My political consciousness first took root in 1968, when the United States was embroiled in the Vietnam War, America’s cities were aflame with racial unrest, and the quest for civil and human rights had reached an apex. The heroes of my young life, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., were assassinated within three months of each other that year; the world seemed chaotic and out of control. It was a lot to take in as a nine year old boy in middle-class, suburban New Jersey, but it profoundly affected how I have approached politics and social progress ever since.
In the summer of 1968, Vice President Hubert Humphrey became the presumptive Democratic nominee for President. He had the support of my family that November, as he seemed the least offensive alternative to Richard Nixon and George Wallace. After a tumultuous and disappointing summer that had squelched the more relevant and exciting anti-war candidacies of Kennedy and McCarthy, a vote for Humphrey felt like a vote for the status quo. While acceptable, Humphrey was the Establishment candidate who would likely continue Lyndon Johnson’s failed policies in Vietnam.
As Vice President, Humphrey defended the war’s escalation, a position that had become morally bankrupt and which disappointed many of his most avid supporters. Whatever doubts he may have harbored about those policies privately, or whatever questions he may have raised behind the scenes, publicly he was a proponent of an unjust, immoral war. He said many of the right things on other important issues, civil rights for blacks, equal rights for women, economic opportunity for labor and the middle class. But it seemed he wanted to be President too badly; that his ambition had blinded him to the growing recognition that America had lost its soul in Saigon. It was an impression that would remain with me for years to come.
Times change and perspectives develop historical context. Decades later, having more closely examined Humphrey’s life, I regret my prior assumptions and doubts about him. I am now convinced that Humphrey was a rarity in American politics, a man of great vision and sincere idealism, with a pragmatic ability to build coalitions and compromise to get things done. Born in rural South Dakota, Humphrey was raised in the tradition of the Social Gospel movement then prevalent in the Methodist Church of his upbringing. His faith developed within him a quest for justice, fairness and concern for the unfortunate that would fuel his lifelong political philosophy; a belief that all human beings were equal, regardless of their race, color, economic status, or religion. It was a lesson reinforced by his parents, who taught Humphrey the virtues of hard work, charity, an overflowing zest for life, and a strong sense of social justice. Working at his father’s drug store, Humphrey saw his father readily give out medicine and merchandise to anyone in need, treating all his customers with respect and dignity, from wealthy merchants to struggling farmers.
Humphrey became a champion of civil rights when few others in American political life had the courage or commitment to take up the cause. In 1945, as the newly elected, 34 year-old mayor of Minneapolis, Humphrey confronted a corrupt, mob influenced city government, which had ignored the plight of the city’s ethnic and racial minorities. In his first inaugural address, Humphrey placed human rights at the forefront of his administration and declared that the “government can no longer ignore displays of bigotry, violence and discrimination.” He proposed and helped enact the nation’s first enforceable fair employment law that prohibited workplace discrimination against Jews, African Americans, and Native Americans. Over the next few years, Humphrey’s ability to form coalitions and reach out to a diverse set of interests transformed Minneapolis from a city of intolerance into one of progressive reform, openness, and unity.
In 1948, while a candidate for the U.S. Senate, Humphrey became a key spokesperson and advocate for a strong civil rights agenda in the Democratic Party platform. It was a principled position that risked the candidacy of Harry Truman, who was trailing in all the polls and desperately needed the support of southern Democrats. Despite Truman’s past support for civil rights, the President wanted a weak, watered down civil rights plank that respected states’ rights and was acceptable to the southern power brokers. But for Humphrey, the moral force of equality and human rights was too urgent. In a dramatic speech in Philadelphia, and risking his political future on a cause for which he was profoundly committed, Humphrey passionately spoke on behalf of the minority plank:
To those who say we are rushing this issue of civil rights, I say we are 172 years too late! To those who say this issue of civil rights is an infringement on state rights, I say . . . the time has arrived for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of state’s rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights!
