June 3, 2011
A week ago, on May 27th, we observed the one-hundredth birthday of Hubert Horatio Humphrey. Well, actually, we didnt. I missed it. I saw no reference to it online or in the print press. He was once a major figure in American politics. I was proud to call myself a Humphrey Democrat when I was young. He was the father of Minnesotas most successful political coalitionthe Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, the DFL.
There, they remembered for a time the farmers and the labor union members who were once the base of the old Roosevelt coalition. Hubertwe all called him by his old-fashioned name, he never had a nicknamewas famous for running the Communists out of the Democratic Party in Minneapolis in 1948 and forging the DFL alliance. He was a thoroughgoing anti-Communist, pro-labor, pro-civil rights liberal. That was in the days when liberals were happy to be called liberal and didnt hide behind the name progressive.
I was so frustrated in 1968 that there was no Humphrey for President headquarters in my very Republican New York county that I drove to Washington and badgered the national Humphrey headquarters to give me a carload of buttons, bumper stickers and posters. Humphrey lost the election that year, in a squeaker, to Richard Nixon. He had come from 28 points down in the polls to lose by barely 2%. But he carried New York State. I liked to brag I had put the happy warrior over the top in the Empire State.
Four years later, Hubert had returned to the U.S. Senate and was making a sad second run for the presidency. He failed to get the Democratic nomination, losing out to George McGovern. McGovern went on to crash and burn spectacularly, with Nixon carrying 49 states in 1972.
I was defeated in my own race for the state Assembly that year. McGovern had been like an anchor around my neck, and around the necks of every Democrat. I can still remember being chased off the front porch by one enraged voter with a pitchfork when he learned I was running on the ticket headed by George McGovern. And he was a registered Democrat!
Because I was a Humphrey man, the local McGoverniteswe called them Magoosviewed me with suspicion. They actually put a spy in my campaign office. One young McGovern volunteer came running into our headquarters a week before the election. The Daily News poll has McGovern up 52-48 over Nixon, the Harvard man shouted with glee. Only when we read beyond the tabloid headline did we point out to our young intellectual that the poll was of New York City voters. We had to break it to him gently that a Democrat had to win 70% of the city to have a hope of carrying the state.
Following my dispiriting defeat, I tried, unsuccessfully, to get a job with our rather conservative Democratic congressman. I was in Washington, D.C. job-hunting the day Roe v. Wade was handed down. As a vocally anti-abortion Democrat, my employment prospects on the Hill were nil.
But the folks in Hubert Humphreys Senate office greeted me warmly and offered to recommend me for a jobin Minnesota. Maybe there, I thought, I could find work and keep my conscience. I headed for the North Star state the way a Muslim heads for Mecca.
There I worked for a year for the DFL. I was a fundraiser. I got to travel all over the state. I learned that what would later be called Minnesota nice is actually true. You never had to fear breaking down on that long, lonely road from the Twin Cities to International Falls. When the temperatures fall to -30, everyone looks out for everyone else. No wonder in Hubert Humphreys Minnesota a Scandinavian-style social democracy seemed to make sense.
The radicals took over the DFL in Minnesota in 1974. A coalition of McGovernites, public employee unions, liberal social activists pushing abortion and homosexuality dominated the state party convention in St. Paul that year. I was soon squeezed out.
It was actually defense issuesmy keenest interestthat drove me from my party.
(You certainly wouldnt join the Republican Party of Jerry Ford and Nelson Rockefeller to protest abortion.)
But, before I left, I had the honor of hearing Sen. Humphrey deliver one of his famous stem-winders. In those days, they used to ask: What follows a Hubert speech on Saturday night? The answer: Sunday morning. The grand old man spoke for more than an hour, without notes. Even the Magooswho despised himwere cheering him. It was like hearing William Jennings Bryan, Floyd B. (Bjrnstjerne) Olson, or one of the great Prairie Populists.
Soon, I would enlist as a foot soldier in the Reagan Revolution. I agreed with the Gipper that I didnt leave the Democrats; they left me.
I never forgot my youthful support for Hubert Humphrey. I shared his belief in civil rights, in a decent shake for working families, and a strong national defense. In time, I would recognize sadly that Huberts commitment to an ever-expanding welfare state was devastating black familiesand millions of other American families.
Yet, heres Huberts most famous quote. Is it any wonder I became pro-life?
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.