The Great Russ Hemenway
A tribute to Russ Hemenway, one of the great behind-the-scenes politicos of our time.
I have been meaning for some time now to write about Russ Hemenway, one of the great unheralded liberal operatives of the last 50 years in American politics, and my dear friend, who died last month at 88. (Here is his New York Times obituary.) It’s taken me some time—because, I told myself, I’ve been really busy, and I have been. But it seems clear to me now that it’s mainly been because, even though he lived an amazing long life and passed in relative peace, I still haven’t wanted to accept the idea that he’s gone. He was like my second father.
That, I realize, isn’t of concern to you, so I won’t carry on too much about that. But here’s what is of concern to you. Russ had a dramatic impact from behind-the-scenes on American politics and liberalism for a solid half a century. Working closely with Eleanor Roosevelt as a young man, he helped propel the reform movement to power, the movement in cities (mostly New York but elsewhere to some extent) to take on the big corrupt urban machines. The reform movement was responsible for numerous positive changes—open primaries, easier ballot access for non-machine candidates, sweeping reforms of the judicial process, which before the movement’s efforts was more or less completely corrupt. A lot of these changes wouldn’t have happened without Russ, or certainly wouldn’t have happened as quickly or thoroughly.
That would be life’s work enough for a lot of people, but Russ went on to play an even bigger role in Washington politics through his National Committee for an Effective Congress, which Mrs. Roosevelt founded. NCEC was a pioneer outfit in candidate recruitment and in modern campaign-targeting techniques and the like, and it helped put dozens of liberals (a few of them Republicans, back in those days) in Congress. NCEC didn’t just do campaigns, though. It was active in all kinds of legislative battles. The first campaign finance reform law, for example, which passed in 1971, wouldn’t have made it through without Russ and NCEC, said The New York Times at the time. Pursuing political reform, opposing the Vietnam war, working for unions, fighting the imperial presidency; Russ did all these things.And he must have done them well. When Charles Colson presented to his president, Richard Nixon, his master “enemies list,” Russ’s name was on it.
So that’s the basic biography, but it doesn’t begin to describe what an amazing person he was and what an incredible life he led. I got to know him in 1987. He was 62 (he seemed so old!). At that point, and for about two decades prior, he knew virtually every prominent Democrat in the country, and I mean knew them: He huddled with senators and House members in the Casbah-decor bar of the old Democratic Club on Ivie Street, or in their private hideaways in the Capitol, plotting strategy on the current bill, sipping from their private bottles of 18-year-old scotch. He knew their strengths and, as any savvy operative should, their weaknesses: who drank too much, who catted around too much, who did nothing really but play golf, who was cheap, who was crooked. He hated the cheap far more than he hated the crooked.
They would come to see him in New York, his base of operations, in his office on East 39th Street, the office with the rainforest motif on the walls, the upward-beaming little floor lights that Russ liked to turn on after hours to set the mood, the mirrored liquor cabinet from which Russ produced the vodka he procured from the man at the Soviet consulate; the office where I used to go, for many years, every election night, to drink that vodka and watch with wonder as these mysterious insiders phoned Russ with exit poll numbers, and he’d read them out to me as I jotted them down (this was in the days before exit polls ended up online in two minutes).
It’s hard to describe what an education it was for me to know someone who’d known everyone in Democratic politics in New York and Washington the way Russ had, and who’d been in the middle of so many elections; an education made all the richer by Russ’s staggering memory for the smallest details of incidents and events that happened 20, 30 years before and his flawless raconteurship. His wasn’t a style you’d call garrulous. He was no back-slapping good old boy by a long shot: He was thin, handsome, well-spoken, well-born, a New England WASP who pronounced “half” to rhyme with “cough”; but his many years in the ethnic hothouse of New York politics roughened his edges considerably, so when he told a story, it was both precise and salty, a Dartmouth (his alma mater) meets City College sensibility that no one else I’ve ever encountered could quite pull off.
