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“im A Born Optimist”
The Era of Hubert H. Humprey
December 1977 | Volume 29, Issue 1
“It’s a very different country. Drastic changes. Everything has changed. Mobility is up ten times. So are communications. And technology and science. Thirty years ago television was not even a factor. We didn’t have a computer in 1948. And we had a different population then. It was soon after the war, and we knew who our friends and our enemies were. Political strength has shifted drastically. State legislatures were unrepresentative back in the forties. They totally ignored urbanization. The members were an average of seventeen or eighteen years older than they are now. In the fifties, suburbia developed, leading to new social patterns. People moved out of the central city, leaving it to the old, the poor, the black and the large commercial centers. The automobile, the interstate highway enabled white-collar workers to live outside the city and commuted to the factory outside.
“In the main, the country is better. Of course moral values have changed. There’s more permissiveness, greater freedom of action. His thoughts were tumbling over each other. We have a great problem of social disintegration. Fifty per cent of the women are in the work force. The women’s liberation movement is fundamental. A tremendous force of power and talent is being tapped.”
But is all this good? How is the country better off?
“One, there are more opportunities for more people.
“Two, there is more social concern for the poor, the elderly, the sick, the blacks—even the Indians. You didn’t hear about the plight of the Indians thirty years ago.
“Third, there is a better educational structure—although I’m concerned by the fact that there is less writing and less reading. But the pendulum is swinging back. What’s more important is that now 25 to 30 per cent of our people go to college. Why, my mother and father would have given anything to be able to go to college.
“Fourth, there is much better medical care.
“I have to say also that America is restless, anxious for improvement. That makes us indulge in self-criticism it. Compels us to do something about our faults—not as fast as Hubert Humphrey wants, of course. But there’s a good generation coming up. It has a sense of stewardship and conservation.
“On the negative side, we do lack self-discipline. We’re a little irresponsible. We don’t appreciate the value of so much we got so fast. Our great cities have been allowed to deteriorate not only physically but they’ve deteriorated in terms of the social and physical environment. That’s bad, because cities ought to be the epitomes of civilization. One could sense a disappointment that there had never been a Marshall Plan for the cities because there had never been a President Humphrey to launch one. On the other hand, the countryside is better for living than it ever was. That’s where the community colleges are springing up, the new art galleries and theaters. That’s where the cultural boom is taking place. And America has boomed culturally. Since 1950, we’ve left the Stone Age.”
Humphrey was particularly proud of one of his contributions: “I have engaged and interested a large number of young people to enter public life, especially in Minnesota.” That was true. One of them, Orville Freeman, became Governor of Minnesota and Secretary of Agriculture. Another was Eugene McCarthy. A third, Walter F. Mondale, became Vice President of the United States. He had been a Humphrey disciple since he was eighteen years of age.
“What can you say?” Mondale asked in reviewing Humphrey’s role in the many changes that had come to the nation since 1948. “With any other public figure, you hit upon one subject, analyze what he did, and that’s it. There just isn’t anyone else whose involvement was so total, whose record touches just about everything that has happened in this country over the past thirty years.”
Humphrey came closest to describing his own meaning to America when he referred to himself as a “born optimist.” That is what made him so special and so durable.
Ted Van Dyk understands this: “People look at Humphrey and think to themselves that maybe man really can overcome almost any obstacle. They see Humphrey stabbed in the back one day and embracing the one who stabbed him a week later.”
Van Dyk was in Vice President Humphrey’s office one day in 1966 when Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr., called. Roosevelt had gone to West Virginia in 1960 to campaign against Humphrey and for Jack Kennedy in the Democratic presidential primary. Fair enough. But FDR, Jr., has been less than fair in his speeches, accusing Humphrey-falsely-of having been a World War II draft dodger. The charge did not defeat Humphrey, but it hurt him deeply and contributed to the lopsidedness of his loss. His presidential campaign never recovered. Now Roosevelt was telling Humphrey that he feared President Johnson was going to oust him from his post in the administration. He wanted Humphrey to intervene with Johnson and save his job!