Sunday, March 23, 2008

Flashback: Humphrey Girds for the Superbowl Challenge Against McGovern—the California Primary but Runs Out of Money. Meanwhile in 1972 the Air Goes Out of McCarthy’s Balloon.

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

Hubert Runs Out of Money Once Again and Loses.

“This is the damndest thing,” Humphrey told me as he was preparing to rush out the door to campaign against McGovern in California (I had brought a bundle of checks from Democratic executives at Quaker Oats (after the CEO ordered the PAC I ran not to give to him, the executives agreeing to contribute to Hubert as well as to our PAC) and in accordance with the law gave the envelope containing checks for $15,000 to him once we were outside and he hopping into a car to take him to the airport. “I’m now the conservative! When I started in this business—you remember that, Roeser—what did corporate big business call me?”

A far-left near-Commie.

“Right. Now the Left is going after me! Saying I’m no better than Nixon.”

You and I never agreed domestically but I always said you were a patriot, Senator.

“Well now I’m about ready to be called a right-wing extremist like you and I haven’t changed my stance one iota! What’s your advice, something that I will probably ignore, now that I’m going to California?”

California has changed. It’s a key defense state now. It’s elected Ronald Reagan as governor…

He mused, “My old partner who helped me found the ADA! Ronnie and I were good friends at one time. Talked to each other on the phone all the time. You know what turned him conservative?”

I think I do.

“When he hit the big time and was getting big checks he noticed how much he was paying in taxes. That did it! No more emphasizing for the poor! He even told me about it! Continue with your advice. Why don’t you go with me to the airport?”

California’s filled with defense plants. You got to do a 180—be for jobs not handouts, pro-business and pro-union and a strong defense. McGovern is a squish. You can get the blue-collars if you bear to the right on defense. Also get McGovern on this $1,000 per-every-person-in-the-U.S. zany idea.

“What about the new way we’re picking delegates, through the old McGovern commission and the leftward tilt of my party?”

Your problem not mine. And it IS a problem.

As he was getting on his privately-contracted jet, he said: “Why don’t you come with me?

I must be about the people’s business for Quaker Oats.

Landing in Los Angeles he immediately challenged McGovern to debate. McGovern accepted and the TV stations agreed to a total of four debates which they would cover gratis. The next day he went to the Lockheed plant at Palmdale and reminded workers there that unlike McGovern he had voted for the Space Shuttle, was proud to have voted for the $200 million loan to save it from insolvency and charged that McGovern with his $1,000 income supplement to everybody in the United States would raid the federal treasury, adding: “I’ll be damned if I’m giving everybody in the country a thousand-dollar bill. People in this country want jobs, not handouts!” Watching the clip on TV I pinched myself: this was the Hubert I knew? Aw, hell, I was proud of him.

But his California his state finance chair, Eugene Wyman, was in a quandary. He had raised a pretty good bundle (in those days’ terms)--$200,000 for California TV-- but he was being pressed to send the dough to Humphrey’s Washington HQ which faced a $370,000 overdraft. He decided to take it up with Hubert himself. He scheduled a session with Hubert at the Beverly Hills Hilton. But as he walked in the campaign manager drew him aside and said that unless he had $900 immediately Hubert’s plane wouldn’t take off for a tour around the state and they’d have to stay cooped up in the hotel. He gave him the $900. Then he was told unless $16,000 was wired to Washington that day the phones would be shut off. He wired the $16,000. Humphrey said, “you did right. We gotta pay the overdraft. If I must, I’ll win this thing with free media and on the debate.” The overdraft was paid and the campaign went on without Humphrey TV spots or a get-out-the-vote drive.

The debate was free media but the news media were mostly pro-McGovern and actively anti-Hubert, viewing Humphrey as a hawk and warmonger like LBJ and Nixon. So Hubert had to rise beyond the news coverage and concentrate on live TV. The clips I saw made me once again proud. He ripped into McGovern, said his proposed defense cuts were “reckless,” zinged the $1,000 per everybody idea as “preposterous.”

Later I heard from his campaign manager Jack Chestnut a story that made me chortle. As they sat side by side on TV, McGovern—an old protégé of Hubert’s—looked at him and saw tears standing in Humphrey’s eyes. Hubert was always very emotional and occasionally he wiped his eyes. McGovern choked up as well thinking guilty about him debating his old mentor. That’s where he made a big mistake. As he had gotten older—Humphrey was now 61—his eyes became unused to the glare of the klieg lights and watered: it was not emotion. But McGovern a truly emotional man himself felt awful that he was eliciting tears from the man who helped him run for the senate from South Dakota initially. Trying to answer the Humphrey charge, he royally goofed, said the $1,000 per individual idea was just a speculation that he had made to the National Welfare Rights Organization “to provoke discussion.” Provoke discussion! Hubert harrumphed. Well, George, you got it all right! Then Hubert laced into him again all the while dabbing at his eyes. Too late McGovern found out that Hubert wasn’t weeping at all, just the damned klieg lights.

