A hair-raising tale about the late Walter Mondale

Joan and Walter Mondale with Boston Mayor Ray Flynn. Photo (cc) Boston City Archives.

My favorite story about Walter Mondale (and how many people can say they have a favorite story about Walter Mondale?) has to do with something he supposedly said when a staffer from Jimmy Carter’s 1976 presidential campaign complained to him about his haircut.

Those of us who’ve reached a certain age may remember that one of Carter’s claims to fame was that he had really, really good hair. And apparently it just wouldn’t do that the Democratic nominee’s newly chosen running mate was, to put it mildly, tonsorially challenged. Mondale’s alleged retort: “The people of Minnesota like shitty haircuts.”

Mondale, often described as the first vice president who actually mattered, died on Monday at the age of 93. I recommend Steven R. Weisman’s masterful obituary in The New York Times.

Now, did my Mondale anecdote play out exactly as I’ve described it? It’s hard to say. But I found something very close in a 1992 book by Steven M. Gillon titled “The Democrats’ Dilemma: Walter F. Mondale and the Liberal Legacy.” Apparently once Mondale became vice president, he took to having his hair cut by a stylist in his office, a move that was seen by some as a sign that Fritz was leaving his humble roots behind. Gillon writes:

While in the Senate, Mondale had his hair cut by a local Washington barber. “The people in Minnesota like shitty haircuts,” he told friends. Now, a hair stylist came directly to the Vice President’s office. “He thinks he doesn’t have time” to go to a barber, a friend remarked skeptically.

Mondale was one of the finest people ever to win a presidential nomination — a model of personal rectitude and dedication to public service. I would say that we won’t see his likes again except that I think we have a pretty good example of that in the White House right now.

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A nostalgic look back at The Daily Item of Clinton

Tom Farragher’s column in today’s Boston Globe is a two-fer for me. Farragher writes about a recent effort to save the archives of The Item, formerly The Daily Item of Clinton. It turns out that one of those involved was Sean Kerrigan, a former Item reporter who’s now chair of the town’s select board. I worked with Sean at The Boston Phoenix, so it was nice to run across his name.

“It’s sad it takes something like this for people to understand how important a paper can be to a town,’’ Kerrigan told Farragher. “I’m a little biased obviously, but I can’t imagine a Clinton without the Item.”

Farragher also mentions the day in 1977 when the then-new president, Jimmy Carter, came to town for one of his first public forums. I wasn’t there. But I was a Northeastern co-op student down the road at The Woonsocket Call, and I remember that we were all buzzing about it in the newsroom.

The Item has been a weekly since 1996, and is now part of the Gannett chain, covering Clinton and six surrounding towns.

George McGovern, 1922-2012

George McGovern was the only presidential candidate I ever worked for. In the fall of 1972 I was a 16-year-old junior at Middleborough (Mass.) High School and a McGovern volunteer. Mainly I made calls to supposedly undecided voters, and was informed by more than one that I was working for a “communist.”

McGovern was one of the most decent people ever to seek the presidency, and I was sorry to learn of his passing this morning. I don’t know what kind of a president he would have been — I suspect he would have made Jimmy Carter look like a decisive executive by comparison. But he had a war hero’s aversion to war, and his generous spirit would have been welcome qualities in any of the presidents elected since his failed 1972 campaign. Needless to say, he would have been vastly superior to Richard Nixon, who defeated him in that historic landslide.

In April 1978, when I was a Northeastern co-op student working at the Woonsocket (R.I.) Call, I covered a speech McGovern gave in Boston, and took the photo you see here. It would probably take me half a day to find the clip, and it wouldn’t be of much account anyway. But I had just read Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72,” and I remember asking McGovern if Thompson’s description of McGovern’s reasoning for dropping Thomas Eagleton from the ticket was accurate.

McGovern paused a moment, and then confirmed Thompson’s account. I thought it was a remarkable admission. Thompson had written that McGovern believed Eagleton’s mental illness was so severe that he had concluded he couldn’t run the risk of his becoming vice president — or, possibly, president. In 2005, McGovern told the New York Times: “I didn’t know a damn thing about mental illness, and neither did anyone around me.”

The last time I saw McGovern was in 1984, four years after he had been defeated for re-election to the Senate. He was running for president again and was taking part in a debate among the Democratic candidates. It might have been at Harvard, but I’m not entirely sure. It seemed that time had passed him by, and indeed he wasn’t a factor in what turned out to be a two-man race between Walter Mondale and Gary Hart.

During the debate, McGovern sharply criticized the federal government’s decision to break up the AT&T monopoly two years earlier. Even then, it seemed like an old man’s lament. With the passage of time, it became clear that the break-up unleashed technological innovation that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible. McGovern’s era was over, as even liberal Democrats had moved on.

After that, McGovern faded from view. It is to Bill Clinton’s credit that he gave the former senator useful work, and awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Still, his declining years could not have been happy ones, as he lost two of his adult children following long struggles with alcohol abuse.

George McGovern was one of the great public figures of the second half of the 20th century. Simply put, he showed us all a better way. It was not his fault that we chose not to take it. And now his voice has been stilled.

Update: You’re going to see a lot of fine tributes to McGovern in the days ahead. This one, by Joe Kahn of the Boston Globe, is well worth your time.

A Globe-Herald spat, 31 years down the line

Jimmy Carter in 1980

Former Boston Herald (and Boston Phoenix) political reporter Peter Lucas checks in with an account of his exclusive Herald interview with then-President Jimmy Carter during Carter’s 1980 re-election campaign against Ted Kennedy.

