On the first day of his long goodbye, the soon to be former Sen. Gaylord Nelson eased his blue Horizon into his No.7 parking space underneath the U.S. Senate and shut the engine. Walking from the car, he heard a familiar voice shout, "Gaylord," and turned to see his close friend, Sen. Thomas Eagleton, waving at him. Standing next to Eagleton was a man named Susman, a St. Louis lawyer, and it was Louis Susman who moved quickly to Nelson with a smile on his face, a sad smile just the same. Reaching Nelson, Susman took his hand, not just shaking it, but holding it warmmly in the manner of someone making a condolence call.
"I cried," Susman said."My wife cried."
Susman did not let go of Nelson's hand.
If there's anything we can do, let us know."
No more words were necessary.
It had been eight days since Nelson lost his Wisconsin race, swept away in the Reagan rockslide that buried such liberal Senate institutions as Frank Church, George McGovern, John Culver, Birch Bayh and Warren Magnuson. cThe lame ducks, with six weeks left in their Senate careers.
In a state he had carried twice as governor and three times as senator, at 64 Gaylord Nelson had been beaten by Robert Kasten Jr. by less than 40,000 votes out of nearly 22.2 million cast. Driving down North Capitol Street, with the sun glistening off the Capitol dome, making it shine like fine bone china, Nelson was offering explanations: " . . . high risk year for incumbents . . . soft in Milwaukee . . . inflation, unemployment . . . government too big . . . too intrusive . . . Carter impact . . ." But it was small talk now, dust in the wind.
Nelson was more comfortable with explanations. The voice gave nothing away.
"Oh sure, a great sense of disappointment," he said. "It's the job I've always wanted to do, and I'm not permitted to do it anymore. I'd like to continue. I can't. On the other hand, I've known all my life that in this game you live and die by the sword. I've tried to steel myself for the day this would come. If I'm licked, I'm licked. This is no game for crybabies."
A laugh. Rich and geniune, redding his face, puffing his cheeks so wide that his glasses jumped.
"If there's one thing I've learned, it's to compromise with the inevitable."
The first face he saw when he walked into his office in the Russell building on Wednesday belonged to Kathy Snyder, a 27-year-old receptionist, like all the others on staff now, counting the days until unemployment. She was one of the lucky ones. She had plans. Back to Wisconsin to do her student teaching and get a job somewhere, anywhere, the cold northwestern part of the state if need be.
Snyder, too, had tried to steel herself for this moment. "I was apprehensive all week," she said. "I wanted to say something special." No, that wasn't the whole truth. "I basically just wanted not to cry. It would have made it worse for him."
But he took her by surprise, walking in like that.
Her plans melted in the heat of the moment.
She smiled the kind of smile that is once removed from crying, got up from her desk, ran to him, put her arms around him -- him, a U.S. senator for 18 years -- hugged him and said, "So glad to have you back."
He should have had a joke handy, but it happened too quickly. It's always good old Gaylord -- Mr. Congeniality -- who has the mortar ready when the bricks are crumbling. He hugged back. Dropped his head. Thanked her. And walked into his office leaving behind a sigh that could be heard by anyone who cared to listen.
Later Kathy Snyder said she was relieved, relieved that he looked so good on this, his first day back at work since the election, relieved that she handled it so well.
"He has to know," she said, "that everyone hurts for him.
There was mail on the desk and he opened it. Phone calls to take and he took them. Sometimes he would stand and sometimes he would sit. But always he would have something in his hand to twirl. A pencil.A scissors. Even when the rest of him stopped, his hands never did.
There was a Democratic caucus he had to attend; the first time to go face to face with the others. Bayh, McGovern, Culver. He had talked to most of them by phone already. "I think we've all digested our disappointments," he said. Still, this would be face to face.
He walked out of the office gingerly and came face to face with his entire staff gathered outside his door.
"Oh, you came out too soon," Joan Mutz said to him. She was his personal secretary, and she had been with him the longest now, 16 years. This was one shot she was calling.
"Should I go back?" Nelson asked.
"Yes," Mutz said.
They had worked on what they were about to do. They had pasted the letters on the sign so it read -- "Gaylord, You're No. 1 With Us." And they had all signed it. They knew that balloons were inappropriate because, after all, this was no victory party. And cake was out because he was on a diet. Again. So they got him a bottle of Scotch, a bottle of Chivas Regal because he likes Scotch, and they wrapped it, and just to keep their nervousness to a minimum they said things like "Okay, let's practice the kick line," and "Gray skies are gonna clear up, put on a happy face." And then they went in.
He was twirling his scissors and keeping his head down.
A senator is never caught speechless. It was almost a first.
He spoke briefly, thanking them all, telling them it was the best campaign he'e ever run, wanting them to know that he'd do everything he could to help them relocate. Later, he said, they'd all have a party and discuss things. Later.
A compact man, but with the stamina of a small bear, he sees strength in having deep emotions, but weakness in being demonstrative with them.
"When he drops his head like that," said Kevin Gottleib, his top aide, "he's trying to end a difficult moment as graciously and quickly as possible. The private, complex self is enormously sensitive. Sure, sure he hurts. But he's not going to show it. He cries, if he cries, in private. He wanted this job. Anyone who thinks he doesn't because they see his affability is a fool."
They all thought he would win.
The last poll, 10 days before the election, had him up, 53-33 with 14 percent undecided. Although he knew his support was softer than it should be, when the headline in the Milwaukee paper read "Nelson Tremendous Lead," they started their pool. Everyone on the staff picked a percentage of victory. It ranged from 51.2 to 61.5. And they were all too high. He got 49-plus. He ran six points ahead of Carter, but one points behind his opponent.
