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The Tragedy of Hubert Humphrey

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2020 Issue of Thinking Minnesota, now the second largest magazine in Minnesota. To receive a free trial issue send your name and address to info@americanexperiment.org.

Hubert Humphrey was no conservative. His biographer, Carl Solberg, wrote that Humphrey learned two lessons growing up in Huron, South Dakota in the 1920s and 1930s that remained with him for the rest of his life: “The first was that individuals, far from being masters of their own fate, could become powerless victims of catastrophes—droughts, dust storms, bankruptcy, foreclosures. The second was that government could help people—specifically the Humphrey family in their drugstore, through federal farm relief and other emergency funds assisting their customers—survive the buffets of such forces.”

“Big government is a necessary consequence of an urban, industrial, corporate nation,” Humphrey wrote. As a Senator of prodigious legislative output between 1948 and 1964, he was a driving force behind creating the Job Corps, food stamps, and Medicare. From 1964, when Lyndon Johnson crushed Barry Goldwater in the presidential election, to 1968, liberalism was the dominant governing ideology in the United States and Hubert Humphrey, as vice president, exemplified it. Republican Everett Dirksen, then-Senate Minority Leader, said “[Humphrey] is the modern liberal.”

Yet, by the end of his life, this most effective of modern liberals was held in low regard by many in the Democratic Party. When a new cohort of Democratic Representatives and Senators entered Congress in 1974, one, future presidential candidate Gary Hart, asserted, “We’re not a bunch of little Hubert Humphreys.” How did the man who made his name electrifying the 1948 Democratic convention speaking in favor of a civil rights plank and who masterminded the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act become almost an “unperson” in the party?

Vietnam

In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson offered Humphrey the vice-presidential slot. Humphrey’s friends counseled against accepting, but he was intensely ambitious and yearned to be president. After a failed bid for the VP spot in 1956 and trouncing at the hands of Jack Kennedy in 1960, he believed that the vice presidency was his only path to the presidency. “Look, I’m a poor man,” he explained. “I don’t have rich friends. I come from a small state. I just can’t do it on my own. The only way I can become president is first to become vice president.” The price was complete loyalty to Johnson. “This is like a marriage with no chance of divorce,” the President told him. “I need complete and unswerving loyalty.” He got it.

The election was a landslide. Johnson won over 61 percent of the popular vote, the highest share since 1824. This triumph rested on what Joe Rauh, vice president of Americans for Democratic Action—an anti-communist liberal group Humphrey helped found in 1947—described as “the liberal-labor-Negro coalition that had elected every liberal president and made possible every liberal advance since the 1930s.” Humphrey was rooted in this coalition; labor unions especially were strong supporters. But at this peak of American liberalism, that coalition was about to shatter.

In early 1965, the conflict in Vietnam exploded. Humphrey had grave misgivings about the administration’s conduct of the war. Nevertheless, he became the chief salesman for its Vietnam policy. To an extent, he was fulfilling his promise of “unswerving loyalty,” but this shouldn’t obscure the fact that he was a sincere cold warrior. After engineering the merger of the Democratic and Farmer-Labor parties in Minnesota in 1944, he fought comunists for control of the new party. Humphrey believed that the failure to confront Hitler earlier had encouraged eventual war, and he was deeply committed to an anti-communist foreign policy, which the communist elements of the DFL, lead by former Governor Elmer Benson, opposed.

“We’re not going to let the political philosophy of the DFL be dictated from the Kremlin,” Humphrey said. “You can be a liberal without being a Communist, and you can be a progressive without being a communist sympathizer, and we’re a liberal progressive party out here. We’re not going to let this left-wing communist ideology be the prevailing force because the people of this state won’t accept it, and what’s more, it’s wrong.” His Republican opponent in Minnesota’s 1948 senate race had voted against the Marshall Plan for European aid, and Humphrey charged that “if American policy had been decided by the vote of the senior Senator from Minnesota, we might be negotiating with the Russians now in London instead of Berlin.”

