Almost President – Hubert Horatio Humphrey, Part 1

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Vice President Hubert Humphrey, circa 1965

Hubert Horatio Humphrey made public service his life, servicing his community and his country from 1940 until his death from cancer in 1978, with the exception of a two-year period from 1969 to 1971.

Humphrey was a unique combination of talents. From his election as Mayor of Minneapolis to his days in the Senate and as a presidential candidate, Humphrey was known for his speaking abilities. It was his speaking abilities that first drew him to national attention. It was also his traits as a public speaker that made him the target of many jokes.

Humphrey was always a fast and long-winded speaker. Barry Goldwater, Humphrey’s political opposite but a close friend, once said that as a child, Humphrey must have been vaccinated with a phonograph needle. He also said, “Hubert Humphrey talks so fast that listening to him is like trying to read Playboy with your wife turning the pages.” Hubert even joked about his own tendency to talk too much. Once, when informed that he would have only three minutes to speak at a dinner, he complained that it took him more than three minutes to clear his throat

Gerald Ford once told people that the first time he heard Hubert Humphrey speak, Humphrey was “in the second hour of a five minute speech. I didn’t have a program, so I asked the fellow next to me what followed Senator Humphrey. The fellow looked at his watch and said, ‘Christmas.’” Even Lyndon Johnson had trouble in getting Hubert to shut up. Using a Texas cattle-breeding expression, Lyndon Johnson said he could develop a pretty good hybrid politician “if I could just breed Hubert to Calvin Coolidge.” Johnny Carson called Humphrey “Minnesota Chats.” Even his wife Muriel tried to get him to keep it short. Once, when he had been speaking for quite a while, Muriel sent a note to him on the podium that read, “Remember that for a speech to be immortal it need not be eternal.”

Hubert Humphrey was born on May 27, 1911 in Wallace, South Dakota. He was born in the family home above his father’s drug store. His father was a pharmacist and a Democratic politician in the very Republican South Dakota. Fairly well off economically, they nonetheless moved often as his father sought better opportunities. Humphrey’s mother was a Norwegian immigrant who came to the United States as a teenager.

Humphrey’s childhood friends remembered him as a leader from the earliest days playing sandlot baseball. In high school and college, Humphrey won various honors in academics and debate. He was the valedictorian of his high school graduating class.

During his childhood, the growing economic problems faced by farmers touched his family. To pay off their mounting debts, his father announced they would have to sell their home. They then moved to a rented house in Doland, South Dakota. Humphrey never forgot this brush with bankruptcy. He also never forgot that his family was not alone in their economic distress.

After graduation from high school in 1929, Humphrey enrolled in the University of Minnesota, but had to drop out during his sophomore year because his father’s drug store business was in trouble due to the poor economic times during the Great Depression. Humphrey became a registered pharmacist in 1933, and began to run the drug store on his own. This allowed his father to run for a seat in the South Dakota legislature. In spite of being a solidly Republican state, the elder Humphrey won a seat in the legislature leaving Hubert to run the store. But Hubert had no intention of being a pharmacist for the rest of his life.

In 1937, Hubert Humphrey returned to the University of Minnesota and finished his political science program. He was a top student, a debate champion, won a Phi Beta Kappa key, and graduated magna cum laude in 1939. A year later, he earned his Master’s degree from Louisiana State University. His thesis was on the New Deal.

Living in Louisiana provided a new perspective for Humphrey. He experienced close up the vindictive style of politics as practiced in the post-Huey Long years. He also witnessed racial discrimination and “separate but equal” facilities in the segregated South.

Humphrey earned his Master’s degree in 1940. During his oral exams, one of the examining professors said that he felt compelled to fail Humphrey. An astonished and panicked Humphrey asked why. The professor replied, “Well, if we give you the degree, you’ll just as likely as not end up a college professor, and if we flunk you right now, you are more likely to go back to Minnesota and run for the United States Senate, and you’ll amount to something.”

Humphrey began his Ph.D. program the next year, but again he had to drop out because of financial problems. He returned to Minnesota and took a position with the Works Progress Administration teaching program in the Twin Cities. His work there was primarily with the labor unions. He continued in similar positions during World War II. He was disqualified from military service because of color-blindness and a double hernia. He then took a job teaching at Macalester College in St. Paul.

In 1943, Humphrey took advantage of the contacts he had made with the labor unions and professors and academic peers at the University of Minnesota to run for mayor of Minneapolis. Humphrey lost in a close race to incumbent Mayor Marvin Kline. Humphrey had accumulated some debts during the campaign. He paid off these debts by working as a newsman for a local radio station.

In 1944, Humphrey served as head of the Roosevelt re-election campaign in Minnesota. The next year, he again ran for mayor of Minneapolis and this time he won. As mayor, he earned a reputation as an innovator and reformer. He established an image as an aggressive, hard-working, up-and-coming young mayor. In 1947, he was re-elected mayor by the largest margin in the history of the city.

Humphrey was one of the Democratic leaders who helped change Minnesota from an almost one-party Republican state to an almost one-party Democratic state. In 1944, Humphrey helped establish a coalition between the populist Farmer-Labor Party and the traditional Democratic Party. This led, within fifteen years, to the almost complete decline of the Republican Party, and the dominance of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, in Minnesota. Humphrey was also a founding member of the Americans for Democratic Action, a national liberal organization that became very influential at every level of American politics. Also, in 1947, Humphrey formed a close personal and political friendship with William Green, head of the American Federation of Labor.

In 1948, Humphrey became his party’s nominee for the U.S. Senate. He was running against incumbent Senator Joseph Ball, a strongly anti-labor politician who had helped sponsor the Taft-Hartley Act that organized labor hated. In that year, he was also a delegate to the Democratic Convention. It was there that, in a now-famous speech, Humphrey spoke in favor of the controversial civil rights plank. Humphrey declared to the convention, “The time has arrived for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights!” Some southern states left the convention and formed the Dixiecrat Party, which ran Strom Thurmond for President. Humphrey became very popular in Minnesota for his courageous stand in favor of civil rights, and was elected to the U.S. Senate.

In the future articles, we will look at Humphrey’s colorful Senate career, his difficult term as Vice President, and his campaign for the Presidency in 1968, which he lost in one of the closest elections in our history.