Almost President – Hubert Horatio Humphrey, Part 4

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Vice President Hubert Humphrey, circa 1965

After the Democratic nominating convention of 1960, where Humphrey backed losing candidate Adlai Stevenson against John F. Kennedy, Humphrey returned to his duties in the Senate. He had won a landslide re-election to his Senate seat in 1960, becoming the first Minnesota Senator in history to win a third term.

In 1960, Senate Majority Leader Johnson was elected Vice President. Senator Mike Mansfield was uncontested in his bid to move from Majority Whip to Majority Leader. But filling the now-vacant Majority Whip position was not a sure thing for anyone. But with the combined support of Mike Mansfield, Bobby Kennedy and Vice President Johnson, Humphrey won the second spot in the Senate.

As the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, Humphrey’s power and influence continued to grow. He came to work very closely with President Kennedy, in spite of his opposition to Kennedy at the convention in 1960. They could even joke about the election. Once, during a leadership meeting at the White House to discuss the legislative agenda, Kennedy exclaimed to Humphrey, “Hubert, if I’d known it was going to be like this, I would have let you win.” Humphrey responded by saying, “Well, Mr. President, I knew it might be like this and that’s why I let you win.”

Humphrey was also appointed to the powerful Appropriations Committee. Over the next four years, Humphrey became a key figure in the Senate, and was largely instrumental in passing legislation concerning the Job Corps, the Peace Corps, the extension for the Food for Peace program, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and many other pieces of progressive legislation concerning health, education and welfare.

Humphrey had been a leading proponent of disarmament since the early 1950s. Humphrey had been a key factor in President Eisenhower’s decision to join Russia in a voluntary atomic testing moratorium. President Kennedy recognized Humphrey’s long years of effort in the cause of disarmament at the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty when he jokingly said to Humphrey, “Hubert, this is your treaty—and it had better work.”

Humphrey’s organizational skills, as well as his ability to gently convince others in behind-the-scenes negotiations, were largely responsible for a great deal of the Democratic agenda being passed. Perhaps his greatest achievement was the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which he managed to steer through a Senate with numerous Southern opponents who conducted numerous filibusters (long speeches designed to prevent action being taken on a measure before the Senate). Humphrey also helped get other measures passed, such as federal aid to farmers and rural areas, the food stamp program, foreign-aid food exports, scholarships, scientific research grants, aid to schools, rehabilitation of dropouts, and vocational guidance programs. Other programs he helped guide through the Senate involved power projects, public transportation, public housing and greater unemployment benefits.

While Humphrey got much credit for creating millions of jobs, he also received much blame for the mounting deficits such legislation was creating. To those desiring a balanced budget, Humphrey explained, “a balanced budget is a futile dream” of which there was no hope of attaining until “the world is in balance.” He dismissed those demanding a balanced budget as “Scrooges” with a “bookkeeper’s mentality.” Unlike many politicians today, Humphrey made his position very clear, regardless of the consequences.

As the 1964 Presidential campaign approached, there was no doubt that President Johnson was going to run for a full term of his own. There was, consequently, little excitement about the upcoming Democratic convention. Johnson’s nomination was a sure thing. To keep the Democratic Party, and himself, in the spotlight, Johnson made a great game out of the Vice Presidential nomination. He didn’t let anyone, not even Humphrey, know whom he would select as his running mate. Most politicians and reporters assumed it would be Humphrey because of how close he was to Johnson politically and personally. The day after the Kennedy assassination, the Humphreys spent the evening with the Johnsons. But Johnson often floated names before the press to get their reaction, and keep them guessing. At one White House state dinner, Johnson turned to Humphrey and, in a stage whisper, asked if Humphrey thought that Mike Mansfield would make a good Vice President.

One person Johnson did not want to get the job was Attorney General Robert Kennedy. (Johnson is said to have referred to Robert Kennedy as the little squirt, and the two men had never gotten along.) Johnson issued a statement to the press that he thought it would be “inadvisable” to offer the nomination to any member of his cabinet as he relied on their advice too much. Kennedy later joked with the other cabinet members by apologizing for taking so many men down with him.

Johnson’s political game of I’ve Got A Secret worked perfectly. Only after the convention had started did Johnson call Humphrey to the White House to inform him. To keep the secret just a little longer, Humphrey was instructed to arrive with Senator Dodd of Connecticut, making it look like a legislative meeting.

Even then, Hubert was kept waiting. Mrs. Johnson was about to arrive at the Democratic convention, and Johnson didn’t want the spotlight taken away from her. Humphrey and Dodd were instructed to drive around for an hour or so, and then were allowed into the White House grounds, but kept waiting in their limo for another hour. Humphrey actually fell asleep while waiting. Johnson had to wake him up when he came out to the car to greet Humphrey. Johnson offered no apologies for keeping Humphrey in the dark all those months. He told Humphrey, “If you didn’t know you were going to be Vice President a month ago, you’re too damn dumb to have the office.”

With Johnson’s backing, the Democratic Convention unanimously nominated Hubert Humphrey as their candidate for Vice President in 1964.