clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

'Boy wonder' of GOP Harold Stassen dies

Harold E. Stassen, a former governor of Minnesota, educator, and special presidential assistant who won an early reputation as a "boy wonder" of politics only to be remembered as the man who unsuccessfully sought the Republican Party's presidential nomination nine times, died on Sunday at a retirement community in Bloomington, Minn. He was 93.

Although he appeared to have an important future on the national stage after his election as governor of Minnesota at age 31 and becoming a prominent figure in the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Stassen was eventually and good-naturedly lampooned as the "perennial, never-say-die candidate."

He made stabs at winning the nomination in 1948, 1952, 1956, 1960, 1964, 1968, 1972, 1976 and 1988, each with varying degrees of effectiveness and enthusiasm.

His most successful campaign was in 1948, when he was a major candidate, along with Gov. Thomas E. Dewey of New York and Sen. Robert A. Taft of Ohio. Stassen won four presidential primaries but lost the crucial Oregon contest to Dewey, the eventual Republican presidential candidate against Harry S. Truman.

Late in 1948 Stassen became president of the University of Pennsylvania, but he ran for the Republican nomination again in 1952 and was thought to have a good chance at winning it until Eisenhower entered the race. Stassen threw his support to Eisenhower, who defeated Taft for the party's nomination and then defeated Adlai E. Stevenson in November in a landslide.

Stassen became a trusted friend of Eisenhower's and served in his administration for five years. Throughout his political career he was to cultivate a reputation as a moderate, internationalist Republican. He was the last of the eight American signers of the United Nations Charter. (Among the signers was Eleanor Roosevelt, whose husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, had appointed Stassen to the U.N. delegation in San Francisco.)

Although in middle life he appeared to be a tragicomic figure in politics, he was never anything less than respected in his professional life. For more than four decades he was a well-paid — and some said brilliant — international lawyer.

The man who was sometimes called "the Grand Old Party's grand old loser" could boast of an often winning record. As governor of Minnesota, he was a popular and progressive figure, pushing through labor legislation and overhauling an entrenched patronage system, cutting the state payroll to 10,000 from 17,000. Stassen also brought the first black officer into his state's National Guard, and he did so before World War II, when such a move was truly daring.

Like his fellow Minnesotan and contemporary Hubert H. Humphrey, a Democrat who was vice president and a leading senator, Stassen exuded a Midwestern ebullience and optimism, and he refused to agree with those who maintained that his quests for the presidency were quixotic.

"I know I've had an impact," he said, "that some things I've done have really counted for world peace, for the passion of the individual." And, he said, "I sometimes wish people would ask not how many times I've run a political campaign, but how many times I've been right on the issues."

Harold Edward Stassen was born April 13, 1907, in West St. Paul, Minn., to William Andrew Stassen, a farmer, and the former Elsie Emma Mueller. All his grandparents were immigrants. His paternal grandfather was from Norway, his paternal grandmother was a Czech and his maternal grandparents were from Germany.

Almost from the start, Stassen showed signs of being a live wire. He completed high school at 15 and had to wait a year to enter the University of Minnesota. He put himself through college by working at a variety of jobs, including Pullman car conductor, pan greaser at a bakery and grocery clerk. He still found time to earn high marks, serve as president of the student body and become a champion marksman. As leader of the university rifle team, he won three national intercollegiate championships.

Stassen also organized and became the first chairman of the Minnesota Young Republican League, which was to be his political base.

After graduating from the University of Minnesota's law school in 1929, Stassen and a classmate opened law offices in South St. Paul and did so well that they soon hired five other lawyers. He also entered the race for Dakota County attorney and won, though he was hospitalized with tuberculosis for much of the campaign. He took office at age 23 in 1930 and was regularly re-elected.

In 1937 Stassen, who with his Young Republicans had been trying to wrest power from the state's old-guard Republicans, announced for governor. He was elected the next year, the youngest governor in Minnesota's history. He was re-elected in 1940 and again in 1942, though he told the voters he would not finish his term because he intended to join the Navy.