As the Republican National Convention finally gets under way in the Twin Cities tonight, it isn’t untoward to remember a Minnesota Governor who left his mark on American politics — and who was, in fact, RN’s choice for President in 1948.
In his extended latter years, Harold E. Stassen became a perennial presidential candidate and the punchline of a national joke — the superannuated poster boy for blind ambition and bad toupees.
But when he was elected Governor of Minnesota at the age of 31 in 1938, he was dubbed the “Boy Wonder” and was welcomed by the nation in general, and by Republicans in particular, as a cool breath of fresh air from the north. Overnight he became an inspiration and an example for young men interested in politics — including one young attorney in Whittier. The newly-minted Governor was tapped to deliver the keynote address at the 1940 Republican Convention — in those days a far more significant honor then than now.
In 1943 he resigned as Governor to join the Navy. And that was how his eminent path crossed with that of a lowly Lieutenant on a remote Pacific island.
RN told me about this meeting during one of our interviews in 1983:
FG: How did you keep in touch with home? Did you get letters or write letters back?
RN: Oh, yes. Every day. I wrote letters every day of the fourteen months I was there, numbered them all, and Pat wrote to me every day, numbered them all. I must say the — the most important thing of all was getting the mail.
I remember, incidentally — that I saw two celebrities in the South Pacific.
One day in Nouméa, I was riding on a road from Nouméa up to a base further north, and sirens were heard, and we pulled off to the side. I was in a jeep, and riding in — in a weapons carrier, sitting very straight, was Eleanor Roosevelt. And I thought that was really great. Here she was, out here where the action was.
And then up on Bougainville one day, Harold Stassen came through. And, of course, I was interested in him because, although I was not in politics yet, I had interest in it.
I knew he’d been the youngest governor, the “boy wonder”, in Minnesota. He was attached to Halsey’s staff, and I remember meeting him.
I shook his hand. And he said, “I’m just up here checking to see how the mail is. Is the mail coming in all right?” And I said, “Yes, sir, Governor. The mail’s coming in fine.”
That was the first time I met him, and from that time on, I was a Stassen man, until after 1948, when he didn’t make the nomination for president.
In 1948 Stassen made a bid for the Republican presidential nomination. Perhaps it was because he had lost political ground by his decision to quit politics and join the Navy; perhaps it was because his post-war activities (delegate to the San Francisco conference that founded the UN, President of the University of Pennsylvania) didn’t have the same glamour and impact as his five years as Governor. Whatever the reason he lost to New York Governor Tom Dewey, who is now mostly remembered as the wrong name on a newspaper headline.
RN, who was running unopposed for re-election to the House in the 12th District, attended the convention as an observer. Thirty years later he remembered how sweltering it was in Philadelphia that June.
From the continuation of our 1983 conversation:
FG: You went to the 1948 Republican Convention not as a delegate, but as an honored guest, as a member of Congress. You were a Stassen man, and you have subsequently said to friends that if you had been Stassen’s campaign manager in ’48, he would have won the presidency.
RN: Well, as a matter of fact, Stassen was the most interesting candidate. He was also one who could relate to World War II people because he had been a veteran in World War II.
He was young, he was charismatic. Many people think since that time he was dull, but he really wasn’t at that time. And he was smart, very, very smart.
Dewey, I think, was one of the most capable men ever to run for the presidency, and would have made a great president, without question, or a great chief justice, or anything, but no one would suggest that Dewey could excite people, at least not in his later years. He didn’t have that capability.
Taft, another enormously capable man, an intellectual giant and a giant in terms of just sheer character and belief and not a reactionary. As a matter of fact, Taft was a progressive. He was an isolationist, basically, deep down, but he had very progressive, advanced views on aid to education, on health care, and on housing. In fact, some of the conservatives on the right only stuck with him because they thought he was more, shall we say, isolationist, and that — that held them in line. They didn’t agree with his domestic views.
And so there you had Taft, and there you had Dewey. I would say that of the lot that we had there at the convention, Stassen, if he could have been nominated, would have been the strongest candidate. I think he would have won.
In fact, Stassen’s manager in Philadelphia was another member of the class of ’46: the newly-elected junior Senator from Wisconscin, Joe McCarthy.
FG: You weren’t his manager then but Joe McCarthy was.
RN: Joe McCarthy was his floor manager, and I remember Joe McCarthy, after Stassen had made his run for it and didn’t get enough votes on the first ballot, and finally it went over to Dewey — I saw him, I can remember vividly, at the entrance to the auditorium.
Particularly — it’s funny the things you remember. The sweat was just pouring down his cheeks and so forth, and his shirt was wet, and he was saying, “Well, fellas, we’ve had it. There’s no way that Stassen can make it, and now let’s go out and work for Dewey”.
In 1952 Stassen hoped against hope that a convention deadlocked between Eisenhower and Taft might turn its lonely eyes in his direction. Even in that unlikely event, that gaze was far more likely to fall on Dewey’s ’48 running mate California Governor Earl Warren.
In the end he released his delegates to Ike and served in a number of posts in the Eisenhower administration, some of them at Cabinet level, mostly involving questions of security and disarmament.
In 1956 he became the leader and cheerleader for the short-lived ill-fated “Dump Nixon” movement. In an ironic twist, he briefly involved Christian Herter —on whose Commission RN had served in 1947— to become the movement’s spearhead. In the end Herter placed RN’s name in nomination.
Harold Stassen —who became known as “the Grand Old Party’s Grand Old Loser”— ran for (among several other offices) president in 1964, 1968, 1976, 1980, 1984, 1988, and 1992. In the cruel way the media has of publicizing people who can score some useful points while mocking them for their pathetic efforts, he received more attention than he deserved and than did him good.
Harold Stassen’s memory was preserved in the Nixon household by Frank Nixon, who named the cows on his farm after various political figures. One came to the name “Harry Truman” and another to that of “Harold Stassen”. In an episode of The Simpsons, a plate of eggs sunny side up are described as “a la Harold Stassen” because they’re always running.
He died in March 2001 at the age of 93. He had said: ”I know I’ve had an impact, that some things I’ve done have really counted for world peace, for the passion of the individual.”