He loved to make others laugh. He loved teasing me about my writing, and what he regarded as a mystifying and self-defeating over-reliance on parenthetical asides. He loved just as much—a quality I’ve always looked for in friends—to laugh at himself and the organizations and causes he believed in. There was a liberal group in New York in the 1970s and 80s called the New Democratic Coalition. It vetted candidates for high office and was important enough at one time that even presidential candidates (Democratic) coming through the city courted the group, which invariably went with the most liberal choice possible. “You know what NDC really stands for?” He once said to me. “November Doesn’t Count!”
My favorite was the story about the man from upstate New York he sent to the Los Angeles convention in 1960 as a possible delegate for Adlai Stevenson. The man wanted to drive out west with his family, make a vacation of it. Russ gave him fifty bucks—what they used to call in politics “walkin’ around money,” this time with a trans-continental fillip. The man’s car broke down and he made it only as far as Indiana. A couple weeks later, Russ got a letter from the man, with something like $38.17 enclosed. “Can you believe it?” he’d roar. “He’d figured it out to the penny!”
That story was great because the man was so atypical: Russ's rogues' gallery was a cavalcade of gonefs, a favorite word, and small-time corrupt pols who'd "steal a hot stove." But many other stories involved the famous. There was the time he was in the elevator with Mrs. Roosevelt at a New York state Democratic convention in 1954, and Carmine DeSapio, the Tammany Hall boss and Eleanor’s (and the reform movement’s) mortal enemy, got in the same elevator. What a reenactment that was! There were the stories about the young Bobby Kennedy, whom Russ wasn’t all that crazy about then (little-known and, today, seemingly very incongruous fact: When he first ran for Senate in New York in 1964, Bobby was far more aligned with the Tammany regulars than the reformers).
The tales about the young Harold Ickes, the young Dick Morris, and so many other people who became famous later but cut their teeth in Manhattan reform clubs. The great sermons on the differences between West Side reformers and East Siders like himself (in sum: after meetings, the West Siders went out for cake, at a place called Stark’s; the East Siders went out for drinks). And all that is to say nothing of the stories involving the biggies—Tip O’Neill, Mike Mansfield, George McGovern, all the presidential candidates, all of whom were intimates.
It doesn’t even end there. Russ knew everyone, inside and outside politics. I couldn’t drop a single name on him. Russ, I interviewed Arthur Schlesinger. Good old Arthur! I remember one ADA meeting in 1957 when…Russ, I’m writing a piece for Lear’s. Frances! Please! Now there’s a story! Russ, I’m writing a piece for Mirabella. Is that so? I know Grace; nice gal! Russ, I met (such-and-such famous writer). Oh? What time of day was it? Was he sober? The most improbable people sometimes. Where and when and why did Russ meet Ram Dass, for goodness sakes?
He lived in Paris after the war. There he met his lifelong friends, the novelist Doc Humes (a little-known but totally fascinating 20th-century figure) and Peter Mathiessen and George Plimpton as they were starting The Paris Review. He was close to Norman Mailer. In fact he was there at that party that night in 1960 when Mailer infamously stabbed his then-wife, Adele. He went to Truman Capote’s famous Black and White Ball in 1966. A dozen others like that, two dozen, although his “I was there” moments were hardly all frivolous or joyous: By 1968, Bobby was a reformer, and Russ was an admirer, and he was there in the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles the night Kennedy was assassinated.
I used to ask him if I could profile him, pitch it to The New Yorker or something. He was such a quintessential New Yorker, after all. He’d hear me out, saying nothing. I’d press the case a little too hard and finally he’d say, “Mikey! Please! Your name is supposed to be in the paper three times: when you’re born, when you get married, and when you die.”
He made the papers more than that, but he tried to stay out of them as a rule, so he probably wouldn’t even want me to have written this. Wouldn’t want me to note how debonair he always looked, in suits that were tailored for him in 1968 that he still wore (quite smartly) in 1998, how he knew so much about jazz and theater and art, how he piloted his ship during the war into the calm eye of a hurricane after the ship had been split in half, how he skied and fly-fished and played tennis almost until the end. But if I insisted to him that I was writing it anyway, he’d have said something like: Well, tell people to go out do something useful in the world, would you? And please--no parentheses.