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Chapter Twenty-two: Growing Up Politically


My full name is William Howard Taft McGaughey, Jr. My father, after whom I was named, was born in 1912. President William Howard Taft was seeking reelection that year. My paternal grandfather, a medical doctor from Indianapolis who died in 1934, was an ardent Republican. Democrat Woodrow Wilson won the 1912 Presidential election because Taft and Theodore Roosevelt, the “Bull Moose” candidate, split the Republican vote.

My maternal grandfather, on the other hand, was a Democrat. He represented Greencastle, Indiana, and surrounding area in the Indiana Senate. In the late 1920s, he was minority leader of the Senate. His main claim to fame was that, when the Republicans tried to gerrymander the Indiana legislature, my grandfather and his Democratic colleagues disappeared for a time so that a quorum could not be reached. Senator Andrew Durham and friends holed up in a hotel somewhere in Ohio beyond reach of the law and negotiated with the Republican majority about the redistricting plan until it was acceptable to them. This grandfather died in 1954. The last time I saw him he was telling my mother about how he had the Putnam County Sheriff impound equipment belonging to a power company when it tried to erect a power line across his farm land without his permission. He and Paul Wellstone (also a power-line protester) might have had some interesting conversations.

In other words, both my parents came from political families. Both were pages in the Indiana legislature although they were not acquainted then. My parents first met when my father approached my mother, president of Kappa Alpha Theta at Depauw university, about admitting his sister into that sorority. Years later, both journalists, they ran into each other again on the streets of New York City. In the late 1930s, my father was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, then a relatively small trade paper. He belonged that group of Depauw graduates, headed by Bernard Kilgore, who built the Wall Street Journal into a large-circulation newspaper. A corporate history of the Journal describes my father as “a talented rewrite man”.

My mother, too, enjoyed a successful career in the newspaper business. She worked her way up from community papers to become a columnist for the Associated Press. In 1939, she was invited to attend a public demonstration of a new gadget at Rockefeller Center: television. My mother then wrote a column about how audience members should behave in a television studio. Lou Gehrig’s wife invited my mother to visit the couple’s New York-area home to see how they were coping with Gehrig’s illness. Her AP story pointed out that the “iron man” of baseball also had an “iron wife”. This story was bylined “John Durham” because the editors evidently did not think that a woman named Joan would be writing a baseball story. My grandfather, reading his daily newspaper in Greencastle, was amused.

My parents were married in New York City on November 18,1939. Walter Winchell mentioned their marriage in his news dispatch. Within a month, my parents moved to Detroit where my father took a new job as public-relations director of the Automobile Manufacturers Association. This was an an exciting time to be working in the automobile industry. The industry would soon be converting to war production to fight the Germans and Japanese. Detroit factories became “the Arsenal of Democracy”, and my father was in the thick of it. My father’s boss was George Romney, later CEO of American Motors and Governor of Michigan.

I was born in Detroit on February 21, 1941. My brother Andrew was also born there in June 1942; another brother, David, in June 1944; and a sister, Margaret, in May 1948. By then, my parents had both become Republicans. Even though they had voted for Franklin Roosevelt in 1936, they worked as volunteers in the 1940 Presidential campaign of Wendell Willkie. He, like them, was an Indiana native who had made good in New York City. In his public-relations position, my father became a fixture in the Detroit business community. He was the publicity director of the 1946 Automobile Golden Jubilee, a civic celebration marking the 75th anniversary of the first automobile, which brought old-timers such as Barney Oldfield, William S. Knudsen, and Henry Ford together for the last time.

Upward mobility was always difficult for me because, at each point in my life, my father had done better in his career at the same age. A newspaperman in the 1930s, he was a trade-association executive in the 1940s, vice president of an automobile company (American Motors) in the 1950s, a senior vice president of another trade association (National Association of Manufacturers) in the 1960s and 1970s, and, in his retirement years, a fund raiser for Business-Industry Political Action Committee (BIPAC). As a social helpmate for my father, my mother was there at each step of the way. Together, they were sent to Great Britain in 1948 to try to persuade Winston Churchill to come to the United States to take part in celebrations of the 100 millionth automobile. Churchill could not arrange the visit but he did take time to talk with my parents about American politics. (He thought Eisenhower had bungled his chances for the Presidency in 1948.)

