Monday, April 7, 2008

Flashback: McCarthy Confirms He Will Run for President as an Independent in 1976 and Makes a Pitch to Me to Raise Money to Enable Him to Take Votes Away from Carter and Elect Gerald Ford Which Ogilvie Vetoes.

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

Announcing for President as an Independent.

Gene McCarthy stretched the limits of credibility when he announced, in January, 1975, that he would run for president as an independent. He claimed that no election since 1796 had been constitutional because the parties had interfered with the sanctity of the Electoral College, although he didn’t enumerate how. The stress of his campaign was far more anti-Democratic party than anti-Republican, meaning that he was no no mood for forgiveness and that he had scores to settle with what had once been his party.

He insisted that Harry Truman was the last “constitutional president” but Truman’s police action in Korea had been undertaken without congressional sanction. But speaking in Madison, Wisconsin he said that “when a party is consistently so wrong on important issues” as the Democratic, “so timid and late on others and has twice lost presidential elections to Richard Nixon, one must ask whether it serves much purpose any longer.” As he traveled the country he said he judged his opponents—Morris Udall, Jimmy Carter and President Gerald Ford—by three standards: their record on Vietnam, their reaction to the 1968 Democratic convention and their position on the Federal Election Campaign Act. He said we did not have an energy crisis. “We have more energy than we know what to do with but we are over-consuming what we have.” On the economy, he said we “have moved beyond Keynes” but did not embrace Milton Friedman.

He declared that the national economy had become “a kind of corporal feudalism in which every American was beholden to one corporation or another.” He contrasted modern corporations with medieval baronies and concluded “it is time for a significant challenge to the political, economic and social power of the corporations.” Lecturing for me at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, he outlined a program of limited wage-price controls, selective credit controls, cuts in spending on the military, national highways and the space program, legislation to restrict the size and speed of cars and reduction of the workweek to four days in order to cut unemployment. The challenges that came from business executives in the class made the performance exciting to say the least.

At other venues he argued that marijuana should be decriminalized and sold under government regulation. He said the government federal government should remain neutral on the matter of abortion…a statement I never satisfactorily got him to expand but which I assume was a criticism of “Roe v. Wade.” He added that he had no liking for religious conservatives—particularly Catholic ones, saying that while he never used birth control himself, he had no quarrel with those who did (but then no conservative candidate had ventured into opposition of private consciences on birth control, only on public funding). Strangely enough for a so-called libertarian who was once a liberal, he said Nixon’s abolition of the federal draft had destroyed the old notion of military service and created a “volunteer, mercenary army.” When he sprung that at my class at Northwestern, I got the idea he was merely striving to be different.

On the other hand, he embraced a libertarian position in general philosophy, sounding not unlike Ron Paul (but with moderate wage-and-price controls if you can fathom such a thing): “There have been many proposals for new laws to end all abuses,” he said. “The real need is to have a president who will say, `I will honor the Constitution and my oath of office. I will protect the political rights of all Americans.’” The cry of “reform,” he said, “is a standard item in the catalogue of demagoguery.” McCarthy’s presidential effort in 1976 cost $442,491”—slightly more than the campaign of Libertarian party candidate Roger MacBride and a little less than the Communist Party campaign run by Gus Hall, a fellow Minnesotan. Old friends and donors from 1968 and 1972 helped him—Stewart Mott, the billionaire GM heir, film stars Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. The largest donor was William Clay Ford, grandson of the founder of the Ford Motor Company. Ford agreed to run for vice president with McCarthy if he didn’t have to give any interviews. McCarthy was delighted and said Ford was “a lot better than those who have been offered over the last twelve years or so”—a swipe at Hubert Humphrey. He was running between 3 and 10 percent depending on the polls that were taken.

The McCarthy Stratagem to Elect Ford.

After President Gerald Ford won the nomination over Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter was coronated by the Dems, the best known candidates in the nation were, of course, Ford, Carter and himself. (An interesting sidelight: In his speech of August 16 accepting renomination, Carter paid tribute to a list of dignitaries including “Hubert Horatio Hornblower—er, Humphrey.” It seems that for many years Carter staffers were mocking Humphrey by referring to him in Carter’s presence as “Hubert Horatio Hornblower”—a reference to the colonial British sea captain in a series of novels by E. M. Forester and it stuck in Carter’s brain so much so that in his oration he involuntarily blurted the name).

After the two conventions were held, when he was campaigning in Illinois, Gene McCarthy and his faithful sidekick, Jerry Eller (my old college classmate) invited themselves to my house where Lillian prepared a sumptuous repast while the Secret Service, bored, sent out for fast-food (turning down our dishes because of regulations in preference to Big Macs which they grumbled over).

Three of them idled in our back bedroom while McCarthy, Eller, Lillian and I were convulsed over funny stories McCarthy told about all his campaigns. It was then I suggested that in the likely event he would lose to either Ford or Carter, he should definitely consider becoming a droll standup comedian on late-night television…a proposal I really meant because his timing, imitations of Kennedy, Carter, Hubert, Nixon and Ford were delivered letter perfect. I considered now that I knew why McCarthy was such a hit with The Little Sisters of the Media—including Marya McLaughlin, his live-in—because as an entertainer he was outstanding. I reflected whether he could keep up with Johnny Carson but he said he was sure he could—but then, as we continued to drink scotch modestly, he agreed that he would prefer a public television format rather like the one Mark Russell has only without a piano. A poet he showed later that night that he could produce brilliant satire of politics in seconds. He reminded me of Dick Cavett only far better.

