The political legacy of Hubert Humphrey


What is Hubert Humphrey’s political legacy? The dedication of the new monument in his honor has provoked an outpouring of commentary and analysis on his career and legacy. The simple answer is that from 1948 until his death he was the face of Minnesota politics to the rest of the US and within the state of Minnesota he defined and personified the DFL party with a set of values that ended with Paul Wellstone’s plane crash in 2002.

Much can be said about Humphrey’s career. He was mayor of Minnesota, senator, vice-president, and presidential candidate. But this resume fails to capture the whole story. His is a story of the courage of his convictions–both honoring them and not going far enough. The two most important values–courage and loyalty. In terms of honoring them, Humphrey comes to national prominence at the 148 Democratic Party National Convention in Philadelphia where he gave what most historians consider to be one of the greatest political speeches of the 2oth century. There he defended a minority report urging the party to support civil rights. While today a Democrat urging civil rights would seem inordinary, in 1948 it was an act of courage with a party still captured by southern Dixiecrats and state’s rights. In Humphrey’s words:

My friends, to those who say that we are rushing this issue of civil rights, I say to them we are 172 years late. To those who say that this civil-rights program is an infringement on states’ rights, I say this: The time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights. People — human beings — this is the issue of the 20th century. People of all kinds — all sorts of people — and these people are looking to America for leadership, and they’re looking to America for precept and example.

This speech led to many Democrats walking out of the convention, including Strom Thurmond who ran for president that year. Humphrey’s speech changed Democrat politics. The line from this speech connects to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the transformation of the Democratic Party into the party of civil rights and freedom, stealing than banner away from the Republicans who had held it since the Civil War. If LBJ in signing the 1964 Civil Rights Bill was prescient in declaring that the Democrats had lost the south for the rest of the century, it was Humphrey’s speech that began that loss. By his speech, when the Democrats embraced civil rights it set in motion the forces of political alignment that persist to this day across the country with the Republicans a party of the South and the Democrats one of the North and coasts.

But if the 1948 speech was an act of courage and demonstrated loyalty to human dignity. Humphrey always cared about the underdog. Humphrey came to embody the classic image of the Post WW II Liberal-Democrat. It was a party of the New Deal, the Great Society, and a respect for civil rights and human dignity. There was passion in the values and a courage to espouse them. Yet twenty years later in 1968 as a presidential candidate a different loyalty did him in–his loyalty to LBJ. Humphrey (as LBJ’s vice-president) remained loyal, perhaps too loyal to the president, failing to break from him and criticize the Vietnam War. By failing to do that Humphrey failed to capture of banner of the anti-war crowd that first cheered for rival Minnesotan Senator Eugene McCarthy and then Bobby Kennedy. Some say that had he remained true to his values, had he broken sooner and criticized the war, he would have won the presidency. But despite this loss, Humphrey went onto complete a significant career in the Senate, with perhaps the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Bill one of his crowning achievements. The law guaranteed a job to everyone who wanted to work–too bad the law would be watered down to nothing.

Humphrey was Minnesota’s face to America. He was part of legacy or lineage of Minnesota politicians that included Orville Freeman, Walter Mondale, Wendell Anderson, Paul Wellstone, and to a lesser degree, mayors Don Frazier, George Latimer, and Representatives Bruce Vento and Martin Sabo. Nationally they embodied the essence of what the Democrat Party used to be, and they were also the definition of what the DFL was once in Minnesota.

But that era ended. How and why is another story to tell another day. But I remember first coming to Minnesota in 1986, noting how the DFL party was then in the hands of what I described as the sons of former or dead DFLers. The new generation of Democrats sang homage to Humphrey but they were hardly of the same mold. Now a quarter a century later the DFL Party is in the hands of the grandsons and daughters of former and dead Democrats. They still sing homage to Humphrey but this hardly the party of Hubert. It is a party that is insular, having failed to renew its values and broaden its membership beyond the a core of party regulars and hacks who have failed to honor values of Humphrey while updating for the 21 century. The last hurrah for the party of Humphrey was Paul Wellstone, but with his plane crash in 2002 an era closed and the DFL that once existed died too.

Minnesota is no longer the party of Humphrey. We are a state of Jesse Ventura, Tim Pawlenty, Michele Bachmann, government shutdowns, budget impasses, voter ID, and attempts to ban same-sex marriage. We are a state where bridges fall down, more children are without health care coverage, racial disparities in education and incarceration, and political polarization. This is not the Minnesota of Humphrey and the DFL in the legislature and the state seem incapable of producing leaders and passion that capture what he stood for. Finally, the national Democratic party too is a faint shadow of the Party of Hubert Humphrey. Clinton was no Humphrey, as is the same with Obama. Neither have ever demonstrated the courage, compassion, and commitment to fairness and the underdog that the Happy Warrior did. Were Hubert Humphrey alive today he would not recognize his party, his state, or his country.