus of Vietnam.. Pete Hamill wrote in “The New York Post” this line that really stung: “All whores were once virgins. In the unlikely event that there were a War Crimes trial in this country, Humphrey would be in the dock. The destination would not be 1600 Pennsylvania avenue but Leavenworth.”

This was about as mature as the stuff being written about George W. Bush now. But still, Hubert was no longer the bushy-tailed liberal. He was, as columnist James Wechsler noted, recruiting the law-and-order followers of George Meany (the powerful head of the AFL-CIO who was a social conservative). Then the Pentagon Papers, the detailed history of the Vietnam war was leaked which outlined how Lyndon Johnson expanded the war without informing the people—and how little a role Hubert played in the decisions. To this Humphrey said plainly, he was supposed to be a shill and not a policy adviser—but it was a serious bump on his road to re-nomination. But then, in 1971, attention turned back to the economy. Hubert, never a good economist and always dominated by New Deal style labor and Keynesian theorists, had demanded an emergency wage-price freeze. Nixon did exactly what Hubert wanted and, of course, in the long-run it was disaster especially devaluation of the dollar. Hubert had no long-range economic sense; he was at bottom a Fabian socialist on the economy and Nixon had no economic philosopohy, at bottom an illusionist without ideals.

McCarthy Considers Another Run.

At his Senate retirement party in the chamber in 1971, Gene McCarthy’s colleague, Sen. Walter Mondale, paid tribute to his insurgent candidacy, signaling that Mondale wanted to associate himself with the more left side of the Democratic party rather than Hubert’s in preparation for what he hoped would be a presidential future. McCarthy sat embarrassed as a number of senators paid tribute to him but the most inept was made by Sen. Warren Magnuson (R-Wash.) who was a legendary sipper of cloakroom bourbon. Magnuson labored to find a suitable analogy. Finally as the Senate groaned in boredom, he settled on one. He said McCarthy resembled a Minnesota fish—the carp. When everybody’s neck craned to Magnuson to see how he would apply that crude analogy, he changed the fish to a Minnesota pike. “The pike is a fish that swims into a shallow, sluggish area and nudges the inhabitants there to come alive and think—to come out of their lethargy if they are to survive.” Reflecting on his equating the Senate to a “shallow sluggish” area and McCarthy as a fish, the senators decided Magnuson had scored a draw, insulting both McCarthy and the august body.

The day after he left the Senate, McCarthy moved his office to his small, sparsely furnished Georgetown townhouse less than a mile away, giving up his hotel apartment. Later in the afternoon, he was cheered when Sen. Edward Kennedy finally was defeated for reelection as Senate Democratic whip by Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), McCarthy telling the press how right he was to have voted against Kennedy a few years earlier. He decided to return to teaching in 1971 by teaching poetry, not politics, at the University of Maryland, College Park.

In July,1971 he called together twelve of his most loyal supporters for a 6-hour strategy session at the luxurious St. Regis Sheraton in New York. He started the meeting by saying, “well, what primaries will we run in?” Fund-raiser Jerome Grossman cleared his throat and said, “er, uh, Gene, I thought the purpose of this meeting was not to decide how to go but whether to go.” McCarthy said, “well, let’s talk about that, then.” The meeting was a disaster for him. Sterling Black, a New Mexico attorney (and son of Supreme Court Justice Hugo Blacks) said, “we don’t need any more educational campaigns.” The room complained about the lackadaisical quality of the 1968 campaign and wondered why McCarthy had seemed to drop out of politics. He denied he had but agreed to ruminate about being more serious next time—if there was to be a next time. The meeting disbanded and McCarthy proceeded without them. He resolved to consider running as a fourth party candidate.

He opened an unofficial campaign for president on August 12 by telling the Southern Christian Leadership conference in New Orleans “the question is not the defeat of Richard Nixon in 1972—that is almost certain. The question is not who will be elected president but rather the principles, the policies and programs to which the next president is committed before election.” He said that one could assume that 60 million Americans would vote in 1972 for president, that Nixon would be the Republican candidate, that Hubert Humphrey or Edmund Muskie would be the Democratic candidate and that George Wallace would run again as an independent.

Then, he conjectured, Wallace could draw off about 10 million votes equally from the two parties, leaving 70 million to be divided among Republicans, Democrats and a new fourth liberal party. It was therefore possible that the next president could be elected by winning only 25 million votes. Twenty-five million young people would be eligible to vote for the first time in 1972 since the constitutional amendment lowering the voting age to 18 would just take effect. If only 15 million of these actually voted, 10 million would likely go for the new liberal party candidate. This would leave another 15 million voters which could come from older people “who want change but who feel politically impotent.” He added: “The only real question would be what share of the minority vote the new party candidate can get. That’s the only uncertainty. If not for that, a fourth party candidate with a good candidate could win just on the record of 1968.”

A multi-millionaire backer, Martin Peretz, a Harvard professor who married the heiress to the Singer sewing machine fortune and who backed McCarthy in 1968, volunteered to go again with him in 1972 but added, “I don’t know whether we’re clinging to a ghost or not.”

That seemed to be the question. So by the end of 1971 Hubert was busting his buttons to run for the Democratic nomination, keeping mum about his bout with cancer, Ted Kennedy was all but out of the contest due to Chappaquiddick, Sen. George McGovern was “reforming” the Democratic party and thinking he could use the reform mechanism to get the nomination; and Sen. Ed Muskie was preening as the all but decided favorite. Meanwhile in the White House, Dick Nixon was plotting with John Mitchell a presidential campaign that would raise more money than anyone else ever raised before.

In Washington as he planned his second presidential campaign, Hubert told me: “You seen ol’ Gene? Just as flaky as ever, huh?”

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