Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye or Cavanaugh vs. Kerrey

July 7, 2012


Kerrey Who?

Before there was Bob Kerrey, there was John J. Cavanaugh. In 1976, the 31-year-old Cavanaugh surprised Nebraska by becoming the first Democrat to capture Omaha’s 2nd District Congressional seat in 28 years. Before Bob Kerrey, if talk centered on a bright, young, charismatic, Irish-monikered rising political star from Nebraska, political cognoscenti would have instinctively assumed that the conversation was about Cavanaugh. Before Kerrey, Nebraska Democrats viewed Cavanaugh as the state’s most appealing politico and the man most likely to succeed at the national level.

No one in the Congressional Class of 1976 received as much press as Cavanaugh (although Tipper & Al Gore together came in a close second), and many of his House colleagues at the time tabbed Cavanaugh as a future contender. So it was a shock to them when, after just two relatively uneventful terms in Congress, Cavanaugh announced that he was quitting politics.

[Author’s note: I’m writing the next couple of graphs on Saturday, July 7th, 2012] In 1975, after graduating in Journalism & Political Science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, I went to work for the late Don Gillen, then-Editor of the York News-Times for one year as a general assignment reporter and photographer. I could have been hired at a more prestigious paper; however, I’d met then-State Senator John Cavanaugh during my NU J-School Legislative Reporting class internship, and I told him that I wanted to work for him when he ran for Congress. I do not remember anyone – including Cavanaugh himself – actually telling me that he planned to run but I just figured he would because of his legislative (Unicameral) service and family pedigree.

Towards the end of my first year in York, I received a letter from Cavanaugh in which he asked if I would “forsake my blossoming career in journalism and come to Omaha” to work on his campaign. I agreed, moved to Omaha, oversaw his then-West Omaha Cavanaugh for Congress office at 90th & Maple (yes! that was “West” Omaha in those days) right next door to the Brass Knocker and ended up living with the Cavanaughs in the first D.C. house they rented – from Union heavyweight Walter or Victor Reuther – in a tony, tree-lined enclave off Wisconsin & Porter Streets. The house was a huge, four-story Victorian with a wide wrap-around porch, castle-like turrets, and inside were knick-knacks from all over the world, priceless paintings, and walls adorned with masks from Africa and other far-flung continents.

Anyhoo, the Cavanaughs were consummate entertainers and when one is first elected to Congress, you still hang out with your staff. (Trust me, this riff ties back to Al Gore pretty soon here.) Anyway, Kate Cavanaugh, John’s wife, liked to hold brunches and of course, as a Capitol Hill “Legislative Assistant” and Cavanaugh-kid babysitter and live-in staffer, I was invited. Here’s a memory I can recall as if it were yesterday. Tipper & Al Gore came as did several other of John’s Class of ’76 fellow Congressmen including Peter Kostmayer of Pennsylvania, Ed Markey of Massachusetts – who still serves – and perhaps, some others; maybe Dan & Rhoda Glickman of Kansas. Of the Cavanaugh staffers, I remember then-Peg Tentinger, John’s executive assistant, Suzy & Tom Fogarty, his press secretary, and Kate’s younger sister, Mary Pat Barrett. (A staggering coincidence: all three of us: John’s secretary, Peg from Remson, Iowa; his legislative assistant, moi, Ivy, from Grand Island & Lincoln, Nebraska; and John’s sister-in-law, Mary Pat, from Wisconsin were all born on August 10th. What are the odds of that? But I digress) Okay, so remember that the two groups primarily represented at this Cavanaugh party were: U.S. Congressmen & Cavanaugh “staffers.”

Just setting the stage here, folks. Part way through the brunch, John introduced me to Al Gore as a Lincolnite who was “instrumental” in his victory and then John left to talk with someone else. I will never forget what happened next. Then-Congressman Al Gore just looked at me and turned to talk with Congressman Kostmayer who was close by. No perfunctory chatter. He couldn’t be bothered holding a conversation with someone who wasn’t important. I was a peon; he needed to move on. Congressman Ed Markey saw the brush-off and whispered something like, “Don’t mind him, he went to St. Alban’s.” Translation: In Al Gore’s world (remember, his father was a long-serving U.S. Senator from Tennessee), there are “Members” – meaning people with power and those who serve them – and you don’t invite the “serfs” to your parties.

That was the absolute first awareness I had of Washington’s British-learned, royalty-inspired “Chain of Being.” Raw, unadulterated power is Washington’s currency and if you don’t possess it, fawgidabowdid). That incident also marked the first time I head the name, “St. Albans” and I gotta admit, I had no idea if it was a boarding school, a high school, or a small college. But I certainly “got” Markey’s point. In fact, I’ve never forgotten it. When our kids were in high school and our daughter attended one who sent girls to St. Alban’s for dances, I always kinda cringed as I pulled on to the perfectly manicured, London-like lawns to pick her up and secretly hoped she wouldn’t fall for a young “Al Gore” and thank God, she hasn’t. Okay, here’s where my 1992 “best-seller” Born to Run picks up again.]

In 1980, when Cavanaugh announced his plans not to run again, Democratic Party elders were devastated. They had seen Cavanaugh as a favored son who would one day segue to the U.S. Senate and eventually make a run for the White House. But Cavanaugh had quickly tired of the (just-then-beginning) incessant fund-raising, the schmoozing, and a House routine that kept him shuttling between Washington, D.C. and Nebraska. Cavanaugh was eager to return to his roots and make money which he did. [Author’s note: the funny thing is, the Washington Post put Cavanaugh on its front page after he announced his retirement and the gist of the article was how he wanted to spend time with his family; as one of John’s former staffers said, “Right, so John then took a job that sent him to Russia for half the year.” Author’s contemporary note ended.]

Bob Kerrey, meanwhile, was burned out making money, and the restless restaurateur flirted with entering Nebraska’s political orbit.

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