Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Thoughts While Shaving: On the Circulation of Rumors “Solid” and Otherwise


Rumors in the Bars.

Some years ago I wrote a fragment of a still unfinished autobiography that will one day be issued to my survivors…if I ever get around to finishing it…dealing with “rumors in the bars.”

Forty-five years ago I was preparing to move from Minnesota to Illinois to take up a new job at The Quaker Oats Company. I was leaving the post of communications director of the Minnesota GOP and was, frankly, delighted to leave because the year was 1964—the Goldwater year—and Minnesota was in the icy grip of the Democratic Farmer Labor party with Hubert H. Humphrey, Gene McCarthy and a host of Democratic congressmen vying for attention. The polls showed nothing but disaster for the party that I was working for and the prospect of taking a berth in the private sector before the deluge hit which would wipe us all out was very attractive.

As one of my last acts for the Minnesota party, I met with a Washington-based GOP national consultant who would instruct us on how to defeat McCarthy. McCarthy was seeking his second term and while our candidate was very good…and very rich so that he could pay his bills…his chance of defeating McCarthy was equal to a draft of warm air melting the ice floes in the frozen Mississippi in January. And so I asked: what’s the name of this great consultant who would educate us Minnesota rubes in that task?

I was told his name but it meant nothing to me. But, I was assured, he would have invaluable strategic ideas on how to defeat McCarthy…and besides, he was a guy we wouldn’t have to pay because his fee was paid by the RNC. Well, I thought, it’ll be interesting as my last official act to meet with this guy and see what new ideas he would have to make Gene McCarthy…whose favorable rating stood at 87% in Minnesota…a one-termer.

He arrived in the early morning at my office…a lanky individual of indeterminate age, wearing a black alpaca coat…a tall, mournfully-faced man with deep-set fathomless eyes set far back in sockets ringed with dark circles—eyes that gave the impression they had witnessed the commission of every sin mankind is heir to and some which it is not. He asked to use the desk outside my office to prepare, he said, a proposed campaign budget which could defeat McCarthy. He started scribbling at 10 a.m. and by noon he came in my office, slumped in a chair and gave the paper to me.

The list encompassed sums for radio, television, printed brochures, bumper stickers, billboards and campaign buttons…not much different from our own. But my eye stopped at a line item that said:

Rumors in the bars,..$15,000.

I said: what is this? He said: “It’s time for lunch. Rather than explain it, I’ll show you.”

On the first floor of the building in St. Paul where our campaign office was located was a small bar which usually was crowded at the lunch hour…a bar filled with salesmen trying to catch a sandwich and a beer before resuming the day’s exactitudes…blue-collar working people…salesgirls from the shops down the street. Mostly Irish Catholic Democrats since St. Paul was that kind of town (still is).

We took adjoining seats at the bar and he said he would buy me a drink and a sandwich. As my pay was meager, I was glad to know that he would pick up the tab instead of me so I ordered a tuna and cheese sandwich and a Hamm’s beer. He ordered a roast beef sandwich and a Hamm’s.

As the bartender came over and asked what we’d have, he gave him our order and waited for a brief lull in the sprinkling of conversations at the bar. Then when there was a gap in the noise level, he turned to me and with a voice that was not loud but clearly audible…a voice different from his usual tone of conversation… said:

“Imagine. Cut down in the prime of life! That it should happen to McCarthy! Gawd, this man is married and has four kids! A great senator, too.”

Then he sipped his Hamm’s noisily, thirstily.

I was surprised momentarily by the distinctive rise of his voice but still indistinct of meaning as to what he meant so I said: “What? Who? What do you mean?”

This, as it turned out, was exactly what he wanted. He didn’t answer, seemingly lost in thought. I decided he hadn’t heard me so I asked again:

“Who’s cut down in the prime of life?”

He said: “Well, I’ll tell you…”

I noticed that the din of conversation had ebbed somewhat and that the bartender, making our sandwiches, buttering our bread with his back to us, was continually buttering, buttering, buttering, while evidently listening.

