The 40th anniversary of Hubert Humphrey’s death on Jan. 13, 1978, finds fewer and fewer Minnesotans who remember a decent man who did great things as mayor of Minneapolis, as a U.S. senator and as vice president of the United States.
We were blessed to have worked for Humphrey in Washington and during his sadly unsuccessful campaign for president in 1968. He lost to Republican Richard Nixon by less than 1 percent of the vote. The Vietnam War that Humphrey had first opposed, then had begrudgingly supported, had torn the country apart and certainly contributed to his defeat.
It was the nation’s loss as well. Humphrey had a vision of America, an achievable vision in which inequality, hate and ignorance were at least diminished, if not eliminated. He felt that the political process should lead us closer to that goal.
Now, 40 years after his death, our country is close to a national nervous breakdown. So we ask, “What would Hubert Humphrey have to say about our country’s current political situation and, of more significance, what would Humphrey do if he were still in public office?”
In speech after speech, year after year, Humphrey would recall the opening words of the U.S. Constitution: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union … .”
In Humphrey’s mind, these words captured the essence of American democracy. “We the people” decide. Not some hereditary monarch or unelected autocrat or well-heeled lobbyist but “We the people.” While the reality often seemed otherwise, Humphrey never lost faith in this ideal. It would still motivate and direct his actions today.
He typically would then spell out how our union fell short of perfection, in area after area, but he’d always lay out his ideas for moving down the difficult path of making it better. What was his vision?
Humphrey’s universe of caring was broad and deep, seemingly without boundaries. He got into just about everything there was to get into. He truly subscribed to, and frequently repeated, Franklin Roosevelt’s doctrine that “the test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, it is whether we provide enough for those who have little.”
Humphrey cared about farmers and agriculture, having grown up in rural South Dakota during the Great Depression and witnessing firsthand the struggles of rural America to survive. He fought for price supports, rural loans, rural economic development and research, and creative ways to use America’s agricultural abundance to fight hunger — at home through food stamps and overseas through the Food for Peace program that he created.
Humphrey cared about the lives of working men and women. Whether the issue was fair labor practices, collective bargaining, worker safety or youth unemployment, he believed that ordinary Americans needed someone to stick up for them, and he devoted his life to doing that.
Humphrey cared deeply about civil rights. As mayor of Minneapolis — known in the mid-1940s as the anti-Semitism capital of America — he created the nation’s first equal-employment commission. He electrified the delegates to the 1948 Democratic National Convention when he proclaimed from the podium that the Democratic Party needed “to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.”
Later that year he was elected as Minnesota’s first Democratic senator and promptly began pushing a broad civil-rights agenda — anti-lynching legislation, equal employment opportunity, voting rights, school desegregation.
For more than a decade, Southern Democrats had seen to it that such proposals were killed or ignored. But Humphrey — and the nation — triumphed in the end with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The 1964 bill passed against tremendous odds when Humphrey reached an agreement with Everett M. Dirksen of Illinois, the Senate Republican leader, to shut down the Southern Democratic filibuster that had successfully blocked or watered down earlier civil-rights measures.
Humphrey cared about building a more peaceful and secure world. He proposed and fought for ratification of the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963 that stopped all nuclear testing in the atmosphere. Indeed, when President John Kennedy signed the treaty, he said to Humphrey, “This is your treaty, Hubert, and it better work.”
Humphrey developed the idea of creating an Arms Control and Disarmament Agency to work for the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons by all nations. In 1957, he first proposed creation of the Peace Corps and later convinced President Kennedy to take the lead in getting it enacted by Congress in 1961.
Humphrey cared about making quality health care available to every American. His first bill as a senator was for a health insurance program for the elderly that would be financed through Social Security. Fifteen years later, this idea reemerged as Medicare. Trained as a pharmacist in the 1930s, Humphrey consistently fought for safer and more affordable medication for everyone.
One final element tied all this together. Decency. Humphrey never forgot the lessons he learned as a kid growing up. You are decent to others. Not because you gain some personal advantage, but because decency is at the core of your humanity.
Consider the story of Humphrey and Freedman’s Hospital.
In 1963, acting on an anonymous tip, Humphrey made a surprise early morning visit to a decrepit teaching hospital — Freedman’s Hospital at Howard University in the District of Columbia. Created in 1862 for African-American slaves, the hospital was, by the 1960s, in deplorable shape.
Horrified at what he discovered, Humphrey went immediately to the Senate floor and spoke about it for half an hour. He then introduced legislation that eventually resulted in a new Howard University Medical Center, one of only two predominantly African-American medical schools in America.
What motivated a senator from Minnesota to come to the rescue of a struggling African-American teaching hospital in the nation’s capital? The answer is not complicated: He cared. About the lives, hopes and dreams of everyone.
Today, Humphrey would be working ceaselessly to revive civility in our national politics, reaching out in particular to Republicans when the opportunity arose, just as he did in the civil-rights struggle of 1964. Even senators who disagreed with Humphrey on just about everything considered him a friend and valued colleague.
Once, in the middle of a spirited debate over civil rights in 1964, one of the Senate’s most conservative Southern Democrats opposing the bill, A. Willis Robertson of Virginia, marched across the Senate chamber and pinned a Confederate emblem on Humphrey’s lapel, saying, “I want this to be a mark of my respect for the distinguished senator from Minnesota with whom I profoundly disagree on the wisdom of this legislation.”
Whereupon the two opponents locked arms and adjourned to Robertson’s office for a late-afternoon libation.
Humphrey thought every American had a right to a good life. Today, he would be working to close the income gap between rich and poor, restoring a sense of hope and self-respect to working families. He would be outraged that the American economy was operating to enrich further those who already possess great abundance and leaving behind millions of Americans who struggle just to stay even.
He would be strengthening international alliances to further reduce the nuclear threat. He had no illusions about ever achieving absolute world peace, but he passionately believed humankind shared a mutual interest in preventing a nuclear holocaust, not encouraging one.
The simple truth is that those of us who knew him well and worked with him on numerous endeavors have no way of knowing what his imagination and creativity would produce today. We have every reason to believe, however, that the mind that spawned some of the 20th century’s most imaginative proposals, such as the Peace Corps, civil-rights legislation and the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, would be making a decisive difference today.
There have been few public servants who loved America more than Hubert Humphrey. This love drove him forward his entire life. The quotation on Humphrey’s grave marker in Minneapolis’ Lakewood Cemetery says it all: “I have enjoyed my life, its disappointments outweighed by its pleasures. I have loved my country in a way that some people consider sentimental and out of style. I still do and I remain an optimist, with joy, without apology, about this country and about the American experiment in democracy.”
We urgently need Hubert Humphrey’s humanity and vision today.
Norman Sherman, a native Minnesotan, worked in Hubert Humphrey’s Senate office, was Humphrey’s press secretary during Humphrey’s vice presidency, and edited Humphrey’s autobiography, “Education of a Public Man.” He is author of a memoir, “From Nowhere to Somewhere.”
John G. Stewart, of Knoxville, Tenn., was legislative director for Humphrey when Humphrey was a senator and vice president. He is the author of “When Democracy Worked: Reflections on the Passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964” and “Witness to the Promised Land.”