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Birth:
27 May 1911 1
Wallace, SD 1
Death:
13 Jan 1978 1
his home in Waverly, Minnesota 1
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Full Name:
Hubert Horatio Humphrey, Jr. 1
Also known as:
Humpty Huberty, The Happy Warrior 1
Full Name:
Hubert Humphrey 2
Birth:
27 May 1911 1
Wallace, SD 1
Male 1
Birth:
27 May 1911 2
Death:
13 Jan 1978 1
his home in Waverly, Minnesota 1
Cause: bladder cancer 1
Death:
Jan 1978 2
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Birth:
Mother: Ragnild Kristine Sannes 1
Father: Hubert Horatio Humphrey, Sr 1
Marriage:
Muriel Fay Buck 1
September3 1936 1
Spouse Death Date: 20 Sep 1998 1
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Social Security:
Social Security Number: ***-**-4824 2

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America’s Forgotten Liberal

Alex Gross

 

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JANUARY was the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birth, and the planet nearly stopped turning on its axis to recognize the occasion. Today is the 100th anniversary of Hubert H. Humphrey’s birth, and no one besides me seems to have noticed.

That such a central figure in American history is largely ignored today is sad. But his diminution is also, more importantly, an impediment to understanding our current malaise as a nation, and how much better things might have been had today’s America turned out less Reaganite and more Humphreyish.

Our forgotten man was born in eastern South Dakota to a pharmacist, a trade the son took over after the family moved to Minnesota. That biographical fact was the source for the derisive title of a 1968 biography, “The Drugstore Liberal” — that is to say, like a “drugstore cowboy,” a small-timer, not really a liberal at all, at a time, quite unlike our own, when a liberal reputation was a prerequisite for the Democratic presidential nomination. The unfairness was evident only in retrospect.

Humphrey made his national political debut in 1948 when, as mayor of Minneapolis and a candidate for Senate, he headed the Minnesota delegation to the Democratic National Convention. There he led a faction insisting the platform include a federal fair employment commission, a controversial goal of the civil rights movement.

Segregationist Southerners threatened to walk out, a move that could have paralyzed the entire fragile Democratic coalition and handed the White House to the Republicans. The Democrats’ first presidential defeat in 20 years might have been laid at the feet of this ambitious 37-year-old.

Humphrey could have been excused for quietly backing down. Instead, the man who had earned the nickname the Happy Warrior gave one of the greatest speeches in American political history.

“To those who say this civil rights program is an infringement on states’ rights,” he thundered from the convention podium, “I say this: The time has arrived 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.”

The motion carried. The Southerners walked out and ran Strom Thurmond for president. When Harry S. Truman won nonetheless, Democrats were on their way to becoming the party of civil rights. Hubert Humphrey catalyzed that change.

He joined the Senate as a tireless champion of expanding the New Deal, but the exigencies of power were not kind to his liberal reputation. In June 1964 he was instrumental in passing the landmark Civil Rights Act. That August, however, President Lyndon B. Johnson turned to Humphrey to broker another deal at a Democratic convention, this time playing the opposite role: selling out a group of Mississippi civil rights activists who had hoped to be seated as delegates instead of the racist “regular” Democrats.

It was part of Johnson’s condition for making him his running mate: he wanted someone who would do what he said without question. Soon Vice President Humphrey was the spokesman for the president’s unwise war in Vietnam. He took to the role partly out of loyalty, partly out of conviction: to a certain sort of old-line liberal like him, Vietnam was a crusade against imperialist expansionism. To younger “New Politics” Democrats, however, the war embodied the very opposite: a racist assault by an administration that was itself practically imperialist.

It was Humphrey’s misfortune to inherit the presidential nomination in 1968, with the Democratic Party split down the middle between these factions — a tragedy sealed in blood, after Humphrey’s faction won the convention, in the streets of Chicago; and at the ballot box, with Humphrey’s agonizingly close loss to Richard M. Nixon in the general election.

The defeat came in part thanks to his refusal to denounce the disastrous war in a forthright and timely fashion, and in part thanks to the abandonment of the ticket by the New Politics liberals who called him a warmonger (often, heckling him on the campaign trail, to his face).

