Unless you’ve been on Mars, you’ve heard about the recent collapse of South Dakota Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson (D.-S.D.) and his subsequent brain surgery. If you follow politics, the chances are you’ve read the newspaper speculation about how, in the event the 59-year-old Democratic senator leaves office before his term is up in ’08, the certain appointment of a Republican by GOP Gov. Mike Rounds would tip the new Senate from a 51-to-49-seat Democratic edge to a tie between the two parties that would be tipped in favor of the GOP by Vice President Dick Cheney’s tie-breaking vote.
But barring the death or voluntary resignation of two-termer Johnson, it won’t happen. As associate Senate historian Donald Ritchie told the Washington Post after Johnson’s surgery, “There is no mechanism to remove even a severely incapacitated senator against his or her will.” Ritchie and other Capitol Hill historians cited the case of Sen. Carter Glass (D.-Va.), who was re-elected in 1942 at age 84 and missed the next four years of committee hearings and votes, but Glass held his seat until his death in 1946. (In the subsequent special election, he was succeeded by fellow Democrat A. Willis Robertson, father of televangelist Pat Robertson.)
In August 1963, freshman Sen. Clair Engle (D.-Calif.) underwent surgery for a brain tumor and was unable to speak. He was wheeled into the Senate chamber and pointed to his eye to indicate an “aye” vote on a bill. When Engle introduced a bill in April 1964, Sen. Pat MacNamara (D.-Mich.) did the speaking for him. That same month, in a written statement, Engle dropped his bid for re-election and died before filling out his term. The Democratic primary winner, former White House Press Secretary Pierre Salinger, was appointed to replace Engle in the Senate but was defeated that fall by Republican George Murphy.
But the most poignant case of an ailing and absentee senator involved the same seat held today by none other than Tim Johnson. When the incumbent suffered a massive stroke in November 1969, broaching the subject of resigning to his family was considered very dicey and, as one of the principal players in the political drama recalled to me, “Since he couldn’t speak or move, there was a real question as to how any resignation could even be obtained.”
The Last South Dakota Saga
Karl Mundt still evokes warm memories among older readers of Human Events, the early, longtime owners of which (James Wick and Frank Hanighen) were close friends of the Republican U.S. representative (1938-48) and senator (1948-72) from South Dakota. A college professor, Mundt established gilt-edged anti-Communist credentials in both houses of Congress. He presided over much of the famed confrontation between Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1948, as HCUA Chairman (1936-51) J. Parnell Thomas (R-N.J.) was under indictment for corruption charges.
A 1969 Esquire article on oratory in the U.S. Senate cited Mundt as one of that body’s finest speakers, capturing the South Dakotan’s deliberate speaking style with an account of how he attacked Chicago Seven defendant and old leftist David Dellinger by carefully pronouncing his name: “David Dell-in-ger.”
In November of that year, Mundt suffered a massive stroke. As the months went on, it became clear that the senator would not return to office. Confined to his bed at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, Mundt reportedly could not move or speak.
As it does today on Gov. Rounds, the attention of pundits and pols focused increasingly on the man with the power to fill a Senate vacancy, Republican Gov. Frank Farrar.
“It was a sensitive situation, all right,” recalled Farrar, now 77 and working hard at various businesses at his Britton, S.D., office, “I spoke to Bob McCoy, who was Sen. Mundt’s chief of staff, and said if the senator resigned, I would gladly appoint Mary, his wife, to the vacancy. She was a very nice lady and competent.”
Farrar also told me he indicated that if Mary Mundt was uninterested in succeeding her husband, he would have had no problem naming someone from the Senate staff—possibly McCoy himself—to the seat or turning to one of his two immediate Republican predecessors, former Governors Archie Gubbrud (1960-64) and Nils Boe (1964-68). Gubbrud had lost a race for the state’s other Senate seat to Democratic incumbent George McGovern the year before.
The problem was, Farrar explained, “how do you get someone to resign when he’s that far gone—when he can’t speak or hear? My goodness, Karl Mundt was like [former Israeli Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon after he had that stroke a year ago. But they obviously had a mechanism in Israel for shifting power when the prime minister became incapacitated. But there wasn’t anything like this regarding a U.S. senator.”
Farrar occasionally saw Mrs. Mundt but, in his words, “I never broached her about this.” After Farrar lost re-election as governor to Democrat Richard Kneip in 1970, the volume of talk about a Mundt resignation and replacement before the new governor was sworn in rose a few decibels among Republicans.
“But, I never pushed it,” said Farrar.
Mundt was never seen on the Senate floor again after his stroke. In 1972, the Senate GOP Conference, at the suggestion of Ohio Sen. William Saxbe, stripped the ailing South Dakotan of his committee assignments. That same year, Democratic Rep. James Abourezk won the Senate seat over Republican state legislator Robert Hirsch. Two years after leaving the Senate, Mundt died at age 74.
As Tim Johnson recovers from surgery, the speculation in print and in state and national political circles continues over who will succeed him if he doesn’t fill out his term. But Frank Farrar seemed to speak for South Dakotans of both parties when, before he began our interview, told me: “I know Sen. Johnson and he’s a heckuva nice guy. Control of the Senate isn’t important when compared to his survival, which we are praying for here.”
Conservatives Hold ‘Row D’
The 44-year-old New York Conservative Party got some good news last week, as results from the November elections were finalized by the state Board of Elections. Unofficial results had indicated that the new, far-left, George Soros-bankrolled Working Families Party had gotten more votes in the gubernatorial race than the Conservatives, which meant that in ’08 the WFP would get “Row D,” the fourth line on the Empire State ballot, and the Conservatives would be relegated to “Row E.”
But when the official returns came out, the Conservatives had drawn about 175,000 votes for Republican gubernatorial nominee John Faso, beating out what Democratic Gov.-elect Eliot Spitzer got on the WFP line by nearly 12,000 votes. (New York is one of five states in which candidates can have votes cast for them on different ballot lines count for them in an aggregated total.)
“That is basically the same number of votes [outgoing Republican Gov.] George Pataki got on the Conservative line four years ago, when he won with 49% of the vote,” according to George Marlin, author of Fighting the Good Fight, the definitive history of the Conservative Party, “This time Faso got 29% of the vote, which means that 12% of that came from the Conservative line. So they still held their hard-core base vote. And they remain on Row D.” (Row C remained in the hands of the Ross Perot-descended Independence Party, which endorsed Spitzer.)