Thursday, May 27, 2010

Happy Birthday Hubert Humphrey!

Hey Vice-Precedence Fans!

Today is the birthday of a man who truly was a champion of human and civil rights and who helped to create the modern Democratic Party, but because of his service as VP and the controversy and his subsequent loss in the Presidential Election of 1968 has been consigned to the "loser" bin in history. A place he certainly does not belong.

Today would be the 99th birthday of the original Triple H -- Hubert H. Humphrey. 38th Vice-President of the United States. I currently live in Minnesota in a suburb of Minneapolis, and with the older generations here, Humphrey is still widely respected and admired. Younger generations know of him mostly because of all the buildings named after him, most notably, the infamous Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, where the Minnesota Vikings, the U. of Minnesota Golden Gophers football team (until last year), and (until just a month ago) the Minnesota Twins played all their home games. The Metrodome is considered one of the worst stadiums in baseball history due to its lighting, the placement of its speakers, hard bouncy surface, bad sight lines, low ceiling and other odd features, primarily because it was built for football not baseball. With the moving of the Twins and Gophers to brand-new outdoor stadiums, and the Vikings demands for a new stadium -- the 29 year-old Metrodome would seem to be on its last legs and headed for destruction. A sort of fitting tribute to what the Vice-Presidency did to the the career and aspirations of Humphrey himself.

Before becoming VP, Humphrey had made a name for himself across the country as the champion of civil rights at the 1948 Democratic Convention. It was here that Humphrey demonstrated the zeal and characteristics that would lead to his nickname-"The Happy Warrior". Humphrey who at the time was the most popular mayor in Minneapolis history, and the DFL(Democratic-Farm-Labor) candidate for the Senate, gave a deeply passionate speech coming out strongly for civil rights and to leave the history of racism and segregation in the party behind. The Democratic Party-since its establishment, had always been the party of the South, and after the Civil War, it became even more so. It was believed that the party needed "The Solid South" -- all the electoral votes of the Southern states -- if it had any hope of winning the Presidency, and Democratic party leaders across the country always simply gave in to Southern segregationists in order to keep the party together. Humphrey believed that the time had come to end segregation not just in the party, but across the country. As Mayor of Minneapolis he had inherited a city that had been called "the antisemitism capital of the country" with a racist and corrupt police department and had worked tirelessly to end these circumstances. Now he wanted to do it for his party and the rest of the country. The Truman Administration and President Truman were for aggressive federal action on the issue of civil rights, but had agreed to adhere to a weaker platform at the convention to "keep the peace". Humphrey became the de-facto leader of the anti-communist, pro-civil rights liberals who wanted to break with this weak platform. Truman had already issued a 10-point civil rights program, but his aides worried that pushing the agenda too far would anger the Southern wing of the party. Aides to Truman warned Humphrey not to bring the issue to the floor of the Convention. Humphrey however, could not hold his tongue any longer on this issue he felt so strongly about, and gave an impassioned speech in favor of civil rights ending with:

"To those who say, my friends, to those who say, that we are rushing this issue of civil rights, I say to them we are 172 years too late! To those who say, this civil rights program is an infringement on states' rights, I say this: 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!"

After the speech one furious Southern politician wondered:

"Can you imagine the people of Minnesota sending that damn fool down here to represent them?"

However, as much as the Southern racist wing of the party hated the speech and Humphrey, it was surpassed by the passion the rest of the party felt for it and the man himself. Humphreys speech electrified the pro-civil rights members of the party and helped them push through their pro-civil rights plank into the platform of the party. This infuriated the Southern Democrats who stormed out of the convention and formed their own "Dixiecrat" party with South Carolina governor J. Strom Thurmond as their presidential candidate. They knew Thurmond was unlikely to win -- he was one of four candidates in that very unique election -- but their hope was to prove to the Democratic Party as a whole that it needed the South if it had any hope of winning the presidency and that it had to get rid of its strong civil-rights platform. But Humphrey had not just blindly gone into his speech without considering the political ramifications. He knew the adoption of the pro-civil rights platform would lose the South, but he believed it would gain enough support from blacks in big Northern cities like Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Detroit to make up for that. He had talked about it with those cities mayors and other Northern politicians, and they had agreed. Humphrey was determined to show it could work, and campaigned incredibly hard for President Truman. He was proven right. Truman scored the biggest upset in American political history, winning the 1948 election and demonstrated that the Democratic Party could win the Presidency without the "Solid South", and this weakened Southern Democrats and helped to trigger the shift of these Southern Democrats to the more conservative Republican Party. David McCullough in his Pulitzer Prize winner "Truman" wrote that besides Truman himself, the person who did the most to help him win in 48 was Humphrey.

