Death of an American Original

This obituary was originally published in the January 23, 1978 issue of Time Magazine, which can be viewed online here

Time Magazine_Cover_Jan 23 1978_ThumbFor Hubert Humphrey, politics was joy, and better days were always coming.

Six a.m. in front of a factory gate in Miami, March 1972. A gaggle of droopy-eyed campaign aides and reporters. The somnolent scene suddenly springs to life. The candidate appears, Hubert Horatio Humphrey, once again running for the presidency. Smiles, handshakes, banter—only the voters are missing, since no one has shown up for work yet. No voters? Humphrey will find them. He sprints into the street, waving and calling out to passing cars: “Hi, I’m Hubert Humphrey.” Drivers slow down, gaping. Humphrey thrusts a hand through the window for a hurried shake. Dodging the traffic as nimbly as a matador, he blurts out to nobody in particular: “I love it. I really love it.”

He truly did, and the scene was repeated endlessly throughout one of the richest and most remarkable American political careers of this century. Humphrey was sheer political drive: unquenchable, unstoppable, irrepressible. He never stopped talking because he never stopped politicking. Politics was his life, his breath, his inspiration, his entertainment. The public and private Humphrey were indivisible; he was what he appeared to be. There were no dark patches of mystery. He kept so little distance from the voters that he suffered from what was called a “mystique gap.” But when some of the hidden flaws of more heroic figures came to light, Humphrey’s old-shoe familiarity shone by contrast.

He preached not only the politics of joy but the politics of plenty. He was the quintessential, unrepentant New Dealer. Government existed to serve the people, and the more of everything it served the better. He was easily moved to tears over the plight of others, and figured he was put in this world to do something about it. If he was always on the attack, it was seldom against people but against what he considered to be injustice and deprivation. Malice was not in his bones.

Bursting with ideas, he had a hand in more major legislation than any other public figure of his time. He was a driving force behind the civil rights bills of the 1960s, federal aid to education, the Peace Corps, Medicare and the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. Humphrey, in fact, kept going at full liberal throttle when others were beginning to slow down and wonder if they had not gone too fast with programs that were not working out. But to reconsider, to calculate, to calibrate was not to be Hubert Humphrey. When he died last week at 66 at his Lakeside home in Waverly, Minn., after a long and agonizing bout with cancer, his liberal boots were still firmly on.

Frail and shockingly emaciated in his final illness, Humphrey nevertheless remained his old self, a last brave try at ebullience. Among his sickbed visitors were two friends, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Chicago civil rights leader, and Chicago Sun-Times Columnist Irv Kupcinet, who flew to Minneapolis to bid him farewell. “With all these parties we’ve had,” quipped Humphrey, “they might as well cut back on the funeral arrangements because all the eulogies have been delivered.” With characteristic generosity, he described a recent visit by Gerald Ford, who, he said, would “go down in history as the man who restored dignity to the White House.” Before leaving, Jackson joined hands with the others in the room and led them in a prayer for “this very special man.”

A few hours before his death, Humphrey fell into a coma. At his bedside were his wife Muriel and their four children, including Hubert Humphrey III (“Skip”), a Minnesota state senator who is running for Congress this year. On word of Humphrey’s death, President Carter sent Air Force One to Minneapolis to carry his body to Washington to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda. Then Humphrey will be flown back to St. Paul for funeral services, and he will be buried in Minneapolis. “I loved him as a friend and respected him as an adversary,” said Gerald Ford. To honor his old political opponent, Richard Nixon made his first trip back to Washington since he resigned the presidency. At a memorial service in the Capitol rotunda, President Carter said of Humphrey: “He has been an inspiration and a conscience to us all. His greatest personal attribute was that he really knew how to love.” Said Vice President Walter Mondale, Humphrey’s longtime friend and political ally:

“He taught us how to live and, finally, how to die.”

the future tireless and tenacious Humphrey could have been discerned in a boyhood exploit. He once astonished his father by memorizing all the drugs and their Latin names listed in the pharmacopoeia. He would obviously be prescribing for people for the rest of his life.

