- Historic Sites
“im A Born Optimist”
The Era of Hubert H. Humprey
December 1977 | Volume 29, Issue 1
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.
After being named valedictorian of his class at Doland High School, Humphrey spent the next decade dropping in and out of the University of Minnesota, in concert with his own and his family’s constantly fluctuating financial condition. At length he earned a degree, magna cum laude , and a Phi Beta Kappa key. He also managed to gain a certificate from the Denver College of Pharmacy, and got his first personal glimpse of the plight of the Negro when he studied for a master’s degree in political science at Louisiana State University. He also married an attractive and sensible young woman, Muriel Buck, and the two lived in one-room flats, accepting with equanimity the notion that a nickel beer and a sack of popcorn constituted a night on the town.
These were the influences then—near-poverty, failure, defeat, dust storms, depression, liberal education, indomitable father, understanding wife—that forged one of the most innovative legislators of the twentieth century. His entry into politics was like a duck’s introduction to water. His father had been a delegate to Democratic National Conventions, and, whenever his recurring impoverishment eased, a minor officeholder. The extroverted, garrulous son, warm and engaging, irrepressibly excited about the New Deal, intelligently concerned with issues, landed a job in the early 1940’s as director of a Workers Education Program, a by-product of the WPA. This brought him into contact with local labor leaders, who in 1943 were casting about for someone to support for mayor of Minneapolis. On a Sunday walk, Humphrey bumped into a pair of labor officials and casually asked where they were headed. To a meeting, they said, one adding: “We’re trying to find a candidate for mayor.” Suddenly it occurred to them that the candidate was standing right there before them. Humphrey ran and lost that year, but learned enough to run and win in 1945 and again in 1947.
In 1948 he burst into the national consciousness for the first time. That year Mayor Humphrey was a candidate for the U.S. Senate, and led the Minnesota delegation to the Democratic National Convention. There this talkative upstart-hardly known outside his own state, but already determined to correct social injustices wherever he saw them—forced a strong civil rights plank on the convention and down the throat of President Harry S Truman. Party chieftains had argued that only “party unity” could give Truman, the underdog, any chance at all against Republican Thomas E. Dewey. So the “fix” was in: a Southern “States’ rights” plank would be proposed and defeated. The same fate would befall the strong civil rights plank that Humphrey intended to introduce. Then the convention could proceed to adopt a “compromise” Truman plank that would placate the South and avert a walkout. But Humphrey, who had no black voting constituency whatsoever back home—there were hardly any blacks in Minnesota-refused to go along. His own father, a delegate from South Dakota, told him that what he was doing “may tear the party apart.” Powerful party figures warned him that the course he had charted for himself would lead him “from mayor to pip-squeak to oblivion.” But his mind was made up. When Hubert Humphrey, Sr., sensed as much, he finally told his son: “You’ve got to go with it. You can’t run away from your conscience.” Humphrey took the floor and delivered a fiery speech, full of passion and conviction. It may have been the most persuasive he ever delivered.
“The time has arrived,” he admonished the delegates, “for the Democratic party to get out of the shadow of States’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.” Adlai Stevenson and Paul Douglas, who would not lead the parade, fell in behind Humphrey, and so did some of the big-city bosses, whose continuation in power depended in part upon black and liberal support. And so the no longer obscure mayor prevailed. From that moment he was a major national figure, reviled in the South (some of whose delegates walked out of the convention), but a hero to liberals everywhere. From 1948 until Humphrey became Lyndon Johnson’s running mate in 1964, the liberal agenda in America was Hubert Humphrey’s agenda.
In those years he compiled a record as one of the most influential senators in U.S. history:
In 1949, after many years of fruitless congressional debate, Humphrey won passage of a federal antilynching law;
He wrote the bill that set up the first federal Commission on Civil Rights;
As early as 1951, he introduced legislation setting up a Fair Employment Practices Commission;
A decade before the Freedom Riders traveled South, Humphrey introduced federal legislation prohibiting segregation in public transportation;
Also in 1951, when he was widely ridiculed as a “visionary,” Humphrey offered legislation to outlaw the poll tax in national elections;
The Peace Corps, the cornerstone of President Kennedy’s foreign policy toward the Third World, was appropriated from Humphrey-who zestfully pushed to passage the measure establishing the corps;
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.