“Leukemia,” he said in his sepulchral voice, “the disease of the blood that starts in the bone marrow. It hits young and old. And it’s even more insidious when it strikes a man like Gene McCarthy in the prime of life. One day he’s vigorous as he was a few weeks ago…and then--”

He snapped his fingers with a crack that caused the bartender to look up from buttering our bread which he had continued to luxuriously spread over and over again as he listened.

“…gone. Gone. Here he’s doing so well in the Senate, representing us in St. Paul. Lord, I remember when he first ran for the House. Bright, dark-haired, a genuine Catholic layman. An intellectual. Don’t you remember when he placed Adlai Stevenson in nomination. What did he say to the Democrats? `Don’t turn your back on this man’ meaning Stevenson. Little did he know that his own days were…”

He drank his beer noisily.

The bartender brought our sandwiches to the bar. He looked at my consultant friend intently as he said:

“You want coffee with that?”

The consultant said yes, we’d have two coffees.

“Coffee,” my consultant friend said to me in that same whinny of a voice that cut through the blur of other conversations. “Yeah. Two coffees!

It used to be said that coffee makes you edgy. I guess nothing can make me more nervous than I am with Gene in this condition. Can you beat this…let me tell you what I have to do.”

The murmurs of the crowd toned down.

“I have to break the news to his mother that McCarthy’s got untreatable leukemia. His mother is 85 years old. He can’t bear to tell her so I have to. He told his wife and kids already but there’s something about telling your mother than you’re going to pre-decease her. Imagine, she had Gene McCarthy as a young woman, saw him grow up, come to St. Paul, become a congressman, become a United States Senator…see before him the entire vista of what could easily be a national career…including the presidency and then to find out that within months…possibly weeks…aw I can’t finish this anymore. I believe I’ll have another Hamm’s if you please.”

“Pardon me,” said the bartender. “I couldn’t help overhearing. Is that Gene McCarthy you’re talking about?”

He never acknowledged this per se.

“Cut down in the prime of life,” he said. “Have you seen him recently? Have you noticed his pallor? White face, unnaturally white. That’s how leukemia of the bone marrow is. Hits you…”

Snapped his fingers again loudly. The bartender winced.

“Hits you like that!”

“Why,” a fellow across the way at a table said, “how old is Gene? Something like 50?”

“Worse than that,” said the consultant. “Forty-two. Get this…:

The entire bar was listening.

“He studied for the priesthood at 22. Then he decided to drop it and go on to the vocation of teaching. Taught for a few years at St. Thomas here and ran for the House. Got elected at 32. Twenty-two, thirty-two. Now at 42 he’s all washed up.”

He swung on his stool. By now the crowd was listening raptly.

“Leukemia is irreversible! Pale face, leads to colds. He was down with a cold last week. Not much of one but leads to worse. Remember? He couldn’t speak to the St. Paul Trade Assembly and had to reschedule.”

“I remember,” said a guy. “He spoke to us the next week but he looked like hell.”

“Likely he felt like hell too,” said the consultant. “But a good man as he is will never admit he’s down. Don’t figure he’ll ask for your sympathy. He’ll deny it first and keep on going…going…going…until…”
SNAP of his fingers.


By the time we finished the sandwiches and beer the bar was buzzing about the variability, the unfairness, the unpredictability, the savage unfairness of human life.

When we got outside, he took me aside and said,

“Now listen: That’s what I would like to have happen. You have seven field men working in individual sections of the state. $15,000 should do it. Each one makes it a practice to go into at least one bar in cities and small towns and do it like this. That’s of course only one variant of the overall media strategy.”

I left town the next week for Chicago. When I was in this town for about a month I picked up a paper and read that Sen. Eugene McCarthy was denying he was mortally ill. And I could imagine my consultant friend smiling sadly…understandably…saying “that’s the kind of man old Gene is—how courageous it must be to face up to the fact that one day--”


I told McCarthy whom I later grew to know well that I was a bystander to the birth of that rumor. “I’ve been fighting that story of leukemia for 40 years,” he said just before he died at age of 89. “I grappled with it when I ran in New Hampshire in `68 and on and on.”

