Hubert Humphrey, a Liberal Lost to History

“Man of the people” is a much over-used phrase, but if it applies to anyone, it’s to Hubert Humphrey, chief spokesman for liberalism a few decades ago. He never quite outgrew his roots, which was just as well. He grew up in Dalton, South Dakota (pop 900), where his father ran a drug store and he helped out. For a bright ambitious boy it was up the proverbial political ladder from mayor of Minneapolis to the U.S. Senate to the Vice Presidency and perhaps to the highest prize of all? Along the way he never forgot his origins and the people from whom he came. They were his lifelong passion.

This was demonstrated as he became a master legislator in the U.S. Senate. You name the issue for the betterment of humanity, as he saw it, and he effectively supported it – civil rights, education, medical care, arms control, genuine economic equality. This near unparalleled reach of the federal government was his liberalism, but he gave it a happy face. If you’re going to remake America over the objection of many, you may as well be cheerful about it. He was without guile – no lies, bribes, blackmail, not even routine arm twisting. His biographer Carl Solberg writes that he was wordy and corny in his endless speech giving but also extremely likable.

To be sure, he was not without his fights. An early one was with the communists, then a power in the U.S. Initially, he had worked with them, even opposing President Roosevelt’s removal of Henry Wallace as vice president because of his communist connections. But he wasn’t left enough. While mayor of Minneapolis, he was prevented from giving a speech at the convention of his Democratic-Farm-Labor party by communists who spit on him and cursed him as a fascist. He became a lifelong anti-communist and supported major U.S. measures against the Soviet Union in the Cold War.

He thought he had the right collection of policies to achieve the Presidency, his lifelong ambition, but his major obstacle turned out to be a fellow liberal Democrat of a far different stamp, President Lyndon Johnson, who craved power above all else. He was contemptuous of Humphrey’s benign brand of politics, though he felt he had to name him vice president in 1964 because of his national popularity. A dramatic falling out came over the Vietnam war. Humphrey felt a settlement was needed to end a war that was eventually lost and presented LBJ with a memo praising the President’s skills as a negotiator. The war obsessed President was furious and locked Humphrey out of any more talks on Vietnam and belittled him at every opportunity. Doubling down on his loyalty to LBJ didn’t do Humphrey any good as he outhawked the President. His liberalism over shadowed, he lost the 1968 Presidential election to Republican Richard Nixon.

He might have done better to have followed the example of the great populist-liberal William Jennings Bryan, who resigned from a top post in government rather than approve U.S. entrance into the catastrophic First World War. Humphrey’s liberal convictions would still be unsullied and setting an example for today’s more truculent version. He showed that venom is not needed to attain liberal ends, in fact is counter productive. His was a Humphrey style search for new ideas instead of an assumption that they have already been found and must be imposed. Coercion in the realm of ideas is not liberalism. 

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