When I was asked to review "True Believer," my first reaction was: "But I just read another Hubert H. Humphrey book." Samuel Freedman's excellent "Into the Bright Sunshine" should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand Minneapolis' history of racism and antisemitism (among other reasons).
But James Traub's "True Believer" has a broader focus. Freedman's book details Humphrey's life from childhood through the 1948 Democratic National Convention speech that put HHH on the map. While the first 100 or so pages of Traub's book cover similar ground (and he cites Freedman's book in early chapters), "True Believer" moves beyond the famous civil rights speech and into his Senate career, vice presidency, unsuccessful bid for president and, finally, return to the Senate as elder statesman.
Traub doesn't hold back on Humphrey's challenging (I'm being charitable) relationship with President Lyndon B. Johnson, who could be cruel and punitive to his vice president. He explores Humphrey's evolving position on Vietnam, from initially supporting "counterinsurgency theory," which included political reform, to eventually — when the president demanded unquestioning loyalty — becoming the dependable foot soldier "justifying the war to its critics," even while privately "deeply skeptical of the war effort." And we know how much that unflinching support cost him politically.
Traub — a journalist and foreign policy columnist — draws parallels between Humphrey's liberalism and the left of today. But the politics of Humphrey's day seem at times almost quaint. LBJ urged Humphrey as majority leader to spend time with Minority Leader Everett Dirksen, to "let him have a piece of the action," to get the 1964 Civil Rights Act through the Senate. Humphrey visited Dirksen almost daily and praised him publicly. It's hard to imagine that happening in today's polarized climate.
And when Humphrey ran for president, LBJ summoned both major party candidates to his Texas ranch for Vietnam briefings — first Richard Nixon, then his own vice president. Later, Humphrey gave Henry Kissinger — whom he considered a friend — advice for then-President Nixon. A very different time.
Readers who want to dive deep into Humphrey's world will appreciate Traub's thorough reporting, although "True Believer" can at times read like a political science textbook with its detailed analysis of Humphrey's "Cold War liberalism" and "enhawkment."
It's at its best when bringing history to life with fascinating anecdotes, like the time he met JFK for a swim in the White House pool, heated to 90 degrees for the president's inflamed back. The two swam naked and Humphrey got the president to agree to an arms control agency.
Or when, shortly after being picked as LBJ's running mate, he is summoned to the ranch and Johnson makes him ride a "big, lively" horse that Humphrey can barely control, as the press looks on.
The nearly always joyful Humphrey never carried a grudge — at least not publicly — and when fellow Minnesota Sen. Walter Mondale asked him about the vice presidency, he responded: "Being vice president was the best thing that ever happened to me, regardless of how I was treated. You can get more done there in a day than you can up here in a year."
Laura McCallum is an editor at the Star Tribune.
True Believer: Hubert Humphrey's Quest for a More Just America
By: James Traub.
Publisher: Basic Books, 528 pages, $35.