"Surprised isn't the right word," said Don Huffman, a staff member. We were shocked."
It was one of the few races too close to call by the networks on Election Night. Joan Mutz went to sleep at 4 in the morning without knowing and woke up to NBC's Tom Brokaw telling her she was going to be unemployed. The first thing she did was call the Nelsons at their vacation hotel in Dorr County, Wis. She was hoping she'd talk to Carrie Lee, Nelson's wife. She only missed by one.
"Gaylord answered, and all I could say was, 'Boss, as sad as I am for us, I'm more sad for the country.' I knew they'd be flying back soon, and I knew I ought to be the one to meet them at the airport. I just didn't want to puddle up. Gaylord was trying to be corageous and now show it, but I thought he looked very sad. In the car he was whistling. Gaylord whistles a lot.He has a good, strong whistle. But this time it was kind of -- how should I said it -- well, his whistle just wasn't that enthusiastic."
Joan Mutz knew this would be a tough week. Nelson's first flight back to Washington after the election. His first drive back to the Senate. His first time in the office. His first time back on the floor. She was glad that on Veterans' Day, when the staff was off, he'd come to the office. She was glad he had that dry run. She said she thought that by Wednesday, when he met the staff again, "the tears had already been shed." She was glad the staff had this chance "to go in and tell him how much we love him."
But there was one tear left.
So she stopped talking before she used it.
There seemed to be so much time now.
"I'll be here six weeks," he was saying, "and there isn't much of anything useful I can do but get my stuff together and pack up."
Although he was facing unemployment for the first time since 1954, he at least had offers. Two Washington law firms and an environmental group had already called. All things being equal, if he could "find something interesting in wisconsin," he'd rather go home. But he knew there would be no bread lines in his future. Too many people wanted him. It was his staff he grieved for. With so many liberal Democrats swept out of the Senate, where would he place his people? With the Democrats losing the majority and thereby being cut back in staff by half it would be even harder.
He spent so much of the day on the phones, lobbying for his people. So strange to be on the other side of it.
"It's eating at him," Kevin Gottleib said. "Watch him twirling those scissors. He knows his people have no jobs, and the bills don't stop. He knows his loss has caused great dislocation, and it's so typical of him to put others first."
They had lined up to tell him how sorry they were. Not just his staff. Not just his Democratic colleagues. There was Sen. John Tower, as conservative a Republican as there is, telling Gottleib, "Gaylord's a really fine man." There were the three handwritten notes Nelson had already received from Republicans, the gist of which, he said, was "Good God, we like to win -- but not you." There was Sen. Harry Byrd, an independent who is about as far away from Nelson ideologically as two men can get without meeting on the other said, coming in to say, "Gaylord, I'm sorry you lost." The door was closed, and soon there was loud laughter from inside.
And as the afternoon shadows lengthened, this man who had been one of the first three in the Senate to Vote against sending ground troops into Vietnam, all the way back in 1965, this man who had established Earth Day, who had been such a friend to small businessmen and environmentalists, this man who had been so respected on both sides of the aisle, this man found himself alone with his top aide, saying, "I've loved every minute of it. I thought about being a senator when I was still a young boy. I was Mr. Mitty before it was even written. How can I complain?"
Two of them standing there.
Good, close friends.
Been through the wars toghether.
Nelson grabbed the bottle of Chivas. He looked out the window where the cold winds of change were blowing him out of this office he had come to think of as his and perhaps his alone. He saw the leaves falling. He felt the evening coming.
He turned to Gottleib.
He laughed and said, "Well hell, we might as well polish it off right now."
It was important to keep a sense of humor.
When an ABC film crew came in, just wanting some footage for the nightly news wrap-up on the lame ducks back in the pond, they had told him, "Just do what you normally do. Read your mail. Talk on the phone. Sit at your desk. What you were going to do anyway."
Nelson said: "I was going to take a nap."
The last act of the day was to go to the chamber. He went to see Sen. Sam Nunn about placing some of his people, and he found him on the floor. All the heavies were there, Goldwater, Javits, Kennedy, Proxmire, Moynihan, McGovern, Thurmond. There was some kind of vote on some kind of amendment for some kind of bill. The man has made 6,000 votes in his life, and this one, this "No" on this motion to table, was simply another. It carried no drama. There would be more still. But even as he voted, he knew that somewhere out there was a moving van with his name on it, gassing up and getting ready to take him home. But he was there on the floor, business as usual.
Suddenly, he was gone. Must have left through a back door into a private cloak room. That isn't the way he ought to exit.The man is known as a storyteller. He should have stayed and told one of his favorites one more time: "When Adlai Stevenson was ambassador to the U.N., all his old friends were still calling him 'Governor.' You know how it is, once you're a governor they always call you governor. And the people at the U.N. were confused. They thought he should be called 'Ambassador.' So Adlai told them about the time Juan and Eva Peron were over in Spain visiting Franco. They were walking down these long steps at a public reception. Franco and Juan Peron were walking in front, and behind them Eva Peron was walking with an old grandee, a 75-year-old man, a retired general who was wearing all his old military decorations. As they walked the crowd yelled out at Eva Peron in Spanish, 'Prostitute. Prostitute.' Well, the grandee patted her on the hand and said kindly, 'Don't worry, my dear. I've been out of the army for 20 years and they still call me "General."'"