Most of us who have an abiding interest in politics can point to an event, or an issue, or even a person that galvanized our souls and turned us on to both the entertaining theatrics and passionate, heartfelt by-play that makes the inner workings of our democracy such a marvelous spectator sport.
For me, it may surprise you to learn that it was not a Republican or a conservative that first piqued my interest in politics but rather a liberal Democrat. Hubert H. Humphrey was a smallish man but his energy, humor, quick wit, and sunny disposition made him seem larger than life.
The 1964 Democratic Convention was my first real introduction to politics as I came to know and love it. At the age of 10, I was already reading the great political columnist Mike Royko whose hilarious insights into the less than honest workings of Mayor Richard J. Daley’s Chicago political machine was the stuff of legend. But the convention that year would be my first lesson in politics as theater, a drama played out on a national stage with heroes, villains, and colorful personalities galore. Without a doubt, the most outsized personality on display during the convention was that of the Senator from Minnesota and putative Vice Presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey.
There was tremendous drama at that convention. Not in who was going to be the nominee but on the convention floor. Mississippi’s all-white delegation was having their credentials to be seated challenged by a rival delegation made up of both blacks and whites. It was the Old Guard against the New South and the issue of Mississippi’s credentials was roiling the entire convention. In American politics, there are times when it is too painful or divisive to talk about an issue directly. Instead, we surround the problem and obscure its true nature by dealing with the atmospherics of it in such a way that we can debate the issue without tearing ourselves apart.
Such was the situation with the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party as the insurgents called themselves. The overarching issue was voting rights for African Americans. But the convention chose to address it by debating which delegation had a right to sit on the floor.
In the end, a compromise was reached allowing for representatives from several rival Mississippi delegations to be seated. And in a historic decision that was to have unseen consequences, the national Democratic party committed itself to requiring all delegations be integrated for future party gatherings. The left would take this decision and in later years, make the Democratic party a vessel for identity politics by requiring specific percentages of not just African Americans, but women, homosexuals, and every other minority group who could wangle seats from the party’s leadership.
All that lay in the future. In 1964, with the death of President Kennedy still fresh in everyone’s mind and Viet Nam a barely discernible blip on the nation’s radar, the question to be answered following the credentials fight was who would President Johnson name as his running mate? Humphrey was the front runner but there were rumblings from the delegates who thought that either Bobby Kennedy or Sargent Shriver, Kennedy’s brother-in-law, should get the second spot.
Johnson, who could be cruel and vindictive, had decided on Humphrey weeks before the convention but left the Minnesota Senator dangling uncomfortably all week. He then called Humphrey into his presence and grilled the Senator unmercifully about his private life. Humphrey emerged from the meeting shaking with anger at the treatment Johnson had meted out but within hours was his old, sunny self backslapping his way from delegation to delegation and treating people to his own special brand of oratory.
Humphrey had earned the sobriquet “The Happy Warrior” thanks to one of the more principled and decent stands ever taken by an American politician. At the 1948 Democratic Convention, Humphrey, at that time the Mayor of Minneapolis, was instrumental in ramming through a civil rights plank in the party platform that caused Lester Maddux, Strom Thurmond, and other southerners to walk out of the convention. The “Dixiecrats” would run Thurmond for President that year but it is Humphrey who is remembered and honored. His speech in support of the plank, considered one of the greatest political speeches ever, was a clarion call for fairness and decency:
To those who say that this civil rights program is an infringement on states’ rights, I say this, that the time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadows of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.”
Just three years prior to that speech, Humphrey had led the effort to unite the old Minnesota Farm-Labor party with the national Democrats to form the Democratic Farm Labor Party (DFL), one of the most active and influential state parties in American history. The impact of both the DFL’s policy positions and its personalities on the American political scene through the 1980’s was astonishing.
They were in the forefront of civil rights issues, the environment, arms control, food stamps, and a host of other social issues long before most national Democrats dared to talk about them. Except Hubert Humphrey who rarely needed an excuse to give a political speech. Humphrey loved the DFL with a passion and to his dying day sought to keep the party vibrantly engaged on issues important to liberal Democrats.
It was his acceptance speech at the 1964 convention that held me mesmerized and inspired my lifelong love of politics. To get an idea of what it was like think of Zell Miller’s speech at the Republican Convention last year and multiply the intensity by a factor of 10. Humphrey absolutely skewered Barry Goldwater. In a sing-song style that was both rousing and entertaining, Humphrey attacked Goldwater by ticking off a list of Great Society programs that moderate Republicans had voted for, always ending with the refrain “but not Senator Barry Goldwater!” After two or three examples, the entire convention picked up the refrain and would scream with one voice on cue “but not Senator Barry Goldwater” and roar with laughter and applause. It was electrifying. And it was great political theater.