Besides campaigning for Truman, Humphrey got himself elected to the Senate, where he would serve for 15 years, and in the process become the greatest Senator in Minnesota history. His colleagues selected him as majority whip in 1961, a position he held until he left the Senate on December 29, 1964 to assume the vice presidency. Humphrey knew he wanted to continue his work on civil rights, but he also knew he had angered the Southern wing of his party. He knew he had to work with Southerners if he wanted to accomplish his political and personal goals, so he attached himself to a southerner and Washington "insider" -- Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas. Johnson showed Humphrey the ropes and how to get things done in the halls of the Senate and the two men became friends and the most powerful Democratic team in the Senate for over a decade. Humphrey began to win his fellow Senators over with his strong sense of personal honor, his deeply felt passion, his integrity, and his eloquence in his clever, if a bit too long, speeches. His behavior led TIME Magazine to say that his critics thought he was:

"Too cocky, too slick, too shallow, too ambitious."

Humphrey became known for his advocacy of liberal causes; of course, civil rights, but also arms control, a nuclear test ban, food stamps, and humanitarian foreign aid. In 1957 he introduced the first bill to create the Peace Corps -- 3 years before JFK, and in 1961 with President Kennedy's backing -- it became a reality. In 1964 as Democratic Whip he experienced his greatest moment in the Senate with the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act.

By 1964 Humphrey had become a prominent national political figure and had run for the Democratic nomination for President twice. He had lost to John F. Kennedy in 1960 after losing the controversial primary in West Virginia. JFK's billionaire father Joe had poured millions into this poor, heavily Protestant state in an effort to prove his rich Catholic son could win a national election. It worked. Humphrey couldn't match the Kennedy fortune and lost a state most thought he had to win if he was going to get the nomination, so he dropped out of the race despite winning other primaries. But in 1964 President Johnson needed a VP candidate (after Kennedys assassination he had become President and had not appointed a VP) and Humphrey wanted the job badly. After the 1960 primaries he had reached the conclusion that since he didn't have the money to win a national election, he would have to serve as VP if he wanted to ever become President. Which he wanted very much. Johnson knew he wanted Humphrey as his VP, but he also knew he had the national press in the palm of his hand while they waited for him to make his announcement of his choice. It was all too tempting for Johnson who, it must be said, had something of a cruel sense of humor. Johnson had little patience for Humphrey's windy speeches, saying:

"If only I could breed him to Calvin Coolidge." (For those of you who don't get this reference-Coolidge was nicknamed "Silent Cal" and known for not talking much)

Johnson knew most of Washington and political experts around the country expected him to tap his old Senate colleague as his VP, and he knew Humphrey expected it as well. However, he just wasn't going to let it all happen that easy. First, at a State dinner where Humphrey was present, he asked him in front of the entire dinner what he thought of Senate President Mike Mansfield as a choice for VP, embarrassing Humphrey in front of the entire dinner. Then when he finally summoned Humphrey to the White House to tell him officially he was his choice he made him wait in the limo in the driveway for almost two hours. Humphrey fell asleep waiting, and was rudely awakened by the President who derisively told him:

"If you didn't know you were going to be Vice-President a month ago, you're too damn dumb to have the office."

At the 1964 Democratic Convention, Johnson sort of made up for this treatment by announcing Humphrey as his choice for VP with much fanfare, taking his time as he praised Humphrey's many qualifications before announcing his name to thunderous applause. The next day at his acceptance speech, Humphrey made his own mark and surpassed the President with his speech, immediately taking on the role of the VP candidate as the attack dog on the other party's candidate. As reported by TIME Magazine:

Hubert warmed up with a long tribute to the President, then hit his stride as he began a rhythmic jabbing and chopping at Barry Goldwater. "Most Democrats and Republicans in the Senate voted for an $11.5 billion tax cut for American citizens and American business," he cried, "but not Senator Goldwater. Most Democrats and Republicans in the Senate — in fact four-fifths of the members of his own party — voted for the Civil Rights Act, but not Senator Goldwater." Time after time, he capped his indictments with the drumbeat cry: "But not Senator Goldwater!" The delegates caught the cadence and took up the chant. A quizzical smile spread across Humphrey's face, then turned to a laugh of triumph. Hubert was in fine form. He knew it. The delegates knew it. And no one could deny that Hubert Humphrey would be a formidable political antagonist in the weeks ahead.

