Thursday, August 20, 2009



It was a kinder, gentler, and, in many ways, a much nobler time. People were far more civil back then, as they had shared a unique and almost universal commonality. His country had just left a terrible economic catastrophe which had seen millions go hungry and without work. It had also been involved in a horrifically bloody and costly war. Many returned soldiers were still without jobs and there was a housing shortage as well. A new enemy was devouring territory overseas and had declared its determination to conquer the world. Though it seemed that the absolute worst of the preceding few years had passed, much had been lost and many were gripped with an uneasy and gnawing fear. The future seemed uncertain at best. In such a foreboding atmosphere, he decided to run for high political office in an effort to bring hope to millions and improve their lot in life.

He was a member of "the greatest generation", and like most others of that time, he had come from very humble roots. Son of a small town pharmacist, he was raised in a small midwestern village of only 700 people. From this simple and austere setting, he dreamed of some day becoming a college professor. The dream was seemingly dashed, however, once the Great Depression hit. He had to leave the university in his first year of study to work in and help save the small family drug store. To do so, it became clear that he, like his father, must also become a pharmacist, and so he buckled down to learn the trade. This extremely bright and dedicated young man amazingly completed a two-year course of study in only six months' time and received his Pharmacist's License from the Capitol College of Pharmacy in Denver, CO. Over the next 7 years, he worked tirelessly in the family store until it had once again become prosperous, this in the middle of the worst economic downturn in the nation's history.

By 1937, his hard work had made it possible for him to return to college. Two years later he had earned a B.A. from the University of Minnesota. The very next year, he attended Louisiana State University (where a classmate of his was future Louisiana Senator Russell B. Long). Here he obtained his Master's Degree in Political Science. Ever gregarious, friendly, and energetic, he along the way became a brother of the Phi Delta Chi (Theta Division) fraternity, and also an honorary brother of Alpha Phi Alpha, an African-American fraternity. This was a rather remarkable occurrence for a white man of his era. But then war broke out, and the direction of his life took another turn.

Like most men of that time, he felt compelled to help his country fight to victory. After two failed attempts at enlistment (he was rejected due to a hernia), he worked in several different wartime agencies over the next few years to aid the cause. He began to notice the positive effect government agencies could play in people's lives, and so became interested in government and politics as a practical career. He ran for mayor of Minneapolis but was defeated due to an inadequately funded campaign. Undaunted, he remained active in politics, and played a pivotal role in merging Minnesota's laborers and farmers with the state's Democratic Party. The resultant DFL (Democratic-Farmer-Labor) Party he helped forge back then became, and remains to this day, Minnesota's dominant political party. On his second try, he was successful in his bid to become mayor of Minneapolis, and was reelected by a record margin two years after that. He had enacted many local beneficial reforms and had been successful in removing undesirable criminals from the city.

And so it was in 1948 that he decided to make a bid for even higher office. He figured that, if he achieved the office of U.S. Senator, he would be able to work for the betterment of millions all across the country rather than just several hundred thousand on a local level. That year he became the first Democratic Senator from Minnesota in 47 years, and the first Democrat actually elected to the Senate from that state since 1858!It was an amazing accomplishment. He didn't fully realize it then, but he had engineered a huge political shift for his state. But the best was yet to come.

Even prior to his senatorial election, he undertook a principled, courageous, and controversial fight to end racial discrimination. At the 1948 Democratic National Convention, he took to the microphone and boldly proclaimed, "To those who say, we are rushing this issue of civil rights, I say to them we are 172 years too late...the time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states' rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights!"

Once elected, he spent the next 15 years steadfastly working for civil rights, the cause of labor, and government aid for the less fortunate. He once admonished, "Compassion is not weakness, and concern for the unfortunate is not socialism." He advocated the idea of the Peace Corps, which President John F. Kennedy adopted and established in 1961. He was passionate and articulate and loved to deliver a forceful speech. Comic Johhny Carson once jokingly referred to him as "Minnesota Chats", a pun on the nickname of "Minnesota Fats" which had been given to a popular billiards player of the day. His joyous and smiling approach to politics earned him the praise and admiration of his colleagues, even political foes. While known for his dramatic and fiery public oratory, he was also very adept at soft-spoken, behind-the-scenes listening, negotiating, and compromising. Conservative Republican Barry Goldwater once said of him, "listening to him is like trying to read Playboy magazine with your wife turning the pages." For, while forceful and excitable, he was also very thorough, as well as respectful and quick-witted. On another occasion, Goldwater recalled, "After one of his long-winded speeches I suggested he had been vaccinated with a phonograph needle. He responded by saying that I would have been a great success in the movies working for Eighteenth Century Fox."

