October 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 6
Pity Al Gore. No matter how many times the Democrats’ nominee has switched campaign strategies, advisers, and locales, he has still found himself facing the same basic conundrum: how to run for President from the Vice President’s office. It is a deceptively difficult problem. If the outgoing President is not popular, how to distance yourself from him. And if he is popular, how to grab some of the reflected glory without offending him, lame-duck Presidents being notoriously touchy, very concerned about their places in history.
Gore’s problem has been peculiarly acute thanks to the man he’s serving under. The Vice President has been unable to avoid being tarred with the Clinton administration’s worst excesses, yet at the same time, he has been able to glean little credit for the prosperity of the Clinton years. Yet for all of Al’s travails, it is safe to say that neither he nor any other Vice President has endured the sort of torment that Hubert Humphrey underwent during the 1968 campaign.
Humphrey, running in the wake of President Lyndon Johnson’s stunning withdrawal from the race, was seeking to lead a nation torn apart by racial strife and the war in Vietnam. He was also facing two extremely charismatic opponents for the nomination, his old protégé Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, men who had been transformed almost overnight from mere senators to redeeming national icons.
Humphrey was a bright, ebullient man. After coming to national attention with an impassioned plea for civil rights at the 1948 Democratic National Convention, he had gone to the Senate, where he ran up an outstanding record as a domestic liberal and a Cold Warrior. But he was nobody’s idea of a savior, and the apocalyptic campaign of 1968 would only underscore his shortcomings. In the context of the times, Humphrey’s natural enthusiasm made him seem nearly deranged. Making his official entrance into the race on April 27—some three weeks after the assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and the bloody scourge of race riots that followed—he proclaimed, “Here we are, the way politics ought to be in America; the politics of happiness, the politics of purpose, the politics of joy!”
Yet the real problem lay not in Humphrey himself but in his guiding political star, Lyndon Johnson. Humphrey was desperate to distance himself from Johnson’s policy in Vietnam, yet he also had to stay in Johnson’s good graces. He was getting walloped in one primary after another, and only the support of the old party bosses, loyal to the President, kept his candidacy afloat.
Things reached a nadir with the convention in Chicago that August. The Democratic party fell apart on national television. After that debacle, Humphrey continued to wobble, and his campaign soon degenerated into sheer torture for the candidate. On the one hand, he was under constant attack from four of the most unscrupulous individuals ever to run in a presidential campaign: the Republican ticket of Nixon and Spiro Agnew and that terrifying thirdparty tandem of George Wallace and Gen. Curtis LeMay.
On the other hand, he was heckled vociferously at nearly every campaign stop by antiwar activists. Once, Humphrey had been the country’s leading liberal light; now, disenchanted liberals and leftists interrupted his speeches with obscenities and raised banners proclaiming DUMP THE HUMP and even HITLER, HUBERT AND HIROHITO .
Finally, with just five weeks to go in the campaign, Humphrey exploded to an aide: “Damn it, I’m on my own two feet. I’m sick and tired of hearing about how Lyndon Johnson will react or how Gene McCarthy will react. Let’s start thinking about what Hubert Humphrey wants.” It was a cathartic moment and led to a speech in Salt Lake City in which he promised, “As President, I would be willing to stop the bombing of North Vietnam as an acceptable risk for peace…”
The Hump and his advisers had finally figured out that it was Johnson who had nowhere to go, that only a Humphrey victory would be seen as any kind of vindication for his administration.
Feeling liberated, Humphrey nearly snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. At the time of his breakaway speech, he was trailing Nixon by 15 points in the polls; in the end he lost by only seven-tenths of a percentage point, and many experts later insisted that if the race had lasted another two days, Humphrey would have won. Yet even here, the Johnson connection worked against him. The convention had been scheduled late in the summer so that Johnson could be officially renominated on his birthday, August 27. By the time he had dropped out, it was too late to change it, fatally delaying Humphrey’s efforts to consolidate his campaign.
“If Lyndon Johnson had been born on the Fourth of July,” Humphrey campaign aide Joe Napolitan later claimed, “Hubert Humphrey would have been President.” Perhaps. Or were the seeds of Humphrey’s 1968 loss sown long before, when he first decided to put aside his principles and take a place on Johnson’s ticket, back in 1964?
This had been an earlier trial by fire, one sparked by Johnson’s purported crude demand that he was looking for a Vice President “who will kiss my ass in Macy’s window, and swear that it smells like roses.” This alone should have given Humphrey pause, but after a failed bid for the nomination in 1960, he was anxious to find a new route to the White House.
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.