With President Johnson’s surprise announcement on March 31, 1968 that he would not run for another term, attention immediately turned to Vice President Humphrey, who immediately became the front-runner. In spite of his front-runner status, his name recognition and his record, Humphrey was hampered by a lack of organization and funding due to his late start. Other anti-war candidates had been in the race for a while, and had secured funds and created functioning national organizations. The strongest of these candidates were Senator Robert Kennedy and Senator Eugene McCarthy.
When Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated after winning the California primary, Humphrey more or less won the nomination by default. But the party was horribly disorganized, and Humphrey did not seem able to provide the unity and consensus that was his trademark. His first, and biggest, problem was the convention itself.
The 1968 Democratic convention was held in Chicago. Anti-war protesters decided to protest in Chicago, both to take advantage of the intense publicity during the convention and to try to make their point with political leaders. Mayor Richard Daley, as host to the convention, provided security that got out of control.
He mobilized thousands of police and National Guardsmen to prevent any disruption, which of course was exactly what the protesters had in mind. The news media carried stories, pictures and video of police using brutal tactics on unarmed protesters. These tactics included using clubs on protesters who were not resisting, tear gas, and other types of force that seemed completely unnecessary and unfair.
Things got out of hand inside the convention as well. Dan Rather, a CBS newsman, was attacked by several security guards on the floor of the convention, beaten to the ground, and hauled away, all on camera while he continued to broadcast. It was obvious that he was attacked because of his anti-war reports and unflattering comments made about Mayor Daley and the excesses of the security forces.
The convention itself met behind barbed wire, search lights, and armed guards, giving the impression of the party cut off from the people, rather than a party of the people. It was, to say the least, not the image Humphrey wanted to project. Once, while watching the conflict between police and protesters from his hotel window, Humphrey was actually tear-gassed. He had to take a shower to get rid of the tear gas that was burning his eyes and skin.
When Humphrey had entered the race, he proclaimed, “Here we are, just as we ought to be. The people, here we are, the way politics ought to be in America, the politics of happiness, the politics of purpose, and the politics of joy.” Nothing seemed farther from the politics of joy than the Democratic convention that year. Humphrey later said that he was, at that moment, “heartbroken, battered and beaten.” Things got worse as the campaign started.
Humphrey had been too loyal to President Johnson’s policies, in spite of his own disagreement with them. As a result, many of the anti-war protesters and other opponents of the war identified him with the administration policies. Humphrey hesitated to speak out and disagree with Johnson for fear of risking any damage to the delicate peace talks then in progress. This cost him much of the liberal support his record over the years would have otherwise provided him. Also, Humphrey was a man of vision and compassion, but not a great administrator. The campaign was decentralized and disorganized, and gave the Democratic party the image of being hopelessly confused and inept.
In September, Humphrey finally spoke on national television and announced that as President, he would stop the bombing of North Vietnam and begin troop withdrawals. This was in direct opposition to President Johnson’s policies. Humphrey’s standing in the polls began to improve dramatically. By the time of the election, he had pulled almost dead even with Richard Nixon. Of course, mistakes by Nixon and his Vice Presidential candidate, Spiro Agnew, also helped bring the polls almost even. On election night, Humphrey took 42.7% of the popular vote to Nixon’s 43.4%. In the Electoral College, it was not as close, with Nixon winning 301 electoral votes to Humphrey’s 191.
There are those who said that if the campaign had gone another few weeks, Humphrey would have pulled ahead, as he was gaining on Nixon steadily in the last weeks of the campaign. But many say he remained loyal to President Johnson’s policies too long, and that it cost him the office he wanted more than anything else. He had concentrated too much on being a loyal Vice President and not enough on standing by his own long-established principles and beliefs. The war that gave him his chance to be President cost him the Presidency.
After the election, Humphrey believed that he had lost the election because of his failure to break with President Johnson and be his own man on the issues. But at the same time, Humphrey believed that he could not have proceeded any differently.
Humphrey’s term as Vice President ended on January 20, 1969. He took a position with Macalester College, where he had taught political science twenty-five years earlier. He also wrote a newspaper column, magazine articles, and his memoirs. In all of these, he finally felt free to express his own opinions, and his reputation and popularity recovered quickly. He did not enjoy being out of public life, and entered the race for U.S. Senator from Minnesota in 1970, vying for the seat being vacated by Eugene McCarthy as he retired. Humphrey won by a large majority, even though he was running against a very strong Republican candidate.
Back in the U.S. Senate, Humphrey was his old, happy, crusading self. Although he had none of his former seniority (when you leave the Senate for any reason, you lose all seniority) and many of his old allies were no longer in the Senate, Humphrey immediately began introducing legislation on a variety of subjects. His love of people and ability to negotiate compromise and consensus served him well, and he quickly rose in power and influence.
In 1972, Humphrey again ran for the Democratic presidential nomination. The early front-runner, he led the national polls in December 1971. But several things hurt his campaign. The publication of the Pentagon Papers revealed that Johnson had decided to bomb North Vietnam and escalate the war before the 1964 elections and had been less than honest with the voters that year. This revived accusations that Humphrey was either Johnson’s stooge or his dupe. Humphrey was also accused of being too vague on domestic issues, and many saw him as too talkative. Many also identified Humphrey with the “Establishment” and in a year of protest turned to Senator George McGovern who won the nomination.
In 1976, Humphrey was again the center of speculation. In April of that year, he announced that he would not be a candidate for President that year. This was not a great surprise since Jimmy Carter has already amassed an insurmountable lead. In August of that year, it was discovered that Humphrey had an advanced cancer in his bladder and prostate. For the next year and a half, Humphrey continued with his enormous Senate workload, continuing to fight with the grace and endless good humor that were his hallmarks for the underdog in society. In 1974, he introduced the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment and National Growth Bill, which passed after his death in 1978.
His health was very inconsistent during his last two years, but he never lost his optimism, enthusiasm and cheerfulness. Never did his character show its true strength more than in those last months. The Senate voted to create the position of Assistant President Pro Tempore, and unanimously elected Humphrey to fill the position. This provided Humphrey with a chauffeured car, which made his work easier in those final months. He finally succumbed to the cancer at his home in Minnesota on January 13, 1978.