Rumors in the bars and otherwise have always played roles in American politics. Mamie Eisenhower was an inconsolable drunk, remember? (She had inner ear difficulties). Jack Kennedy was a womanizer, remember? (That one was right). Barry Goldwater in 1964 was maintaining ties to remnants of the Nazis in Germany. (Wrongo: that was the love-pat bestowed by Daniel Schorr, now a venerated senior news “analyst” for NPR). Eisenhower had a girlfriend as general in France. (Right. Kay Summersby who wrote as an old lady that he was so afflicted by guilt that he was impotent with her).

The other day in this state there was a rumor about a prominent politician that rose to the surface. Well, it’s always better when a rumor is put out in the open where the sunlight and fresh air can get to it rather than keeping it floating around just under the surface like rumors in the bars. When they are just below the level of the surface is where rumors can do their worst. And what is that?

If there is a smidgeon of truth to the rumor…especially about moral turpitude…it’s better to have it out rather than have it skulking around in the background where it can be used as a threat of blackmail. Alexander Hamilton allowed himself to be cowed in a blackmail attempt by Maria Reynolds and her accomplice husband. Only when they demanded that Hamilton as treasury secretary jiggle with monetary policy did he refuse and announce his transgressions himself.

Media properly react to rumors such as the one that circulated the other day with anger for those who disseminate same. In most cases, media become very self-righteous and identify it with the political Right. But that’s because media, more biased than even they realize, don’t remember that blackmail very nearly ruined our infant country’s monetary policy until Hamilton reneged. Then there was the case of attempted and successful blackmail anent Bill Clinton.

In case media forget, let me remind them. Clinton was under investigation by the House Judiciary Committee for impeachment for lying under oath to a federal grand jury—meaning perjury and obstruction of justice.

As the House Judiciary committee was considering the nature of impeachment, a contact was made to the late Chairman Henry J. Hyde by a wily source with bad breath who drew his face close to Hyde’s and said that unless Hyde used his chairmanship to derail the charge, he—Hyde—would face disclosure of a sexual affair Hyde had 40 years earlier while a member of the Illinois legislature…and that disclosure in public would be embarrassing to Hyde, his children and grandchildren (by then Jeanne Hyde, his wife, had died).

Hyde considered the import of the blackmail and what it would do to his career and resolved to go through with the impeachment. Sure enough, disclosure was made on Slate and then in a pornographic magazine Hustler and was taken up by the joyous people who glory in the appellation of the designation “liberal.” David Letterman and others. (Letterman expressing sarcasm over a 40 year affair—that’s a laugh). So Clinton was in fact impeached because Hyde rejected the blackmail.

In the Senate, the emissary with bad breath had better luck. A key Republican senator backed down because of fear that what he may have done as a cheerleader in college would be set out before the world. And it would have.

So the moral of this story involves four parts.

First, rumors about moral failures of candidates are the woof and stuff of politics no matter how much everybody is aghast. In fact often those who are aghast are the ones who love the spreading of them. And media whose stock in trade are rumors salacious and otherwise should get off their high horse and stop being so shocked…shocked…shocked at the real world of political intrigue.

Second, the exposure of such rumors are salutary no matter since they can either be acknowledged or denied—which is a good.

Third, don’t get the idea as much of self-righteous media do that rumors of moral derelictions are purveyed solely by conservatives against liberals. This goes to the heart of the unalloyed truth that liberals are not God’s purest. Far from it. The skulking liberal emissary with the bad breath who sought to blackmail Hyde is still operating at the highest level where he has operatives doing it for him and at his direction.

Fourth, hypocrisy, the drawing up of a hypocrite in a Puritanical posture of self-rectitude is often performed by those who behind the scenes are purveying scandalous truths and untruths of their enemies themselves. Not for nothing did the late Alan Drury write his classic “Advise and Consent” about a blackmail attempt against a promising young U. S. senator.

And that’s all there is to that tune.

No comments:

Post a Comment