Almost President – Hubert Horatio Humphrey, Part 3

Vice President Hubert Humphrey, circa 1965

After Hubert Humphrey’s disastrous start in the Senate, he found himself isolated and ostracized by the senior senators. In typical Humphrey fashion, he began learning the ways of the Senate and earning his way into the good graces of those he had offended. Hubert Humphrey genuinely liked people, which made them like him. He also formed a political alliance with an unlikely friend.

Humphrey’s integrity, intelligence and skill brought him to the attention of the Senate Democratic leader, Lyndon Johnson. John was as about the opposite of Humphrey as a man could be. He was a conservative and somewhat crude while Humphrey was a more polished liberal. Johnson had presidential ambitions, but the liberal wing of the party would not support him. Humphrey was one of the national leaders of the liberal wing of the party, with strong ties to labor and civil rights groups, whose support Johnson needed.

Although Humphrey did not support Johnson when he ran for Majority Leader of the Senate in 1953, he soon came to be a Johnson supporter. As he became more aware of how to get things done in the Senate, he found Johnson’s help and guidance invaluable. While many liberals did not like Johnson, Humphrey worked well with him, and became a link between Johnson and the liberal wing of the party.

Humphrey also began to forge personal and political relationships with other senators. The negative first impression they had of him faded and he became one of the inner circle of the Senate leadership. All the while, he continued to be one of the leading advocates of liberal causes. Naturally, as a leader of the liberal wing, he was often mentioned as a possible presidential candidate. This was fine with Humphrey, since he had harbored presidential ambitions ever since his days as mayor of Minneapolis.

In 1956, Adlai Stevenson won the Democratic nomination for President. Humphrey had tried to become the Democratic nominee for Vice President in 1952. In 1956, Stevenson declined to choose a running mate and threw open the nomination, allowing the convention to choose the Vice Presidential nominee. Humphrey lost the race, but returned to the Senate with even more prestige and continued his advocacy role on behalf of the liberal agenda. With the liberal wing growing and more liberal Senators, Humphrey’s political clout increased.

In 1958, Humphrey traveled to Europe as part of a fact-finding mission. He engaged Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in an informal discussion on disarmament that lasted almost eight and one-half hours. This event put him in the national spotlight, and put him at the front of the pack of Presidential candidates for 1960. Although a long-time proponent of disarmament, he criticized Republican President Dwight Eisenhower for allowing a “missile gap” to develop.

After a vigorous schedule of travel and speaking as an unofficial candidate, Humphrey made his formal entrance into the 1960 Presidential race in January 1960. Humphrey promised to run a thoroughly liberal campaign with no compromises on the important liberal issues. Still, he tried to balance his campaign with his Senate responsibilities, which greatly diminished the time he had for campaigning.

His main opponent in the 1960 Democratic primary seasons was Senator John F. Kennedy. Kennedy was the new hero of the liberal faction, and he devoted all his time to his campaign, not trying to keep up with his Senate responsibilities at the expense of his campaign. The first big test came in April in the Wisconsin primary.

At first, it seemed that Humphrey had an advantage, with Wisconsin being next door to his own state, making Humphrey almost a hometown favorite. But Humphrey lost in Wisconsin. Kennedy took 56.5 % to Humphrey’s 43.5%. There were several factors that led to Humphrey’s defeat.

Humphrey being the “hometown” boy may have actually hurt him. The voters were very familiar with Humphrey, but Kennedy was a fresh novelty. Also, the people loved Humphrey, but Humphrey did not have the ability to excite them the way Kennedy did. Plain, simple Humphrey could not complete with the dazzling glamour of the Kennedy’s. Kennedy had an image that Humphrey could never achieve.

There was one more contest in West Virginia in May, but Humphrey faced the same factors there, and a gain lost. Kennedy took 60.8% to Humphrey’s 39.2%. The race, for Humphrey at least, was over. The campaign contributions dried up, and Humphrey was forced to withdraw from the race in early May.

At the Democratic convention in July, Humphrey found he had almost no influence. His favorite candidate was Adlai Stevenson, who had been the Democratic nominee in 1952 and 1956 loosing to Dwight Eisenhower both times by large margins. Still, Humphrey publicly announced his support for Stevenson after a “boorish” comment from Bobby Kennedy announcing that “we want your support or else.”

Humphrey returned to Minnesota and easily won his campaign for re-election to the Senate in a landslide. His opponent, Kenneth Peterson, was almost a mirror image of his own situation in his first Senate race twelve years earlier. Peterson was the young mayor of Minneapolis running against a two-term Senator. Minnesota had never returned a Senator for a third term, but Humphrey never seemed concerned. His confidence proved justified, as he won a landslide re-election even though most of the other Democratic candidates on the ticket went down to defeat.

In the next article, we will see Humphrey’s rise to the highest levels of power in the Senate, becoming the Majority Whip and a major supporter of the New Frontier and civil rights legislation.