Richard C. Wade is credited with inventing urban history as a field of American history. He taught at the University of Rochester in the 1950s, at the University of Chicago in the 1960s, and became — along with Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. — one of two Distinguished Professors of History at the City University of New York Graduate Center in 1971. He died last July.
I delivered this eulogy to Dick to a small group of historians who were in New York for a convention in early January. These were the people in his field, some of whom hadn’t met him; they just knew him as a titan in his field. Many knew nothing, or very little, about what you’ll read in my eulogy. I found that stunning.
But when I bumped into PBS pundit Mark Shields at the newsstand on Sunday morning and asked him, “Did you know my friend Professor Wade?”, Shields lit up and said “yes, wonderful man.” I think if you could ask George McGovern, Ted Kennedy, Hugh Carey, and Mario Cuomo, among those still alive, they’d tell you the same thing.
St. Patrick’s Day is the right day to do this post.
I met Professor Wade in August 1968 at the Democratic convention in Chicago. George McGovern had become the replacement candidate for Robert Kennedy, who had been assassinated in June. McGovern had three heavyweight political operatives working for him there. I was working as an assistant to Pierre Salinger; of course everybody knew Frank Mankiewicz, who had been Bobby Kennedy’s press secretary. And then I met Dick Wade, at the time a Housing Commissioner in Chicago under Mayor Daley and a historian on the faculty of the University of Chcago.
In March of 1971, the 1972 McGovern campaign kicked off with a full-page ad in the New York Times with the headline: “I’m tired of old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in.” And one of the four signers of the ad was Professor Wade, who had just become a Distinguished Professor at City University Graduate Center in NY. I went to work as a volunteer on that campaign and began a friendship with Dick Wade that was one of the most important in my life until his passing last summer.
Dick and I shared love for American history, liberal politics, baseball, and urban living. I was his eager acolyte, lending a hand to any political effort he tapped me for and constantly interviewing him about his own life. I want to share a few of the things I learned about him FROM him over our nearly four decades of conversation. Dick was very modest about his involvement in history, almost as if he felt it would compromise his credentials as a historian to write himself into the story. Well, I have no credentials as a historian to sully; I’m just Dick’s friend. This is what I know.
Dick grew up near Chicago, a White Sox fan because Democrats were White Sox fans. William Wrigley, who owned the Cubs, was both a Republican and a Klan sympathizer. Dick was also a superior athlete, a Junior Davis Cupper in tennis and a football player. He enrolled at the University of Rochester just before World War II; I don’t know if Dick was pulling my leg when he told me that HE thought he was going to Rochester, Minnesota right up until he got his train ticket to go to college.
The way Dick told it, he wasn’t much of a student his first three years. But in his senior year, he suffered a serious football injury. He never actually said so, but he led me to believe that injury turned his hair gray and made him unable to father children (although he did a great job with two he adopted.) While he was recovering, he had to sit around for the first time in his life. “First I taught myself to smoke a pipe,” he told me. “After that, I was looking for something to do while I smoked the pipe and I read the first book I had ever read without it being required of me. I loved it.” And that, he would have had me believe, was how he discovered that he wanted to be a scholar.
In 1946, Dick was a graduate assistant at Harvard when young John F. Kennedy came by looking for support in his first race for Congress. That began a friendship which lasted until JFK’s tragic death and an association with the Kennedy family that was one of the defining aspects of Dick’s life.
Dick had two fabulous stories about 1948. I can’t remember all the details, but at an ADA convention, he ended up being put up in an extra room in Eleanor Roosevelt’s suite. His story about that was he was awakened by the sound of the typewriter well before dawn, as she wrote her daily newspaper column. That same year, Dick wrote the famous civil rights speech delivered by then-Mayor of Minneapolis Hubert Humphrey at the Democratic Convention. Dick said that if that speech had been delivered at a time other than the middle of the night, it would have been the end of his political career. As it was, it was the start.
Dick was at the University of Rochester in the 1950s, deeply involved in the New York Stevenson campaigns in 1952 and 1956. In 1954, Dick collaborated on the history brief for the historic Brown versus the Board civil rights case.
In 1960, he was an important player in JFK’s successful run for the White House. Dick had a story about working in West Virginia and complaining at one point to Robert Kennedy about the lack of contact between the West Virginia campaign and the national office. RFK’s response was to give Dick a roll of dimes and to tell him to call whenever he needed to check in.