Humphrey was born in a room over the family drugstore in Wallace, S. Dak. “They were short of log cabins that year,” he used to jest. Never mind. The drugstore served just as well in subsequent oratory. When the Humphreys moved to Doland, S. Dak., the drugstore there became an unofficial town meeting hall, presided over by the elder Hubert Humphrey, a devout prairie Democrat. Recalled the younger Humphrey: “I can never remember going to bed before midnight since I was twelve years old, except when I was sick. There was always talk, talk, talk.”

Hubert went to the University of Minnesota, but he had to come home after his sophomore year. The Great Depression had struck, and his father needed him to help at the drugstore. For six years Hubert dispensed prescriptions and vaccinated hogs. Hard times confirmed him in the fundamentalist liberal faith from which he would rarely deviate in the years ahead. But even the darkest periods were usually sunny for Hubert. He met a hometown girl, Muriel Buck, at a dance, and she began eating lunch at the Humphrey drugstore. The pair were married and eventually had four children. Always quietly supportive, Muriel gamely campaigned for her husband, but she did not share his round-the-clock devotion to politics. She liked to cook, sews her own clothes and concentrate on family affairs. She tried in vain to keep her husband from running for President every four years.

In 1937 Hubert returned to the University of Minnesota, where he majored in political science and graduated Phi Beta Kappa. When World War II broke out, he tried repeatedly to enlist, but was turned down because of a double hernia and lung calcification. (During the crucial West Virginia presidential primary in 1960, he was unjustly accused of being a draft dodger by John Kennedy’s supporters.) He served as Minnesota state director of war-production training, and in 1943 ran for mayor of Minneapolis. He lost, largely because the liberal vote was split between the Democratic Party and the Farmer-Labor Party. After the election Humphrey brought the two together in a merger that has dominated Minnesota politics ever since. Later he pushed out the Communists, who had become influential in the new Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, thereby earning the enduring enmity of the far left.

With the D.F.L. Party behind him, Humphrey had no trouble getting elected mayor of Minneapolis in 1945 at the age of 34. Brash and boisterous, he proceeded to clean up the city’s brothels, its police force, and its image in general. Said a Minneapolis newspaper: “He puts firecrackers under everything.” Humphrey agreed: “I got the people all steamed up.”

That was nothing compared to the fire he kindled as a delegate to the 1948 Democratic National Convention. He became an overnight liberal celebrity when he made a public demand for a strong civil rights plank in the party platform. “The time has arrived,” he told the convention, “for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.” The plank was adopted, provoking the creation of the Dixiecrat Party, which threatened to cut deeply into the Democrats’ normally heavy Southern vote. Defeat seemed assured for the Democratic nominee, Harry Truman. But Truman won, and so did Humphrey, who was running for the U.S. Senate.

As soon as he arrived in Washington in 1949, Humphrey started tossing firecrackers again. In his maiden speech he announced that he had come to shake things up. “What the people want is for the Senate to function,” he declared. “Sometimes I think we become so cozy —we feel so secure in our six-year term —that we forget that the people want things done.” He spoke on every subject at every opportunity. “I can’t help it,” he explained. “It’s glands.”

But the more he spoke, the less he seemed to accomplish. He was frozen out by the Southern barons, who considered him a scandal. Eventually came the thaw. Georgia Senator Richard Russell called him a “damn fool,” but any fool could learn, apparently, if he was tutored by Russell. Humphrey was also coached by that master strategist of the possible, Lyndon Johnson, who saw in the fiery freshman a possible avenue to the liberal support he needed in his quest for the presidency. It was a useful alliance on both sides, and it led to the vice presidency for Humphrey. But the cost was high: growing dependence on an overbearing personality who brooked no opposition and demanded total loyalty.

