How Gerald Heaney might have changed the course of history

Retired U.S. federal appeals court Judge Gerald Heaney of Duluth, who died Tuesday, has been rightly hailed as an outstanding jurist — former Vice President Walter Mondale called him “a truly great American” and Rep. Jim Oberstar said he “has no peer in his quest for equal justice under the law.”

Judge Gerald Heaney
Judge Gerald Heaney

But the 92-year-old Heaney, who served on the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals from 1966 to 2006, the last 20 years as a senior judge, was an outstanding political strategist as well, as I learned while covering Washington as a correspondent for the Duluth and St. Paul newspapers from 1965-76 and writing a biography of two Minnesota Democrats he helped bring to national prominence.

In fact, not only was Heaney an architect of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party who advanced the political careers of Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy, as well as Mondale, Orville Freeman and John Blatnik, but he may have done more to elect John F. Kennedy president in 1960 than Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago.

Kennedy won Minnesota by only 1.43 percent, the seventh smallest margin of any state, but he carried the Eighth District by 50,000 votes with the help of Heaney, who was the Democratic national committeeman and helped bring Kennedy to Duluth for a giant campaign rally. The huge margin was enough to deliver Minnesota’s 11 electoral votes — and the White House — to Kennedy, who sent Heaney a personal letter of thanks from the White House.

However, my story isn’t about the 1960 election but the 1964 election, when Lyndon Johnson, having succeeded the slain Kennedy, was eyeing both Humphrey and McCarthy as his vice presidential running mates. As we know, he chose Humphrey, then the assistant Senate majority leader, but Heaney played an intriguing behind-the-scenes role that might have changed Johnson’s mind, and the course of history..

I wrote about that in “Almost to the Presidency,” my 1972 dual biography of Humphrey and McCarthy, but until now, I’ve never identified Heaney as the person who told me how much McCarthy really wanted to be Johnson’s vice president. I’m in the process of revising and updating the book, now that both Humphrey and McCarthy are gone from the scene, and ironically, I was working on the chapter involving Heaney when I learned of his death.

McCarthy seriously interested in VP job
Anyway, after stating that “a central question regarding McCarthy’s actions in 1964 — and in later years as well — is how much he wanted to be Johnson’s vice president,” I wrote that there was “ample evidence that McCarthy was seriously interested” in being Johnson’s running mate, and quoted “a prominent Minnesota Democrat who was close to Humphrey and McCarthy.”

Eugene McCarthy
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Eugene McCarthy

My source was, of course, Heaney, whom I interviewed over dinner at the Sheraton Ritz Hotel in Minneapolis on August 19, 1971, one day before I had a two-hour interview with Humphrey at his home at Waverly. My notes show that Heaney asked me to turn my tape recorder off and said, “don’t associate this with me.” Then he told me the following story, which he said was “the incident that made me make up my mind who I would support in 1968.”

Heaney said he had come to Washington at Humphrey’s request the week before the 1964 Democratic Convention “to try to stave off a confrontation” between the two Minnesotan senators.

“McCarthy’s staff people all told me had had a real good chance to be vice president and that [Texas Gov.] John Connally had talked to him and Lady Bird had talked to Abigail [McCarthy] and said he’d be crazy to drop out. I told them if Johnson was really afraid of [GOP nominee] Barry Goldwater [and his Catholic running mate, Rep. William Miller of New York] and felt he had to have a Catholic on the ticket, then McCarthy might have a chance, but under the circumstances, Gene didn’t have the chance of a snowball in hell.”

Convinced that there was no chance of changing Johnson’s mind, Heaney said he returned to his hotel to check out and catch a plane to Minnesota. “Just then, Gene called my room and said he wanted to talk to me. He insisted, so I cancelled my plane reservation and went over the same ground with him, telling him exactly what I’d told his staff.

“Gene said to me, ‘If you were the president, what would you do?’ I said, ‘I’d ask each of you one question — what would you do when the heat really comes on in Vietnam as I’m sure it’s going to?’ I said this was going to be the vital issue in the next few years and the president had to be sure his vice president would support his policy.” (Congress a week earlier had passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which both McCarthy and Humphrey voted for, to give the president authority for expanding the Vietnam War.)

McCarthy agreed that Vietnam would be a vital issue and that the vice president had to support the president’s stand on it. “He made it clear that he felt we were committed in Vietnam and that we’d have to see it through to the end,” Heaney said. “Then Gene said that we both know Hubert well enough that if the war becomes very unpopular, he might be inclined to tell the editor of the New York Times that he goes along with it because he has to but that we ought to be doing something different.”

Request by McCarthy
McCarthy then startled Heaney by asking him to talk to the president. “I asked him why in the world Johnson would want to talk to me, and he said, ‘Why not? He’s talking to everybody else.’ He said, ‘I’d like to call the president and tell him you’re very close to both of us and he ought to get an evaluation from you.’

Hubert Humphrey
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Hubert Humphrey

“I said, ‘O.K., I feel so strongly about Vietnam that I’m willing to do it, but the only condition is that I’ve got to tell Hubert first.’ He said that was all right and then he called the White House to set up an appointment. They told him Lyndon had just left for Texas. I went back home and never did see or talk to the president.”

Heaney said that when he relayed Humphrey’s request that McCarthy step aside for him, McCarthy replied, “Where do you want me to step? If I go to the White House and tell Mr. Johnson I’m out of the running, he’s going to say, ‘Who said you were in the running?’ Just explain to me where and how you want me to step.”

Heaney told me that McCarthy agreed with him that Vietnam was going to be a major issue if Johnson was elected, and that “the vice president had to be loyal to the president… on this great issue and that Johnson had to have a vice president who was not whispering to reporters that he disagreed.”

He added that in light of Humphrey’s staunch support of Johnson’s Vietnam policy, which most historians agree was a major factor in his loss to Nixon, “I have to say, by god, my respect for Hubert was always high, but it went up 1,000 degree when he stuck with Lyndon on this.”

He concluded our interview, as I picked up the check, by saying, “I hope this gives you some insight into both Humphrey and McCarthy. But I don’t want to be involved, so don’t quote me.”

And I haven’t, until now.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 06/25/2010 - 10:01 am.

    What a fascinating behind-the-scenes story.

    However, there is one stone still left unturned…who paid the tip and what was the going rate among generous not stingy tippers back when? Surely not 20-25 percent then? Maybe 10-15 per cent?…just curious…

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