Whatever the motivation, Humphrey was now in the front line of an increasingly bitter civil war in the Democratic Party. Many young activists, drawn into politics and the party by the struggle for civil rights, were bitterly opposed to the Vietnam war. Known as the New Left, as distinct from the old left of Rauh’s coalition, their opposition escalated along with the war. Wherever Humphrey went, he was met with abuse from anti-war protestors. At Stanford in March 1967, for example, demonstrators mobbed his car screaming, “War criminal!” “Murderer!” and “Burn, Baby, Burn!” Several tried to break through the police cordon, and a can of urine was thrown over one of Humphrey’s Secret Service men. Humphrey had little affinity for the student radicals. Recalling his time as a student at the University of Minnesota in the 1930s, he said, “I didn’t have much time to join a protest movement, I was concerned about being able to earn enough to eat.” He compared the protestors’ “foul language and physical violence” to “Hitler youth breaking up meetings in Germany.” In 1966, referring to his battle with the DFL Communists, he told reporters “I fought those bastards then and I’m going to fight them now.”

Of course, many Americans supported the war. As late as March 1969, one poll found that 19 percent of Americans favored the current policy in Vietnam and 33 percent wanted total military victory. AFL-CIO union president George Meany and most labor leaders supported the war. Even many of those concerned or outright opposed were repelled by the anti-war movement antics. How were the parents of a young draftee supposed to react to actress Jane Fonda grinning for the cameras at the controls of a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun? How did Jane Fonda expect them to react? Did she consider them at all?

Some anti-war Democrats made unseating Johnson their primary purpose in the 1968 presidential election. They backed Humphrey’s old friend, protégé, and fellow Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy, who challenged Johnson for the nomination. On March 12th McCarthy came a close second in the New Hampshire primary, humiliating Johnson who withdrew from the race. The long-sought path to the White House opened up for Humphrey, even more so when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June. But with labor and the liberals drawing apart, the Democratic coalition was weakening.

Chicago

Vietnam wasn’t the only issue driving apart liberals and labor. The violent crime rate increased by 126 percent between 1960 and 1970. Deadly riots became a fixture of urban summers. By 1970, researchers estimated that a person living in a central city faced a higher risk of being murdered than a World War II soldier did of dying in combat. Even so, Attorney General Ramsey Clark claimed in 1967 that “the level of crime has risen a little bit, but there is no wave of crime.” When asked about figures showing crime rising at 20 percent a year, he said, “We do ourselves a great disservice with statistics.” Prominent Democrats branded calls for law and order “a code phrase for racism.”

Disillusioned Democrats looking for a new political home were not without options in 1968. The Republican nominee, Richard Nixon, stressed law and order. George Wallace, the former Democratic governor of Alabama running as an independent, combined his support for segregation with more reputable talk about fighting crime. Humphrey was aware of these threats to traditional Democrat support. In Norwood, Massachusetts, the police chief, a father of 10, one killed in Vietnam, told him, “Wallace thinks like I do.” Humphrey’s union friends said the same. Joe Beirne, chief of the Communications Workers of America, reported, “Half of my members are for Wallace,” and I. W. Abel said as many as a third of his steelworkers felt the same way.

Humphrey understood such concerns. As Mayor of Minneapolis in the 1940s, he had cleaned up the crime-ridden city, saying, “The gangsters of Chicago are out to take over the city and are on their way to doing so unless they are stopped. We are starting to see business move out of the city—and people are going, too, to the suburbs. This must be halted if Minneapolis is to go on as a city.” But addressing the concerns of the labor part of the coalition would have brought charges of “coded racism” from the liberal part. As a result, he was forced to concede this important issue to Nixon and Wallace.

The convention in Chicago in August was a historic disaster. Humphrey tried to unite the party with the “politics of joy.” It didn’t work. Anti-war activist Tom Hayden announced, “We are coming to Chicago to vomit on the ‘politics of joy.’” Activists set up camp in Grant Park and raised the flag ofthe Vietnamese communists, who, at that moment, were killing working class American boys. The Chicago police, drawn from the same working class as many of those conscripts, on the orders of old school Democratic city boss Mayor Richard J. Daley, went in to remove them. What followed was later described as a “police riot” as the cops clashed violently with activists—the liberal-labor clash became very real. Another of Humphrey’s old friends and protégés, South Dakota Senator George McGovern, muttered about “Gestapo tactics.” Humphrey disagreed. Afterwards, he said, “There are certain people in the United States who feel that all you have to do is riot and you can get your way. I have no time for that.”

