Democratic Debacle

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Introducing the plank at the convention, Humphrey called out, “I say this, that the time has arrived in America for the Democratic party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.... this is the issue of the twentieth century.” The convention approved Humphrey’s plank by a vote of 651½ to 582½, and that fall, despite the retaliatory defection of Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrats, Harry Truman won an upset victory against his Republican opponent, while Minnesotans sent Hubert Humphrey to the U.S. Senate.

But there was a price to pay for fame, as Humphrey soon learned. The U.S. Senate is a conservative institution by nature, and upon his arrival in Washington, he found himself a virtual pariah. Southern members who held tight control over the machinery of the Senate refused even to acknowledge his presence; many Northern Democrats avoided him for fear of losing their standing with long-entrenched committee chairmen.

Humphrey didn’t help matters much himself. Early in his first term in office he brazenly walked into the Senate Dining Room with a black legislative aide and sat down to lunch. When the black headwaiter quietly informed him that African-Americans were not served in the dining room, Humphrey stood his ground and integrated the United States Senate’s restaurant. One day soon after that, as a group of Southern senators slid their way past him and into the Senate chamber, Richard Russell of Georgia asked audibly, “Can you imagine the people of Minnesota sending that damn fool down here to represent them?” As he drove home along Rock Creek Parkway that evening, Humphrey broke into tears. The Senate could be a lonely place for a man of conscience.

Then he found Lyndon Johnson and with him forged an unlikely political friendship. Johnson was everything that Humphrey wasn’t: a born wheeler-dealer, an artist at compromise, a master at acquiring power. But the Texas senator harbored presidential ambitions and knew that as a Southerner he could never aspire to the Democratic nomination without forging ties to the Northern wing of the party—particularly to its liberal minority, the spiritual heirs of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Humphrey, on the other hand, needed schooling in the ways of political persuasion and access to the byways of power in the Senate. Johnson helped his Minnesota colleague smooth over relationships with Southerners like Russell, and, as Senate majority leader he called on Humphrey to act as his go-between with the party’s growing liberal faction.

With Johnson’s help, by the eve of the 1964 Democratic National Convention Hubert Humphrey had transformed himself from an eloquent but marginal rebel into a highly effective liberal pragmatist. As Democratic whip he worked around the clock and with considerable mastery to shepherd LBJ’s sweeping new civil rights bill through the Senate.

As President, Johnson, the former Texas senator who had brokered compromises on two major civil rights acts in 1957 and 1960, was now pressing hard for legislation that would ban segregation in all places of public accommodation—from parks and swimming pools to hotels and restaurants—and outlaw racial discrimination in private- and public-sector employment. Johnson spent hours on the phone, cajoling House and Senate members, alternatively threatening and sweettalking recalcitrant Democrats, and reminding Republicans that “you’re either the party of Lincoln or you ain’t.” He far surpassed John Kennedy in the intensity of his efforts and the sincerity and strength of his civil rights rhetoric. Finally free from the parochial interests of regional and Senate politics, Johnson became a passionate supporter of the black freedom struggle.

The unschooled, eloquent Hamer told the committee, “If the Freedom party is not seated now, I question America.”

Throughout the spring and early summer of 1964, Johnson and Humphrey spent hours each week on the phone with each other or huddled in meetings at the White House, where they devised strategies to break the Southern filibuster against LBJ’s civil rights bill. Humphrey assembled a clever floor schedule to make the filibuster more physically taxing on the Senate’s aging Southern members; he courted and won the support of the Senate Republican leader, Everett Dirksen; he devised compromise language that satisfied key Midwestern Republicans without substantially undermining the bill. When on July 2 Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law, thereby closing one of the darkest chapters in American history, the victory was as much Humphrey’s as the President’s.

Coming off this long and hard-fought political battle, both men felt confident of their credentials on civil rights. As they headed to the convention, the smart money had it that Johnson would choose Humphrey as his running mate, and Humphrey wanted the job badly.