Gaylord Nelson

SAM SMITH,  – When I met my wife she was working as assistant press secretary to Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin. Nelson was notable in two regards: good legislation and good stories. For example, he was once delivering a speech when he stopped a few paragraphs in, looked over his glasses at the audience and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is the first time either you or I have heard this speech and frankly I don’t agree with it.” His wife Carrie Lee, whom he had met at an Army base in World War II and then were reunited on Okinawa in 1945, was more than his match. She is alleged to have once responded to Lyndon Johnson’s request for a dance at a White House function by asking, “Do I have to?” On another occasion, as Nelson was giving a lengthy introduction to Adlai Stevenson at a dinner, Carrie Lee, at the far end of the head table, scribbled a note and passed to her husband via a line of barely contained honored guests. The note read: “Sit down, you shit. Adlai’s the speaker.”

I never met Nelson and his wife until they were in their 80s. One of my wife’s college professors had asked to see them when he was in town so we invited them over for dinner. I was out getting something in my car when Nelson drove up to our house and deposited his wife before seeking a parking space. My first sight of Carrie Lee was a woman mounting our steps with a Schweppes tonic water bottle in her hand. And her first remarks to me were, “Everyone thinks a woman of my age only drinks wine, so I bring my own vodka.”

By the end of the evening the bottle was empty after a raucous dinner that included this story told by Senator Nelson:

A farmer had lost his rooster and bought another. He delivered the new rooster a lecture along the lines of, “Just remember you don’t have to take care of all of the hens at one go. Learn to pace yourself. That’s what did the other fellow in.”

The next morning the farmer went out to find the rooster lying prone on the ground, his wings outstretched and not an ounce of movement. Overhead a vulture circled and low and menacingly.

“See,” said the farmer. “What did I tell you? But you wouldn’t listen, would you?”

The rooster lay still but in a small voice replied, “Shh. If you want to screw a vulture you have to play their game.”

Now there was a man who understood Washington.

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