Last Friday marked a century since the birth in South Dakota of a son to a small-town druggist named Hubert Horatio Humphrey. That boy, who received the same sonorous appelation, grew up to be mayor of Minneapolis (he moved to the Land of a Thousand Lakes for college and stayed there), U.S. Senator, 38th Vice President, and finally Senator again, before dying of bladder cancer in 1978. Not the least of his achievements was becoming the Democratic nominee for President in the tumultuous year of 1968, winning his party’s nod during the most violent convention in American political history and, despite enormous handicaps – not the least of which was Gov. George Wallace’s third-party challenge – coming within seven-tenths of a percentage point of defeating Richard Nixon in the popular vote that November.
When Hubert Humphrey died 33 years ago he was the honored elder statesman of American liberalism; at the start of his political career he had helped detach the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party in Minnesota from Communist influence and throughout his career proved that one didn’t have to be a conservative to also be on the side that prevailed in the Cold War. When he came to Washington as Senator in 1948 he came to know Richard Nixon before long because of their mutual support of the West and developing nations against Communist expansionism, and despite their policy differences here and there, the two men had a considerable amount in common: both had roots in the Midwest, both had made their way up from modest middle-class circumstances, and both were greatly concerned with the development of legislation to deal with the plight of the elderly, the undereducated young, and the chronically ill. And, of course, the Vietnam War loomed large in both their careers; in Humphrey’s case support of Lyndon Johnson’s policies during the conflict alienated the “dove” wing of his party and helped cost him the election.
It’s not much remembered now, but after Humphrey was diagnosed with his fatal illness in the fall of 1977, he rekindled an old friendship that had faded during the rivalries of the years. When Christmastime came that year, Richard and Pat Nixon were having a quiet Christmas at San Clemente. RN was putting the finishing touches on his Memoirs after three years of steady work, and it was time to relax. The phone rang; it was Hubert Humphrey calling from his hospital room in the Sloan-Kettering clinic, a continent away. What started as a simple Yuletide greeting stretched into a two-hour conversation in which the two statesmen reminisced about everything from their days in the Senate together to the quiet joys of family life. After that, they stayed in touch throughout Humphrey’s final months. When he died, the former President and his daughter Tricia traveled to Washington for the funeral – RN’s first trip to the nation’s capital since his resignation.
Outside Minnesota, Hubert Humphrey’s centennial has received little notice; two major exceptions were an op-ed by Nixonland author Rick Perlstein in the New York Times and a column by Keith Runyon in the Louisville Courier-Journal. Both are able examinations of the life of a man who once remarked: “….. the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped,”