WASHINGTON, D.C. — Speculation that he might be named Sen. John McCain’s vice presidential running mate has thrust Gov. Tim Pawlenty into the political limelight as Republicans prepare to meet in the Twin Cities for their 2008 national convention for the first time since 1892. And he’s doing everything he can to take advantage of it.
It helps that the convention will be held in Pawlenty’s backyard, that he just finished a term as president of the National Governors Association, and that he’s the current media darling with admiring profiles in the New York Times, Washington Post and Fox News. But he’s only the latest in a long line of Minnesota politicians who’ve raised their profile and furthered their ambitions by playing star roles at their parties’ quadrennial gatherings.
I sat at the head table at the National Press Club earlier this month when Pawlenty gave his “Sam’s Club is the Model for the GOP” speech, and there’s no question he is a good speaker, just a notch below Barack Obama. But as a fellow reporter told me afterwards, “He’s a little too ‘aw shucks’ to be the vice presidential nominee.”
Whatever, as Bob Dole would say. Even though this is the first time Minnesota has hosted a national political convention since Republicans nominated President Benjamin Harrison for a second term in Minneapolis more than a century ago, it’s hardly the first time the North Star State has held center stage at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions.
‘Young man going somewhere’
In 1940, for example, Gov. Harold Stassen, who was a 31-year-old county attorney from Pawlenty’s hometown of South St. Paul when elected the nation’s youngest governor in 1938, burst upon the national political scene as keynote speaker at the Republican Convention in Philadelphia, and floor manager for GOP nominee Wendell Willkie.
Stassen resigned in 1943 to join the Navy, then served as a delegate to the 1945 San Francisco conference at which the United Nations was formed, and by 1948, was a leading candidate for the GOP nomination. He won national acclaim, and author John Gunther was so impressed that he devoted an entire chapter of his book “Inside USA” to him, entitled, “Stassen – Young Man Going Somewhere.”
Stassen went somewhere, but not to the White House. He lost the 1948 Oregon primary and with it the Republican nomination to New York Gov. Thomas Dewey. He tried again in 1952 but lost to Dwight Eisenhower after Minnesota voters overwhelmingly voted for Ike on a primary write-in ballot. Although Stassen served as a disarmament adviser to Eisenhower and as president – of the University of Pennsylvania – his futile campaigns for the White House and other public offices in the ensuing years overshadowed his considerable achievements and made his name a synonym for insatiable and unrealistic political ambition.
Then in 1948, Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey electrified the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia with an impassioned civil rights speech considered by many the greatest convention oratory since William Jennings Bryan’s famous “Cross of Gold” speech at the 1896 Democratic Convention in Chicago. Humphrey’s fervent plea for equality for all Americans ended with words that would become the most quoted he ever uttered: “The time has arrived for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.”
Even though Humphrey’s speech caused southern Democrats to walk out of the convention and form a third party, it helped Truman upset Tom Dewey. It also gave HHH the first of three Senate terms that fall and helped him mount an unsuccessful campaign for president in 1960. Ultimately, he became his party’s vice presidential in 1964 and presidential nominee in 1968.
At the same time, his hand-picked successor in the Senate, Attorney General Walter Mondale – whom I covered as a reporter for St. Paul and Duluth newspapers and later served as his vice presidential spokesman – burnished his credentials by helping resolve a civil rights dispute at the 1964 Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, which led to his nomination for vice president in 1976 and 1980, and president in 1984.
Brilliant nominating speech
Then, of course, there was Sen. Eugene McCarthy, whose brilliant nominating speech for Adlai Stevenson at the 1960 Democratic Convention in Los Angeles won him plaudits from liberal Democrats, serious consideration by President Lyndon Johnson as his running mate in 1964 – before he chose Humphrey – and set the stage for McCarthy’s anti-war candidacy four years later that forced Johnson from office and ignited the violent demonstrations at the Chicago convention that helped Richard Nixon defeat Humphrey in the fall.
Other Minnesota politicians also gained national attention at their party’s conventions, including Gov. Orville Freeman, whose nominating speech for John F. Kennedy in 1960 almost got him picked as Kennedy’s running mate, even as Minnesota’s delegates voted for Humphrey’s favorite son candidacy. Freeman, who lost his bid for reelection in Minnesota that fall but was named secretary of Agriculture by Kennedy, said Johnson later told him Kennedy would have made him his running mate if party elders hadn’t insisted he pick Johnson.
As the convention ended, Sen. John Stennis of Mississippi stood in the back of the hall, shaking his head in wonderment. “You can never count that old Hubert out,” he said. “Here he is, a defeated presidential candidate without a bit of power, and the first thing you know, one of his boys nominates the winning candidate, another of his boys give the best speech of the convention, and his delegation still votes for Hubert!”
Another Minnesotan who made his bones at a convention was Warren Burger, a young attorney and aide to Stassen who was instrumental in helping Dwight Eisenhower win the GOP presidential nomination on the first ballot in 1952 in Chicago when he persuaded Minnesota’s delegates to shift to Ike from favorite son Stassen. Eisenhower repaid the favor by naming Burger U.S. assistant attorney general in 1953, and President Nixon made him chief justice of the United States in 1969.
Actually, Minnesota’s influence at national conventions was felt as early as 1896, when Democrats chose prairie populist William Jennings Bryan in Chicago after rejecting President Grover Cleveland, who four years earlier had become the only president to lose the White House and return for a second term. Bryan’s fiery populism was strongly influenced by Minnesota Congressman Ignatius Donnelly, the colorful and controversial leader of the agrarian protest movement, who with Bryan is an archetype of the rural reformer.
Bryan, of course, lost to the ill-fated William McKinley, setting the stage for 16 years of Republican control of the White House that ended with the election of Woodrow Wilson in 1912. Both Wilson and Bryan served as inspirations for Humphrey, whose father read Wilson’s “Fourteen Points” speech and Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech so often at the dinner table that his son could recite them from memory.
FDR and Floyd B. Olson
Minnesota almost took center stage as well at the 1936 Democratic Convention in Philadelphia as Franklin Roosevelt prepared to run for a second term. He told aides he was considering replacing Vice President John Nance Garner with popular three-term Farmer-Labor Gov. Floyd B. Olson. However, Olson died of cancer a month before the convention and FDR stayed with Garner.
(Modern day politicians ensnared in sex scandals like former Sen. John Edwards, former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer and former President Bill Clinton could have learned from Olson, who when confronted by a woman who said, “Governor, I hear you lead an immoral life,” reportedly answered, “That’s a cross I got to bear. Pray for me.”)
[A personal note: On the day of Olson’s funeral, I was at the White House with my mother, who had won a national journalism award that included a two-week trip to New York and Washington. She was scheduled to meet Roosevelt but ironically, he was in Minnesota to attend Olson’s funeral. I don’t remember much from the visit as I was only six weeks old, but my mother said she and my nurse walked through the gates unchallenged with me in a stroller. Security was considerably tighter when I made my next visit to the White House in 1965 to interview Vice President Humphrey as a Washington correspondent for Minnesota newspapers.]
There’s an obvious lesson here for Pawlenty from his fellow Minnesotans’ use of their party’s national conventions as launching pads for higher office. Only time and John McCain will tell if he is able to do the same.
Albert Eisele, a former Washington correspondent for the Duluth News-Tribune and St. Paul Dispatch Pioneer Press, is editor-at-large and founding editor of The Hill, a newspaper that covers Congress.