In 1953, George Romney brought my father to Nash-Kelvinator to be his assistant. After a merger with Hudson Motors, the firm was renamed American Motors. It was the fourth largest automobile manufacturer in the country. After its chief executive, George Mason, died, Romney took over both as president and board chairman. My father became vice president of American Motors for Communications in the mid 1950s. Having responsibility for the company’s advertising budget, he reviewed a list of potential television shows that American Motors might sponsor. The show which he (and my mother) picked out was one called “Disneyland”. He flew to California for business discussions with Walt Disney. Disney gave my father four autographed cartoon celluloids, one for each of us children. We were photographed in Detroit with Fess Parker who played Davy Crockett in the Disneyland television series. My parents were present at ceremonies opening the original Disneyland park in Anaheim. American Motors had an exhibit called “Circarama” there; my dad gave Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. a sneak preview.

The popularity of the Disneyland television show, with George Romney as product pitch man, propelled the “compact-car revolution” of the late 1950s. In television commercials, Romney held up a clay model of a dinosaur symbolizing the “gas-guzzling” automobiles of that era. Sales of Rambler cars soared. My father became general chairman of the 1956 National Automobile Show in New York City. Because this was an industry revival, he had to persuade General Motors’ chairman, Harlow Curtis, not to put on a separate automobile show. That summer, Romney’s son Scott and I took classes in welding and housewiring at Cass Technical High School in Detroit. The Mormons believed that each young man should have a useful trade to fall back on in hard times.

My political inclinations followed my parents’ in the early years. We were Republicans who rooted for Robert A.Taft at the 1952 convention both because of the name and the fact that an Indian Village neighbor was an ardent Taft supporter. The United Automobile Workers, headed by Walter Reuther, were a negative force for person of that persuasion. I myself was a bit more open minded when, as a senior at Cranbrook School, I was head of a student organization which invited a UAW representative to speak on campus. Civil Rights were not such an issue in Detroit. Political controversy was instead centered on domestic and international communism. When I went to Yale, I felt a certain alienation from values of the Eastern social and political establishment. In my heart, I was a Detroit chauvinist who believed that the truly great things happening in America were related to the automobile industry, industrial labor, and so forth, rather than to the political and cultural concerns of academics. Thomas Edison and Henry Ford were my heroes, not T.S. Eliot.

George Romney was elected Governor of Michigan in 1962. There was talk of his running for President of the United States. I was excited at the prospect of such a man, my father’s mentor and friend, entering the realm of big-time politics. In Landshut, Bavaria, during my period as a college drop-out, I produced a book-length manuscript postulating a new conservativism with Romney as its champion. (The genesis of this was the idea that it was illegitimate for government to redistribute wealth through taxation and spending. If that happened, I argued, the voting system should be changed to give people the same number of votes as the money they paid in taxes.) This project, focused on faraway events, helped to hone my writing skills. My father had several copies mimeographed and bound. I presented them to Romney’s associates and to the Governor himself at a “Michigan Day” luncheon in 1963.

In fact, my scheme was delusional. While George Romney did have his eye on the White House, he became a liberal stalwart within the Republican party. That political positioning went against the conservative tide which brought Barry Goldwater’s Presidential nomination in 1964 and Richard Nixon’s election in 1968 and 1972, followed by the Reagan revolution of the 1980s. As a new resident of Minnesota, I joined the Young Republican League, hoping to assist Romney in his presidential efforts. Shaking hands with me in a reception line in St. Paul, the Governor asked “What are you doing here?”, before turning to the next person.

In 1968, my dreams of George Romney being elected President were dashed. In February, he withdrew from the race for the Republican nomination before the first primary after polls in New Hampshire showed him badly trailing Richard Nixon. Romney was done in by a careless remark about having been “brainwashed” by the Johnson administration during a visit to Vietnam. It was an early example of the “gaffe politics” practiced by journalists: Romney was tagged as an intellectual lightweight. In fact, the Michigan governor was plenty smart. His undoing was the fact that he was an outsider to the Eastern political-cultural establishment, not to mention being a liberal Republican. But the damage was done and I moved on to other interests.

Years later, in the summer of 1994, while traveling through Michigan, my brother Andy and I stopped by the Romney home unannounced and had a short, but cordial visit with Lenore Romney, the governor’s wife who was herself a former Republican candidate for U.S. Senate. Her husband was then in Massachusetts helping their younger son, Mitt, campaign for Senate against Ted Kennedy. They had recently been guests of the Bushes at their home in Kennebunkport, Maine, she proudly told us. George Romney later sent a note to my father saying that his wife had enjoyed our brief visit. He died two years later. Mitt Romney, fresh from a stint with the 2002 Salt Lake Olympic Committee, is today Governor of Massachusetts.

