By Richard Peterson
Let’s talk about politics this week. No, not about McCain and Obama or Hoeven and Mathern.
Instead let’s go back more than 40 years to June of 1964 when Robert McCarney came to Benson County.
Twenty-four years later in 1988 I wrote a column describing McCarney’s visit. Most people won’t remember anything about him, but he was big stuff back in the 1960s. Here’s the column:
The death last week of Robert P. McCarney of Bismarck left a void in North Dakota politics.
McCarney, who led several referral votes in the 1960’s and 1970’s, was both damned and praised.
McCarney sponsored 15 ballot measures over the years and most of the time voters agreed with him. For the most part, legislators hated him because he undid much of their work.
At the time of his death at the age of 76, McCarney suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease. He weighed less than 100 lbs. at the time of his death. In his prime, McCarney was a very imposing individual, standing 6’3" and weighing 235 lbs.
McCarney was no dummy, believe me. Former Sen.
Mark Andrews said that in every confrontation with McCarney, he (Andrews) walked away learning something. Andrews deliberately used the word "confrontation."
McCarney loved to needle the politicians.
McCarney called former Gov. Arthur Link "A dummy . . . a headless horseman." On another occasion he referred to Link as "that sleeping giant."
Link did have a tendency to catch catnaps during boring meetings. "The only thing Link and I have in common is our age," said the 67-year-old McCarney of the 65-year-old Link. "If you’re going to vote for an older man, you might as well vote for one who’s not asleep."
Former Gov. William Guy called McCarney "a tinhorn politician." Not to be outdone, McCarney said he would support Guy "if he ever had an idea."
McCarney was very conservative but even conservatives crossed swords with him. Sen. Bryce Streibel, one of the more conservative Republicans in North Dakota’s history, called McCarney "a ruthless intimidator, and a maverick and all that satisfied his ego."
McCarney was a very blunt and undiplomatic individual. But as I said, he was no dummy. And he knew how to use people.
As far as I know, McCarney came to Benson County only once, in June of 1964. McCarney was running as an independent Republican candidate for governor against Republican-endorsed Don Halcrow in the primary election. Olger Hanson of Oberon and Marvin Jabs of Fort Totten were McCarney’s campaign managers for Benson County and they stopped at the Farmers Press office with McCarney. At the time McCarney was referring a tax measure and the big question all reporters were trying to get answered was what is he going to replace this tax measure with. I asked McCarney and he did some talking, then changed the subject. He never did answer my question.
McCarney invited me to come over to Esmond that evening to hear his talk and I agreed to do so.
At that point, McCarney and his entourage got into his big Lincoln and headed for Minnewaukan’s main street, then Leeds, York, Knox, Harlow and finally Esmond to campaign.
Both Olger Hanson and Marvin Jabs were fun-loving fellows who enjoyed politics. They loved nothing better than to tweak the noses of the establishment. They took McCarney directly into the Lion’s Den — the office of V.A. Helberg — Mr. Republican. Helberg was a loyalist Republican who backed the party’s endorsed candidates 100 percent. He didn’t mince any words in stating that McCarney had no business running against the Republican-endorsed candidate. McCarney pressed his argument and Helberg replied that he couldn’t support McCarney because he had no legislative experience. They talked for a little while longer and McCarney asked Helberg what he thought of President Eisenhower. "Best president we’ve ever had," replied Helberg. McCarney glowered at Helberg and said, "Well, he didn’t have any blankety-blank experience!"
McCarney could be persuasive as well as abrasive.
At Leeds Oscar Tufte ran Olger Hanson out of his hardware store when Olger tried to put up a McCarney sign. McCarney heard about the incident and went in to visit with Tufte. After McCarney left, Tufte motioned for Olger to come over to his store. Tufte said; "You can put that sign up now, if you want."
Later that afternoon the McCarney entourage arrived at Esmond and McCarney spoke to a large group of people in a hall off to the side of the Corner Lounge. I sat in the front row to take notes and McCarney went into his talk. He blasted the politicians and declared that "Don Halcrow would sell his soul to sit in the governor’s chair." He talked about his secret tax package.
Then he pointed to me and said, "As I was telling my friend, Peterson, here. . ." I was struck dumb! Here was McCarney practically declaring that I was supporting him! I looked around in bewilderment and noticed Olger Hanson sitting off to the side grinning like the cat who had swallowed the canary.
The fact of the matter was that I opposed McCarney on every one of his referral elections and would never have voted for him. Olger knew this, of course, so he was really enjoying the proceedings.
After McCarney’s speech a few of us gathered on the sidewalk. I remember that Jerome Keller, Jake Hoffert, McCarney and I stood in front of the Corner Bar. I said something to the effect that McCarney’s tax plan was something like buying a pig in a poke, McCarney puffed on a big cigar and promised to send me a copy of his secret tax plan. He never did, of course. As I remember it, he really didn’t have any tax plan in the first place. It was all a big smokescreen.
McCarney and his entourage went down to the other bar and everybody followed. McCarney pulled out a $20 bill and bought a round for the house. I don’t know if it was illegal at the time for politicians to buy drinks. But after all, it was Esmond. Nobody cared. Besides, everybody was thirsty.