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My Half Century in the Nation's Capital

When I became Mondale's vice presidential press secretary in 1977, some critics said he hired me because of my favorable coverage, but I pointed out that I wrote many critical articles as well, and quoted his words that he hired me to "get him out of journalism."
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It's no big deal for anyone else but this month marks a special anniversary for me.

It was in October 1965 that I arrived in Washington as a 29-year-old correspondent for the St. Paul Pioneer Press & Dispatch and other Ridder Newspapers. I drove from St. Paul with my wife - thankfully the same one as now -- and two-year-old daughter, and it was raining when we arrived. I thought of the opening scene of Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, in which the rain was an omen of misfortune for the protagonist, Jake Barnes. But for me, it was a positive omen. Although one of my editors jokingly predicted that I would raise the intellectual level of both St. Paul and Washington, he was definitely wrong.

Walter T. Ridder, the bureau chief and cousin of the publisher of the St. Paul papers, took me under his wing and made sure I met the movers and shakers of the nation's Capital. I was familiar with many of them I had covered in Minnesota, including Vice President and former Sen. Hubert Humphrey, Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman and Senators Eugene McCarthy and future Vice President Walter Mondale - who arrived in Washington only months earlier as Humphrey's hand-picked successor -- as well as future U.S. Chief Justice Warren Burger, then a federal appellate judge.

Ironically, I had covered Vice President Humphrey the previous January when he appeared as grand marshal of the St. Paul Winter Carnival. Hours earlier, he was sleeping at his Washington home when he was informed that President Johnson had been taken to Bethesda Naval Hospital because of a severe chest cold. After learning LBJ had been successfully treated, he left for St. Paul and told reporters, "I realized my fears and apprehensions were unfounded and I can now smile again." Humphrey was again reminded he was only a heartbeat from the presidency when LBJ underwent surgery for removal of his gall bladder in October 1965, and again in November 1966, when the president had throat and abdominal surgery.

Two events I covered before leaving St. Paul presaged political, economic and social issues that I would report on in Washington. First was baseball's All-Star game in July, when more than 46,000 fans saw the National League win at the Minnesota Twins stadium in Bloomington. My article shared the front page with news that Johnson planned to escalate the war in Vietnam by expanding the draft and calling up military reservists, thus setting in motion the issue that would plague him and Humphrey, and contribute to Humphrey's razor thin defeat in the 1968 presidential election.

And in September, I covered the national plowing contest at Waseca, where Sen. Mondale and House Republican Leader Gerald Ford of Michigan spoke. It was the first meeting between the future president and Mondale, who as Jimmy Carter's running mate in 1976 would help deny Ford, who had become president with Nixon's resignation, a full term in the White House. I also covered record spring flooding, which brought LBJ to Minnesota in April, as well as the University of Minnesota. That beat produced articles on the development of the computer technology used in today's digital age (despite a headline on one of my stories that read "'Information Explosion' Threat to Knowledge"), student involvement in civil rights protests in Georgia, and medical research that included a heart-diet study warning against high cholesterol.

In Washington, Ridder saw that I got the necessary press credentials and took me to the White House to cover my first presidential news conference - President Johnson said he was considering expanding the draft and calling up reservists to add to the 71,000 U.S. forces already there. One day, Ridder took me to lunch at the exclusive Metropolitan Club, where he motioned to a nearby table where David Rockefeller, Clark Clifford, Averill Harriman and Douglas Dillon sat, and said, "Take a good look. You'll never see that much wealth in one place again."

Ridder and his wife, Marie, also an accomplished journalist, invited my wife and me to dinners at their elegant home overlooking the Potomac River in McLean, Va., where I met their friends and neighbors like Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, Secretary of Interior Stewart Udall and Supreme Court Associate Justice Byron White. In addition to the Minnesota, North and South Dakota Congressional delegations - I represented newspapers in Grand Forks and Aberdeen as well. I also exploited my background as a commissioned officer in the Army and a pitcher in Cleveland Indians minor league teams in the Dakotas, North Carolina and West Virginia to gain access to other politicians and bureaucrats.

One of the first stories I wrote was an assessment of Mondale's first year in the Senate. I gave him an 'A', based on deportment and deference to his elders, unlike Humphrey, who had come to the Senate at the same age and breathed defiance to all who opposed him "While good conduct marks may not win as many votes back home has a hefty chunk of pork barrel legislation, they are extremely important if a fledgling senator hopes to function effectively in the highly complex framework of the Senate," I wrote. Mondale said his main objective was "to develop the understanding and respect that I think is essential for the long pull. You have to establish a reputation for hard work, competence, reliability, common sense and honesty, and you have to learn the rules and get to know your colleagues."

I reported he was named to the Aeronautical and Space Science and Banking committees, and a short time later, replaced his senior colleague, Eugene McCarthy, on the Agriculture committee when McCarthy moved to the Foreign Relations committee. Mondale devoted most of his energies to issues important to Minnesota and supported President Johnson with few exceptions.

He also paid close attention to the advice of his mentor Humphrey, who told him how to avoid some of the pitfalls and analyzed the Senate sharply. If fact, Humphrey told his staff that whenever Mondale called, he would take the call, no matter how busy he was. Most of Mondale's colleagues predicted he would rise in the Senate hierarchy, which he did, winning full terms in 1966 and 1972 before Jimmy Carter chose him as his running mate in 1976.

If Humphrey went out of his way to help Mondale, McCarthy did little to aid his new junior colleague. Aware of Mondale's loyalty to Humphrey, McCarthy basically treated Mondale as a political novice who had failed to prove himself. While McCarthy supported Mondale's bid for a full term in the 1966 election, he never treated him as an equal, and summed up his opinion of Mondale after he became Jimmy Carter's running mate by quipping that he "has the soul of a vice president."

When I became Mondale's vice presidential press secretary in 1977, some critics said he hired me because of my favorable coverage, but I pointed out that I wrote many critical articles as well, and quoted his words that he hired me to "get him out of journalism."

Anyway, if you are interested and patient, you can read this and many other many tales I tell about my 50 years in Washington in my forthcoming memoir, "Confessions of a Jurassaic Journalist: Sins Committed and Lessons Learned While Serving a Life Sentence in the Nation's Capital."

I hope it will justify my hope that my tombstone is inscribed. "He Was Never Bored."

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