- Historic Sites
“im A Born Optimist”
The Era of Hubert H. Humprey
December 1977 | Volume 29, Issue 1
The first generation of a series of health-care bills that finally emerged into law as the Medicare program was introduced by Humphrey during the Truman administration;
He proposed Project Head Start;
The Department of Housing and Urban Development was established after passage of a Humphrey-sponsored bill.
The list of his legislative landmarks is seemingly endless: the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency; the Alliance for Progress; the Federal Scholarship Program; the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty; the 1964 Civil Rights Act; the Council on Youth Opportunity; Vista; Food for Peace; the Job Corps; the Municipal Fair Employment Act; the International Security Assistance and Arms Export Control Act; the Supplemental Food Assistance Program for Women, Infants, and Children; the Solar Energy Research Act; the Consolidated Farm and Rural Development Act; and the Forest and Rangeland Environmental Management Act. And on and on.
Humphrey did not function in a vacuum. Although he sponsored and was the energetic floor manager of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, for example, passage of that measure owed much to Lyndon Johnson’s forceful advocacy of the Act as a memorial to John F. Kennedy, and to Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen’s belated admission that it was a measure “whose time had come.”
Humphrey’s exuberant personality was responsible for some of his success in Congress. But he was shrewd as well. In the 1964 struggle to pass a ci vil rights bill, Humphrey was all over the floor, grabbing arms, slapping backs, cajoling. He was alternately jovial and deadly serious. After hours, he would plot the next day’s strategy with civil rights attorney Joseph Rauh and the NAACP’s Clarence Mitchell.
The three realized that the only hope of breaking a Southern filibuster was to enlist Republican votes. Wily Everett Dirksen was playing his cards close to his vest, but Humphrey sensed that Dirksen, who could bring several wavering members of his party along with him, could be manipulated, and he knew how. Thereafter, he built up Dirksen to the press, exaggerating his power. Soon Dirksen emerged nationally as the senator who could determine whether there would be a bill or not. Wallowing delightedly in the limelight, Dirksen played it for all it was worth, then dramatically made his declaration. Humphrey’s administrative assistant Ted Van Dyk recalled those hectic days: “Humphrey created the illusion that Dirksen held the power of life or death for civil rights, an illusion even Dirksen came to believe.”
By any measure, Humphrey’s record is an impressive monument to one man’s creative energy, and it was compiled by a legislator who was essentially immobilized during his earliest Senate years by the hatreds he had engendered at the 1948 Democratic Convention. When Humphrey first arrived in the Senate the year after that bloodletting, he found the Southern barons who ruled that body unforgiving Conversations stopped in mid-sentence and colleagues conspicuously turned their backs whenever he entered the senatorial dining room. He was being frozen out of the “club.” Ostracism. Nothing could have been more foreign or destructive to Humphrey’s nature. And it was to last for months with some senators and years with others. It ended for most only after he proved by his skillful handling of legislation, his understanding of the minutest detail of measures he sponsored, and his voracious appetite for work that he was a force too able and too hyperactive to ignore. His “adoption” by the increasingly influential Lyndon Johnson (who used Humphrey as a conduit into the liberal camp) eventually thawed the icy atmosphere that had made Humphrey’s Senate life miserable.
On only two major issues of the Humphrey era was the Minnesotan either uncharacteristically mute, or ambivalent, or both. He was anything but a vociferous critic of Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy. In fact, Humphrey, in retrospect, seems to have been himself overimbued with an aversion to Communism that made him clearly more tolerant of excesses against its adherents or suspected adherents than he ever was concerning similar actions against any other segment of American society. Perhaps this was in part due to his having been one of the best-known liberal politicians in the land at a time when conservatives were not hesitant about equating liberalism with Communism. Thus, Humphrey himself was a potential target for smear. That period coincided also with the beginning of Humphrey’s efforts to lay the groundwork for re-election to his Senate seat in 1952. At any rate, he lent his formidable legislative talent to pushing repressive measures directed against suspected U.S. Communists, and some were enacted into law.
Vietnam was the issue that troubled Hubert Humphrey the most, costing him dearly in terms of liberal support, and perhaps denying him the Presidency. Very simply, the man who in 1948 had so courageously moved his party toward “a necessary goal” by taking on what he termed “the Establishment” was, in the 1960’s, part of the Establishment and unable to bring himself to defy it, even though he believed, and argued in private, that the Johnson policy was bankrupt.