A new documentary film, “Hubert H. Humphrey: The Art of the Possible,” made its premiere at the University of Minnesota September 15, helping to launch a year-long celebration of the centennial of Humphrey’s birth.
The centennial celebration, organized by the university’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, also will include a series of policy discussions of current issues related to the legacy of the late U.S. Senator from Minnesota and Vice President (see www.hhh.umn.edu).
The two-hour film, by filmmaker Mick Caouette, will be broadcast nationally on PBS. In the Twin Cities, TPT Channel 2 will feature the film Thursday, November 18 at 8:00 p.m.
Copies of a DVD of the film are available for $24.99 at www.shoppbs.org.
“Hubert H. Humphrey: The Art of the Possible” was ten years in the making. Filmmaker Caouette visited 10 cities and conducted 52 interviews with historians and Humphrey colleagues including former vice president Walter Mondale.
Featuring previously unseen archival film footage, photos and audio recordings, the documentary draws extensively on research from many sources, including the Minnesota Historical Society, the LBJ Library, and the Library of Congress.
The premiere screening of the film drew a large crowd to the Ted Mann Concert Hall at the University of Minnesota.
Minnesota-based filmmaker Caouette introduced the film. During the film’s making, he said, people asked, “what is the story?”
“The story is one of hope,” Caouette said, and how “one determined person can make a difference.”
The film follows Humphrey’s life from his youth in a small town in South Dakota, to his enrollment in 1929 at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis – interrupted by the Great Depression – and then traces the arc of his political career, from his election as mayor of Minneapolis in 1945, to his election to the U.S. Senate in 1948, to his election in 1964 as Lyndon B. Johnson’s Vice President, and on to Humphrey’s unsuccessful run for the presidency in 1968.
The film highlights Humphrey’s role as a national leader in the civil rights movement. Footage shows Humphrey’s courageous 1948 speech at the Democratic National Convention advocating for a civil rights plank in the party platform, a speech that catapulted him to national prominence. The film later devotes extensive footage to Humphrey’s skilled leadership in the U.S. Senate in passing the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act.
(The 1964 rhetoric from Senators opposed to the Civil Rights Act, captured in the film, sounds eerily like right-wing rhetoric of today opposing health care reform by raising the cry of state’s rights and expressing fears of a totalitarian federal government).
In covering Humphrey’s years as Vice President, the film focuses on the challenges Humphrey faced as he was torn between advocating for his own views – in particular, his early misgivings about escalating the war in Vietnam – and the pressure he faced from President Johnson to remain a loyal Vice President.
The film provides an excellent overview and analysis of the tumultuous year of 1968, including the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King., Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy, the violent clashes at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and Humphrey’s narrow loss to Richard Nixon in the presidential election.
Missing from the film: Humphrey’s role in forging the merger of Minnesota’s Farmer-Labor Party and Democratic Party to form the DFL, a merger which led to the new party’s ascendency in Minnesota politics. (The film even refers to Humphrey as the first “Democratic” Senator from Minnesota, not the first “Democratic-Farmer-Labor” Senator).
Also missing from the film: any substantive discussion of Humphrey’s role as a champion for the labor movement, beginning with his first (unsuccessful) bid for mayor of Minneapolis in 1943.
The Labor Review wrote April 22, 1943: “Minneapolitans are surging to the support of a new gladiator who has stepped into the political arena. He has eloquence, he as executive ability, he has a magnetic personality, and he has a message… ‘do something for the people…'”
The film might have included interviews with Minnesota or national union leaders, like former Minnesota AFL-CIO president Dave Roe, who was listed in the credits but did not appear in the film. (The credits also listed the Minnesota AFL-CIO as one of the film’s underwriters).
The film also might have drawn from Humphrey’s last address to organized labor, a passionate speech to the September 1977 convention of the Minnesota AFL-CIO, which was captured on film by the Labor Education Service at the University of Minnesota. The speech is available in DVD format for $20 from LES (www.laboreducation.org) or from the Minnesota Historical Society (http://shop.mnhs.org).
These criticisms aside, the new film, “Hubert H. Humphrey: The Art of the Possible,” succeeds in capturing Humphrey’s passionate advocacy for the cause of working Americans of all races and his unapologetic belief that “government is not to be indifferent to the injustice in society” but should rather be a forceful actor, in the words of the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, to “…establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare…”
In a concluding interview shown in the film, Humphrey expounds on the meaning of the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, which inspired and drove his commitment to economic and social justice.
“If only we could take that and have the Tea Party and the Republicans read it,” said journalist Bill Moyers, who appeared in the film and was part of a panel at the Ted Mann Concert Hall discussing the film after its screening.
“All of us live in a different world because of Hubert Humphrey,” said Moyers, who credited Humphrey for conceiving many of the progressive programs enacted under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.
Moyers recounted how he worked with Humphrey to write the legislation creating the Peace Corps and, with Humphrey’s support, became the new initiative’s second-in-command. “Hubert Humphrey became my mentor,” Moyers said, and the two men maintained a close relationship when Moyers went on to serve as LBJ’s press secretary.
Moyers told the audience at the film screening, “Hubert Humphrey would have become President except for Richard Nixon’s dirtiest trick” (sabotaging the Paris peace talks in the fall of 1968).
Reflecting on the turning point of the 1968 election, Moyers said, “we would have had a different country than we have today if Hubert had won.”