Johnson and Humphrey won in a landslide, but over the next four years the two mens friendship would be strained and destroyed by the offices they held. Johnson wanted Humphrey as his VP because he wanted a "Yes Man" and he made it clear to Humphrey that was what he expected of him. Humphrey from the start was against the Presidents handling of the growing military crisis in Vietnam, but Johnson threatened that if Humphrey ever spoke to the press or public against his policies there, he would destroy Humphrey's chances to become President by opposing his nomination at the next Democratic Convention. So Humphrey kept his mouth shut, angering his liberal friends and supporters across the country. They wondered what had happened to the "Happy Warrior" and began to abandon and criticize him, weakening his support across the country. Songwriter Tom Lehrer was so distressed by Humphreys lack of support against Vietnam he wrote the song "Whatever Became of Hubert?" where inquired:

"Whatever became of Hubert? Has anyone heard a thing? Once he shone on his own, now he sits home alone and waits for the phone to ring. Once a fiery liberal spirit, ah, but now when he speaks he must clear it. ..."

Humphrey was unhappy as VP and furious at Johnson for making him not only hold his tongue, but also for his constant use of him as a court jester for his amusement. Johnson liked to think of himself as a Texas ultra-male. He rode horses, hunted, had affairs and nicknamed his penis "Jumbo" and would ask it as he got out of the shower in the morning:

"Who are we going to f**k today?"

Johnson forced Humphrey to come with him to his ranch in Texas where he took the gentle VP hunting and ordered him to shoot at two deer. Humphrey did as he was told, but first he protested. Johnson, who had pulled the same stunt on a visiting Bobby Kennedy, informed his VP that Bobby Kennedy had done as he had asked and said to him:

"Aren't you as much of a man as a Kennedy?"

Later in that trip Johnson ordered the VP to dress in outlandish and oversized cowboy clothes as if he was the comic relief in a John Wayne film, and included in the outfit an absurdly garish ten-gallon hat and marched his VP in front of a group of reporters and forced him to get on an extremely nervous horse, laughing the whole time.

All the humiliation and threats led to a dissolving of the strong friendship the two men had once had for each other. In 1968 after he announced he would not seek re-election for the Presidency, LBJ refused to endorse Humphrey. Humphrey as VP was the strongest candidate, but threats from his fellow Minnesotan Eugene McCarthy-who was the most anti-Vietnam of the Democrats and Robert Kennedy put pressure on him. With Kennedys tragic assassination, Humphrey again became the front-runner and it was expected that he would win the nomination at the Convention. The liberal, anti-Vietnam wing of the Democratic party would make Humphrey their punching bag in place of Johnson as what was wrong with the party. The 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago was a nightmare. Outside the Convention Hall the Chicago Police Department had violent clashes with anti-war protesters that were broadcast on national television. Mike Wallace and Dan Rather were physically attacked on the Convention floor, and dozens of other ugly incidents took place. The convention damaged Humphreys chances at winning the Presidency, as did the candidacy of George Wallace of Alabama who took millions of blue-collar Midwestern votes that probably would have gone to Humphrey.

Liberals in the party started to rip on Humphrey as if he were the enemy. Hunter S. Thompson called him a:

"treacherous, gutless old ward-heeler....there is no way to grasp what a shallow, contemptible and hopelessly dishonest old hack Hubert Humphrey is until you've followed him around for awhile."

Because of all this, Humphrey lost to Richard Nixon. That's right hippies, when America could have elected the pro-civil rights, truly anti-war Hubert H. Humphrey president, you helped to make Richard Nixon president and Spiro Agnew VP, and all that came with them. Nice work! You have only yourselves to blame. When you think about what "might-have-been" with a Humphrey presidency as compared to the corrupt and secretive Nixon Administration, its almost enough to make you weep. Many liberals consider it as bad or even worse than George W. Bush defeating Al Gore.

