Forty years ago, the United States proclaimed one single federal holiday to be observed as “Presidents’ Day,” which this year was Monday. Minnesota and 30 other states have never claimed a native son as president — but, undeniably, presidents and their administrations are far more than the elected leader. It seems to me that some of the many Minnesota connections to our U.S. presidents deserve special recognition.
The first Minnesotan who seriously hoisted the presidential timber was a veteran congressman and U.S. senator from Winona named William Windom, who received 10 votes at the 1880 Republican National Convention. Ohio-born, he had moved to Minnesota in 1855. Called “Lincolnesque” by editorialists, Windom served as secretary of the treasury under James Garfield for several months, resigning upon Garfield’s assassination in 1881. From 1889 to 1892, Windom held the treasury post again in the Cabinet of Benjamin Harrison (1989-93). Trivia buffs will want to know that Windom is the great-grandfather of the present-day American stage and TV actor of the same name.
Abraham Lincoln (1861-65) especially appreciated one of his closest political allies, Minnesota Gov. Alexander Ramsey, who rallied early troops from Minnesota to fight valiantly in the opening days of the Civil War. Ramsey later served as secretary of war from 1879 to 1881, under President Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-81).
Former Ramsey County Attorney Pierce Butler, a Democrat with long ties as a lawyer for James J. Hill and the railroad industry, was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1923 by Republican President Warren G. Harding (1921-23) just prior to Harding’s untimely death.
Co-author of the Kellogg-Briand Pact
Former Sen. Frank B. Kellogg, who was raised in the small Olmstead County town of Elgin, was secretary of state for President Calvin Coolidge (1925–29). For co-authoring the Kellogg-Briand Pact, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1929.
In 1925, Coolidge also called on William DeWitt Mitchell, Winona, to become the U.S. solicitor general, a position which he held until he was appointed U.S. attorney general for the entirety of Herbert Hoover’s presidency (1939-33). Mitchell’s father, William B. Mitchell, had been a Minnesota Supreme Court justice; the St. Paul-based law school, founded in 1900, was named for him.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-45), a Democrat, named a former “Boy Wonder” Minnesota Republican governor, Harold Stassen, to the U.S. delegation that ultimately formed the United Nations. Later, Dwight Eisenhower (1953-61) appointed Stassen as his top domestic affairs advisor in the White House. Ike also valued the skills of Malcolm Moos, a future president of the University of Minnesota, who served on his White House communication staff.
Harry S Truman (1945-53) in 1949 appointed Minnesotan Eugenie M. Anderson, Red Wing, the U.S. envoy to Denmark, the first woman ever hold the rank of U.S. ambassador.
Freeman tapped by Kennedy
After Minnesota delivered its ten electoral votes late in the evening of Nov. 9, 1960, the youngest elected president became John F. Kennedy (1961-63), who reached the White House at age 43. Kennedy appointed the defeated Minnesota Gov. Orville Freeman, a DFLer, as his secretary of agriculture. Freeman would serve in the same post for five years after Kennedy’s death.
Lyndon Baines Johnson (1963-69) was elected to a full term of office in 1964 with vice presidential running mate Hubert Humphrey, Minnesota’s senior senator. With LBJ’s decision not to seek another term in 1968, Humphrey and Sen. Eugene McCarthy of St. Paul battled each other for the nomination, debating the wisdom of the Vietnam War. The “happy warrior” from Waverly won the nomination, but narrowly lost the election to former Vice President Richard M. Nixon.
Republican Nixon (1969-74) appointed two Minnesotans to the U.S. Supreme Court: Warren Burger and Harry Blackmun. Shakopee native Maurice H. Stans, who led Nixon’s re-election fund-raising in 1972 and was implicated in the Watergate scandal that brought down the administration, served in Nixon’s first term as secretary of commerce. James D. Hodgson, a native of Dawson, was Nixon’s secretary of labor. He conceived the establishment of the Occupational Safety and Health Act; he later served three years (1974-1977) as President Gerald Ford’s ambassador to Japan.
Jimmy Carter (1977-81) worked with many Minnesotans as his vice president, Walter Mondale, played a significant role in all aspects of the presidency. Former 7th District Rep. Bob Bergland, a Roseau farmer, was Carter’s secretary of agriculture. Geri Joesph of St. Paul was named U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands.
Al Quie and ‘A Nation at Risk’
Ronald Reagan (1981-89) took office in 1981; four years later he won re-election against Mondale. Minnesotans who worked for him included former 1st District Rep. and Gov. Al Quie, who helped Reagan prepare the seminal Department of Education study “A Nation at Risk” (1983), and Sen. David Durenberger, who was appointed by the Gipper to a commission sorting out health-care policy.
George Herbert Walker Bush (1989-93) named Evelyn Teegan, Edina housewife and a former Republican National Committeewoman, as U.S. ambassador to Fiji in 1989. Former Sen. Rudy Boschwitz was Bush 41’s emissary to Ethiopia (1991). (Fourteen years later, President Bush 43 named Boschwitz ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva.)
During Bill Clinton’s (1993-2001) presidency, U of M grad Gene Sperling was director of the National Economic Council.
Benson K. Whitney, St. Paul, was the U.S. ambassador to Norway to from 2006 to 2009, appointed by George W. Bush (2001-2009). Whitney is the son of Wheelock Whitney, a businessman and former Minnesota Republican candidate for U.S. Senate and governor.
Among many Minnesotans who have found a place in the administration of Barack Obama, Denis McDonough of Stillwater serves as White House deputy national security adviser. Tom Nides, Duluth, is deputy U.S. secretary of state for management and resources, while Jake Sullivan, a one-time Rhodes Scholar at Oxford and former Minneapolis attorney, has recently been promoted to director of policy planning at State. Michele Leonhart, St. Paul, is administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration. St. John’s theology professor Miguel Díaz is U.S. ambassador to the Holy See at the Vatican, and Minneapolis attorney and DFL fundraiser extraordinaire Sam Kaplan serves as ambassador to Morocco.
And the list could go on and on.
Chuck Slocum is president of The Williston Group, a 21-year-old management consulting firm. A version of this article appeared in Politics in Minnesota. He can be reached at Chuck [at] WillistonGroup [dot] Com.