Look Before You Veep

Hubert Humphrey: The Conscience of the Country BY Arnold A. Offner. Yale University Press. Hardcover, 512 pages. $35.

The cover of Hubert Humphrey: The Conscience of the Country

It was sometime during the fall of 2010, a dismal mid-term election season, that I found myself waiting and searching for a passionate voice among progressive politicians that could effectively counter what turned out to be a resurgent conservative Republican wave retrieving both houses of Congress that November—and continuing afterward to obstruct any meaningful legislation on behalf of poor and marginalized Americans.

I didn’t think I was asking for much; just somebody (besides the then-incumbent and beleaguered president) capable of not just speaking truth to power, but of summoning furies—someone, that is, able to shout down the inchoate bluster of Tea Party demagoguery with pure, unapologetic liberal fire. Roughly two weeks before that Election Day, I found the voice I was looking for. It would do no good, however, because it belonged to somebody who’d been dead since 1978:

We have forgotten that we are our brother’s keeper. We have forgotten about each other. We’re the victims of neglect. We’ve neglected cities and farms and people and children and the elderly. And we have had as the measure of our success that those who already have too much shall get some more. That’s right! Rather than those who have too little shall get enough. And the real test of a liberal and a progressive and the real test, if you please, of a man of spirit, of faith, is that he sees to it that those who have too little get enough.

Rendered in cold type, this passage loses some of the pitch, the timing, the electrifying fervor of its speaker, whose piping-hot intensity is still capable of burning through the grainy texture of a decades-old black-and-white newsreel. The words simultaneously attack and elevate; they neither pander to nor placate their listeners. They sound as if you could say them today on any platform, digital or otherwise, and people would know what you were talking about. But you’d still need to be Hubert Humphrey to drive it all home.

The quote comes from Mick Caouette’s documentary Hubert H. Humphrey: The Art of the Possible, which first aired on PBS stations in 2010, a year before the one hundredth anniversary of its subject’s birth. The shock of hearing such unfettered liberal stem-winding after decades of neoconservative sound bites was enhanced by a gentler but no less stunning realization of Humphrey’s consequential impact on American life through the legislation he’d proposed, sponsored, or cosponsored through a cumulative twenty-two years in the US Senate, ranging from fair employment practices to environmental protection, from combating global hunger to providing aid for the disabled, farmers, and crime victims. “If you go and vote today, you owe something to Hubert Humphrey,” Bill Moyers testifies in Caouette’s film. “If you drink fresh water, you owe something to Hubert Humphrey.” Through interlocking waves of triumph and adversity, he remained a definitive embodiment of the “Happy Warrior” persona that once was an exclusive property of Al Smith, a similarly jovial, ill-starred progressive icon of a generation before.

Reading Arnold Offner’s thorough and sharply balanced account of Humphrey’s life, one is left with the overriding impression that all would have been as merry and bright with Humphrey’s long-term reputation as it was with his personal demeanor if he hadn’t wanted so badly to be president. “I’d have liked to see if I could run this country,” he said to his doctor in 1976 upon being told he would soon die of cancer (which he did two years later). By that time, he’d been in his second stint as US senator, having returned two years after his razor-thin loss to Richard Nixon in the 1968 election. And the impressive legislative record he’d built in his first go-round, from 1949 to 1964, was only enhanced in the ’70s, especially now that he no longer had to worry whether his mentor/frenemy Lyndon Johnson was looming over his shoulder. On balance, it’s possible that Humphrey had more impact and did more good (did more, period) as a legislator than he would have if his biggest wish had been granted.

The wish likely went as far back as his national political debut, one of the most galvanic in history, at the 1948 Democratic National Convention, when, as a crusading thirty-seven-year-old Minneapolis mayor and Senate candidate, he beat stiff odds and fierce resistance to persuade his party to include a sweeping challenge to racial segregation as part of its campaign platform. Humphrey became the convention’s star when he proclaimed: “The time has come in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.” Black Americans who heard those words would neither forget nor abandon Humphrey for that daring leap into the future, a future he would help make secure for them as citizens and voters for the rest of his life.

He paid a price for this audacity as a freshman senator the following year as Democratic arch-segregationists and Republican conservatives made him a near pariah for his assertive liberalism. He could be almost as aggressive in his Cold War–era anti-communism, voting for 1950’s draconian McCarran Act threatening detention for so-called “subversives,” though he said later that his vote had “shaken his conscience” and he had “never been more unhappy” in his life. Over the next fifteen years, Humphrey’s stature in the Senate would increase among political friends and foes alike. The apotheosis of his legislative career came in 1964, when, as Senate majority whip, Humphrey shepherded the most sweeping civil rights legislation since Reconstruction, finessing the bill beyond the filibuster process deployed for decades by Southern senators as a weapon against previous attempts. He also courted the flamboyant, orotund Republican minority leader Everett Dirksen as an ally in building a coalition large and strong enough to outflank the previously impregnable Southern bloc. The final vote, taken June 19, was 73–27.

