The ultimate political insider’s memoir

Ted Van Dyk’s fascinating account of a life spent at the side of a generation of Democratic leaders who helped shape the history of the late 20th century is perfectly illustrated by the photograph on the book’s cover.

It shows Van Dyk peering over the shoulder of his boss, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, aboard Air Force Two enroute to Salt Lake City on Sept. 29, 1968, as Humphrey and Larry O'Brien, manager of his 1968 presidential campaign, examine a draft of the speech Van Dyk helped write in which Humphrey tried unsuccessfuly to break with President Lyndon Johnson on the Vietnam War. Earlier, Johnson had announced he would not run for reeelction, a decision that touched off one of the most dramatic and tumultuous years in American history.

For Van Dyk, who would play a central role in Humphrey’s 1968 presidential campaign and go on to advise a half-dozen more Democratic presidential candidates before moving back to his native Seattle in 2001, this photograph could not be more appropriate. His book is replete with inside stories of what he saw and did as an adviser to such liberal icons as Humphrey, George McGovern (S.D.), Edward Kennedy (Mass.), Walter Mondale (Minn.), Gary Hart (Colo.) and Paul Tsongas (Mass.).

Van Dyk seemed destined to occupy a front-row seat as history was being made, and to work with the people who made it. His father was born in Holland and moved with his family to South Africa, where he saw Winston Churchill being led down a street as a prisoner in the Boer War. The family emigrated to Chile, then to Saskatchewan, Canada, where his father married and worked as a wheat farmer and itinerant laborer before hopping a freight train to Bellingham, Wash. He Americanized his name from Van Djyk to Van Dyk, got a job at a sawmill, and started a family. His son Ted was born in 1934.

After graduating from the University of Washington, Ted Van Dyk went east in 1955 to attend Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism before returning home to work for The Seattle Times, where he expected to remain until retirement. But military service intervened, and he found himself assigned to Army intelligence school at Fort Holabird, Md., and then, after the Berlin Wall went up in 1961, to a Soviet intelligence unit at the Pentagon.

At times, Van Dyk sounds like Forrest Gump. While at the Pentagon, he is invited to lunch at the White House Mess on St. Patrick’s Day, and afterwards, encounters President John F. Kennedy himself, who invites him into the Oval Office and presents him with a green carnation. He interviews Adlai Stevenson for the Columbia student newspaper and then runs into former President Truman, “who invited me to join him for a brisk morning walk around midtown Manhattan before buying me breakfast as the Sheraton-Astor coffee shop in Times Square.”

Little wonder that Van Dyk contracted Potomac Fever. Through a friend of former Sen. Warren Magnuson (D-Wash.), he found a job with the Washington office of the fledgling European Community, working with its founding father, Jean Monnet. After Kennedy’s assassination, he wrote a memo outlining a political and media campaign to help persuade Johnson to pick Humphrey as his running mate in 1964. It got him hired as an adviser to Humphrey.

“The next five years would prove to be the most demanding and rewarding of my life,” Van Dyk writes. “They brought work with Hubert Humphrey through two national campaigns and his vice presidency, and during the Johnson administration’s Great Society triumph and Vietnam tragedy.”

The latter was also a tragedy for Humphrey, whose dreams of becoming president were dashed when he failed to separate himself from Johnson’s suffocating embrace and satisfy his old liberal allies who had turned against the war in Vietnam. Van Dyk’s riveting insider’s account of Humphrey’s inability to shake off the albatross of Vietnam and the violence of the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago that led to his excruciatingly narrow loss to Richard Nixon are worth the price of the book.

For example, Van Dyk discloses for the first time that former New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller secretly funded much of Humphrey’s media campaign in the closing weeks of the campaign because of his dislike of Nixon. He also provides fresh details on such key events as McGovern’s decision in 1972 to dump Sen. Tom Eagleton (Mo.) as his running mate after Eagleton disclosed that he had had electro-shock treatment, and Van Dyk’s own role in founding the Center for National Policy, a Democratic think tank, after Jimmy Carter’s loss to Ronald Reagan. (Disclosure: I helped Van Dyk start the Center and served as director of communications.)

Anecdotes aside, Van Dyk writes, the book is “not meant primarily to tell my story.” Instead, he wants to help the reader “understand how things really were and are inside the baloney factory where political sausage is being made.”