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Norman Sherman's Memorable 'Memoir'

Norman Sherman has written a memoir that may discourage others, including myself, from writing theirs.
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Norman Sherman has written a memoir that may discourage others, including myself, from writing theirs.

In fact, Sherman, a longtime aide to Hubert Humphrey and other Minnesota political figures, may have set a new standard with his memorable memoir, "From Nowhere to Somewhere: My Political Journey"

Billed as "a memoir of sorts," Sherman is shown on the cover asleep aboard Air Force Two in 1965 when he was Vice President Humphrey's press secretary. That's when I met him when I came to Washington as a correspondent for the St. Paul Pioneer Press and other Knight-Ridder newspapers.

Several things make Sherman's memoir truly memorable. One is his unblinking candor about his life as a political junkie. The son of struggling Jewish immigrants in Minneapolis, he doesn't gild the lily about the many jobs he has had, from a janitor at Minneapolis newspaper to an advisor and speechwriter for a raft of Minnesota political figures from Karl Rolvaag to Orville Freeman to Eugene McCarthy to Donald Fraser to Walter Mondale.

Nor does the 87-year-old Sherman shy away from writing about his turbulent personal life, including two painful divorces, his "fortuitous and fulfilling" 45-year marriage to his present wife -- who helped edit his memoir -- and his conviction along with Richard Nixon and other Watergate figures, for violating the Federal Corrupt Practices Act for illegal campaign contributions. Of the latter, I agree with Sherman's contention that it was "really no real crime and, significantly, the statue has vanished."

But it's the dozens of stories about his encounters with more than 50 famous figures, ranging from Frank Sinatra, who sang at fundraisers for Humphrey in 1968, to the king of Belgium, who asked Sherman what his role was and was told "I'm the court jester," that make his memoir so readable and enjoyable.

Typical is Sherman's account of Humphrey's audience with Pope Paul VI in 1966, which I witnessed while covering Humphrey's trip through western Europe. When he introduced an aide, David Gartner, Humphrey jokingly told the Pope that Gartner was a devout Catholic but often missed Mass. Two weeks later, Gartner's mother called him from Des Moines to say the local priest told her that the Pope said her son was a delinquent Catholic.

Sherman was known for his irreverent humor, which sometimes got him into trouble, most famously in 1968 when he said "Lyndon who?" when asked just before he nominated Maine's Sen. Edmund Muskie as his running mate, if he would ask Johnson to be his vice president.

Sherman meant the comment to be off-the-record, but when Carl Leubsdorf of the Associated Press quoted him, White House press secretary George Christian quickly upbraided him. A shaken Humphrey asked Sherman, "Did some son-of-a-bitch just say, "Who's Lyndon?' I brilliantly responded, 'You've got a right son-of-a-bitch, but the line is 'Lyndon who?'"

Sherman says he probably should have been fired, but obviously wasn't. He went on to serve Humphrey well as Johnson dominated and humiliated him during his vice presidency. Sherman describes Humphrey's presidential campaign as a disaster, and tells of Johnson's cold reaction when Humphrey told him of the speech he planned to give in Salt Lake City just before the election in which he carefully separated himself from Johnson's Vietnam policy.

Like most Humphrey supporters, Sherman still blames Sen. Eugene McCarthy for Humphrey's defeat by Richard Nixon in 1968, claiming that McCarthy's late and tepid support for Humphrey failed to rally his anti-war supporters. "What if Gene McCarthy had found a generous and forgiving heart in his body? He could have helped diffuse the anger and animosity that dogged us. Nightly television would have been good for the campaign, not an endless filmed burden of protest."

But most political observers would disagree, saying that Humphrey's "politics of joy" pronouncement and his inability to remove the albatross of Vietnam and Lyndon Johnson from his shoulders were bigger factors. And Sherman wonders if Humphrey should have blasted Nixon for backing Anna Chennault's role in derailing the Paris peace talks. Those questions probably will never be answered.

So do yourself a favor and read Sherman's memoir, as columnist Mark Shields recommends. "He is an exceptionally wide and witty man who has written a wonderfully wise and witty book about his life in politics," Shields writes in a blurb. "He will, I promise, make you laugh and make you think, which are two very good things to do for yourself and for your country."