They were quivering with excitement at Stassen-for-President Headquarters. The candidate was on his way to address the troops.
Campaigns posters lined the walls, Stassen buttons were piled in boxes, pictures of other deposed Republican candidates were pinned up on the wall -- including the most recent of the fallen, Howard Baker. The phone was ringing and eager volunteers would answer, "Stassen for President."
The headquarters is manned by seven or eight George Washington University political science students.
"I thought at first they were joking," says their professor, Callie Gass. "But they are quite serious about him. He's been around so long in my book that I never would have thought about it. I think the reason for it is the unhappiness with the range of candidates this year. He has impressed certain members of this class as intelligent."
As they wait for the candidate, the students launch into an enthusiastic litany of reasons why they like Stassen, the man they reverently call "The Governor":
"He listens to people."
"He's not interested in media flashiness."
"He's extremely honest and incredibly modest."
"He's something historical but alive."
"He's put aside his own gain for what he thought was right."
"He's too good, too honest to be president."
"The public perception of him as a joke is not right. We're not of the age where we'd have preconceived notions about him."
There are 25 in their class. The front-runners among their preferences are Stassen and John Anderson, with Teddy Kennedy running a weak third.
It is nearing the time of arrival. The level of excitement rises. Suddenly a massive figure appears in the doorway, flanked by his advance man. The students gather around him in awe, listening to his every word as though he were the Pied Piper.
Wait a minute. Wait just one minute. Harold Stassen is not crazy. His problem is that he has made two mistakes.
He's running for president of the United States. An he wears the world's most ill-fitting toupee.
For the latter he can be excused.
The running-for-president part is a little harder to explain.
After all, he doesn't have a chance to win. Everybody knows that. But then, niether does John Anderson. Neither did Larry Pressler or Lowell Weicker, Richard Nixon was defeated for the presidency in 1960, then for the governorship of California. Don't forget Norman Thomas and Barry Commoner. And who had ever heard of Jimmy Carter six years ago?
So who's crazy?
Harold Stassen knows that people laugh at him, even hold him in contempt. He's seen the way people look at each other and roll their eyes when he walks into a room. He understands the patronizing politeness of people he visits shakes hands with as he tries to make his point.
And still he runs for president -- every four years since 1948. Once he was a serious candidate. Now, well . . . .
"Ridicule," he says, "is a part of the circumstance of a free press and a free country. While it bothers one, you accept it. This perennial-candidate label was put on me by LBJ when I started my attack on the Vietnam war. The riducule bothers me but it doesn't stop me. It hurts. tBut it tends to frustrate me more than it hurts. When you're trying to get a message across, when they ridicule you and don't report the substance of what you're saying . . . . "
Harold Stassen is a huge man. He has a giant square face and enormous hands. He looks every bit of his Norweigian ancestry and, at 72, he will tell you that his Viking ancestors were captains of vessels when they were 100. He has a kind face, a sympathetic smile, but the eyes are distant, remote. Only when the subject of politics comes up does the light appear from inside, only then does the energy surge forward, does he seem enthusiastic. He is polite but there is no small talk about him. He is a political animal.
"From the beginning of my career." says Stassen, "I decided that to make the maximum contribution you had to get into the political arena.I was aware then that there would be a lot of ridicule along the road. The ridicule now has never been as bad as it was when I was running for governor of Minnesota and advocating the U.N. The Chicago Tribune was ridiculing me in cartoons every day. Minnesota was isolationist then."
He has thought a lot about the criticisms of his friends and those who genuinely respect him, those who tell him he is in the wrong forum.
"I've thought about writing or going into teaching," he says. "How do you advance this basic thing?"
He gives some of his greatest achievements, the UN Charter and the Geneva summit of 1955, as examples. "If I hadn't been in the political arena I never would have had those chances. As far as anything I can evaluate I have a greater impact by staying in the arena than any other way that is open to me.Usually they start out saying, 'Well, this man isn't going anywhere, so why listen.' But I know already the effect I have had on other candidates. They listen. And that's what I need to have happen. And if our programs and our policies stand to get any exposure then we'll get reaction to them."