After losing the 68 election, Humphrey returned to Minneapolis where he was an icon. He picked up the work he had done before turning to politics. Teaching. He happily taught students at both the esteemed Macalester College and the University of Minnesota. Then in 1970 he once again was nominated for and won election to the Senate, and would serve there for the rest of his life. At times he was considered a strong candidate for the Democratic Presidential nomination, but he could never shake the taint of what had happened at the 1968 convention enough to win the nomination. He was extremely popular in the Senate, and in 1974, Humphrey co-authored the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act, the first attempt at full employment legislation. In 1976 the Senate honored Humphrey by creating the post of Deputy President pro tempore of the Senate for him. On August 16, 1977, Humphrey revealed he was suffering from terminal bladder cancer. On October 25, 1977, he addressed the Senate, and on November 3, 1977, Humphrey became the first person other than a member of the House or the President to address the House of Representatives in session. President Carter honored him by giving him command of Air Force One for his final trip to Washington on October 23.

Humphrey spent his last weeks mending political and personal fences and calling old allies and opponents. One call was to Richard Nixon inviting him to his upcoming funeral. Nixon accepted the invitation. Living in the hospital, Humphrey kept himself busy by going room to room, cheering up other patients with a joke and listening to them. Many patients were thrilled that their beloved Senator was there to talk to them and Humphrey did his best to make his fellow patients comfortable and happy despite his own impending death.

He died on January 13, 1978 of bladder cancer at his home in Waverly, Minnesota. His body lay in state in the rotunda of both the United States Capitol and the Minnesota State Capitol, and was interred in Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis. Old friends and old enemies of Humphrey, from Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon to President Carter and his former aide, successor in the Senate and the current Vice-President Walter Mondale payed their final respects. Mondale famously eulogized:

"He taught us how to live, and finally he taught us how to die",

In one of his last speeches before his hospitalization, Humphrey gave voice to what has since been called-"The Liberals Mantra", and while if you're a dyed in the wool conservative Republican or Libertarian, you may disagree with these words, millions of Americans find inspiration in them:

"It was once said that the moral test of Government is how that Government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped,"

For Hubert Humphrey, the Vice-Presidency was the thing that tainted his rich legacy of fighting for what he believed in, for championing civil rights, and helping his fellow Americans improve their quality of life. Humphreys legacy lives on in the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program, which fosters an exchange of knowledge and mutual understanding throughout the world. Here in Minnesota, Humphrey is everywhere, besides the Metrodome, there is the Humphrey Terminal at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport, the Hubert H. Humphrey Job Corps Center in St. Paul, MN. The Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota and its building, the Hubert H. Humphrey Center, and the Hubert H. Humphrey Cancer Center in Robbinsdale, MN. I have seen his picture hanging in a friends house, when her husband-as a member of the Peace Corps, went with his fellow Peace Corps workers to visit the man who helped create their organization in his office when he was VP. Many consider him still to be the greatest mayor in Minneapolis history and the greatest Senator the state has ever had as well. Humphrey helped to put the state on the national map as a stronghold for Democratic senators with national influence. His legacy lives on in former VP Mondale, and inspired the late Paul Wellstone, and current Senator Al Franken. There can be no doubt that Humphrey truly made an impact on this nations history -- particularly in civil rights and the Peace Corps.

Along with job centers, schools, health centers, and other public buildings across the country named after him. Humphrey helped to create the modern Democratic Party, separating it from its racist past and bringing it into the modern world. His championing of civil rights led Alpha Phi Alpha, the first intercollegiate Greek-letter fraternity established for African American males to make him an Honorary Life Member.

Its a shame the Vice-Presidency and the events at the 1968 convention have tainted his legacy. Instead of thinking of Humphrey as a weak "dough-faced" liberal wimp, I prefer to think of him as the man who stood up for what he believed in at the 1948 Democratic Convention and most of his life. The Vice-Presidency was just a bump on the road. As it seems to be for many. Maybe next year on what would have been his 100th birthday, my current state of residence will do something to honor the "Happy Warrior". If so, I will be sure to be there. For now, I ask you to join me in saying:

"Happy Birthday Hubert H. Humphrey!"

Thanks for reading!


  1. This was a very nice, and enlightning read--thanks...

  2. Thanks Ronald! I really appreciate it. Hope you will check out some of our other posts too.