Humphrey, Hubert Horatio, Jr.
HUMPHREY, Hubert Horatio, Jr.
(b. 27 May 1911 in Wallace, South Dakota; d. 13 January 1978 in Waverly, Minnesota), U.S. senator and vice president who became identified with activist social legislation and aggressive policies during the Vietnam War, prior to narrowly losing the presidency to Richard M. Nixon in 1968.
The son of Hubert Humphrey, Sr., a pharmacist, and Christine (Sannes) Humphrey, a housewife, Humphrey was raised in Doland, a small town in South Dakota, along with his older brother and two younger sisters. He gained a childhood interest in politics from his father, a Democrat who served as Doland's mayor in the 1920s. After earning a B.A. in political science at the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis–Saint Paul in 1939, Humphrey pursued graduate studies at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, completing an M.A. in 1940 before taking a job as the director of a Works Progress Administration (WPA) program training teachers in Duluth, Minnesota. On 3 September 1936 he married Muriel Fay Buck, who became his lifelong partner (and, briefly, his successor in the U.S. Senate following his death). They had four children.
In 1940 Humphrey joined the faculty of Macalester College in Saint Paul and edged toward a political career. From 1941 to 1945 he served as the state director of war production training and reemployment and as the assistant director of the War Manpower Commission. In 1943 he made an unsuccessful bid to become the mayor of Minneapolis; two years later, he won. Humphrey gained national attention in 1948 for his passionate speech on behalf of civil rights at the Democratic National Convention. That same year, he became the first Democrat ever elected to the U.S. Senate from Minnesota.
At first Humphrey was seen as a brash, confrontational liberal by his fellow senators. When his legislative battles for civil rights and labor law reform failed, he adopted a more conciliatory approach. He became a protégéof Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, who sharpened his skills at compromise. In 1956 he was considered as a running mate by the Democratic presidential nominee, Adlai Stevenson, although Stevenson chose Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee instead. Humphrey had reason to harbor national ambitions—he was well-regarded in Washington, D.C., for his expertise in labor, farm, and civil rights issues. His foreign policy credentials were enhanced by a highly publicized meeting with the Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev in late 1958.
Humphrey's chances of winning the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination rested on a strong showing in the primaries. His chief rival was Senator John F. Kennedy, who enjoyed the advantages of personal wealth and a glamorous image. The first primary between the two was on 5 April in Wisconsin, where Humphrey was a well-known campaigner who enjoyed support among union members and farmers. Although he tried to engage Kennedy on the issues, the senator from Massachusetts avoided debating Humphrey and emphasized his greater national appeal in a contest against the likely Republican nominee, Richard M. Nixon. Outspent and out-organized, Humphrey said he felt like "an independent merchant competing against a chain store." Kennedy won in Wisconsin, but his victory margin was small enough to encourage Humphrey to continue the fight into West Virginia. By this point, voters' misgivings about Kennedy's Catholic faith had become an issue, making the primary a referendum on intolerance. Dipping into his personal savings, Humphrey struggled against his opponent's increasing momentum. On 10 May, West Virginia's Democrats gave Kennedy 61 percent of the vote, effectively knocking Humphrey out of the race. He went on to campaign for Kennedy in the autumn and ran successfully for reelection to the Senate.
After Kennedy's narrow victory over Nixon, Humphrey was elected as the majority whip in the Senate and began his most fruitful period as a legislator. His warm personality and tireless energy helped him to turn into law such groundbreaking proposals as the establishment of the Peace Corps, Medicare, Food for Peace, and the first nuclear test ban treaty. His most impressive accomplishment was the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Forging an alliance with key Republicans such as Everett Dirksen, Humphrey defeated a determined filibuster by southern senators to pass the first meaningful antiracial discrimination statute since Reconstruction. He was at the height of his influence when President Johnson tapped him to be his running mate in 1964. Humphrey took on the role with typical gusto, lambasting the Republican nominee, Barry Goldwater, in campaign stops across the country. The Johnson-Humphrey ticket won by a landslide.
Humphrey's term as the thirty-eighth U.S. vice president proved frustrating and often humiliating. At the start, he hoped to help shape the Johnson administration's domestic policy agenda. Instead, he watched his influence steadily diminish as he was given the role of cheerleader for the president. Johnson demanded absolute loyalty from his vice president and became enraged at any sign of independence on Humphrey's part. America's growing military presence in Vietnam became an early friction point. In February 1965 Humphrey sent Johnson a memo arguing against escalating the war. Johnson reacted angrily and shut Humphrey out of Vietnam strategy meetings. Rather than suffer further estrangement, the vice president put aside his doubts and defended Johnson's war policies in the United States and abroad. As time went on, Humphrey became a fervent champion of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia, comparing it to the struggle against the Nazis during World War II. His stance was tough and uncompromising—in 1966 he likened the inclusion of the Vietcong guerrilla forces in the South Vietnamese government to "putting a fox in the chicken coop." During a visit to Saigon in November 1967, he hailed the Vietnam War as "our great adventure—and what a wonderful adventure it is!"
