The presidential inauguration last week brings to mind a couple of fun stories told by former U.S. Senator Gale McGee of Wyoming. In 1982, an oral history was conducted with McGee for placement in the John F. Kennedy Library. McGee and Kennedy bonded as young senators and were even considered lookalikes. McGee had a hand in cementing Kennedy’s nomination for the presidential ticket during the 1960 Democratic National Convention.
Once JFK was president, his relationship with McGee remained friendly. That cordiality extended to McGee’s parents. Unlike Kennedy, who was both a Democrat and a Catholic, McGee’s father and mother were stalwart Republicans and staunch Protestants. Each year President Kennedy offered birthday congratulations to Gale and his father, who shared a birthday. In 1961, the birthday greeting was a personal one from the President himself. But I’ll let Gale McGee continue the story.
[President Kennedy’s personal secretary] Evelyn Lincoln set that up, bless her heart. My father is forty years older than I am, but he was born on March 17th and I was born on March 17th and his grandfather was born on March 17th…Yes, it was a fine occasion. Dad was just carried away with it. Both parents were, but Dad let the cat out of the bag, too, while he was there. He confessed to the President, in public, that we really weren’t Irish, we were Scotch-Irish. We’d come from the Orange and he made that as a real point, ’cause he had had to….Well, neither Mother nor Dad voted for Kennedy, but my mother always reminisced with me about how she felt guilty about that, because she really felt it was prejudice—not her Republican party affiliation—but her prejudice that had finally dominated and she said she felt that she had done wrong.
McGee goes on to relate another story involving his parents.
When my mother and father came back from my inauguration in January 1959 that was when CBS invented the new show which they run every two years, called “Meet the New Senators.” We got together in the Carlton Hotel—they had eighteen of them at that time—and then each senator would get four minutes to tell how he was going to save the world and the whole world would hear about it…I had my mother and father there with us and my kids…[A]fter they got through [Eugene J. McCarthy] alphabetically, why McGee was next. And so, [the announcer] said, “Now we have a very interesting new senator coming up here. He’s a liberal Democrat from Wyoming, a professor, yet, for many years. And his mother and father are with him and there is where the interest lies. They are both Nebraska Republicans. And with that, Senator McGee, tell us how you’re going to save world.” He said, “First, before putting the senator on, I want to ask a question of his mother.” And my mother had never made a speech, has never been on radio or TV. She’s a button-holer and a doorbell ringer and a stamp-licker, you know, all that. She’s a fanatic, but she’s never opened her mouth in public. And [the announcer] turned to her and said, “Mrs. McGee, you’re a Republican. Gale’s a liberal Democrat. What happened to Gale?” That was his question and she—without batting an eye, or flinching or tightening up—she said, “Well, Daddy and I have often talked about that and we decided that we made our mistake when we sent him to college.” And it just brought down the show, you know. I mean, it was a phenomenon. But that’s how they always rationalized me. They hadn’t planned it that way, but she concluded saying, “We have a two-party system, but the Democrats really have to have a few good people,” she said to him. So, they made missionary’s sacrifice.
McGee represented Wyoming in the U.S. Senate from 1959 until 1977. To date, he remains the last Democrat to have served Wyoming in the Senate.
The American Heritage Center holds about 597 cubic feet (1088 boxes!) of Gale McGee’s papers that includes materials about his time in the Senate, his career at the University of Wyoming, his service with the Organization of American States, and his personal life.
Post contributed by the AHC’s Simpson Archivist Leslie Waggener.