Was Humphrey really as hawkish as all that? Johnson didn’t think so; he actually preferred that Nixon win the election. He didn’t trust Humphrey to hold firm on the war.

Poor Humphrey could never catch a break. Resolutely committed to quiet coalition-building at a time when ideological self-righteousness was the new normal, resolutely unhip at a time when political hipness was at a premium, he was now not just a loser but an embarrassment. He came in second place for the 1972 nomination; the victor, the self-righteous but significantly more hip George S. McGovern, then came in a distant second to Nixon.

In the book by which many would remember that election, Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72,” each mention of Humphrey drips with mocking vituperation. Here, then, to many, is the Humphrey of history: an also-ran, a sellout, a joke.

For progressives today, however, the joke’s on us. In the 1970s the Democratic Party turned its focus from a New Deal-inspired politics of economic security toward a Watergate-inspired embrace of institutional reform. The move was explicitly anti-you-know-who: “We’re not a bunch of little Hubert Humphreys,” proclaimed Gary Hart, the leader of the “Watergate Babies” Democratic Congressional class of 1974.

Their reforms, however, largely failed in their intention to liberalize the nation. Conservatives and business interests were able to bend the new campaign finance rules and Congressional committee systems to their own ends. That, in turn, helped bring about what Paul Krugman calls the “Great Divergence”: the economic inequality that has made a mockery of ordinary Americans’ aspirations to join and stay in the middle class.

The trends were already in evidence during the presidential season of 1976. The only thing missing was any organized Democratic response among the candidates — besides, that is, Hubert Humphrey, who was once more an also-ran for the Democratic nomination.

Instead Humphrey, who had re-entered the Senate in 1971, spent the rest of the decade doggedly devising legislative solutions to the Great Divergence. His Balanced Growth and Economic Planning Act, introduced in May 1975, when unemployment was at a post-Depression high of 9 percent, proposed a sort of domestic World Bank to route capital to job creators. (It spoke to his conviction, in a knee-jerk, anti-corporate age, that pro-labor and pro-business policies were complementary.)

And at a time when other liberals were besotted with affirmative action as a strategy to undo the cruel injustices of American history, Humphrey pointed out that race-based remedies could only prove divisive when good jobs were disappearing for everyone. Liberal policy, he said, must stress “common denominators — mutual needs, mutual wants, common hopes, the same fears.”

In 1976 he joined Representative Augustus Hawkins, a Democrat from the Watts section of Los Angeles, to introduce a bill requiring the government, especially the Federal Reserve, to keep unemployment below 3 percent — and if that failed, to provide emergency government jobs to the unemployed.

It sounds heretical now. But this newspaper endorsed it then, while 70 percent of Americans believed the government should offer jobs to everyone who wanted one. However, Jimmy Carter — a new kind of Democrat answering to a new upper-middle-class, suburban constituency, embarrassed by industrial unions and enamored with the alleged magic of the market — did not.

“Government cannot eliminate poverty or provide a bountiful economy or reduce inflation or save our cities or cure illiteracy or provide energy,” President Carter said in his 1978 State of the Union address, a generation before Bill Clinton said almost the same thing, cementing the Democrats’ ambivalent retreat from New Deal-based government activism.

Mr. Carter saw to it that only a toothless Humphrey-Hawkins law passed — one that made fighting inflation the government’s implicit policy goal while the toll of high unemployment was given much lower priority.

Hubert Humphrey died of cancer on Jan. 13, 1978, a Happy Warrior to the end. “Sometimes I felt discouraged,” his wife, Muriel, recalled, “but Hubert never did.”

Argue against his supposed heresies if you will. But the post-1970s deregulatory consensus that replaced them, embodied as much by Reagan then as Robert E. Rubin today, has hardly done a great job either. With unemployment once again at 9 percent, inflation minimal, corporate profits at record levels even in the face of criminal perfidy by bankers, the trade deficit at $48.2 billion and racial resentment running as high as ever, shouldn’t we perhaps spare a thought, on Hubert Humphrey’s 100th birthday, for his road not taken?

