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David Gartner: Former HHH aide watched the master politician up close

WASHINGTON, D.C. — He was closer to Hubert Humphrey than anyone except Muriel, and probably spent as much time at his side in the last 17 years of Humphrey’s life as she did. 

David Gartner, who joined Humphrey’s staff as a lowly legislative assistant when the Minnesota Democrat became Senate majority whip in 1961, and was his top aide at the time of Humphrey’s death in January 1978 — which he announced — died last week at his home in Arlington, Va., at the age of 74.

Initially assigned the task of accompanying Humphrey on his travels because he was single, Gartner quickly learned that Humphrey was a workaholic whose workday often ended with drinks and discussion with friends well after midnight. Such was the case on one of Gartner’s first trips when Humphrey gave a speech in Minneapolis before flying to Chicago the next day. The speech was long-winded as usual, ending near midnight, and Gartner was exhausted but Humphrey was just getting started.

“The work was completed and now it was time to play,” Gartner, a native of Des Moines, recounted in an unpublished memoir he wrote in 1996. “Furthermore, I think Humphrey feared sleep. He told me years later that his father had told him as a young boy that most people die in bed. That had to be kind of scary. Nevertheless, whether it was adrenalin or fear, it was nearing midnight and party time was just beginning.”

Humphrey met friends for drinks, a late snack and conversation, and he and Gartner arrived back at their hotel after 2 a.m. He told Gartner to wake him at 6:30 for their early morning flight to Chicago, and Gartner left a wakeup call for 5:45 and fell into bed. “I was sleeping peacefully and soundly when the telephone rang,” Damn, I thought, time to get up already. But the voice on the other end of the line wasn’t that of the hotel operator. It was Humphrey.

“‘God damn,’ he said. ‘I thought you were dead. I called and let the phone ring, pounded on your door and did everything I could to wake you up. Don’t you know what time it is?’ I looked at my watch. It was 1 p.m. and Humphrey already was in Chicago. I didn’t even attempt to make an excuse. I simply had screwed up. I had been sent to do a job and I had failed.”

Traveled the world
Fortunately, Humphrey forgave Gartner, who made sure he never failed him again while  they traveling from Washington to Waverly, Minn., and all over the world in the next 17 years as Humphrey rose from majority whip to vice president to private citizen to U.S. senator again.

But it was while working for Humphrey in the Senate, when hardly a day went by that he didn’t confer with him, that Gartner learned the secret to Humphrey’s success as a masterful legislator, a skill that convinced Lyndon Johnson to pick him as his vice presidential running mate.

“Though a combination of persuasion, stamina, compromise and parliamentary skill, Humphrey was able to bring about most of the legislative changes for which he fought,” Gartner wrote in his memoir. “He had mastered the art of legislative craftsmanship. He recognized the value of compromise, and being blessed with the virtue of patience, it came easy to him. Little by little, one piece of pie at a time, and eventually the whole pie would be his.

“He would spend hours on the floor of the Senate and in the cloakroom, collaring one colleague at a time in an effort to win him over. And every now and then he would toss a victory to his opponents, if for no other reason that to massage their egos. He always made sure, however, that the issues he conceded were the ones of least importance to him. He was like a Toscanini or a Vince Lombardi, the best in the business when it came to playing his trade.”

Gartner’s memoir is filled with intimate and insightful accounts of Humphrey, including his difficult experience as vice president, his excruciatingly narrow defeat for the presidency in 1968, and his fatal illness. One such incident was recounted by Gartner’s son, John, in a eulogy at his father’s funeral on Monday at a Catholic church in Arlington.

In 1967, at the height of the Vietnam War, President Johnson sent HHH on a 14-day tour of seven west European capitals aimed at shoring up support for LBJ’s Vietnam policy. While in Rome, Humphrey had an audience at the Vatican with Pope Paul VI, during which he introduced Gartner and the rest of his party to the pope.

Humphrey decided to have some fun with his aide. He told the pope, “Your Holiness, this is David Gartner, a loyal member of my staff, who is a Catholic, but no matter how hard I try, I just can’t get David to go to Mass.” The Pope’s interpreter, a Polish American bishop from Chicago, happened to be in Des Moines the following week and related the story to the owner of a popular restaurant who was a friend of Gartner’s father, who of course told his wife the story as well.

The next time Gartner called home, his mother said, “David, I understand you no longer attend Mass,” and he replied, “Whatever gave you that idea?”

“My grandmother said, ‘I heard it from the pope,’” Gartner’s son said as some 100 mourners, including his father’s widow, three siblings and 13 grandchildren joined in the laughter, and in celebrating his life afterwards at a reception at his favorite Italian restaurant. 

Sharing stories
Gartner, who suffered from esophageal cancer and was in and out of hospitals and treatment centers the past 10 months, would have enjoyed sharing such stories about his old boss, some of which I witnessed when I covered Humphrey as a Washington correspondent for Minnesota newspapers. (I also wrote about some of them in my dual biography of Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy, “Almost to the Presidency,” which I’m in the process of revising and updating for publication under a new title next year.)

However, Gartner, who earned a law degree while working for Humphrey, wouldn’t have enjoyed his obituary in the Washington Post, which pointed out that shortly after he was appointed by President Jimmy Carter and confirmed by the Senate to the Commodity Futures Trading Commission in 1978 – with the support of Vice President Walter Mondale – Carter asked him to resign.

The reason was that before his appointment, his children were given $72,000 in Archer Daniels Midland stock by the company’s chairman and longtime Humphrey supporter, Dwayne Andreas. Carter said the gift raised the “image of impropriety,” but Gartner said the gifts to his children did not constitute a conflict and refused to step down. He remained on the commission until his term expired in 1982.Gartner later joined a Washington law firm and from 1987-93 was special deputy to the secretary of the Senate for the Federal Election Commission.

Gartner’s view of the news media was less than charitable, as he recounts in his memoir. While most reporters covering Humphrey were hard-working, talented and respectful, some were “a disgrace to their profession” and “had to be dealt with,” he wrote. “I would seize the opportunity whenever conditions were favorable by giving them a good shot in the groin with my briefcase. This had a way of humbling them, at least temporarily, and I had perfected it to the point so as to make it appear an accident.”

Gartner’s memoir ends as Humphrey decides against running for president in 1976, shortly before he was diagnosed with the bladder cancer that would kill him two years later. It deserves a publisher – why not the University of Minnesota Press or the Minnesota Historical Society? – because it is a unique document that tells us much about Minnesota’s most famous politician.

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