Hubert Horatio Humphrey was born in South Dakota.
in some ways he is a tragic figure, never fully realizing his potential, the promise he offered when he exploded on the national scene when in 1948 as Mayor of Minneapolis he gave a magnificent speech on behalf of Civil Rights at the Democratic National Convention, one result of which was that Strom Thurmond and the Dixiecrats walked out of the party, at least for that election.
And yet he is not completely forgotten. At his death in January of 1978, after he had returned to the Senate in 1971, he was considered important enough to lie in state in the Rotunda of the US Capitol.
Today, perhaps, some people will remember him, thanks in part to an op ed titled America's Forgotten Liberal by historian Rick Perlstein in today's. New York Times. If you read it you will get a sense of the tragedy of the man, including some of his triumphs as well as the disappointments.
I want to reflect some on both, including once again reminding people of some words I have often repeated here. The Perlstein piece will remind you of how much further right the national Democratic party is today than it was even in the early 1970s. And perhaps, just perhaps, the great tragedy of the election of 1968, which Humphrey lost relatively narrowly to Richard Nixon, might finally be apparent.
Let me start with the disappointments. Perlstein covers this well. As he writes of Humphrey,
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.
Johnson made the compromise at the convention in Atlantic City a condition of Humphrey joining the ticket. As I remember it, Humphrey designated the grunt work to two men, his protege Walter Mondale and Joseph Rauh of the ADA. This was such a bitter pill to swallow for some African Americans that when I was working Pennsylvania for Fritz Hollings in late 1983, when I reminded them of Humphrey's role in Atlantic City I was able to split some away from the lockstep support for Mondale. I remember one very distinguished elected official who told me bluntly that s/he had been betrayed by what Mondale had helped achieved in 1964 and she was not going to trust him again. This was compounded by the fact that Carter as President rejected much of what Humphrey had fought for in the Senate.
Humphrey's unwillingness to break from Johnson on Vietnmanafter he won the nomination in '68 was also critical. Up until them he had been a spokesman for the administration's policy on the war, viewing it in some ways through the lens of the old-line liberal he was. As Perlstein notes, Humphrey saw it as
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.
The Democratic party was split badly between those two wings, which hurt Humphrey's chances, particularly given that two strong strands within the party were those who had rallied around Eugene McCarthy starting in NH because of his opposition to the war, then later the strong flocking to Bobby Kennedy, who also broke with the administration on the war, only to be assassinated on the night of his important triumph in the California primary. Hiumphrey did break away, but by then, after the events at and around the convention in Chicago, the damage had been done.
I want to offer three things positive about Humphrey's legacy. I will work backwards.
First, let me begin with the words I so often quote, offered at the time the Health and Human Services Building was dedicated in his honor, on November 4, 1977, only a few short months before he passed:
It was once said that the moral test of Government is how that Government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.
The second is something about which Perlstein writes. Let me push fair use a bit with this selection from the op ed:
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.
Unemployment would go higher later on, first under Reagan in the early 80s, then now - remember, Reagan restated how unemployment was calculated so today's 9% is actually well into the double digits. Carter - who would pick Humphrey's protege Walter Mondale as his running mate, totally opposed this kind of commitment. And yet, as Perlstein notes, at the time it was proposed the commitment was supported by the editorial pages of the New York Times and 70% of Americans supported the idea that if people could not find a job government had an obligation to provide one. Contrast that to today. Then remember - in 1976 there were still many who had memories of the Great Depression and how government jobs created under the New Deal had made a difference. Now? One major party totally opposed the stimulus bill, and even the administration advocating it pushed for something far too small to effectively overcome the economic crisis, as economists like Paul Krugman pointed out at the time.
Let me finally explore the famous speech Humphrey gave in 1948. It was delivered on July 14 in Philadelphia, and is considered important enough that the entire text is available at American Rhetoric If you do not know it, you should read it, and consider in the context of the time. Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball's color barrier the year before. Truman's Executive Order 9981, desegregation our military, would be issued on July 26, only 12 days after Humphrey's speech.