Humphrey won that first debate because McGovern was suckered into thinking the old man was crying. Even the news media grudgingly admitted this. But with the second, McGovern appealed to the lefties by quoting Hubert as saying “Vietnam is our greatest adventure—and what a wonderful thing it is!” Hubert answered it okay but of course the media led by the “New York Times” ridiculed it and called the debate for McGovern. Then President Nixon ordered the mining of Haiphong harbor through which war supplies were coming to the North from the USSR and McGovern used it to appeal to the war-frightened liberal Democrats. At that point the Field poll came out and showed Hubert 20 points down from McGovern. Hubert cried: “Impossible” but Walter Cronkite said the election would probably go to McGovern and immediately Eugene Wyman’s funding for Hubert came to a halt. Outgunned and with Walter Cronkite trumpeting he was 20 points down, Hubert lost California—but only by 5 points. A shift of 80,000 votes would have put him over the top and Wyman’s media allocation would have done it.

There was a brief flurry when Jack Chestnut calculated that McGovern was still several delegate votes shy. Hubert then joined Henry Jackson and Ed Muskie in a pact called ABM—Anybody but McGovern. Since proportional representation could be taken into consideration as a legacy of the McGovern Commission, Hubert asked for his proportionate share at the convention which would have made possible a brokered convention.

Chairman Larry O’Brien said that the question would have to go to the full convention but…a joker in the deck…all 120 delegates from California could vote on the issue and as they were all pledged to McGovern it was a fait accompli. Ironically proportionality could have helped Hubert but wasn’t allowed to. The battle was over, even though in all the primaries Hubert got more votes than McGovern: 3,807,726 to 3,523,667. Hubert wept true tears this time—the third time he lost the presidency--as he conceded. His lifelong ambition was ended.

McGovern tried to get Edward Kennedy for veep but Kennedy declined. He offered it to Hubert but Humphrey said “are you kidding? I just couldn’t take the ridicule anymore. They would say `there goes old Hubert again; just can’t stop running!’” So McGovern chose Sen. Thomas Eagleton (D-Mo.). Had he relied on the bosses someone from St. Louis would have told him that Eagleton had been treated for depression and indeed had received electric shock treatments. McGovern said at first he would stand “1000% behind Tom Eagleton”—but that lasted only a week. He dumped Eagleton and chose Kennedy relative-by-marriage Sargent Shriver.

The 1972 convention was singular in that Mayor Richard J. Daley and a number of honchos were dumped from the Illinois delegation to be replaced by the likes of Rev. Jesse Jackson and Billy Singer, the independent liberal alderman. McGovern piloted the second worst electoral defeat in U.S. history, carrying only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.

McCarthy Pays the Price for His Diffidence.

Meanwhile Gene McCarthy was paying the price for his earlier diffidence in 1968, when he would take time out of his campaign to drink and read poetry with Robert Lowell, his lackadaisical attitude about working hard on the trail and his thin-skinned paybacks to supposed enemies. Trying to oppose George McGovern for the Democratic nomination was next to impossible since McGovern, a highly decorated bomber pilot in World War II, was at the same time an anti-war populist with a pleasant, unassuming personality and reputation for seriousness and hard work. McCarthy’s old fundraisers, Stewart Mott the billionaire General Motors heir and Martin Peretz who married the Singer Sewing Machine fortune had switched to McGovern. So had Blair Clark, McCarthy’s old campaign manager. They all told McCarthy “nothing personal, Gene, but you see, George is in the race to win.” That’s exactly what Abigail had told him four years earlier.

McCarthy went to a student rally in Madison, Wisconsin where in 1968 he had a throng of 15,000 and he found several hundred. One kid told him the truth: “I wasn’t around when you ran in 1968,” he said, “but those who were tell me you were a frivolous, unpredictable and haughty candidate.” He tried to make a deal with Muskie to stop McGovern but Muskie who was running himself and who was aware of Gene’s shortcomings wasn’t buying any. Typical Gene, he then turned bitter toward Muskie. There was one shot left and it was the Illinois primary. Gene harbored all his resources against Muskie in Illinois. I saw him in Illinois while he was campaigning quite frequently. He wanted money but only one contributor turned up at Quaker—the wife of a senior vice president who gave him $1,000.

When I gave him the check, I had to listen as we had drinks to a McCarthy tirade on Muskie. “He’s the latest Polish joke,” he said. It was the latest example of the cold, dark Irish (maybe it was German from his mother’s side) misgiving, a vendetta against Muskie. He spent $260,000 against Muskie in the Illinois preferential primary. Muskie was already slipping badly in the national polls, having allegedly wept in the New Hampshire primary when he stood in front of the Manchester “Union-Leader” and assailed them, a very uncool thing to do. Slipping as he was, Muskie still defeated Gene in Illinois, 63% to 37% even though Gene outspent him heavily.

McCarthy vowed to carry the battle on to California and its primary but when he got there he was undecided about whom to attack first—Muskie or his one-time patron, Humphrey. He decided that with personal animosity seniority rules, and he concentrated on ridiculing Humphrey, winding up endorsing McGovern just to punish Humphrey. McGovern won the primary, of course, and McCarthy was persona non grata with all of them—McGovern, Muskie and Humphrey. Back in Washington, Abigail wept as she talked with friends: she had no explanation for the weird behavior of her separated husband.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds as if McGovern's every family handout was ahead of its time.