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A Political Life, Part II, by Martin McGowan Jr.


When I decided to run for the Minnesota legislature in 1958, Eugene McCarthy was a rising star in the DFL party. He had already been elected to Congress from the St. Paul district and decided 1958 was the year he should run for a seat in the United States Senate.

This presented some problems. He was a well known Catholic and Minnesota had not elected a senator from that faith While he could be elected to Congress from the largely Catholic area of St. Paul, it was not so certain he could be successful statewide. As it turned out he was pitted against an equally well known Lutheran, but a woman, Eugenie Anderson, at the state DFL convention. McCarthy won the party endorsement, but there was no doubt that religion played a major part in the decisions of many partisans in how they would cast their votes.

Early in that campaign, McCarthy decided to get out into the rural area and look for support. He knew I was running for office, too, and would be able to assist him in the Appleton area. He came to our house, accompanied by Joe Gabler, a St. Paul politician. It just happened that there was a cattle show in our town the day he arrived. The Minnesota Hereford Breeders Association had a state show and sale at the Swift County fair grounds in Appleton. We decided that was the place to meet people and press the flesh, the politician’s term for shaking hands.
We went to the fair grounds and I began introducing McCarthy to the people I knew. I started with the local people who headed the organization and were instrumental in bringing the show and sale to our town. With that start, McCarthy went around on his own to introduce himself and to let people know he was just a country boy at heart, since he came from small town roots in Stearns county.
McCarthy had made a fast trip through St. John’s University at Collegeville, graduating at age 19. His first job at that young age had been: to become a teacher at the small town of Tintah in western Minnesota,
As McCarthy made the rounds at the cattle show he discovered a man he knew from his one year at Tintah. That was quite a coincidence and both people enjoyed reminiscing about that early year. That made it a successful venture into the rural area for McCarthy.
During one of my later campaigns after McCarthy was in the Senate he made a taped commercial for me which I played several times on the only radio station in the county. This was at the county seat of Benson, where I needed to garner votes because I was not a resident of the largest town in the county.
A few years later an event called Plowville Minnesota was held in Appleton. This was an occasion which was a test of accurate plowing. Contestants came from around the state and many people came to watch, McCarthy saw this as another opportunity to be visible and do some unofficial campaigning.
I don't recall how we got together but he came to Appleton and I drove him to the event on a farm north of Appleton. On the way we had an interesting conversation. At that time Hubert Humphrey was the other senator from Minnesota and though they were both from the same political party there was also a bit of rivalry between them.
Humphrey made quite a point when he came to the Twin Cities to go to the broadcast booth of the Minnesota Twins baseball team if they happened to be in town. Humphrey would banter with the baseball announcer and gain some added publicity across the state, for in the days before TV became prominent the radio audience was large. On one later occasion when Humphrey was vice president both he and McCarthy were in the Twin Cities at the same time, but Humphrey had already staked out a seat in the broadcast booth. McCarthy thought he could get equal exposure and decided to join Humphrey. However, when McCarthy got to the broadcast booth he was denied entry by Humphrey’s Secret Service guard. I don't know if Humphrey was aware of what was going on outside the booth, but the denial of entry infuriated McCarthy. He told the head of the Secret Service detail that he would see that the appropriation for that department would suffer at the next session of Congress. I never learned whether or not McCarthy carried out that threat.
In the summer of 1960 I visited the University club on Summit Avenue near the state capitol to investigate the possibility of using that as a place to live during the coming legislative session. I happened to go there during the night of the Democratic national convention. As I passed through the lobby the television was on and McCarthy was delivering a speech. In this speech he was asking the delegates not to forget or turn away Adlai Stevenson, who had fought the good fight for two campaigns against insurmountable odds in running against the national hero, Dwight Eisenhower.
I was inclined to walk past the TV set and go on my way, thinking this was just more political rhetoric. Two people were in the lobby watching the speech but as I passed I paused. This was the best speech I ever heard McCarthy give, anywhere, any time. It was impassioned and not in McCarthy’s usual style. When McCarthy was done I felt I had heard one of the great speeches of all time.
Unfortunately for McCarthy and Stevenson, they were running against the trend and the Kennedy money. That was the year John Kennedy was nominated and the nation elected its first Catholic president.
After I left the legislature when I moved to St. Paul to work for KTCA-TV, my ardor for McCarthy began to fade. I was hired by the public television station as a grants writer and legislative liaison, both in St. Paul and Washington. On one occasion I had with me the superintendent of schools at Appleton, where I was assisting KTCA to establish a branch PBS station in my home town.
It was McCarthy who first alerted me that a public TV station could be located there. The Federal Communications Commission had drawn circles on a map of all the television stations in the area and came up with a small triangle of space where a station could be put an the air on Channel 10. Appleton was in the center of the eligible area. McCarthy called me to see if I was interested. I was then hired by KTCA to work an that project as well as others.
The superintendent of schools at Appleton, Bill Sandberg, would likely be involved if any station was built possibly as station manager. I thought it would be appropriate if he met Senator McCarthy.
We went to McCarthy’s office during the noon hour, not a good time, but we thought we would take our chances. We entered the office and I was surprised to see there was no receptionist. We waited a bit to see if somebody appeared but nobody did for quite a while. Finally Emerson Hynes, McCarthy’s aide came out and greeted us. I asked if we could see the senator but Hynes indicated he was busy.
During this period, McCarthy had the reputation of losing interest in his job. He was not one to be diligent on constituent services, like Humphrey, who had an order that all letters must have a response in 24 hours. McCarthy was also turning more and more to poetry. I suspected that when we visited McCarthy’s office, he was in a back room, writing poetry.
What finally turned me off an McCarthy was his failure to endorse Humphrey for president. McCarthy had made a surprising showing in the New Hampshire primary race, but later faded. By the time he was out of the race it would seem proper that he endorse his senate colleague from his home state, but when the endorsement came, it was lukewarm. Humphrey had been backing the administration line an the Vietnam war and McCarthy felt too strongly the other way.
The final straw in my disillusionment with McCarthy came with his repeated campaigns for president-like another Minnesotan, Harold Stassen By this time McCarthy was looking silly and I hated to see him in this way, He had been such a shining light and it was a great disappointment to see him become a joke.
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