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What Happened To Hubert
The miseries of the VP who goes after his boss’s job
October 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 6
Johnson promptly put him to the test. That year, Mississippi’s all-white segregationist convention delegation had been challenged by a rival delegation from the integrated Mississippi Freedom Democratic party. The MFDP was spearheaded by activists working for civil rights for African-Americans, and that summer they had already endured the murder of three of their coworkers. Despite his seminal work in passing civil rights legislation, Johnson still feared alienating the white Southern vote. He therefore selected Humphrey to go to the MFDP and essentially negotiate the impossible, a compromise that would leave the all-white delegation seated while placating the insurgents. If Hubert were to fail this little test, Johnson hinted strongly, the vicepresidential nomination was likely to go to another Midwestern liberal, perhaps Eugene McCarthy.
Humphrey promptly threw himself into the negotiations and succeeded in at least sweeping the controversy mostly under the rug. Yet the compromise he worked out—to keep the official delegation and seat two members of the MFDP—pleased no one. Refusing to sit with any blacks, the all-white delegation walked out. In the fall, Johnson would lose five Deep South states—and win in a landslide anyway. Meanwhile, the MFDP delegates had gone through too much to celebrate their de facto victory. The deal brokered by Humphrey only convinced most of them that they could expect nothing from the Democrats and should look outside “the system” for their rights.
The shape of things to come was grasped not by Humphrey but by a political naif, one Fannie Lou Hamer of the MFDP. Hamer, one of the great heroes of the civil rights movement, was an African-American sharecropper whose undaunted faith and courage helped her rise from an impoverished, nearly illiterate background.
Hamer’s testimony of her arrest and torture at the hands of the Mississippi State Police, for the crime of attending a civil rights protest, had already moved the nation. She had been eager to meet Humphrey, a hero of hers from his earlier stands for civil rights. Now she was disillusioned to find him arguing on the side of compromise.
“The trouble is, you’re just afraid to do what’s right,” she gently told Humphrey, who was on the verge of tears. “You want this job, and I know a lot of people have lost their jobs, and God will take care of you, even if you lose this job. But Mr. Humphrey, if you take this job, you won’t be worth anything. Mr. Humphrey, I’m going to pray for you again.”
Hamer’s heartfelt appeal was…impolitic. She found herself excluded from all future negotiations. Yet her instincts were better than those of the canniest Washington insider. Had Humphrey refused to undermine his old cause, chances are that Johnson would have tagged McCarthy instead. It would have been Clean Gene, then, hopelessly yoked to the policies of the Johnson administration in 1968. It would have been Humphrey who was perfectly positioned as a consensus alternative.
This is not to say that Al Gore would have been better off had he never accepted his vice-presidential nomination. Judging from his string of primary losses in 1988, it was his best hope of becoming President. Never having built any national constituency of his own, Al Gore is, well, no Hubert Humphrey. But like Humphrey, when dealing with that man in the Oval Office, he would have been better off remembering the adage He who sups with the devil had better have a long spoon.