Humphrey’s campaign recovered miraculously from the depths of Chicago, but it wasn’t enough. On Election Day, he won 42.7 percent of the vote to Nixon’s 43.4 percent. Many liberal voters stayed home. Many labor voters had gone for Wallace or even Nixon. It was as bitter a defeat as any presidential candidate has ever suffered. But Humphrey accepted the result. That night he told his supporters, “I have done my best. I have lost. Mr. Nixon has won. The democratic process has worked its will, so now let’s get on with the urgent task of uniting our country.” In his darkest hour, Humphrey provided an example for all defeated candidates.

Miami Beach

After the 1968 defeat, liberals took over the Democratic Party. Following the Chicago debacle, the Democrats appointed a commission under McGovern to reform the nomination process. McGovern changed the system of primaries and increased female and minority representation. With these rules in place, McGovern was well situated when he announced his intention to run for president in January 1971. He ran on promises of a “universal basic income” funded by taxes on the rich and defense cuts. Although not as radical as generally perceived, he was surrounded by radicals. There was enough truth in the charge that he was the candidate of “Amnesty [for Vietnam draft dodgers], Abortion, and Acid” that it stuck.

Humphrey, back in the Senate since 1970, took a very different path. He tried to reach out to his old base in labor, many now “Democrats for Nixon.” He acknowledged their concerns about law and order in a speech titled, “Liberalism and Law and Order—Must There Be a Conflict?” saying that liberals “must let the hardhats, Mr. and Mrs. Middle America, know that they understand what is bugging them, that they too condemn crime and riots and violence and extreme turbulence, that they scorn extremists of the left as well as extremists of the right.”

His ambition undimmed, Humphrey decided to run again in 1972. He opposed McGovern’s welfare plan, saying, “I’ll be damned if I’m giving everybody in the country a thousand-dollar bill… People in this country want jobs, not handouts.” He pointed out that McGovern’s “tax the rich” policies would actually see single people who earned $8,000 a year pay more tax than a family of four with an income of $12,000 who, themselves, would see taxes rise by $409. He attacked McGovern’s proposed defense cuts. He opposed abortion saying, “I am not for it.”

Humphrey stood little chance at the convention. Under the McGovern Commission’s rules, the delegates were richer, better educated whites and minorities. Thirty-one percent of the delegates earned over $25,000 a year compared to just 5 percent of Americans overall. A disproportionate number had advanced degrees. There were no farmers in Iowa’s delegation, but New York’s contained nine delegates who were associated with gay rights groups, and South Dakota’s were “anointed” by two Native Americans. The Democratic Party left little room for that old blue collar, working class, patriotic vote.

Actress Shirley MacLaine cooed that it looked “like a couple of high schools, a grape boycott, a Black Panther rally, and four or five politicians who walked in the wrong door.” Humphrey, by contrast, noted that “many who were on the outside raising hell in 1968 were on the inside running things” and that “the Democratic National Convention once again displayed an unattractive image that did nothing to enhance [McGovern’s] chances for election.” However much the Miami Beach menagerie might have impressed Shirley MacLaine, come November it turned out that American voters shared Humphrey’s assessment. Nixon carried 49 states, won 61 percent of the vote, and had 521 Electoral College votes to McGovern’s 17.

Waverley

After a painful and protracted battle with cancer, Hubert Humphrey died at his home in Waverley, Minnesota in January 1978. The tragedy of his career was that the inheritance he had so long coveted—leadership of the Democratic Party—came to him just as the coalition its successes had been based on fell apart. The liberals—radicalized by civil rights and Vietnam—moved to the left. This alienated labor, which was socially conservative. The aim of the union worker was to improve his lot within the system, not to overturn the system entirely. That was the concern of the liberals who took over the party after 1968. As Humphrey feared, this was an electoral dead end. The Democratic Party would not retake the White House until it had learned this lesson.

John Phelan is an economist with Center of the American Experiment.

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