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Remembering Bob Keefe: The Last 'Nuts and Bolts' Democrat

Remembering Bob Keefe: The Last 'Nuts and Bolts' Democrat
Three men named to staff of Senator-elect Birch E. Bayh Jr. gather around the Indiana Democrat, Dec. 4, 1962 at a press conference in Indianapolis. From left are Robert D. Boxell, Sen. elect Bayh, Robert J. Keefe, and Robert V. Hinshaw. (AP)

Monday, 10 December 2018 07:09 AM Current | Bio | Archive

When I first met Bob Keefe in February of 2000, I knew immediately that I had been introduced to the manager of the presidential campaign of a Democrat many Republicans admired: the late Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson of Washington State, as fierce an anti-Communist and supporter of a strong U.S. defense as ever served in Congress.

I recalled that Jackson ran for president in 1976 — a few years after national Democrats changed their century-old nomination rules of 13 primaries and party chieftains selecting national convention delegates to one with more primaries, an emphasis on greater public involvement, and affirmative action for women and minorities.

The date that changed it all was Aug. 27, 1968 and the place was Chicago.  A tumultuous Democratic National Convention dealt with a motion to create a Commission on Party Structure and Delegate Selection.

The vote to do so was a narrow 1350 to 1206. 

The following year, the commission, whose co-chairman was future presidential candidate and then-Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota, began re-writing party rules that would favor more left-of-center candidates such as McGovern himself.

These rules changes began the Democratic Party’s quicksilver march to the left and virtually ruled out the chances of anyone like Jackson becoming its nominee for president.

“If only Scoop were running under the old rules," I began to say.

“Then he’d have been nominated and eventually elected and we’d all be better off today,” said Keefe gruffly, cutting me off and completing my sentence.

When I learned that Robert J. Keefe died on Dec. 5 at age 84, I recalled our first conversation and realized that his brand of Democratic politics had preceded him in death long ago. Keefe was a “nuts and bolts” man, who placed party-building above ideological purity and winning above all else. 

“We can compromise and work details out later,” he liked to say. “But for goodness sake, let’s win something first, OK?”

In the increasingly left-moving party of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, that thinking was as dead as that of Keefe’s centrist-hero Jackson and his earlier hero John F. Kennedy.

A native of Indiana, the young Keefe studied Journalism at Wisconsin’s Marquette University with the intent of becoming a journalist.  His parents even gave him a typewriter as a graduation gift.

But, having volunteered in the 1952 presidential campaign of Adlai Stevenson, Keefe had been bitten by the political bug.  Working in various jobs in Indiana (“I even dug ditches for the Northern Indiana Public Service Company”), he was always involved in one campaign or another.  In 1960, he managed the re-election of freshman Rep. J. Edward Roush, D-Ind.  The race turned into a national firestorm.

Final results showed Republican George Chambers had defeated Roush by twelve votes and Indiana’s secretary of state gave Chambers a certificate of election.  But in January, the Democratic-controlled House refused to seat Chambers and ordered a recount of the race.

The new figures showed that Roush had won by two votes and, following a highly rancorous session, the House seated him on a party line vote.  In 1962 the two competed against one another and this time Roush won without any dispute.

“I decided I couldn’t put my family through all this uncertainty,” Keefe later told me.  In 1963, he joined the staff of freshman Sen. Birch Bayh, D-Ind, and rose to become Bayh’s right hand man (and, as he lovef to reminisce, “the occasional babysitter for Evan Bayh”—the senator’s son, who went on to serve as governor and senator himself).

After working in Hubert Humphrey’s presidential campaign in 1968 and serving on the staff of AFL-CIO Political Director Al Barkan, Keefe helped fellow moderate Robert Strauss win a heated battle for chairman of the Democratic National Committee.  Strauss named Keefe executive director of the DNC. 

This was just after George McGovern’s landslide defeat by Richard Nixon.  Democrats such as Strauss and Keefe had had enough of leftists such as McGovern and, in Keefe’s words, “we wanted to start winning again.”

They did.  In the so-called “Watergate Year” of 1974, Democrats picked up 49 new U.S. House seats and made a net gain of four in the U.S. Senate and won four new governorships—including California and New York.

Scoop Jackson tapped Keefe to run his presidential bid in 1976.  The Gallup and Harris polls showed him to be a top-tier candidate and there was substantial money behind the Washington State senator.  But a little-known former governor named Jimmy Carter had mastered the new rules the party adopted and had been stumping almost full-time since 1974.  Jackson, and a host of better-known contenders who got in the race late, lost to the early-bird Carter.

In 1984, Keefe was senior consultant to another moderate Democratic hero seeking the presidency.  But Ohio’s Sen. John Glenn’s candidacy faded faster than Jackson’s had.  Keefe’s most distinct memory from that campaign was, he later told me. “I met Ted Williams [the baseball legend who was Glenn’s fellow U.S. Marine Corps air ace in World War II].”

In his twilight years, Keefe retired from Democratic politics and focused his energy on business dealings in Japan.  But his sense of history, his grasp of grass-roots politics, and his willingness to share it will not soon be forgotten by political reporters who had the pleasure of knowing him.

John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.

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When I first met Bob Keefe, I knew immediately that I had been introduced to the manager of the presidential campaign of a Democrat many Republicans admired: the late Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson of Washington State.
bob keefe, democrat, henry hackson, obama, clinton
Monday, 10 December 2018 07:09 AM
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