One would have thought that an achievement of this magnitude would provide Humphrey with a more than suitable presence in American history. But he still wanted—needed—to be president, despite the fact that almost every political indignity he’d sustained happened to him because of this ambition: At the 1956 convention, Adlai Stevenson decided to throw open the selection of a running mate to a delegate vote after Humphrey had been assured he’d be chosen outright; and in 1960, Jack Kennedy ran a steamroller primary campaign in West Virginia, where Humphrey was grossly outspent and was slandered as a draft dodger during World War II, with Humphrey having to explain that he’d tried to enlist in 1944 but was deferred on medical grounds. (“A cruel campaign,” Norman Mailer wrote in 1968’s Miami and the Siege of Chicago. “If one would dislike the Kennedys, West Virginia was the place to look.”) Most grievously, there were the four years of mortification Humphrey suffered as Lyndon Johnson’s vice president. In a way, the West Virginia loss led to what disappointed liberals believed to be Humphrey’s vassalage to Johnson. Offner writes that it was after JFK’s assassination in 1963 that Humphrey told his “closest advisers” that being president was his ultimate goal, “but as a poor man from a small state and without rich friends, his only route to that office was the vice presidency.” The advisers warned that getting the second spot on a Johnson ticket in 1964 would curtail the relative freedom he enjoyed as a senator and that the new president would “cut his balls off.” Indeed, Johnson used similarly graphic imagery in expressing his preference for a vice president whose “pecker [would be] in my pocket.”

Humphrey must have known all this in advance. During LBJ’s epochal tenure as Senate majority leader in the 1950s, he had taken Humphrey under his wing for mutually beneficial reasons: The senator from Minnesota needed a Southerner like Johnson to ease the fierce hostility he’d received from other, more conservative Southern senators who never forgave Humphrey for 1948, while the senator from Texas needed a liberal Midwesterner like Humphrey on his side to broaden his appeal as he sought higher office. (LBJ, too, wanted—needed—to be president. It’s a Thing.) Humphrey therefore had plenty of time before 1964 to perceive how vain, insecure, domineering, and abusive Johnson could be. And yet Humphrey went full throttle for a job whose nature, even under the most ideal circumstances, was to make a relative cipher of the person who held it. Why? Probing for answers deeper than those implied in Offner’s narrative is for novelists and other imaginative artists. And, mostly to the book’s credit, historical detail is more important than psychology, even with Offner suggesting, at various points throughout, that HHH viewed LBJ as a “father figure,” despite being separated in age by only three years.

Vietnam was where Johnson and Humphrey’s political codependency came to grief. Humphrey tried to stop LBJ’s escalation of the war with a memorandum submitted a month after his January 1965 inauguration as vice president, stating in essence that a wider, deeper military engagement would be hard to justify. Johnson’s response to the memo was to essentially—and petulantly—ostracize Humphrey from security briefings, making him “persona non grata,” just as he had been in his first, lonely years in the Senate. The president reversed his stance the following year, and Humphrey became “chief exponent” and “star statesman” of Johnson’s war policies. The consequences were, to say the least, calamitous for Humphrey’s presidential dreams two years later, when antiwar insurgencies from within his party forced Johnson’s withdrawal from seeking reelection. Humphrey had become both LBJ’s heir apparent and a surrogate target for antiwar liberals, despite Humphrey’s previous victories on their behalf. By Election Day 1968, Humphrey had recalibrated his position enough toward peace to pull him close to his Republican rival, Richard Nixon. But he was squeezed to a loss, brought down by those in his own party who refused to vote for him, “middle Americans” won over by Nixon’s “law and order” rhetoric, and covert shenanigans by those associated with Nixon’s campaign to sabotage peace talks. When Humphrey tried again to run in 1972, his stance on Vietnam dialed back to its original setting, he still hadn’t regained the trust he’d lost four years before, with Hunter S. Thompson, covering that year’s campaign for Rolling Stone, dismissing Humphrey as “a shallow, contemptible, and hopelessly dishonest old hack.”

But here’s the thing about “hacks”: They get stuff done, whether it’s on your behalf or somebody else’s. And when an omnipotent Republican majority in Congress does everything it can to obstruct a President Obama while fully accommodating a President Trump, it’s past time to stop investing so much energy and attention in the executive branch. Think of the varied legacies of career legislators such as Robert Taft, Hubert Humphrey, Everett Dirksen, and for that matter Mitch McConnell, whose deeply malign but wide-ranging impact on government makes him antimatter to Humphrey, the Non-Happy (as opposed to Unhappy) Warrior. You may finally decide, as Humphrey didn’t, or couldn’t, that just because anybody can be president doesn’t mean everybody needs to be president in order to shake things up for the better.

Gene Seymour is a writer living in Brooklyn.