Remembering Roger Kennedy and a bitter dispute with Eugene McCarthy

His lengthy obituary in the Washington Post included only a single sentence about Roger Kennedy’s unsuccessful race for Congress in St. Paul in 1952. But it overlooked his role as a central figure, along with U.S. Chief Justice Warren Burger, in one of Minnesota’s most intriguing political dramas.
 
Kennedy, the 85-year-old St. Paul native and former director of the National Park Service and the National Museum of American History who died Friday at his home in Rockville, Md., was a 26-year-old law student when he opposed Democrat Eugene McCarthy’s bid for a third term in 1952.
 
Kennedy incurred McCarthy’s enduring antipathy by attacking his support for legislation to give federal employees fired as security risks the right to be hired in non-sensitive jobs. Kennedy said it was proof that he “does not understand the danger of subversion,” and accused McCarthy of lying about his voting record “in order to justify his unholy proposal.”

Kennedy’s charges struck a nerve with McCarthy, who only three months earlier was the first member of Congress to publicly oppose Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s Communist witch-hunting tactics when he debated the demagogic Wisconsin Republican on national television. The Washington Star’s TV critic wrote afterward that the young Minnesota congressman had proved “the fallacy of Senator McCarthy’s invincibility in debate.”
 
But it was Burger, then a prominent St. Paul attorney and Kennedy supporter, whom McCarthy blamed for masterminding the smear campaign against him.
 
Key incident
The genesis of McCarthy’s unforgiving attitude towards Burger can be traced to a debate at Hamline University on Oct. 21, 1952, when Burger, standing in for Kennedy, accused McCarthy of “using a feather duster when he ought to be using a pick ax. A bad security risk shouldn’t be employed by the government anywhere, and [McCarthy] is still for a proposal to give job preference to people dismissed as security risks.”

Roger Kennedy
National Park Service
Roger Kennedy

McCarthy, who was outraged when his daughter Ellen came home from kindergarten and asked her mother, “Mama, what’s a Communist?” because he knew she had been asked why her father was a Communist, never forgave Burger, as was evident 17 years later when he voted against Burger’s confirmation as chief justice for reasons he said were “somewhat personal and political.”
 
McCarthy’s anger was evident when he returned from the debate with Burger, according to Karl Rolvaag, the future Minnesota governor who was then a candidate for Congress from Minneapolis and was at McCarthy’s house afterwards. “Gene was as emotional that night as I have ever seen him,” Rolvaag told me in an interview in 1971. “His face was ashen grey. I can’t remember all the details, but he was very, very upset. He never forgave Burger for that.”
 
Looking back
However, both Burger and Kennedy had different recollections. “It always baffled me why he carried 1952 as something of a grudge,” Burger told me shortly after McCarthy voted against his nomination as chief justice. “I can’t imagine what’s sticking in his craw.”
 
Kennedy discussed the 1952 campaign in an interview with me in 1971, when he was vice president of the Ford Foundation in New York, the year before he became Burger’s assistant after President Eisenhower named Burger assistant U.S. attorney general in 1953.
 
McCarthy “probably thought I was a whippersnapper who had no business contesting someone of his stature, and he probably was right, but I didn’t think so at the time. I suspect that it’s possible that he might have begun to worry about the outcome and that any pressure from someone as distinguished as Warren Burger was unwelcome. … Warren and I were both very much surprised that [Burger’s] very limited role in that campaign loomed so large in Gene’s memory.”
 
Despite the bitterness of the 1952 campaign, it had little effect on the outcome. McCarthy got nearly 62 percent of the vote and won a third term with a 38,000-vote majority, the largest he’d ever gotten, even as Eisenhower was carrying Minnesota against Adlai Stevenson with 55 percent of the vote.
 
Back in the House, McCarthy resumed his vendetta against Burger by calling for the resignation of Burger’s boss, Attorney General Herbert Brownell. He said Brownell had used his office for personal advancement and had “misled” Eisenhower on the issue of Communists in government. “He asked the president for a hunting license without telling him what he was going to shoot.”

Note: Eisele interviewed Kennedy, Burger and Rolvaag for his 1972 dual biography of McCarthy and Hubert Humphrey, “Almost to the Presidency,” which he is revising and updating for publication under a new title next year. Eisele is editor-at-large of The Hill, which he helped start in 1994.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Joe Musich on 10/03/2011 - 04:15 pm.

    Go Gene. I would protect my daughter as well.

  2. Submitted by Lauren Maker on 10/04/2011 - 10:11 am.

    Accusing Gene of subversion because he was trying to protect innocent public employees from the wrath of Joe McCarthy’s witchhunt? I wonder why that would upset Gene the Clean. . . . .

    I can understand why Roger may not have comprehended that at age 26, when we all knew the answers to everything. But to not get it in light of the historical aftermath of the American communist witchhunt, how it feed into the actions of a delusional powermonger, well that just shows willful blindness to one’s own immaturity.

  3. Submitted by Tom Foley on 10/14/2011 - 05:40 pm.

    Albert Eisele seems to disparage Gene McCarthy for allowing the incident to stick in his craw for too many years.

    To be clear, and to put names on things, the incident was red-baiting on the part of Roger Kennedy and Warren Burger during the height of McCarthyism? If Burger and Kennedy can be defended for their actions, Eisele should make the case. Until he does, I will continue to believe that Gene McCarthy was one of the very few in congress who stood up on the right side of that issue as early as 1952, and that Kennedy and Burger were engaging in the sleaziest sort of politics. Of course it stuck in McCarthy’s craw.

    So what’s the issue now? Why write about it at such length and with such focus in an article occasioned by the death of Roger Kennedy? Was red-baiting Kennedy’s only contribution to public life?

    Why does it seem to stick in Eisele’s craw after so many years?

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