Romney’s withdrawal from the Presidential race was the first of many shocks that year, ranging from President Johnson’s decision not to seek reelection to street violence at the Chicago convention and two assassinations. My political allegiance shifted to Richard Nixon, who was more conservative than Rockefeller and yet, despite his “loser” image, surprisingly in tune with current developments. I attended a Minnesota organizational meeting for Nixon where I met persons who would innocently figure in the Watergate scandal - Kenneth Dahlberg, the Midwest Nixon treasurer who deposited a check traced to the Watergate burglars’ account, and Clark MacGregor, who succeeded John Mitchell at CREEP. I was an usher at a Nixon rally in Minneapolis and, on election day, an election judge.

Still, my contributions were minimal. I was then a person without a job whose thoughts centered on Walt Whitman - at one time, in the mid 1960s, I could recite from memory almost a third of Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself” - schemes to organize relay marathons, and other pie-in-the-sky ideas. Too much the loose cannon to fit into any Republican organization, I was mostly a bystander to the turbulent events of those times.

My feelings about the Vietnam war were mixed. On one hand, I felt that the Johnson administration spent young American lives as freely as it spent tax dollars; on the other, I resented the anti-war protesters’ cavalier attitude toward their fellow countrymen who were fighting in that war. Being passively conservative, I did not partake of my generation’s political experience. Instead, I pursued my own loosely focused writing projects. For three months during 1970, I lived in an empty house in Milford, Pennsylvania, which my parents owned. In December of that year, I attended the 75th anniversary “Congress of Industry” put on by the National Association of Manufacturers. My father was the staff person charged with overseeing that event. The featured speaker in 1970 was President Nixon.

I had the grandiose idea of approaching one of Nixon’s cabinet members, Robert Finch, to propose that the President’s reelection campaign stage a gigantic marathon run across the country to whip up excitement for the campaign. The LeVander for Governor campaign in Minnesota had given its blessing to a similar project of mine in 1966, but I was unable to generate enough support to carry it out successfully. Finch canceled his appearance at the NAM gathering so that my proposal never had a hearing. In retrospect, anything would have been better for the Republicans than the dirty-tricks operation that led to Watergate.

My political views shifted to the left because of my interest in the shorter-workweek issue. Actually, I began researching the shorter workweek issue when the Young Republican League called for its members do policy research in areas of personal interest. The local Republicans were not hostile to the idea of shorter working hours; it’s just that the project fell through. When, in 1974, I resumed the research and founded a shorter-workweek organization, I naturally gravitated toward people who might support this approach, namely labor activists and socialists. Carter’s election as President softened my heart toward liberals. I liked Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalyn, small-town people from Georgia. I conducted a public-opinion survey on work hours in 1976 and, a year later, founded General Committee for a Shorter Workweek. A companion organization with Section 501(c)3 status, Free Time Research Group, came later. But these were mostly shell organizations representing my own dreams.

It would serve no purpose here to repeat my acquaintance with persons or groups interested in work-time issues and in international trade. Getting to know Eugene McCarthy on a personal basis was rather ironic in view of my earlier enthusiasm for Romney’s Presidential prospects. In 1968, George Romney’s political career went into the tank as Eugene McCarthy’s Presidential campaign was blazing across the political landscape like a comet. Also, McCarthy had a hand in the fallout from Romney’s remark about having been “brainwashed” by the Johnson Administration. McCarthy had told the press that, in Romney’s case, brainwashing was unnecessary: a “light rinse would do it.” Yet, Romney apparently bore no ill will toward McCarthy. I once published an article in the Star Tribune which identified me as a McCarthy partisan. My father sent a copy to George Romney who sent him a warmly worded note in return.

I was meanwhile caucusing with the Democrats both on the east side of St. Paul, where I lived from 1984 to 1989, and in north Minneapolis, my present home. Being the ideological misfit, I can’t say that I was more comfortable with the people who attended those caucuses than I was with their Republican counterparts. The DFL party in District 58 has a caucus system at their conventions which allows delegates to caucus by interest according to self-chosen categories. When I tried to caucus as “pro-Wellstone, pro life” at the 1992 convention, I was told there was no such animal. Caucusing by preference for Presidential candidates, I followed the lead of a delegate who supported Eugene McCarthy. He received only a few votes in the first round of balloting and was dropped.

