Friday, May 27, 2011

Hubert Humphrey

I'll direct everyone to an excellent op-ed today from Rick Perlstein on the occasion of Hubert Humphrey's centennial.

One of the ways to understand what an enormous figure Humphrey was is that one could easily write very different remarks on his legacy and still be correct. Perlstein emphasizes the extent to which the nation turned away from Humphrey's vision in the last thirty years, and that's one reasonable way to look at it. But one could also think about the extent to which the United States in 2010 is very much Hubert Humphrey's world. If we think about the major accomplishments of postwar, post-FDR liberalism, you get: fighting and winning the Cold War; ending formal segregation and the acceptability of explicit, public racism; and basically eliminating poverty among older Americans. Humphrey played a central role in each of them. And then the specifics go on and on, from food stamps to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty to the Peace Corps...the Senate page on Humphrey is a good start.

Humphrey's failure to win the presidency despite multiple attempts, his service as vice-president, and his association with the war in Vietnam all (mostly unfairly) tarnished his reputation, especially with baby boomers; his speaking style was easy to mock, especially once it was associated with losing candidacies. But that same speaking style produced one of the most important speeches in American history -- no, I don't think that's an exaggeration -- his civil rights speech at the 1948 Democratic Convention, which Perlstein rightly mentions. There are, of course, big "historical forces" reasons that the Democrats turned from supporting to opposing racism, but individuals count too, and Humphrey was perhaps the individual who counted the most, from then through the final legislative successes of 1964 and 1965.

Perlstein says that Humphrey is forgotten...I don't know whether that's true or not, but it certainly shouldn't be. Hubert Humphrey was simply one of the most important politicians in American history, and one whose legacy was, as far as I'm concerned, almost entirely a positive one, both in substance and style. In other words, a great man, and a great American.


  1. Donald A. CoffinMay 27, 2011 at 10:26 AM

    Having lived through the late 1960s (but not quite old enough to vote in 1968), I saw both sides of HHH's political persona. I never quite understood his unwillingness, once he had the nomination, to criticize even a little the purposes or conduct of the war in Viet Nam. But I also never understood the people, some of whom were my close friends, who voted for Nixon instead.

    His return to the Seante, and his efforts there on behalf of employment initiatives and working people, deserve to be remembered. His extraordinary efforts on behalf of civil rights from the very beginning of his political career, incluidng what he did as mayor of Minneapolis, deserve to be praised.

    His silence on Viet Nam, unfortunately, also desrves to be remembered.

    But I always thought, "Better Hubert than Tricky."

  2. When Humphrey died, Paul Conrad published a cartoon in the Los Angeles Times depicting the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial, and then the "Humphrey Memorial": A picture of a white little kid and an African American little kid walking to school together.

  3. How wonderful was it, too, that even after Humphrey's speech and the platform vote caused the racist southerners to depart, the Democratic ticket still went on to win that election. The Democratic Party might have taken a very different turn if the Dixiecrats had been successful in throwing the election to Dewey, which would have been interpreted by the party leaders that they really did need the racist vote to win nationally. But thanks to Humphrey's speech--and Truman's acquiescence/nonchalance at the convention--the party rolled the dice and won anyway.

  4. If anything, Humphrey would have given people better Supreme Court justices than Nixon if he was elected President in 1968. At least from a liberal perspective Plus, there would be no Watergate and he couldn't have done worse than Nixon in the handling of the Vietnam War. Plus, we might have had universal healthcare.

  5. Donald, Humphrey wasn't entirely silent on VN -- early on in the LBJ admin, he'd written a memo to the prez warning Johnson about escalating militarily in VN, and reminding Johnson that politically, post-landslide victory over the hawkish Goldwater and the GOP, he had plenty of room to maneuver to begin to pull the US out of that country. But LBj didn't want to hear the advice, and even punished his VP for giving it (made him persona non grata for months at the WH, may have also begun tapping HHH's office phones at this time).

    Johnson basically forced Humphrey to toe the line, get out there and publicly defend the admin VN policy -- or else. Hubert, unfortunately, was all too willing to do what was necessary (which was quite a bit) to get back into Johnson's good graces.

