Monday, April 30, 2012

A Good Man: Reconsidering Hubert Humphrey

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?”

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Life Goes On: Taking Stock at 53

Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. – John Lennon
During my sophomore year in college, I took a course on monetary policy taught by a gentle, elderly professor named Dick Liming. Boasting a full head of curly white hair, Professor Liming was a bespectacled, happy-go-lucky sort, a genuinely absent-minded professor straight out of central casting. With a pleasant disposition and friendly, approachable air, the professor would often stop by the Student Union for a mid-afternoon coffee break. One day, the professor invited me to sit down at his table and discuss with him some pressing issues involving macro-economics and the government’s role in the economy. Over the course of the semester, he made it a habit to invite students to sit with him while he held court on issues of national and global import, offering his opinions, knowledge, and at times radical concepts on a wide variety of topics, mostly in an effort to generate a lively exchange of ideas. A proponent of John Maynard Keynes and John Kenneth Galbraith, schools of thought that remained influential in the late 1970’s, Professor Liming helped economics come alive for me. From the quiet, tranquil confines of Springfield, Ohio, the professor’s discourses made relevant what was happening in U.S. politics, economics, and the world around us.

I do not recall all of the things we discussed during these talks. But I remember the sense of intellectual excitement I felt as I discovered and developed my own insights on topics about which, only a few years before, I knew nothing. I loved feeling it was possible to make sense of the world and to envision a role in making it better. At Wittenberg, I felt compelled to make up for lost time, believing I had wasted my high school years on the narrow pursuits of adolescence, lacking insight into what life had to offer in the present or foresight into what lay ahead.

One spring afternoon, sensing my uncertainty about the future, Professor Liming discussed his own course in life. “I was a young buck out of Harvard,” he said of his more youthful days, “Full of energy and ambition, I had the world at my fingertips.” He talked of his career in the banking and insurance industries, and later academia; the mistakes he made along the way; and the notion of intellectual contentment he had finally found at Wittenberg. In listening to the professor speak, I sensed he could have accomplished more in his career and traveled in more powerful circles, but in the end he had chosen a quieter, less remunerative, more studious path. He seemed a happy man, content with his life’s choices, overlooking his declining health as he embarked on his twilight years. From these conversations, I desired a life of intellectual fulfillment, perhaps as a professor of economics, teaching and molding young minds at a place like Wittenberg; or a life in politics and government, making policy and changing the course of history for the better. The possibilities were limitless, or so I came to believe during these formative years, though I knew not which path to take or where it might lead me.

Much has happened since my afternoon coffees with Professor Liming. Within a few years, I attended law school in Washington, D.C. – not the direction I previously envisioned – and soon began a career as a federal prosecutor. For eighteen years, I made opening statements and closing arguments before juries in big city courtrooms far from the gentle hills of southern Ohio. No longer the shy kid from central New Jersey, I navigated a world of cops and robbers, crime victims and crackheads, drug dealers and murderers, judges and street-wise lawyers. I argued cases in esteemed courts of appeal in Washington and Philadelphia before life-tenured, Presidentially-appointed judges, some of whom would later serve on the Supreme Court. As a prosecutor and now, for the past several years, a managing director of a corporate investigations firm, I have been involved in many interesting cases encompassing a wide variety of life. I have traveled far from the banal days of my suburban youth, when I lived in a solitary world of imaginary heroism far removed from the realities of everyday life, squandering countless hours shooting baskets in front of the garage, lying on the couch listening to music through stereo headphones, or rolling dice and keeping box scores playing Strat-O-Matic baseball.

I turn 53 this week and cannot help but wonder where the years have gone. “Lost time is never found again,” advised Benjamin Franklin. It is a reality I am powerless to overcome. There are times when life resembles a walk through a museum. Too often, I look around and move quickly to the next exhibit, failing to study and absorb the beauty and wisdom of the object before me. Have I by-passed the essence of my life, taking note only of what is immediately relevant? How much have I failed to absorb along the way? Our memories are like a picture book that allows us to re-examine, in the context of history, the layers of life that so quickly pass us by.

The other night I leafed through my high school yearbook of 1977, the year I graduated, left for college, and never looked back. As I flipped the pages and studied the faces of my past, as if momentarily traveling back in time, I re-lived the happiness, the humor, and the anxieties of my youth, which 35 years later continue to haunt me. More than three decades later, I remain uncertain of my place in life. As I look at the younger version of myself, a part of me continues to feel like that same, socially awkward, introverted teenage boy from the 1970’s. I have come so far, yet continue to feel that I could have been so much more. Have I really failed myself, or is it the confidence in myself that simply fails me?

“Life isn’t about finding yourself,” wrote George Bernard Shaw. “Life is about creating yourself.” There is the life we present to the world, the life of our imagination and expectations, and the life we lead. I have dreamed of accomplishing great things, of changing the world, while leading a life of integrity, intellect, and spiritual fulfillment; it is an imagined life of perfection. Perhaps I set the bar too high. Just like the seventeen year old high school senior who knew he could have done more with his young life, and the twenty-one year old college student, ambitious but undisciplined, lacking a guidepost and a solid notion of what life had in store, there remains a part of me unsatisfied and unfulfilled. Have I simply gone where the ride has taken me and failed to steer the ship? Like E.B. White, “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”

I don’t know why I am so hard on myself, why I cannot forgive myself for failing to achieve perfection. It is an impossible standard to meet, but one with which I have yet to come to terms. At 53, I still have much to accomplish, but I now understand there are limits to what can be achieved in life. Like Professor Liming in his later years, I am less ambitious these days. I refuse to sacrifice the occasional quiet moment, long solitary walks in the park, baseball on summer afternoons, a good book, time to write and reflect; I value too much the precious time with my kids, my family, and Andrea. “Any fool can make things bigger [and] more complex,” said Albert Einstein. “It takes a touch of genius-- and a lot of courage-- to move in the opposite direction." Only time will tell if I can forgive my shortcomings.

Perhaps I am simply caught up in the emotions of a father who sees his two children growing up, one about to graduate from college and become wholly independent of me, the other preparing to leave home, attend college and start afresh her life’s journey. It makes my heart burst with pride and hurt with anguish all at once. Such is the life of a parent. And yet, it is when I reflect on my children that I am most content with my station in life, for the focus is no longer on me, but my legacy. If my world were to end tomorrow, I need only look back on my experience as a father, on the pleasure, humor, and excitement of watching young minds develop and characters formed, to know that it was all worthwhile. Whatever sadness my life has experienced – and I have been luckier than most in this respect – and whatever regrets about my choices and outcomes, I know that I am blessed, that life has been easier for me than for most. The small joys, the little pleasures, these will have been enough.

“In the long run,” said Eleanor Roosevelt, “we shape our lives, and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility." Life is a journey and a puzzle. Happiness is elusive for no good reason. It is why I write, and walk, and think. I will always be a work in progress. And for this, I am forever grateful.