Humphrey quoted a Southerner, Sen. Alben Barkley of Kentucky, speaking of Thomas Jefferson, described by Humphrey as "the founder of our Party" -
He did not proclaim that all the white, or the black, or the red, or the yellow men are equal; that all Christian or Jewish men are equal; that all Protestant and Catholic men are equal; that all rich and poor men are equal; that all good and bad men are equal. What he declared was that all men are equal; and the equality which he proclaimed was the equality in the right to enjoy the blessings of free government in which they may participate and to which they have given their support.
Humphrey was arguing for a civil rights plank in the platform of the party, a position he advocated on behalf of a minority report of the platform committee. Let me offer just a few more selections from the speech:
It seems to me -- It seems to me that the Democratic Party needs to to make definite pledges of the kinds suggested in the minority report, to maintain the trust and the confidence placed in it by the people of all races and all sections of this country. Sure, we’re here as Democrats. But my good friends, we’re here as Americans; we’re here as the believers in the principle and the ideology of democracy, and I firmly believe that as men concerned with our country’s future, we must specify in our platform the guarantees which we have mentioned in the minority report.
Yes, this is far more than a Party matter. Every citizen in this country has a stake in the emergence of the United States as a leader in the free world. That world is being challenged by the world of slavery. For us to play our part effectively, we must be in a morally sound position.
We can’t use a double standard -- There’s no room for double standards in American politics -- for measuring our own and other people’s policies. Our demands for democratic practices in other lands will be no more effective than the guarantee of those practices in our own country.
Note the farsightedness of Humphrey, seeing the connection between what we did at home as compared to how it would be perceived oveseas: Our demands for democratic practices in other lands will be no more effective than the guarantee of those practices in our own country. Other men of vision would come to this viewpoint. I think it in part influenced Earl Warren when he joined the Supreme Court, not just on Brown but on other issues as well. Our lack of progress on equality at home became a cudgel used by our international opponents to try to influence the newly emerging nations carved out from the decaying empires of the European nations.
My friends, to those who say that we are rushing this issue of civil rights, I say to them we are 172 years late. To those who say that this civil-rights program is an infringement on states’ rights, 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. People -- human beings -- this is the issue of the 20th century. People of all kinds -- all sorts of people -- and these people are looking to America for leadership, and they’re looking to America for precept and example.
172 years too late - a reference back to our founding as independent from Britain, to the promise contained in the Declaration of Independence, which could not make such assertion of equality because of opposition from the slave-holding South, an opposition that would continue in the drafting of the Constitution in 1787, and an issue not overcome by the three post-Civil War Amendments, 13, 14 and 15.
For all of us here, for the millions who have sent us, for the whole two billion members of the human family, our land is now, more than ever before, the last best hope on earth. And I know that we can, and I know that we shall began [sic] here the fuller and richer realization of that hope, that promise of a land where all men are truly free and equal, and each man uses his freedom and equality wisely well.
the last best hope on earth - words appropriately taken from Abraham Lincoln, who offered them in his annual message to Congress of December 1, 1862, one month before he would sign the Emancipation Proclamation. In this message he offered controversial ideas such as voluntary colonization of slaves and compensation for emancipation. Let me offer those words, bolded in the paragraph in which Lincoln placed them:
Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We -- even we here -- hold the power, and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free -- honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just -- a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless.
Humphrey was as are almost all men a mixture of achievement and failure, of nobility and pettiness, of generosity and of ambition. I cannot, however, help but wonder how different this nation might have been had he achieved his dream of the Presidency in 1968. I know that the kinds of things for which he advocated seem very far to the left for many today, which is a tragedy. It tells us how far we have slipped from the optimism and generosity of the period in which I was a young adult, in the 1960s and early 1970s, when despite Richard Nixon's presidency there was still a hope of making America a better place for all of its residents.
Let me close this meditation on the life and work of a man born a century ago with his words, the final words of that 1948 speech, and thenwish you in advance my usual hope. Note especially two words in this final paragraph: progressive democracy
My good friends, I ask my Party, I ask the Democratic Party, to march down the high road of progressive democracy. I ask this convention to say in unmistakable terms that we proudly hail, and we courageously support, our President and leader Harry Truman in his great fight for civil rights in America.