Then he made a suggestion that I thought was brilliant—a suggestion that Eller assisted him in making. The ill-fated campaign “reform” act was in force and both Ford and Carter were nominated which meant that they could not receive contributions since they agreed to live by the federal stipend. That meant that only McCarthy could receive contributions and through a loophole in the law, an independent candidacy for president could then receive unlimited contributions of private funds. While Eller produced a chart showing states where Ford and Carter were running within a whisker of each other, McCarthy proposed that if I could be instrumental in getting Republican money for his independent campaign, he would use it to design TV commercials in these key states—Ohio being one of them, I remember. Then they produced attitudinal studies financed by William Clay Ford that showed a majority of those who would vote for McCarthy were of Democratic persuasion: which it took no difficulty to understand.

Ergo, said Gene, I think you and I can understand that I am far more interested in seeing Jerry Ford win the presidency than Carter. I know Ford. Dumb but honest. I don’t know Carter but I am un-persuaded that he would be a good president. Raise a couple of million so that we can make television commercials limited to this handful of states and I think we have a pretty good chance of taking enough chunks off the Democratic vote in those states to nudge the Electoral College to Ford. What do you say?

Eller added: It would have to be kept under wraps, of course. You’d have to get some nominal Republicans to join with Bill Ford and get the job done. Do you have any views about this thing?

I said yes. I am wholeheartedly in favor. I was beginning to think Gene here was losing his mind and am gratified to know now that he has a root purpose behind this effort.

He said: Getting even with the Democratic party has been my full-time occupation for some years now.

I said I had one suggestion--.

Not a big name Republican,” said Eller, or the press will see through the idea.

No, not a big name Republican but the sister of my company’s chairman of the board who is herself an heiress…a Common Cause liberal with fuzzy instincts. She would be happy to give.


But, said I, rounding up a cadre of multi-millionaires to do this is higher than my corporate pay grade. But I’d like to talk it over with Dick Ogilvie, the chairman of the Illinois Ford committee. He’s a former Republican governor.

McCarthy hesitated; I don’t know…

Eller said: Yes, hell yes. Ogilvie’s a pragmatist.

McCarthy said, Is he? Okay.

So I got the chairman of the board’s sister to give a bundle. Then I went to Ogilvie. I spent an hour and a half at him for lunch at the Chicago Club and couldn’t sell him.

Too dangerous,” he said. The press’ll find out and I’ll be cooked.

Well then don’t get involved but get me somebody who will do it. I don’t care. What about Peter Benzinger?


I listed about 14 names. To each he said no-no-no.

Well, governor, I said, I guess you aren’t interested in seeing Jerry Ford win. Because I got a hunch that without this device he isn’t going to win.

He said: It looks corrupt.

Corrupt? CORRUPT? Hell, we’d be taking advantage of the reform law! No one can contribute a farthing to either Ford or Carter. Just to McCarthy! Too bad Clem Stone has lost his money; he’d be the guy to do it.

Well I don’t like Stone, said Ogilvie. Then he resorted to taciturnity and turned thoughtful…after which we walked to the lobby.

You know, I said, there’s absolutely no problem here legally. If you need a chairman I’d be willing to sign my name. I think my boss will give me the go-ahead.

You? said Ogilvie. You’re known as a Republican! I’d oppose that.

I’m also known guy who has known Gene for 30 years. I’m not running for anything. What do I care?

No, said Ogilvie. It would look funny. It would hurt me.

How would it hurt you if I did it?

I’d be discovered and I wouldn’t be able to take a cabinet post with Ford.

What do you want?

Attorney General.

And that was it.

So Jimmy Carter won the presidency by a narrow edge, 50.1% to 48.0% for Ford. The McCarthy stratagem could well have tipped the balance in electoral votes. I still feel bad about that. The only payback for McCarthy would be for Ford as elected president to make McCarthy an ambassador somewhere—anywhere. Honduras? Botswana?

Stupid. You can put the blame on Dick Ogilvie. Carter was the worst president in modern times. He pardoned draft evaders, frittered away from defending the Shah so that Khomeini took over. The economy buckled with double-digit inflation and spectacularly high interest rates; productivity declined to 1%. He signed a SALT II treaty that was so bad the Senate wouldn’t ratify it, got the Panama Canal treaty passed and ratified, a bad idea, cut off all aid to Afghanistan, frittered and make the U.S. look foolish while 52 Americans were held hostage in the Iranian embassy for more than a year. He managed the extraordinary feat of having at one and the same time the disrespect of the USSR because of his weakness and the worst state of the economy since the end of the Second World War. The only good thing was the Camp David accords which led to an end to the 31 year state of war between Egypt and Israel…whereupon Israel returned Sinai to Egypt—a plan which got Anwar Sadat killed by the Egyptian military.

Another good thing: After a good amount of dithering, Carter got rid of an inept Fed chairman, G. William Miller by making him secretary of the treasury and then did appointed Paul Volcker chairman of the Federal Reserve, an excellent move. But Carter never assumed any responsibility for the lousy economy. He delivered a TV address called the “malaise” speech…although he never mentioned the word…where he blamed a crisis of confidence on the American people. That years later he was named a recipient of the Nobel Prize can only be explained by the increasing leftward politicization of the award in recognition of his severe criticism of Israel.

To this day, whenever I see that grinning Carter on TV I sulk.

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