He went on to become his nation's 38th Vice President, serving under President Lyndon B. Johnson. As Vice President, Hubert H. Humphrey continued with his expertise in listening, negotiating, and compromising. He worked with his old Senate colleagues and was instrumental in getting civil rights, voting rights, Medicare, Fair Housing, and other progressive LBJ legislation through Congress, back in that golden era when Congress actually delivered a great deal of benefit for average working people, farmers, and the poor, not just big business.

Humphrey was narrowly defeated by Richard Nixon in 1968 when he ran for the presidency. He went back home to Minnesota to teach political science at Macalaster College. Voters returned him to the U.S. Senate two years later, and he remained there the rest of his life. I consider myself lucky to have actually met him and shaken his hand briefly in 1975. He had a big, powerful hand with surprisingly tender palms. I remember thinking at the time how that hand had probably shaken 1 million others prior to having shaken mine, for he had met people all across the country and throughout the world in his long career. The very next year, I had the distinct pleasure of seeing him deliver a stump speech in southern Minnesota on behalf of then-presidential candidate Jimmy Carter. I had driven down to see and hear both men speak in an open field and see how they would fare before a crowd in this normally fairly conservative Republican area of the state. Humphrey launched into a fiery "give-'em-hell-Hubert" type of tirade about how Earl Butz, Gerald Ford, and the Republicans had ruined the rural and agricultural economy, and how Jimmy Carter would set things right. At the end of his speech, Humphrey had a good number of those Republicans loudly cheering that day. It was a sight to behold! (Of course, that was back in the days when Republicans actually listened to, and compromised with, their opponents, and didn't try to disrupt political gatherings, or, like spoiled, unruly little children, shout out those not sharing their view. Our country AND the Republican Party were in far saner, more civil, and much better shape in that way back at that time)!

When Humphrey died in 1978, his funeral was attended by hundreds of world and American political leaders, friend and foe alike. All came to pay their last, heartfelt, genuine respects to the man who had been dubbed "the happy warrior" and who had celebrated and fought for the causes of equal rights, fairness, and opportunity for the entire human race.

I have no doubt that Hubert H. Humphrey would be delighted to see we have elected Barack Obama as our first President of African-American heritage. He would likewise be delighted that we now have Sonia Sotomayor as our first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice. And I am certain that he would be an avidly vocal supporter of a universal, public option (if not an outright single-payer) national health care bill, just as he had strongly supported Medicare in 1965. There is absolutely no way this great fighter for justice would have allowed today's greedy and exclusive health insurance and pharmaceutical companies to fleece the public as they have been doing steadily for the past two decades. He would have lambasted and shamed them publicly, and thrashed them for their excesses. His would be a leadership we could use today. He would do as he always did: strongly voice his support for public health care reform publicly, let tthe piggish-monied interests know he meant business, and then privately listen to and negotiate with the opposition to get a meaningful and beneficial bill passed. His approach would not be like that of Mitch McConnell, or John Kyl, or Jim DeMint, or Eric Cantor, or John Boehner, whereby all one says is "no" and tries to gin up angry protestors across the country for the benefit of lobbyists and big insurance companies. For Humphrey worked on behalf of, and truly understood, average working people and those who need special help, not big business and corrupt corporate lobbyists. He never forgot the hard-pressed people who were all around him as he came of age, the difficulties his own family had faced, or how government could be a good and effective means to help better everyone's lives. He would stand today with the positive-oriented and visionary Dennis Kuciniches, Bernie Sanderses, Anthony Weiners, and Sherrod Browns in government, not with the previously mentioned naysayers. Hubert H. Humphrey would now rise and state, with firm conviction, that "those who say we are rushing this issue of universal national health care, I say to you we are 233 years too late, and the time has come for Government to get out of the dark shadows of exclusion and obsession with excessive private profit and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of providing for universal human needs!"