My ward’s representative on the City Council, Jackie Cherryhomes, approached me in a cheerful mood, inviting me to “join the party” for Bill Clinton. She said her political career had begun years ago when she worked in McCarthy’s campaign. With some reluctance, I joined the Clinton caucus. I later contacted Cherryhomes to ask if she would sign a petition to support a shorter workweek. She said she would check with her husband who was an official with a city-employee union. Evidently, the husband turned thumbs down. Cherryhomes called me to say she would not sign the petition. I argued with her. Next year, after I became a landlord, Cherryhomes turned on me. I have sometimes thought that my advocacy of a shorter workweek marked me in her eyes as a naive idealist or, at least, someone who could safely be kicked.

Politically, I am not a socialist. I believe in the free-enterprise system because ownership of a business gives an incentive for its managers to make decisions that are in the organization’s best long-term interest. Managers with clear authority to make decisions can do so quickly, with minimal red tape, according to the needs of the situation. I as owner of an apartment building can be foolish or wise with my own money. I must seek to be wise lest I go out of business. The problem with publicly owned enterprises is that the managers’ interests may not be aligned with the long-term needs of the enterprise or the constituency being served. They manage their organizations with “other people’s money”. Appearing to belong to nobody, one is tempted to try to get one’s own hands on it. Such managers are often in conflict with their unorganized constituencies and, generationally, with their successors in a position. Since perceptions are everything, scoundrels often do as well as faithful stewards of the public trust.

I believe in representative, rather than direct, democracy when it comes to governing the community. The system of direct, participatory democracy practiced in Minneapolis neighborhoods calls forth some of the neighborhood’s least savory characters, persons who apparently have nothing better to do with their lives than to attend an endless series of meetings to conduct trivial business. More often than not, the purpose is to get one’s hands on some of the “other people’s money” floating through the system. Elected officials, engaged in politically incestuous relationships with these community groups, sometimes excuse their own bad policies by saying they were heeding their constituents’ wishes. Where this kind of politics turns hostile, it brings out the wolf-pack instinct. The Red Guard model of revitalizing community affairs doesn’t work.

My particular passion in politics is for greater openness and transparency. Having watched my apartment building be condemned through secretive processes, I loathe decision makers who conceal themselves behind an institutional facade. Some said the Minneapolis police had city inspectors condemn my building. Others said the neighborhood group did it, or a tenant who wanted me to sell my building to her organization, or perhaps the Council member herself. Inspections would not reveal the process by which my building was closed except to say that it wasn’t a tenant who had complained. The law required that such information be kept confidential.

As a member of Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee, I approached the Minnesota legislature about changing this law. A DFL member of the House introduced a bill which would have made communications between government officials pertaining to local inspections a matter of public record; however, a Republican house member who chaired the pertinent committee would not schedule a committee hearing. The rot behind the woodwork of city government must stay concealed!

I think it important that actors in public life be willing to put their names on their actions. I am myself a regular contributor of letters to the editor of my local newspaper, always signing my name. I wish those on the newspaper editorial staff who disseminate their opinions would likewise show theirs. Occasionally, some individuals have wanted the Property Rights group to front for their personal agendas. A political candidate suggested that we exhibit posters of repeat criminals whose black faces would signal the racial dimension of neighborhood crime. This suggestion was ignored. Another person created a web site for the group, slipping in a few pages that blamed low-intelligence blacks for the failings of the Minneapolis school system. At my urging, Charlie Disney rejected the web site that contained these pages We said it was OK to put any kind of opinion in a web site so long as the person puts his own name to it. Just don’t use our name.

So, where does this leave me politically? Clinton Democrats (and their sympathizers in Minneapolis city government) are political “realists” who use gender and race to advance their political careers but are mainly interested in money - lots of other people’s money. After what they did to me as a landlord, I could never again join them. Republicans are an extension of the corporate culture. I fit into neither two-party camp. The Greens are idealists - which is good - but they have some unhelpful ideas about gender and about business. As a small businessman, I would like to be pro-business but not if it means letting people who support themselves through honest work sink farther into economic despair. I am a nationalist but also an internationalist: Cannot we not be on friendly terms with all peoples? The cult of the imperial Presidency leaves me cold.

If only because of their enemies, Jesse Ventura and the Independence Party are for me the most positive example. They need an infusion of new ideas. My experience with landlord politics has put certain ideas in my head. But it is the old ideas, related to labor and political correctness, that I think most applicable to the present political situation. That’s where I now stand.

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