Coleman op-ed quoted the wrong Humphrey

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Like many contemporary Minnesota politicians before him, Norm Coleman likes to conjure up the memory of the late, mostly beloved Hubert H. Humphrey, whose seat the Republican held until last month and is now in court to regain. The latest example came yesterday in a newspaper column by Coleman opposing the Senate stimulus bill which opens by quoting Humphrey and deftly identifies Coleman’s party-line stance on stimulus with the legendary leader of Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) Party.

Today, with the Senate about to vote on a nearly $800 billion economic “stimulus” package, I am reminded of that famous Hubert Humphrey quote: “Government will either do something to you, or for you, but government is going to do something.”


Something about the Humphrey quote rang false to me. I Googled around a bit but didn’t find that quote attributed to Humphrey or anyone else. The closest I came was something the late William F. Buckley, Jr. said:

Government can’t do anything for you except in proportion as it can do something to you.


Which puts the Humphrey quote in the wrong political neighborhood altogether. So I contacted Scott Sandell, former director of a University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Forum (and still the person to whom the university’s Hubert H. Humphrey Institute for Public Affairs refers such questions), to ask about the quote. Sandell couldn’t say for sure, but it didn’t sound right to him either:

It has a hint of the perjorative about it, and Humphrey was very seldom negative about the work of government. The idea that government was going to do “something to you” doesn’t sound like Humphrey at all. Even in his debates or disagreements with others, government was an opportunity, a tool, that the people could use for their benefit. Of all the quips I’ve read attributed to Hubert, I don’t recall something with that kind of edge. His inclination was so basically optimistic and (in public, at least) positive about the role of government and leadership. That’s a habit that sometimes got him in trouble, but he believed in that kind of optimism that others may have considered out-of-fashion.


To illustrate Sandell’s point, here is probably the most famous remark the Happy Warrior made about government:

It was once said that 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.


I sought a second opinion from Hy Berman, the retired University of Minnesota history professor and long-recognized expert on Minnesota politics. Berman had a similar reaction to Sandell’s when I read him the purported Hubert Humphrey quote that Coleman called “famous”:

Famous only to him! I’ve never heard of it—but then again, I haven’t heard all the Humphrey quotes.


And that’s the problem: However unlikely the quote may seem, proving a negative—that Humphrey never said any such thing—is next to impossible. Documentation of speeches and public remarks by the famously loquacious Humphrey fill 47 boxes at the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS) in St. Paul.

Tuesday’s op-ed—which seems to be Coleman’s first published policy statement since his term ended in early January—is part of the Republican’s re-emergence as a public figure. Side-by-side with a companion op-ed by his DFL rival Al Franken in support of the stimulus bill, the Coleman column asserted he’s still in the game, with the chutzpah to cite Humphrey and the hubris to use a “famous Hubert Humphrey quote” that appears on examination to be neither famous nor a Hubert Humphrey quote.

But perhaps Coleman simply wasn’t specific enough which Hubert Humphrey he meant. As a freshly turned turncoat against the Humphrey family’s Democratic party, Coleman ran against Humphrey’s son, Hubert “Skip” Humphrey III, in the three-way 1998 race for governor that ultimately saw Jesse Ventura the victor.

“Skip” Humphrey returned a message late last night from Washington, D.C., where he’s attending a meeting of the American Association of Retired People national board of directors. I’d left a message with the full quote Coleman attributed to his father. Did he recognize those words as his father’s?

“No,” he said, “because they’re mine.” Skip Humphrey told me he used the line many times during the 1998 campaign. So Coleman must have heard it once or twice back then? “Oh, he heard it more than twice,” Humphrey chuckled.

But he said Coleman doubly misuses the quote, both by attributing it to his father and putting it to service of opposition to the government spending bill. The quote’s true meaning, he said, is: “You have to be there. You have to be in the fight. You have to be engaged.”

And the part about government doing something to you that Sandell found so un-Humphrey-esque?

“Skip” Humphrey interprets that in the present context: What would happen if the Senate followed Coleman and most Republicans in not supporting the stimulus bill?

“If it doesn’t pass,” he said, “you’re really going to get it.”

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