A new, wiser Humphrey began to emerge. He discovered compromise and maneuver and made friends within the Senate Establishment. That cost him some old friends, as he found himself at odds with more dogmatic liberals. “If I believe in something, I will fight for it with all I have,” he explained. “But I do not demand all or nothing. I would rather get something than nothing. Professional liberals want glory in defeat. The hardest job for a politician today is to have the courage to be moderate.”

As Humphrey developed his legislative skills, as he changed from one of the least popular members of Congress to one of the most popular, he became a logical contender for the presidency. It became for him, as for others, a near obsession. In 1960 he figured he had a chance. The man to beat was Senator John Kennedy, who was plunging into the primaries to demonstrate his appeal. The battle seesawed until the West Virginia primary, where the Kennedys spent a fortune to overcome the opposition to the candidate’s Roman Catholicism. Humphrey’s loss finished him off in the campaign. “I feel like an independent merchant competing against a chain store,” he said. Always a good loser and fast rebounder, he served as a loyal, effective Senate whip during the Kennedy Administration. It seemed to be the ideal post for his talents and the culmination of his career.

Then came Kennedy’s assassination, and Lyndon Johnson looked around for a running mate in 1964. Still the favorite of many liberals, Humphrey was the natural choice for a mistrusted Southerner with links to big oil. But Lyndon flirted with a variety of other possibles and kept Humphrey uncomfortably dangling until the convention was under way. Humphrey was not offended and grabbed the post when it was finally offered. “I weighed this decision not long but carefully,” he said. “If there’s one quality I do not have, it’s reluctance.”

Perhaps a little reluctance would have helped. Humphrey was so hungry for the job that he bore the L.B.J. brand with hardly more complaint than the cattle on the ranch. In his autobiography, The Education of a Public Man, Humphrey described how Johnson invited him to the ranch and in the course of the visit ordered him to shoot a deer. The Vice President-elect, who abhorred hunting, did as he was told with obvious distaste. So Johnson told him to bag another deer. Once again, Humphrey obeyed his Commander in Chief. It was to be that kind of relationship for the duration of the Johnson Administration.

The rush, the scope, the energy of the Great Society was a perfect reflection of Humphrey as well as of Johnson; they were the ideal team to guide an innovative domestic Government. But they were distracted and eventually overwhelmed by the war in Viet Nam. As the conflict drew increasing liberal criticism, so too did the Vice President. He also grew doubtful about the war, but he had to defend it to the hilt in public. Otherwise, Johnson would have cut him dead and, after choosing not to run again in 1968, L.B.J. would not have supported Humphrey for President. Many liberals never forgave Humphrey for this loyalty to a lost cause or for having the temerity to differ with them.

By the time the 1968 convention arrived, the Vice President was the sworn enemy of a vocal and sometimes violent segment of the Democratic Party. Even while Humphrey was exuberantly kissing the TV set that announced his nomination, the demonstrators outside his hotel were locked in combat with the Chicago cops. “The whole environment of politics had come apart,” he said later. “I mean it had become polluted and destroyed and violent.” He rewrote his acceptance speech with the aim of calming passions and restoring a semblance of unity. “I literally prayed that I could get a hold of that audience and not have them walk out on me because of the humiliation of it. the incredible humiliation.” He held his audience, but he sank in the polls, starting the campaign 15 percentage points behind his Republican opponent Nixon.

Humphrey waged a gallant uphill battle. Many members of his party had written him off as a hopeless case, and antiwar liberals sat on their hands and sniped at him. But his ebullient, heart-on-the-sleeve campaigning, in contrast with Nixon’s plodding, uncommunicative style, made it a horse race. Humphrey was gaining in the polls and lost a squeaker. Had the election been held a day or two later, he might have had the momentum to overtake Nixon. With his usual candor, Humphrey admitted that he could not bring himself to read about Richard and Pat Nixon descending the White House stairway to the strains of Hail to the Chief.