But there was no malice in Humphrey’s words. Humphrey respected Goldwater and, in later years, developed a good working relationship with the Arizona Senator – as many old liberal Democrats did when their party kept moving ever leftwards, ever more defeatist on foreign policy issues especially with regards to the Soviet Union and Communism.
Humphrey was a gentleman, a patriot, a dedicated public servant, and great legislator. We may look upon many of his ideas today as wrong headed. But his advocacy for those less fortunate among us was heartfelt and genuine. If he failed to see the consequences of creating a welfare state, a culture of dependency, and other nightmares that have come about as a result of a government grown too large, it was not out of a desire for personal power. He was a humble man who was motivated to do good. If that be a sin, then would that there were 534 transgressors just like him in Congress today.
What would Humphrey think of his creation, the DFL today? Considering the fact that today’s incarnation of the party of Humphrey, Mondale, and Wellstone is asking its members to help deny American veterans of the Iraq war their rights guaranteed under the Constitution to free speech, I daresay that the Happy Warrior is weeping in his grave. Herre’s DFL Chairman Brian Melendez in an email message to members:
Iâ€™ve heard from many of you that you are disturbed by the misleading “Midwest Heroes” ads produced by Progress for America Voter Fund that are currently being run by KARE 11 and WCCO. The ads erroneously make a connection between Iraq and the 9/11 terrorists attacks and suggest that the war in Iraq will prevent an attack by Al Queda in America.
Right now, our state is a testing ground for these ads. If Minnesota speaks out and says no to this ad, the entire country can thank us. What we do here, now, will have an enormous impact on the success or failure of this kind of swiftboating in 06.
The Progress for America ads feature soldiers and their families talking about the war in a personal way, asking Americans to continue to support the mission until it’s completed. The problem, according to Chairman Melendez, is that he and the DFL disagree with the sentiments expressed in the ad:
DFL Party Chairman Brian Melendez called a news conference to call the ad “un-American, untruthful and a lie.”
“Minnesota has a chance to take a stand against this misleading and untruthful propaganda,” he said. Referring to controversial ads that ran during the last presidential race, he said, “Minnesota TV stations should pull this ad and send a message that we will not tolerate this kind of ‘swift-boating’ anymore.”
To call the opinions expressed by soldiers and their families propaganda is ridiculous on its face. If Mr. Melendez can prove that the people featured in the ad aren’t real or are not really expressing their true feelings, then he may have a case. But no one has stepped forward to offer any proof of that nor can they. It is simply a blatant attempt to silence a point of view the DFL doesn’t agree with, something Hubert Humphrey would have squelched before it got out of whatever committee meeting this idiotic idea was hatched.
John Hinderaker adds this:
So now soldiers who support the war they fought in are “un-American.” Unbelievable. And, by the way, does anyone have any idea what “Swiftboating” is supposed to mean? Is that when a veteran says something that liberals disagree with? Is it when a serviceman publicly describes events that he participated in and witnessed with his own eyes? I’m not sure just what the criteria are, but it seems clear that only veterans and servicemen can be guilty of the dreaded crime of “Swiftboating.”
Read the rest of the Powerline piece as John and the guys work over their favorite target, Nick Coleman, for his outrageous claims about the Progress for America ad.
Although a conservative, I always admired Hubert Humphrey and the DFL. They both represented what is best in American politics; strong, heartfelt principles, decency, and a concern for their communities and the country at large. You could strenuously disagree with their ideas. But you would be hard pressed to criticize their sincerity or their love of country.
Considering what the DFL has turned into in the last 10 years or so – a tired echo of the national Democratic party with little in the way of principle or original ideas – I would think that it would be unrecognizable to Senator Humphrey and the small band of reformers who, in the face of overwhelming opposition, stood up for the equality of the black man so many years ago and pricked the conscience of an entire nation.
Powerline has more today on the PFA ad issue.
And my friend Thomas Lifson at The American Thinker goes me one better on Humphrey – his parents were active in the DFL and they actually knew HHH. Tom gives some wonderful thoughts of his own on a man who I am discovering today inspired a whole helluva lot of conservatives to become interested in politics.