The convention delegates erupted in applause and Humphrey’s position prevailed, causing Strom Thurmond and the pro-segregationist Dixiecrats to walk out and form the States’ Rights Party. Despite the loss of southern support, Truman went on to win the election. It was a morality play of the highest order and the Democratic Party emerged as the party of civil rights, in large part due to the courageous stand of Hubert Humphrey.
Humphrey came to Washington in January 1949 as a newly elected U.S. Senator, where his dreams and idealism quickly clashed with reality. The same southern Democrats who had walked out of the 1948 convention possessed most of the power in the Senate, controlling committee chairmanships and the power of the filibuster. Humphrey was treated as a social and political outcast. It was one of the loneliest periods of his life. But Humphrey’s force of personality was so strong and upbeat, his love of people so palpable, the sincerity of his kindness so genuine, he eventually melted away much of the hostility against him. Over the next three decades, Humphrey developed a reputation for forging consensus and compromise, and he became one of America’s most effective legislators.
A reform minded progressive who genuinely liked people, Humphrey worked in the public interest with a caring spirit. During the 1950’s, he admonished the Eisenhower administration to use the U.S. food surplus to help feed the starving, hungry people he had witnessed on trips to Africa and the Middle East. He could not understand the seeming indifference to world suffering exhibited by those in power. The moral imperative of his argument was compelling and difficult to ignore:
It is immoral . . . to talk about surpluses when there are more people who are hungry tonight than are fed, more that are sick than are well, more that are illiterate than are educated. What’s wrong with America when we talk this way. We don’t have a problem, we have an opportunity . . . Any administration that can’t figure out what to do with the God-given blessings of abundance of food and fiber in the world of the hungry, is an administration that is intellectually and spiritually barren. . . .”
In 1960, Humphrey lost the Democratic nomination to John Kennedy in the race for President. Rather than wallow in self-pity and bitterness, he set aside his ego and urged Kennedy to embrace many of his ideas, and then worked to implement them. In fact, it was Humphrey who first devised the idea of the Peace Corps, who pushed for a nuclear test ban treaty and historic civil rights bills. That Kennedy received most of the credit for these and other initiatives was not Humphrey’s concern; he preferred to inspire a whole assortment of programs that put people to work and which provided aid to schools and nourishment to the poor.
Following Kennedy’s assassination, Lyndon Johnson turned to Humphrey to guide the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Congress. Johnson knew that Humphrey had more passion and credibility on civil rights than any other Senator. He recognized that Humphrey was a tested warrior on this issue, that his support and commitment was real and transcended politics. But the rules governing the filibuster required 67 votes just to end a deadlock, a nearly impossible task given the powerful coalition of southern Democrats and conservative Republicans who opposed any form of civil rights law. Humphrey went toe-to-toe against his opponents. He drank, prayed, and argued with any Senator who would give him the time of day and, with the aid of religious and civil rights leaders, transformed civil rights from a political issue to a moral one. He endured months of high-stakes pressure from all sides and eventually succeeded in forging a bipartisan coalition to defeat the filibuster. Ending a century of Jim Crow and legally sanctioned racial injustice, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became the law of the land. It was perhaps the single, greatest legislative achievement of the 20th Century.
Tapped as Johnson’s running mate in the 1964 election, the long shadow of Vietnam would hover over Humphrey for the next four years. Johnson, who Humphrey admired and respected as a master legislator and political strategist, demanded complete and absolute loyalty from his vice president; he could no longer be the free spirited, intellectual force of progressive idealism, but would instead subordinate his ideals and interests to that of the President. In January 1965, Johnson convened his Cabinet to discuss a planned bombing campaign of North Vietnam. Humphrey, naively believing Johnson was actually seeking advice, advocated against the bombing and explained why he thought it unwise and counterproductive. Johnson was furious and cut off Humphrey from future foreign policy discussions. For much of the next four years, Johnson treated Humphrey very poorly, even cruelly, according to many who served with him (see Hubert Humphrey: The Art of the Possible, PBS Documentary 2010).