In another rebound two years later, Humphrey was elected to the Senate with a walloping plurality. He returned to the wars with undiminished zest and the accumulated experience of three decades in politics. As an elder statesman, he quickly gravitated to a leadership position. He tried again for the presidency in 1972, but was mowed down by the New Left juggernaut behind George McGovern.

Totally absorbed in politics, Humphrey never had much time for other interests, always excepting his family. He was not much of a sports man, but he loved to go out fishing on the lake by his Waverly home with some of his ten grandchildren. Or he might take family or friends out for a spin in his Model A Ford. Driving no faster than 25 m.p.h., he would chortle: “Now I wanta tell you, you’d better hang on tight because old Barney Oldfield here doesn’t slow down for corners.” But he invariably, lawfully did.

All his life Humphrey subscribed to the gospel of social uplift. Though a Congregationalist, he was not a regular churchgoer; he figured he would be judged by his deeds. “I was taught that religion is something you live every day, and not just for Sunday,” he explained. If anything brought him closer to God, he felt, it was the birth of his first granddaughter, Vicky, a mongoloid child, now 17. “Why us?” he thought. “We couldn’t understand why. But out of that experience came a whole new sense of values for our family. This little girl taught us more love than all the Sunday school teaching I’ve had. I began to really understand what it means to love and be loved.”

Then came a blow that brought him perhaps still closer to God. In 1973 growths on his bladder were diagnosed as possibly cancerous, and he was bombarded with radiation—a treatment that was as searing as the disease. “It was the most terrible experience of my life,” he said. He seemed to make a recovery and announced his availability for the presidency in 1976, but for the first time he was unwilling to submit to the grueling primary fights. The prize went to a newcomer named Jimmy Carter. Just before the election, the doctors discovered that Humphrey did have cancer, and his bladder was removed, along with much of the old vitality. He looked aged and wan, though his eyes still danced and his tongue was not stilled.

He loyally supported Carter in the Senate and gave him some sage advice straight off the drugstore shelf. When Carter pledged to balance the budget and cure inflation and unemployment all at once, Humphrey told him that if he succeeded, “we’re gonna get you a brand new book in the Bible. You’re gonna have one all your own.” He cautioned the President not to quarrel too much with Congress. “The Republicans will put it out that Democrats do not know how to govern.” The President, said Humphrey, should use television as much as possible. “TV is the key. People don’t want to read, not even the weather report.” Carter, the Senator insisted, must inspire Americans the way Franklin Roosevelt did. “You have to have people saying of Jimmy Carter, That’s my man.’ “

Humphrey fought desperately to stay alive as long as he could. He submitted to experimental, vastly painful and debilitating drugs in the hope that if they were of no use to him, they might eventually benefit others. Once it was clear that his cancer was inoperable and therefore terminal, he returned to Washington from Waverly last October. He was greeted by the most spontaneous outpouring of affection for a politician in living memory. It was as if his obituary were being written collectively by a country that had finally learned to appreciate him at his full worth. Parties were held in his honor even if he could not attend. A new HEW building was named after him, and funds were collected to start a Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. Old foes forgot their grievances or were ashamed of them. A man wrote apologizing for his “rude and inconsiderate behavior” in disrupting a Humphrey speech in Boston in 1968. He could be sure that all was forgiven—and probably long ago. Republican Senator Robert Dole said that it was easy to disregard the political differences. “You look at all the pluses of Humphrey, and they are endless. He has that certain quality that brings out the best in everyone.”

Humphrey was the latest in a distinguished line of Senators, from Henry Clay and Daniel Webster to Robert La Follette and Arthur Vandenberg, whose impact on public life was greater than that of most Presidents. He did not achieve his lifelong dream of the presidency, but he inspired and sustained the dreams of many others for a better America. “The good old days were never that good, believe me,” he once said. “The good new days are today, and better days are coming tomorrow. Our greatest songs are still unsung.” Yet many of them were sung by Hubert Horatio Humphrey.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *