Call it a tale of two centennials. Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday was greeted with immense fanfare in conservative circles, and favorable coverage in mainstream news outlets as well. A few months later, a second man who might rightly be called an architect of 20th century American politics also celebrated a centennial. In this instance, the silence was resounding; few today even recognize his name. Fewer still can explain his significance. But Hubert Horatio Humphrey, senator, civil rights champion, vice-president, also-ran, also passed the 100 mark in 2011.
Who was Hubert Humphrey? A pharmacist’s son born in Huron, South Dakota, Humphrey moved to Minnesota, and slowly began to establish an alternative to the Republican Party in a state that hadn’t sent a Democrat to the Senate since it had been admitted to the Union in the 1860s. Combining the Midwest progressivism of the Farmer-Labor Party to the organizational structure of the state’s moribund Democratic Party, Humphrey successfully ushered the merged DFL Party into dominance in Minnesota politics, while purging the Farmer-Laborers of its few residual communists. Blessed with a quick mind and indefatigable energy, Humphrey thrived as mayor of Minneapolis and then senator from Minnesota. Chosen to speak at the Democrats’ 1948 convention, Humphrey gave a bold speech in favor of a robust plank for black rights. Correctly recognizing that “states’ rights” was the last refuge of scoundrels and a thin veneer for institutional racism in the Dixiecrat South, Humphrey uttered an unprecedented admonishment to “get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly in the warm sunshine of human rights.” This was a daring move in the danger it presented his party: Most of the Southern delegations bolted, formed a short-lived third party, and nominated Strom Thurmond, an act which nearly cost Harry Truman his re-election.
When Humphrey, never more than modestly well off, sought the Democratic nomination in 1960, he was pummeled by the Kennedy family fortune and charm offensive. Yet, he found his way into the executive branch by being chosen as Lyndon Johnson’s vice-president four years later. In those intervening years, Humphrey had a singular role as senator. Peace Corps? His idea; Kennedy stole it. More importantly, HHH shepherded the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a landmark piece of legislation decimating many of the legal vestiges of de jure segregation, through Congress. He successfully organized both his own party’s mainstream with liberal and moderate Republicans to stave off an aggressive filibuster led by Southern Democrats (who had some help of their own from conservative icon Barry Goldwater, who also voted against the act.)* This was no mean feat; Dixiecrats had successfully staved off all but token, toothless civil rights laws throughout the 1950s and early 1960s through filibuster threats and committee chairmanships. While countless informal vestiges of racism remain, it is only a small exaggeration to say that Humphrey’s legislative skill and moral strength broke the legal back of Jim Crow.
But as Tom Lehrer asked rhetorically in That Was the Week That Was, “whatever became of Hubert?” One answer is Vietnam, the graveyard of American ideologies. There is consensus among Humphrey’s confidants and biographers that Humphrey was privately quite critical of America’s role in Southeast Asia. But as Lyndon Johnson’s vice-president, Humphrey was compelled to support LBJ’s aggressive policies, both in public and even in the closed quarters of the Cabinet room. In 1968, after the death of Robert Kennedy and the deflation of Eugene McCarthy, party regulars– even those who deemed him too liberal just a few short years earlier– turned to HHH as their nominee when Johnson took himself out of consideration. Humphrey, a favorite of party bosses and labor unions, won the nomination despite not seriously contesting a single primary election– exposing serious flaws in the two major partys’ nominating system where primary elections were erratic, irregular, and often non-binding.
Complicating this, of course, was the tumult of 1968. As the Democrats gathered in Chicago in 1968, Yippies, New Leftists and a constellation of antiwar activists descended onto the Windy City and clashed with Mayor Daley’s police force in the middle of the Democrats’ convention. As the crackdowns began, the protesters shouted “the whole world’s watching,” and it did. It was the worst of both worlds: antiwar protesters, young and full of unbridled political energy, cursed Humphrey’s name, even as Middle America associated Hubert’s candidacy with the violence and chaos that broke out in the Windy City. His candidacy was doomed from its inception. But even then, Humphrey came within 1 percentage point of stealing the popular vote from Nixon.
The ambition to be president never quite left him– he made an aggressive run for the nomination in 1972, losing to his former neighbor, George McGovern. (McGovern later told me how he tried to engineer a Humphrey-McGovern ticket for 1976 that would have united old-line Democrats with the youthful activists McGovern had wooed into the party. This would have been a tantalizing possibility had not the bladder cancer that would later claim Humphrey’s life prevented such a run.)
Humphrey died in 1978, long enough to see his protege, Walter Mondale, become vice president as well. But almost immediately upon his death, Humphrey was forgotten, marginalized, or misremembered by the public, and less forgivably, by sundry members of his own party. (When eulogizing him at the 1980 DNC, Jimmy Carter mistakenly called him Hubert Horatio Hornblower.) As early as the 1980s, Gary Hart, the champion of the suburban Democrat and the upwardly mobile yuppie, argued that his party needed to produce candidates who “weren’t little Hubert Humphreys.” And so it went. He had a metrodome in Minneapolis named after him, but that’s about it. In short, the only people who hold Hubert Humphrey in high esteem are either dead or living in Minnesota (which is its own peculiar kind of death.)
Humphrey’s life and Humphrey’s work were a testament to the successful coalition-building and politics of consensus that constitute the lifeblood of American politics.Moreover, Humphrey had a keen sense of what he called “the politics of joy.” Few statesmen relished the handshakes and the baby-kissing, and visiting 10 towns in one day quite so much as Humphrey did. Hubert’s people were the urban blue collar worker, the hardscrabble farmer, the Polish-American who went to the tavern after a hard day’s work. And they were precisely the people who left the party in droves by 1980, the demographics who became known as Reagan Democrats to the following generation of political scientists.
George McGovern once said that he opened the doors of the Democratic Party, and 40 million people walked out. His 1972 candidacy thrived on strong support from youths, feminists, black and hispanic Americans, and even gay Americans. It made the party more inclusive, and it fulfilled the sense of political justice that Humphrey’s civil rights activism made possible. But it wasn’t enough to win elections; not by a long shot. The McGovernites who would set the party’s tone in subsequent years wrongfully forgot the courage Humphrey showed in perilous times, as well as his blueprint for making the Democratic Party attractive to a winning coalition of farm, urban, black, and labor interests- able to incorporate large cities and isolated hinterlands with equal aplomb. After Humphrey’s decline, his party became balkanized, disorganized, and rent with internal interest groups. Four of the next five elections after his 1968 run (1976 being the exception) were devastating landslide defeats in which a grand total of 18 states were won.
A second reason behind Humphrey’s obscurity today is that was that he was a parliamentarian at heart. Just as Aquinas thrived within the labyrinthine confines of canon law, Humphrey cherished the obscure and antique rules that guided the U.S. Senate. Much of what he did most effectively took place outside of the public eye and the television camera, and required compromise and tact– sometimes with mouth-foaming demagogues who happened to have a key vote or committee chair..
A final piece of the puzzle may be that the liberal mind privileges history, or perhaps even teleology, over heritage and pantheon, the provinces of the conservative mind. Heritages and pantheons are inaccurate or oversimplified, but they are strong forces for both identifying and motivating oneself. While a clear Reagan hagiography developed over the last 10 years within a tightly-knit conservative community, nothing similar transpired for the American liberal. While conservatives may tend to oversimplify and overpraise their forebears (witness the 2008 GOP debates at the Reagan Library), liberals tend to be nitpicking and too critical of theirs.
Such was the case with Humphrey, whom party greybeards still revile for “selling out over Vietnam.” This may be so, but in the broader brushstrokes of social justice, Humphrey accomplished far more than many men with cleaner consciences than he. He strongarmed some of the century’s most crucial legislation through Congress, and in doing so, he didn’t trim his sails, as so many do nowadays, by calling himself a “progressive.” Humphrey was a liberal. He embraced the term and understood its direction and its significance. Aware of structural inequities that become cankers in an undistilled state of non-interfering “liberty”, Humphrey believed that the American state was up to the task of framing and rough-hewing a more meaningful and substantive justice. Hubert Humphrey was nothing less than the paradigmatic liberal in an age of broad, even bipartisan, consensus on the role of the state in society, a consensus that has since passed us by. When we ask “whatever became of Hubert?”, we might do well to remember that the failure to remember this man is our flaw, and not his.
(note: midway through writing this, I was directed toward Rick Perlstein’s piece on HHH in the Times. Hence, a few unintended similarities between his thoughts and mine.)
*- Goldwater, I hasten to add, did not have a racist bone in his body, but a “no” vote against a civil rights act is still a “no” vote against a civil rights act, constitutional scruples notwithstanding. Sometimes, strict constitutional scruples act as a barrier against the very human rights the Constitution is designed to promote, something I wish Congressman Paul’s supporters would bear in mind.