He says, simply, he has a choice: "To be in the arena now. Or to be on the sidelines, on the shelf."
This week he was the featured speaker at the Headliner Breakfast at the Capitol Hill Club (a Republican club he helped found). The room was packed. There were 60 people including Sen. Dave Durenberger (R-Minn.) and Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.), who had offered to introduce him at the breakfast, plus three of four members of the House.
Stassen began his talk by issuing a position paper charging that the Cater administration deliberately "provoked and permitted" the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Iran to aid Carter's chances of reelection.
Then he took questions from the floor.
To a question from Pressler about where the U.N. should go from here, he replied that he felt the U.N. should have a new method of finanncing, possibly charging a small tax on the ineternational flow of goods.
Is zbigniew Brzezinski a Soviet agent? He was asked. "There is no credence to what you say,' came the reply. "Though many times when he's spoken out I've disagreed with him."
He talked about the lack of leadership in this country in terms of foreign policy, the mess in Iran and Afghanistan. He compared the importance of the independence of Afghanistan to that of Austria after World War II. "We should have closed our embassy in Kabul after the Russians invaded, setting up a free Afghanistan government in another Moslem country with food and supplies," he told the crowd.
He is against the draft now because "a peacetime draft is what led Lyndon Johnson into the Vietnam war."
Landing troops in the Persian Gulf will be the same kind of tragedy that Vietnam was, he feels. "People in an area should defend their own area. Our job is to stay on the alert."
Someone in the audience susggested that he had been in more primaries than anyone else. And before he could present his question. Stassen chuckled, "Yes, I guess I have."
People forget."You're young," Stassen will say.
Stassen was one of the most successful and progressive governors Minnesota ever had. He quit the govenorship to join the Navy during World War II and had a brilliant record. He was one of three men chosen by Franklin Roosevelt to help draft a charter for the U.N. He was a Cabinet-level member of Eisenhower's administration; he was president of the University of Pennyslvania and he led the opposition to the choice of Richard Nixon as Eisenhower's vice president.
One thing he will not do. He will not bad-mouth any other Republican candidate. At all."They get all kinds of tests and exposures in the process," he says.
"He 's an intelligent man," says Sen. Durenberger. "He's got all of his senses. Somewhere he's got a blind spot, a bad piece of instinct. He told me that he runs because he wants to take advantage of his opportunities, and he once said 'I have lost races but I've never come out a loser. . .' Had he chosen another platform he would be much more respected and quoted than he is now."
And Larry Pressler, who met Stassen while Pressler himself was campaigning for the presidency, feels pretty much the same way. "There's a great deal of history there; he has a lot of insights; he's a very bright individual; he has a very kind spirt. He's an interesting fellow."
When Stassen is not running for president, he is running his law firm, which specialized in American companies moving into world markets.
He says his campaign hurts the law firm some -- "in taking away my time and my energy . . . and it's possible people don't come to us because of the publicity, but we've always had more work than we can handle."
As for his campaign funds, he says he gets small volunteer contributions and uses some of his own money.
"We're very small spenders."
His wife, an artist, is supportive, "but I ask her not to campaign. It's not the right way to use her talents, she's so good in the studio."
As for what Stassen's chances are: "I don't really think that's the crucial question," he says. "As a minimum I can be a constructive participant in the process . . . So why not do it?" He smiles. "You could call me a realistic idealist. At many stages I've put practical sides to idealistic concepts."
After the students have quieted down at Stassen Headquarters, "the Governor" talks quietly with them for awhile, discussing filing dates and delegates and ballots, then tells them he is going to Notre Dame that night for a rally, a speech and a meeting with Rev. Theodore Hesburgh. And he tells them how he had been many people's second rather than first choice and that now that the field is thinning, things are beginning to "develop."
One of his student followers respectfully interrupts.
"You see," the student explains, "the victory is not the main thing. It is a forum to voice one's ideas. Gov. Stassen is so many things, from experience to integrity. No matter what the results are, we have already won. If we achieved nothing else, we have opened people's eyes to things they have to start seeing."
If only he wouldn't wear that awful toupee.