Humphrey had been opposed to Vietnam involvement in the beginning, then for it, then against it again. Early in the Johnson years, he wrote a private memorandum sharply warning against escalation of the war. LBJ’s reaction was to exclude Humphrey from the inner councils of the administration, and the Vice President-as he had during his early Senate years-bled. In 1966 he flew off to Saigon ostensibly to dramatize land redistribution and other “good works” which the administration was aiding in Indochina, and came back an unabashed cheerleader for the war. Doubtless, he wanted to believe, because he wanted to belong. He was back in the fold, but uneasy still at the burgeoning domestic opposition to the war. In October of 1967 he returned to Saigon and warned the leaders of South Vietnam that U.S. support for the war was deteriorating. They smilingly told him there was no turning back for the U.S., no matter how many years the conflict lasted. It was the turning point for Humphrey. Upon his return, he submitted a blistering report to Johnson. LBJ never released the report, but by now support for the war had so eroded that the President no longer could isolate and ignore its critics as he had done before.
Many observers were convinced in 1968 that Humphrey could have defeated Nixon in the presidential campaign if he had broken completely with Johnson. He thought many times about doing just that. But he felt that even if it meant winning the Presidency, he could not turn against the man whose Vice President he was.
“It might have been better—tactically better—to break with Johnson,” he conceded later. “But it would have destroyed the Paris peace negotiations. I couldn’t do that. I was Vice President. I was obliged to be a member of the team. I consulted with Averell Harriman on September 14  and urged that he and Cy Vance [Harriman and Cyrus Vance were the U.S. negotiators] agree to a withdrawal of U.S. troops. Harriman was upset. Vance was upset. Johnson was upset.” Two of Humphrey’s ablest advisers, Ted Van Dyk and campaign manager Larry O’Brien, told him never mind—he had to turn his back on a policy that no longer had general support and which, moreover, he knew was wrong. It had placed Johnson’s chances for renomination in peril, rendered his re-election virtually impossible, and dissuaded him even from running. But despite a partial break, following which his standing in the polls soared, it was not in Humphrey’s nature to abandon Johnson completely. He stayed aboard the sinking Johnson ship too long and went down with it.
I had sat with Humphrey and his entourage during the tumultuous days of the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, when heads were being broken, stink bombs thrown, antiwar demonstrators arrested. Agonized, knowing his chances for election were waning with every moment of televised violence, Humphrey still could not desert his President.
“I don’t know if that one issue cost the election,” he later said. “There were a lot of factors. It was a period of unrest throughout the world. In the U.S., there had been three tragic political assassinations. There was so much unrest over civil rights, and of course there was unrest over the war. Still, it was one of the most exciting periods in American history. I may have made some little impact on it. It was a great adventure. I think as a nation we came through it all right. We learned something. I’m a born optimist.”
Whatever he did, whatever stand he took, Humphrey always wanted his audience, be it one person or thousands, to understand . It was the reason he talked overly long—approaching a subject from the front, the back, and every side.
“I believe I helped bring out a social consciousness in people. I always stressed things important to people . Back at the convention in 1948, we were instrumental in opening up the area of civil rights. At the time, it was a very lonely and a very sad journey. I loved the South. I’ll never forget how badly I used to feel because my friends from the South didn’t see Hubert Humphrey as I thought he was. But that’s all in the past now. I was in Dallas recently and someone said to me: ‘Humphrey, you’ve changed. ‘Well, Dallas has changed. This country has changed.”
Why had he risked his career to lead a fight that meant nothing in terms of his electability in his home state?
“I had been taught that the way you treat people is the way you treat God,” he once explained, and added, “I was taught that religion should have something to do with your daily Hf e-not just with Sunday.”
Now Humphrey was a desperately sick man. On the day when tourists in the corridor had failed to recognize him, when I had accompanied him into his office, he talked of the United States as it had been when he had first come to the Senate and as it was now, thirty years later.
“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!
Van Dyk listened to Humphrey’s end of the conversation. “I was hoping to hear Humphrey really give that son-of-a-bitch the kind of dressing down he had coming to him.” Van Dyk could hear Roosevelt wind up his plea by saying, “You’ve got to save me.”
Humphrey replied, “I’ll go to bat for you, Frank,” and hung up the phone.
“What the hell…,” Van Dyk began. Then he shrugged.
“After all he’s done for me,” said Humphrey, “it’s the least I can do.”
For years, he represented the nation’s hopefulness, unalloyed. Millions of people sensed that Humphrey was living proof that it was possible in a cutthroat world to think the best of everyone and everything-and still survive. During the period of his realistic eligibility for the Presidency, the American people chose John F. Kennedy, plainly a tougher politician, one with the instinct for the jugular that Humphrey lacked; Lyndon Johnson, more calculating, more devious; Richard Nixon, whose attitude toward “enemies” real and imagined was thoroughly documented during the Watergate years; and Jimmy Carter, whose single-mindedness and ambition led him past better-known opponents to the Presidency.
With one or more of these traits, Hubert Humphrey might have become President of the United States.
He did not become President. What he did become, through his indomitably optimistic spirit and the astonishing legislative record that he compiled, was a unique national resource.