Lucas’ stroll down memory lane was prompted by a Jessica Heslam piece in the Friday Herald — part of the paper’s multi-day package on its White House snub — recounting past instances of journalists and presidents not getting along. Heslam wrote:

Veteran White House reporter Curtis Wilkie, who covered former President Jimmy Carter’s administration for the Boston Globe, said that Democratic commander in chief “so disliked” the Hub broadsheet that he gave the conservative Herald an interview rather than the Globe, because the administration felt the Globe had been unfair to Carter.

“He didn’t care for the Globe. It didn’t matter to me,” said Wilkie, who teaches journalism at the University of Mississippi. “Nothing wrong with being in an adversarial position with the White House. Better to be adversarial than too cozy.”

Wilkie’s recollections prompted an email from Lucas to Heslam. Lucas, now a columnist for the Lowell Sun and the Fitchburg Enterprise & Sentinel, sent along a copy to Media Nation and gave me permission to post it. I’ve broken it into a few paragraphs for readability:

Jessica: Curtis Wilkie doesn’t know what he’s talking about regarding the Herald’s interview with Jimmy Carter. I got that interview and by no means was it “given” to me. Wilkie is in need of a memory transplant when he says it did not matter to the Globe at the time. The Globe absolutely panicked and whined to the White Housse for weeks.

Not to bore you with an old war story but here it is. Ted Kennedy was challenging Carter for the presidency in 1980. The Globe was in the tank to Kennedy, (what else is new?) and Kennedy was not talking to the Herald. I told Jody Powell, Carter’s press secretary, that the Globe would kill him in the primaries but that the Herald would give him a fair shake.

All I wanted out of it was an exclusive interview with the president who at the time was in his Rose Garden strategy because of the Iranian hostage situtaion and not talking to any reporters. The primary coverage was important because you had the Iowa caucus coming up and this was to be followed by the caucus in Maine and then the really important New Hampshire primary.

Powell was skeptical and wary. He did not want to anger the Globe. I persisted. So Carter beats Kennedy in Iowa and the Globe gives the headline to Kennedy. The same happens the following week in Maine. I go to Jody Powell and say I told you so. I hound him (as only a Herald reporter can do) in the days before the New Hampshire primary and Carter finally relents. I get to interview Carter alone in the Oval Office and the story leads the paper Feb. 15, 1980. It is a huge deal and makes the national news. (I still have it hung up in my garage.)

Days later Carter beats Kennedy in his own backyard of New Hampshire and it is all over for Kennedy, although he staggers around through the convention. The story was a clean exclusive and it embarassed the Globe to no end, including my friend Wilkie. The Globe had a huge Washington Bureau at the time and we had nobody down there, and here comes a Herald reporter out of nowhere and beats the hell out of them, It was great. Joe Sciacca will remember.

Keep up the good work. Cheers, Peter Lucas.

Highly entertaining stuff. I would, of course, love to post a response from Wilkie. And just to keep the historical record straight, Lucas in 1980 was working for the Hearst-owned Herald American. The modern Herald came into existence two years later, when Rupert Murdoch saved it from being shut down.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Obama’s Nobel Prize

obama_20091009I should be reading the papers and getting ready for class, but I just want to get this out there first. No doubt the topic will inspire a long string of comments, and probably a few of you will have more coherent thoughts than I do.

President Obama is a leader of extraordinary promise. I think he’s already accomplished a lot. His policies helped steer the worst economic crisis since the 1930s into something like a normal recession. He’s come closer to enacting comprehensive health-care reform than any previous president.

And, yes, his approach to foreign policy has combined pragmatism, cooperation and an orientation toward negotiation and peace that stands in stark contrast with the belligerent Bush-Cheney team. I’m also glad he’s rethinking his original desire to escalate in Afghanistan.

That said, I’m puzzled, to say the least, by his winning the Nobel Peace Prize. I think Obama might well have been Nobel-worthy in a couple of years, depending on what he’s able to accomplish with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with Iran and its nuclear aspirations, with the Afghanistan-Pakistan mess and with North Korea. And that’s assuming he can find willing negotiating partners.

For the Nobel committee to award its most prestigious honor to Obama at this early stage of his presidency, the members must have been thinking one of two things:

  • He deserves it for all sorts of symbolic reasons: he’s the first African-American president, he represents a clean break with George W. Bush and he’s reached out to the international community in a variety of ways.
  • He doesn’t really deserve it, but he should get it in order to give him ammunition (oops; bad word) against his critics and to provide some momentum to his peace-making efforts.

I don’t think either of those reasons are good enough.

Conservatives, needless to say, are going to have a field day with this, comparing it to previous Nobels they think were undeserving, such as those given to Jimmy Carter and Al Gore. By contrast, I think Gore and especially Carter were very deserving recipients who received the honor on the basis of many years of hard work.

Many liberals are going to be thrilled that Obama won, although the early buzz on the left, based solely on my monitoring of Twitter, is that at least some liberals are as perplexed as I am.

Not that Obama is the worst selection ever. Certainly there have been much more undeserving recipients, such as Yasser Arafat and Henry Kissinger. (Despite what some conservatives are claiming on Twitter, Adolf Hitler did not win the Nobel. Try looking it up, folks.)

Anyway — there you have it. Discuss among yourselves.

Weld misquotes Carter

There’s a howler near the top of former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld’s op-ed in today’s Boston Globe that any sharp-eyed editor should have caught. Weld and John Stimpson write:

In 1981, the United States was in the midst of what President Jimmy Carter had labeled a “national malaise” and a “crisis in confidence.”

Trouble is, as this PBS article explains, “Though he never used the word — [political adviser Pat] Caddell had in his memo — it became known as Carter’s ‘malaise’ speech.”