“im A Born Optimist”


They were Hubert Humphrey’s kind of people trudging through the corridors of the U.S. Capitol that day. Ordinary Americans from everywhere— blue-collar workers, men and boys in sports shirts and polyester pants, women and girls in shorts or jeans and halters, businessmen in double-knit suits. Humphrey’s kind of people.

But they seemed singularly leaden. Perhaps too much sightseeing had left them numb; their eyes were glazed by too many monuments, too many museums, too much history crammed into too little time. They hardly seemed to notice when the pale, frail, thin man wearing a suit that no longer fit stepped into their midst. Uncharacteristically, he avoided eye contact, hurrying toward a wood-paneled door where he fumbled with keys until he found the one that worked. Now, I thought, Hubert Humphrey will turn around and give this crowd a charge, just as he had done with hundreds of crowds on three continents, in virtually every state, over three decades. He had always had a special talent for sharing his exuberance, for bringing sparks to dull eyes, smiles to sullen faces. Well, here was opportunity again.

But that day no one shouted “Hiya, Hubert!” or “There’s old Humphrey!” And he needed something like that to get his own juices to flow. These people were not intentionally slighting him. Chemotherapy had ravaged his once-robust body, thinned and whitened his hair (and still the cancer cells raged and multiplied). Hubert Humphrey no longer looked like Hubert Humphrey. The tourists simply did not recognize him. He entered his office, beckoning me to follow, and closed the door.

Hubert Humphrey. A faintly comic name. Almost hilarious the first time one saw it with the middle name—Horatio—spelled out. Now he was sixty-six and dying—and still working fifteen-hour days. And smiling, laughing, and talking. It was true that he could never learn to stop talking. “Minnesota Chats,” Johnny Carson had once dubbed him. Many people felt that a man who talked that much might not have time to run the country. He had another weakness—many, in fact—but the one least possible to conceal was his need to be loved, or at least liked, by everyone. No exceptions. That came across as a grievous fault—fine trait for a minister, but not for a President. And so Hubert Humphrey never made it to the Oval Office. Yet to have lasted in national politics for so long-thirty years-and to have had a major role in so much that had changed the pattern of American life, he had to have remarkable strengths. He was never counted out of national life, though he could have been—ten, or more likely fifteen, times.

Ridiculed? Often. Defeated? Many times. But he never told people that they would not have Hubert Humphrey to kick around any more. Quite the opposite.

Humphrey’s personal view of the impact of his three decades as a national political figure focuses on his accomplishments, particularly as a legislator. It is unarguably an astonishing record. But the people who kept sending him to the United States Senate, the senators who chose him as one of their leaders, the never overwhelming but always substantial national constituency that made him a formidable presidential contender three times, sensed something more in Hubert Humphrey, something transcendent, something to do with his spirit .

Hubert Humphrey was born in 1911, and began working by washing glasses in his father’s tiny drugstore in rural Doland, South Dakota. He was seven years old. He would have gone to work earlier if he had been tall enough to reach the glasses. It was a dreary period in America, and South Dakota was a dreary place in which to live, but young Humphrey never seemed to notice. Life was a series of buffetings—dust storms, crop failures, foreclosures, the Great Depression. He saw friends and neighbors go under. The farmers had no money to buy at the Humphrey drugstore, and no money to pay for what they had already bought, so the drugstore failed too. Humphrey was sixteen when he saw his father, Hubert Humphrey, Sr., weep because he had to sell the family home to pay his debts. The younger Humphrey wept too.

It was a searing experience, but in his autobiography, The Education of a Public Man , Humphrey managed to regard the incident as a plus: “It is something I have never forgotten, not just because it moved me so deeply, but because what followed was so typical of my father’s approach to life.” The family simply moved to a smaller house and began anew. Despite “such total and public humiliation … my father never looked back. He showed not a discernible ounce of acrimony, apology or defeatism … he plunged on… he had an undiminished appetite for life, accepting the bitter, enjoying the sweet.” The son’s later stoicism in the face of political and personal setbacks, at times interpreted as failure to get the point, owes much to his father’s character.

From Hubert Humphrey, Sr., he first learned about ideas, books, magazines, newspapers, politics, politicians—and social issues. The elder Humphrey was a rarity in conservative Doland, a Wilsonian Democrat, and he drilled the Fourteen Points and the dream of the League of Nations into his eager, receptive son. They discussed issues, and the older man must have sensed that the son had a quick and retentive mind, a debater’s skills, and an unquenchable thirst to know more and to talk more—about everything.