Such remarks earned Humphrey the disdain of the U.S. antiwar movement. Many liberals saw him as a pathetic, even tragic figure, forsaking his own better judgment in order to curry Johnson's favor. Once criticized as too radical, he became identified with the Democratic Party's more conservative factions. When Johnson announced his decision not to seek reelection in March 1968, the Democratic old guard urged Humphrey to enter the presidential contest. He did so on 27 April in typically upbeat fashion, claiming to represent "the politics of joy." Rather than face his Democratic opponents Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy in the primaries, Humphrey methodically gathered delegates at party caucuses; by early summer, he was all but certain of nomination. Antiwar Democrats remained bitterly opposed to him, ensuring that the party's late August convention in Chicago would be rancorous. Supporters of McCarthy and George McGovern (who, like McCarthy, was a former Humphrey ally turned opponent) failed in an attempt to insert a peace plank into the Democratic platform. As police beat demonstrators in the Chicago streets and tear gas burned the eyes of delegates in their hotels, Humphrey won his party's nomination on the first ballot. He decried the violence outside the convention in an emotional acceptance speech. It was evident, though, that the wounds inflicted on the Democrats in Chicago would not be easily healed.
September voter surveys found Humphrey and his running mate, Senator Edmund S. Muskie of Maine, badly trailing Nixon, the Republican nominee. Polls also indicated that former Alabama Governor George Wallace, running as a conservative third-party candidate, was cutting into the Democratic vote among southern whites and northern union workers. Disorganized and underfunded, Humphrey struggled to establish himself as his own man without breaking ties with Johnson. Taunted by hecklers at campaign rallies and abandoned by the left wing of his party, he seemed headed for defeat. Retrenching, Humphrey began to turn his fortunes around on 30 September, when he advocated a bombing halt in Vietnam during a televised appearance in Salt Lake City, Utah. The move was bold enough to sway undecided voters and help raise needed campaign funds. Humphrey's poll numbers began to improve as he barnstormed the country with renewed vigor. The AFL-CIO and other labor unions mounted a massive effort on his behalf in key industrial states.
Still, many antiwar Democrats remained reluctant to support the Democratic ticket. Among the notable holdouts was McCarthy, who waited until late October to offer Humphrey a lukewarm endorsement. Straining to pull his party together, Humphrey campaigned furiously against Nixon and Wallace, offering a theme of national unity against his opponents' divisive "law and order" appeals. Miraculously, he had pulled even or taken a small lead in the polls by election day. When the voting was over, Humphrey had lost the presidency to Nixon by one of the narrowest margins in history, winning 191 electoral votes against Nixon's 301. In the popular vote, a mere 514,947 votes separated the two candidates. Humphrey's remarkable comeback had come agonizingly close to success. After his narrow defeat, Humphrey returned to Minneapolis to serve as a professor of public affairs at the University of Minnesota from 1968 to 1970.
Restless in private life, Humphrey returned to the U.S. Senate in 1970. Two years later, he tried for the Democratic presidential nomination once more, losing to McGovern after a hard-fought primary season. In 1976 he was again spoken of as a White House contender, but decided against running. Diagnosed with bladder cancer that same year, he won reelection to the Senate shortly before his health declined. On 5 January 1977 Humphrey's fellow Democrats elected him as the deputy president pro tem of the Senate. After a gallant struggle, he died in January 1978, mourned by old friends and foes alike. Humphrey's body lay in state in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol for public viewing before being interred in Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis.
In hindsight, Humphrey's accomplishments on behalf of civil rights, arms control, affordable health care, and other progressive policies have balanced the negative assessments of his vice presidential years. Ridiculed at times, his contributions to American life were undeniably substantial. "He was, it is true, the easiest politician in recent times to deride and make fun of," wrote the Baltimore Sun reporter Ernest Ferguson after his death. "He was also the easiest to love, for the simple reason that he himself was full of love. You might say he based his whole career on it."
Humphrey's papers are held by the Minnesota Historical Society in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Hubert H. Humphrey, The Education of a Public Man: My Life and Politics (1976), is an engaging though somewhat spotty memoir. Edgar Berman, Hubert: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Humphrey I Knew (1979), offers the perspective of a close friend. Carl Solberg, Hubert Humphrey: A Biography (1984), remains the best biography. Theodore H. White, The Making of the President, 1960 (1961), and Lewis Chester, Geoffrey Hodgson, and Bruce Page, An American Melodrama: The Presidential Campaign of 1968 (1969), provide detailed accounts of Humphrey's bids for the White House. Obituaries are in the New York Times (14 Jan. 1978), and Washington Post (15 Jan. 1978).