    Flawed pol, but usually well-intended, usually with the right instincts, as with his early 1965 warning about Vietnam. Just not enough strength of character to follow through and stand up to his boss, particularly in the 1968 race.

    Worth remembering certainly. And as a true liberal -- unlike his warmaking boss Lyndon who probably favored Nixon over his own VP in 1968.

  6. So close... but not quite.

    So, Hubert Humphrey, Pierre Mendes-France and Dennis Healey walk into this bar....

  7. Even in his own day the great Humphrey legacy was taken for granted. When he was running in 1968, he used to say, "People come up to me and ask whatever happened to the wonderful liberal agenda I used to stand for. I tell them, We passed it!"

  8. I think Humphrey is mostly forgotten. Even amongst political scientists, there's not as much recognition as is due. I think it's mostly because he played within the rules. Humphrey didn't change the nature of the institution he served in, so he's not held to the same regard as even a Thomas Brackett Reed or Richard Bolling. Plus, there's our traditional bias in PS of focusing on the House.
    But, I doubt that many in the general public outside of junkies are aware of him. And I daresay the younger junkies (say, under 40) probably only know him as the guy who lost to Nixon.

    However, I'd like to play the contrarian and say that it might be a good thing that Humphrey is forgotten. It's a slightly odd train of thought, so go with me on this: I'm glad that our political system could (or at least, could then) produce true public servants. Humphrey may have run for president, but when that didn't work out, he went right back to the Senate and got back to work. Humphrey was simply trying to make the US (and world) a better place, as he saw it.

    I'm glad that, despite all the temptations that are out there, that we can have politicians who actually want to make society better. I'd make the comparison to LBJ, who also made some tough choices the right way (and a few biggies the wrong way), but was often thinking of how to better LBJ by bettering the US.

  9. Well, I think LBJ ended up battering the US as he often thought about bettering LBJ. First and last things the guy thought about, upon coming to DC in the '30s, was what can I do to further my standing, increase my power, and along the way in office become wealthy like some of my rich TX backers.

    By comparison on this count, HHH was a self-abnegating saint. Certainly about as scandal-free as a pol could be, certainly compared to scandal-tainted LBJ.

    But part of Humphrey's problem in the history books is lack of strong character -- that he never quite carved out for himself his own power base, his own political self, or a strong one anyway. All too often, even going back to his early senate yrs in the 1950s, he was in the shadows of Lyndon, taking orders from the boss majority leader, learning how far, or how little, he would be allowed to wander off the reservation. He just never became his own man when it counted and failed to stand up to the bully -- all too often, instead, he was just Lyndon's errand boy.

    And the personality: during his prime, he became Exhibit A of the long-winded solon who doesn't have the good sense to know when he's gone on too long, that often less is more.

    That said, I think had he been elected, he would have easily been twice the president his former boss was, if only for Hubert not having Lyndon's extreme instincts for lying to everyone including the public. But he just didn't have the keen political instincts, and character, sufficient enough to reach that final electoral hurdle.

  10. Interesting too to consider to what extent at least the Dem Party has perhaps forgotten, or chosen to forget, LBJ -- imo, for good reason mostly.

    Just in 2008 we had the centennial of his birth, yet little if any mention of it in the press, even less (that I saw) at the party convention that year even as the centennial occurred (iirc) during the convention period itself.

    Sadly, from my perspective, not all historians agree with me, as I've seen a rise in his standing (along with Reagan) in some of their often very curious and revisionist polls. To me, the unnecessary VN War was and is the worst FP blunder in US history, certainly the costliest in terms of lives lost. If anything, the historical record revealed since his presidency should have cast him in a more negative light on this issue than not.

    But alas history isn't written entirely by sensible people like me. Too many of those old, cranky men evaluating history that Jackie Kennedy once (rightly and accurately) complained would try to bring her husband's reputation down.

  11. As a historian who lived through the era, I would stress that Humphrey's personal thoughts and bureaucratic efforts throughout his Vice-Presidency were most likely much more contingent on events and more complex in all phases of both high policy and personality interactions, than the simple stereotype of "not being able to oppose Lyndon Johnson over Vietnam" which was largely foisted upon him by the punditocracy of the time.


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