Although his primary responsibility as Vice President was to oversee domestic legislation, Humphrey became a public proponent of the Vietnam War following a trip to Southeast Asia in 1966 during which General Westmoreland and others painted for him a rosy, highly misleading picture. Wishing to get back into Johnson’s good graces, needing badly to be liked and to feel a part of the team, Humphrey became a convert on Vietnam and its leading public cheerleader. As opposition to the war heightened, Humphrey lost credibility with the progressive moral forces from whom he had previously enjoyed unwavering support.
In December 1967, with 400,000 American troops in Vietnam and body bags piling up on the evening news, Humphrey took another fact-finding trip to Southeast Asia, this time to see what was really happening on the ground. Humphrey insisted on talking to the troops. He spent time at a military hospital with young soldiers who lay wounded and dying. When Humphrey returned to the United States, his staff prepared a report to the president advising that things were not going well and that it was time to end America’s involvement in the war. Johnson subsequently ordered a Cabinet meeting and instructed Humphrey to report on Vietnam. In a note handed to Humphrey before the meeting, Johnson wrote, “Hubert, give a short, upbeat report. Then sit down and shut up.”
In the end, it was Humphrey’s loyalty to Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War that would haunt him the remainder of his life. During the 1968 presidential campaign, he became an object of derision, “The Hump,” the warmonger who put his loyalty to a despised President above his commitment to principle, justice and morals. He was viewed as a sellout and an officer of the Old Guard; overlooked was his lifelong commitment to human rights, his work for nuclear disarmament and justice for the poor. Trapped between his conscious and the President he served, the public knew nothing of his private doubts or behind-the-scenes attempts to urge an end to the war and withdrawal of American troops. Unable to express these concerns publicly, with Johnson threatening to insure certain defeat in the Fall if he did so, Humphrey was perceived as Johnson’s stand-in.
The rest, of course, is history. Nixon went on to win the election by less than 500,000 votes. The war lasted seven more years and 25,000 more Americans lost their lives. Years later, Humphrey explained that the real problem with America’s Vietnam policies was that “we were a world power with half-world knowledge. . . We didn’t understand that this was essentially a political war, a civil war, and not a war of nation states.” If only he could have said these things aloud when it counted.
An affable, likable man, Humphrey had the gift of making people feel good about themselves and the country. Even toward the end of his life, when he was dying of cancer, he helped others, spending time with other cancer patients and their families to provide hope and support. Among his last acts, he ensured that former President Nixon was invited to his funeral, thus providing his former adversary an opportunity to re-enter the public sphere after his fall from grace four years earlier.
Humphrey never achieved his dream of becoming President, but he inspired the dreams of many Americans to make this country a better, more just nation, and the world a more ideal habitat. Liberty and justice were not merely a slogan for Humphrey, but a driving force of his life’s work. “The moral test of a government,” Humphrey stated in 1976, “is how it treats those who are at the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the aged; and those who are in the shadow of life, the sick, the needy, and the handicapped.” A true American patriot, Humphrey took seriously the Preamble to the Constitution and its aspiration that we the people come together to build a more perfect Union. He believed that government must not be indifferent to societal injustices, and that government’s purpose is not merely to protect the peace and enforce laws, but to build a society and social structure that makes us an example to the world. He knew that societies are not intrinsically just and fair, but must be made that way. “We are our brother’s keeper,” Humphrey reminded us.
When Humphrey died at the relatively young age of 66, Walter Mondale said during the eulogy that Hubert Humphrey taught us many lessons during his lifetime; he “taught us how to hope and how to love, how to win and how to lose. He taught us how to live and, finally, he taught us how to die.” Humphrey was a great orator and skilled legislator who left behind a legacy few presidents can match. His political career is a story of promise and success, ambition and disappointment, compromise and achievement. He was a good and decent man, who believed in America and loved Americans. I wish I had paid closer attention to Humphrey during his final years of life. But it is not too late to learn the lessons he taught. “You can always debate about what you should have done,” he once said. “The question is what are you going to do?”