What proved to be one of the most dazzling demonstrations of Dick’s insight and prescience came at a Yankee-White Sox doubleheader we went to during the summer of 1971. While we watched the full two games, Dick laid out the McGovern strategy to get the 1972 nomination. Dick said we would come close in New Hampshire which would take the shine off Muskie’s inevitability; New Hampshire was a home state for a Maine senator. Then we’d win the Wisconsin primary, which would knock Muskie out because his top-down campaign couldn’t run without a constant flow of money.
The key to understanding how this could work, the Professor explained, was to know that polls were meaningless in primaries because of low turnouts — 10% or 15% was not uncommon — and that, with our superior canvassing and volunteer operation, we could drive up the turnout among OUR supporters to achieve what we needed in New Hampshire. We needed about 20,000 votes to do it. This was in July, and the New Hampshire primary was eight months away. McGovern at that point ranked last or near last in every national poll, registering about 2% support. But Dick’s explanation made the challenge seem manageable, which it was. And his scenario played out precisely.
What I think was the most sensational achievement of Dick’s political career came in 1974. Howard Samuels had co-chaired McGovern’s post-convention NY State Campaign, alongside Dick’s good friend, ex-Mayor Robert Wagner. I don’t know exactly what the root of the problem was, but I do know Dick and Samuels didn’t like each other. This was a unique situation; I am not aware of Dick having animus like that for anybody else, but he didn’t like Howard Samuels.
In 1974, Samuels had an apparent hammerlock on the Democratic nomination for Governor. He had the designation of the State Democratic Party. There was a challenge from Brooklyn Congressman Hugh Carey, but the polls showed Samuels in the lead by 30 points or more and, with Carey having no money or statewide name recognition, it looked like Samuels would coast to the nomination.
Dick had always told me that he’d never lost a contested Democratic primary. In July of 1974, with the primary about 8 weeks away, he called me and asked for the phone numbers of a couple of people upstate, which had been my territory during the 1972 McGovern campaign. I gave him the information he needed and asked him “does this count?”, meaning “does this count as a contested primary? Are you risking your perfect record?” He knew what I meant and said, “I’ll tell you after the weekend.”
And after the weekend, he said “yes, it counts.” He had engineered a coalition among Carey, attorney-general candidate Robert Abrams, and lieutenant-governor candidate Maryann Krupsak to share poll coverage on election day. And all three of them swept to victory; Howard Samuels never had any power in state politics again.
One lesson Dick taught me, applied in 1974, was that in a statewide Democratic primary in New York, if you can establish that one candidate is clearly the liberal and another the moderate, the liberal will always win. I used that knowledge to win quite a few bets in 1982, when Mario Cuomo, again with Dick’s help, defeated Ed Koch for the gubernatorial nominantion in a result not expected by anybody except Dick Wade and the people who learned their politics from him.
For the last several years, even though his health had been in a gradual decline for more than a decade, we kept up having lunch every few months. Most of the recent times, I would go visit Dick with Ed Rogoff, whom I met on the NY McGovern campaign. Our last visit with the Professor was in June when we discussed the happy prospect of an Obama presidency. Dick’s comment on Obama was the hushed, almost reverent observation: “he has made so FEW mistakes!”
Right after we saw Dick, I read two books, both called “The Last Campaign.” The first one was about Truman’s 1948 race and in it were a lot of things I needed to ask Dick about. The book reported that it was the ADA that did the work for Truman of painting Wallace as too close to the communists, and Dick was a charter ADAer. I know he would have had interesting things to say about that.
But the second one was about Robert Kennedy’s 1968 campaign, and Dick was all over it. I had known that Dick had a lot to do with Richard Hatcher’s election as mayor of Gary. But I did not know that Dick had — according to this book — led a faction in the RFK campaign that said “keep campaigning among the black voters and keep talking about civil rights” that was opposed by another faction that said “we have the black vote wrapped up; let’s just go after the white voters and not take chances alienating them.” According to this book, Ted Kennedy was the leader of the cautious faction.
I was reading this book in London. I emailed Ed and said, “we have to go visit the Professor as soon as possible. We have to ask him about the things in this book.” Ed reached out immediately, but was told by Dick’s wife, Liane, that he was not up to a visit. We should try again next week. And the next week he died.
Dick Wade was a great man. He spent decades close to power and the powerful, but he never wanted anything except what was right for the country. For him, race was America’s exceptional challenge and devotion to civil rights was every citizen’s greatest responsibility. He was also fun, witty, kind, and a great storyteller. His loss is irreplaceable. It was an enormous privilege and joy to have been his friend.