Vigilante said...

Jack, my friend, you left something out.

By 1968 Hubert Horatio Humphrey had become a traitor to the Progressive cause by his obsequious obeisance to Lyndon Johnson's Vietnam War. He even seem to be trying to breathe more life into it than LBJ. Perhaps he was condemned by history to play his part. Robert F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination had already decapitated the Progressive movement. Humphrey couldn't pick up the mantle because he had - already - too much Vietnam blood on his hands. And in the election campaign of 1968, he didn't even try washing it off.

Vigilante said...

In all due respect, I don't think we could use HHH's leadership today. BHO seems to be treading in HHH's footsteps in Afghanistan too much as it is.

Jack Jodell said...

Guys, you raise valid points on the foreign policy side of HHH's coin, but on the domestic policy face of that coin, we could definitely use a man like him today. For back in 1968, we had numerous strong progressive voices in the House and Senate, even after RFK's death. Harry Reid is no Mike Mansfield, Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern, Frank Church, Abe Ribicoff, Claiborne Pell, Edmund Muskie, or (then) Teddy Kennedy. Now THOSE were the days!

I deliberately chose to focus on HHH's strengths in domestic policy so as to tie in with the great domestic policy issue of this time, health care reform. That is why I didn't even make mention of Vietnam, which was indeed a great national mistake.

Max's Dad said...

While just a kid in 1968, I remember my Dad busting his rump to elect the Hump while the self destructive anti-war movement chanted Dump The Hump and we got Nixon. Thanks a lot for that. It worked out so well for us. HHH was a great man with faults. Nobody is perfect, except of course Noam Chomsky & Bernie Sanders. Great post, Jack.

Vigilante said...

It was HHH who was self-destructive. The best you can say is that he was loyal (to LBJ) to a fault. Nixon lied and said he had a "Secret Plan" to end the war. The best HHH could offer against that was more of LBJ. Two assassin's bullet killed off the Progressive movement. The liberals were blood-stained.

Jack Jodell said...

MD, you're very right to characterize HHH as a great man with faults. He was a tremendous giant on the domestic side for the poor, working people, and minorities. And yes, Vigil, he did himself in on Vietnam, and was indeed loyal to LBJ to a fault. But I think anybody serving as VP under LBJ would have had to tow the line. Remember what LBJ said beforehand what he was looking for in a VP: "I want a man who will kiss my ass in Macy's front window and will say it smells like roses." Humphrey, having been trounced in the 1960 primaries by the wealthy JFK, knew that the only way he could ever hope to become VP or President, being of far more modest finances, would be to go along with LBJ. It didn't work out well for him, though. RFK, of course, hated LBJ all along so he would never have been his VP...

None of this diminishes HHH's undeniably superb record on social or economic issues, though, and that was the reason for this post. Were he in the Senate today, he would lead a very vocal and public charge against the insurance industry's and GOP's ginned up rabblerousing and lying about government-run health care, and we wouldn't be in the pickle we're in right now. Limp wristed Harry Reid has not led such a charge.

Vigilante said...

Conceded. The Harry Reid card is trump, every time you play it.

Manifesto Joe said...

Hubert was a flawed hero not unlike LBJ. Uncle Lyndon (I'm originally from around his neck of the woods) wore the albatross of Vietnam around his neck his whole life; but thanks to him, an awful lot of poor boys like me got to go to college, and civil rights made a quantum leap.

I remember Hubert going to the LBJ ranch upon the 1965 inauguration, and he was wearing a sort of designer Western outfit. The two of them were on the cover of Life magazine. Well, he was doing his best. I always liked HHH, a lot. I'm as proud as punch to have been around to appreciate him.

Manifesto Joe said...

Re Lyndon: By the albatross "his whole life," I mean the years after Gulf of Tonkin. Thought I'd better clarify that.

Jack Jodell said...