Hubert Horatio Humphrey

 

Hubert Humphrey was one of the premier political figures of his time who remained a fixture on the national political scene for nearly three decades. He was a supreme legislator who served twenty-two years in the Senate but never achieved the presidential office he so coveted. He pursued the vice presidency or presidency on six occasions but only served one term as vice president. His career was one of great brilliance and disappointment, although his contribution to history was significant and valuable.

Hubert Horatio Humphrey, Jr. was born on May 27, 1911, in Wallace, South Dakota. His family moved to nearby Doland where his father, a pharmacist and ardent Democrat, served as mayor. South Dakota, like many rural states, experienced substantial economic troubles before the full onset of the Great Depression, and the poverty Humphrey saw during his youth profoundly affected him. He was also influenced by and heavily supportive of Franklin D. Roosevelt's attempts to alleviate the Depression with the New Deal programs.

Humphrey briefly attended the University of Minnesota, but went home to work in the family pharmacy after completing a course at the Capitol College of Pharmacy in Denver. He eventually returned to school in Minnesota and graduated in 1939. He completed his masters the next year at Louisiana State University the next year, writing his thesis on the political philosophy of the New Deal. After working for the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the Minnesota War Manpower Commission, and Roosevelt's 1944 campaign, Humphrey ran successfully for mayor of Minneapolis in 1945.

In 1948, Humphrey was catapulted to the national spotlight with a fiery speech at the Democratic National Convention. In his speech, he implored the party to adopt a civil rights plank in its platform and urged the party "to get out of the shadow of states' rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights." When Humphrey's message found support in the party, Strom Thurmond and dozens of southern delegates walked out of the convention. Thurmond would eventually be nominated as the Dixiecrat candidate for President.

Humphrey was elected to the U.S. Senate later that year. He was the first Democrat from Minnesota elected to the Senate since 1858. His overzealous quest for reform and outspoken demeanor won him few friends in his early Senate career. He famously provoked the ire of powerful Senator Harry Byrd of Virginia by calling for the abolition of a committee Byrd chaired. Byrd and other Senators isolated the overeager young Senator, but Humphrey later succeeded in ingratiating himself to his fellow Senators. He eventually became a well-respected and extraordinarily active legislator, sponsoring more than a thousand bills and joint resolutions during his first two terms alone. He took particular interest in issues of civil rights, labor, and education.

In 1961, Humphrey became Majority Whip and helped shepherd historic legislation through the Senate. He was instrumental in passing the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He served with distinction and great success in his position until Lyndon Johnson selected him as his vice president in the presidential campaign of 1964. Humphrey resigned from the Senate in 1965 when he became vice president.

Initially Humphrey was an active lobbyist for the administration's agenda and served as an effective congressional advocate for President Johnson. His numerous contacts and experience in the Senate were of great value to the administration. He was successful in helping to pass significant legislation, including the Voting Rights Act in 1965. By 1966, however, Johnson's domestic program, the Great Society, was losing support as U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War escalated. After Humphrey questioned Operation Rolling Thunder and the limits of what military action could achieve in Vietnam, Johnson decided to exclude the vice president from high-level meetings, and Humphrey's influence declined.

Although his influence in the administration became sporadic and generally limited, Humphrey served as the President's unofficial spokesperson and, despite his private doubts, one of the most visible champions of the administration's Vietnam War policy. His tireless support disappointed many of his liberal supporters and negatively affected his national popularity. In addition to representing the administration domestically, Humphrey also served as an ambassador-at-large. During his tenure, he made twelve trips abroad and visited thirty-one countries, traveling far more than any of his predecessors.

When President Johnson declined to run for another term in 1968, Humphrey won the Democratic Party's nomination. His campaign got off to a tumultuous start with the infamous 1968 Democratic Convention. Humphrey's attempts at unity and references to the "Politics of Joy" seemed wholly out of touch with the riots and protests going on outside. Furthermore, Humphrey had difficulty distancing himself from Johnson's unpopular war policy since he had been an advocate of it and continued to serve in the administration. He lost a close election to Richard Nixon and briefly retired to private life.

Humphrey returned to politics in 1970, when he was once again elected to the Senate. He pursued the presidential nomination in 1972 and expressed some interest in the 1976 nomination before eventually deciding not to run. In August 1976, he was diagnosed with cancer but was reelected to the Senate nonetheless. He remained active there until his death in January 1978.

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