I'm with you, Manifesto Joe. Both LBJ and HHH were flawed heroes due to Vietnam, yet both did a great deal of good for humanity through the domestic legislation they pushed through. I just wish we had such forceful and vocal leadership today to help get "Medicare for All" passed! For there are far too few Russ Feingolds, Bernie Sanderses, Sherrod Browns, Ted Kennedys, Anthony Weiners and Dennis Kuciniches in Congress today to get the job done!

Vigilante said...

Jack! Did you leave out my Barbie Boxer just out of spite?

Jack Jodell said...

No. Sorry, Vigilante, she definitely belongs in the "A" list, too---I mistakenly overlooked her (but I'd only give Feinstein a B or B-). And I can't wait for Barbara Boxer to kick Fiorina's butt royally in the next election!

Stella by Starlight said...

I second Vig. Barbara Boxer is one of the best Senators out there. I'm on her mailing list and am at a loss to state when I've ever disagreed with her. When she stood up to Inohofe, no longer the Chair of the Environmental Committe, Boxer raised her gavel and stated, "You don't do this anymore. Elections have consequences."

As far as HHH, he certainly followed LBJ's example and, as Jack stated, was great man with faults. He took over the country during Viet Nam. I wouldn't have had the guts.

Before you all go off about LBJ, I need to write another side of the story. Yes, he was a mean, old bastard that picked up his bloodhound by the ears. His deployment and subsequent deaths of thousands of troops in 'Nam was unspeakable. But few people are all evil (except Cheney, Woo, Rumsfeld,...well, you get the idea).

I think it's only fair to point out that Johnson did care about Americans' well being and worked tirelessly to realize JFK's dream of equality. With Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to enact the Civil Rights Bill in 1964. His plan for the Great Society is a plan I wish we had today.

Because of LBJ's programs:

* Between 1965 and 1968, black-family income rose from 54 percent to 60 percent of white-family income.

* As president, he wanted to use his power aggressively to eliminate poverty and spread the benefits of prosperity to all.

* Johnson took office determined to secure the measures that Kennedy had sought. Immediate priorities were bills to reduce taxes and guarantee civil rights.

* On the economic front, Johnson pushed successfully for a tax cut, then pressed for a poverty program Kennedy had initiated.

* Medical care came next. Truman had proposed a centralized scheme more than 20 years earlier, but had failed to gain congressional passage. Under Johnson's leadership, Congress enacted Medicare, a health insurance program for the elderly, and Medicaid, a program providing health-care assistance for the poor.

* Johnson succeeded in the effort to provide aid for elementary and secondary schooling where Kennedy had failed.

* The Johnson administration also addressed transportation safety issues, in part because of the efforts of a young lawyer, lobbyist and consultant named Ralph Nader. In his 1965 book, Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile.

I will never support the endless killing of 50,000 troops that Johnson enacted in Viet Nam. Nor can I forget the many that came home irrevocably damaged&mash;both physically and mentally. Viet Nam, like Iraq, was also a "war of choice" from which the French escaped in 1952.

However, LBJ deserves credit for his efforts. Humphrey followed his lead, and I'm not sure the "albatross" of LBJ was necessarily a negative.

And LBJ had the gonads to admit he was wrong and not run for a second term. Of course, he knew he couldn't win—but at least he had the common sense to recognize that fact.

Please read the link I provided. HHH merely tried to follow LBJ's plan to heal America and follow the blueprint laid by JFK. To this day, I am still divided about LBJ.

And I'll lay a smack down on anyone that criticizes the great Lady Bird Johnson.

Vigilante said...

I'll just add one more item about HHH which I was reminded by watching the recent Kennedy footage on MSNBC. JFK clearly out classed HHH in 1956 when they were competing for Vice-President. HHH was seen as a blow-hard, old school politician, where as Jack was seen as a charismatic WW II war hero. HHH earned his creds as an early desegregator, but he was no match for the younger Kennedy talent.

Jack Jodell said...

But, on the other hand, HHH was far more effective in getting legislation through and passed by Congress than JFK or RFK. The only one who surpassed Humphrey in that regard was Teddy Kennedy, but, of course, he spent far more years in the Senate than did HHH.