When President Johnson grants a private interview in his White House office these days and the talk turns to the political future of his Vice President, the Chief Executive is inclined to speak as if he were Hubert Humphrey’s campaign manager. “I didn’t want Hubert to peak too soon. But now he’s peaking beautifully,” the President said to one visitor this spring.

The President’s remark is significant because it is evidence that there has been an abrupt and dramatic change in the relationship between Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey in recent months. No one knows how long this new intimacy may last or what it may ultimately produce — although some people are suggesting that Humphrey could become “the new Bill Moyers.” In any event, it is real enough.

Humphrey’s first two years as Vice President were not easy ones. As a politician who had worked closely with Johnson for fifteen years. he sought and accepted the office knowing the problems involved. The fact is that it is obvious by now that the two-term limitation on presidential service has made the vice presidency too valuable for anyone to refuse.

Despite their long political association, Johnson and Humphrey were in no sense a “team” during their first two years of service together in the executive branch. And if, indeed, they are about to become one at last, it is due in part to Humphrey’s determination and persistence.

In Washington there are different theories to explain the new, remarkable closeness: that Johnson realizes he is going to need help in 1968 and is out to inflate Humphrey’s stock; that so many old-time presidential aides have left their White House posts that Humphrey is the only available familiar face to turn to; that Johnson has only recently become convinced of his Vice President’s total loyalty; that it is a combination of all these reasons.

As recently as this past January the President gave firm orders that Humphrey was to be denied all prior knowledge of the contents of the State of the Union message. He was shown none of the preliminary drafts, and despite the fact that he had submitted many proposals to Johnson (especially urging the President to reject any suggestion of a cutback in new domestic programs), he was never consulted during the preparation.

Johnson delivered the State of the Union message on the evening of January 10. Earlier that afternoon, White House aide Joseph Califano briefed White House reporters on its contents, and — again on Johnson’s specific orders — it was only after that briefing was concluded that Galliano delivered a copy to Humphrey. Thus it was that the relationship between Johnson and Humphrey in mid-January was such that every newspaper reporter in Washington knew the contents of the State of the Union message before the Vice President of the United States did.

Nice presidential trials

The degree to which Humphrey was isolated during his first two years as Vice President is still not fully appreciated, even in Washington. And it was a curious, unexpected development, even among those who know Johnson well. After all, the two men had entered the Senate together in 1948, and quickly became famous political allies. They had plotted many a legislative maneuver together. As conservative Southerner and Northern liberal, each seeking to expand his political power base, they had traded favors for years. Indeed, their alliance was such that many political experts were convinced that Humphrey merely was acting as Johnson’s foil when he contested John Kennedy in the 1960 Democratic primaries. After the assassination, Johnson immediately turned to Humphrey, then the Senate Whip, rather than to Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield or House Speaker John McCormack, for help and advice on his legislative program.

Further, Johnson had learned about the trials and frustrations of the vice presidency the hard way. He knew how it felt to have the White House call a meeting of the Cabinet and not be invited to attend. He had experienced the indignity of being refused air transportation to make an out-of-town public appearance. As a matter of fact, at one time a Kennedy aide turned down Johnson’s request for a White House parking space.

He knew how it was. Nevertheless, his own treatment of Humphrey was not an appreciable improvement. Publicly, the Vice President proclaimed that he was being kept fully informed, and the President proclaimed that Humphrey had his complete confidence. Privately, however, Johnson’s attitude ranged from indifference to anger. He was annoyed whenever Humphrey’s name appeared in the newspapers. He concluded that Humphrey talked too much and tended to trust too many people.

The whims of LBJ

There have been frequent humiliations. The Vice President attended White House meetings at the President’s whim rather than by plan. According to one source, “If Humphrey wasn’t present, the President as likely as not would ask, ‘Why isn’t Hubert here?’ But if we invited him to the next meeting on our own initiative, as likely as not the President would stare at him as if to say, ‘Who the hell invited you?'”

During his days in Johnson’s doghouse, the Vice President kept up a brave and proper public front, but he agonized privately over his isolation. “If I could just find a way to convince this man of my loyalty,” he would lament to sympathetic presidential aides. Since his recent emergence from obscurity, however, Humphrey occasionally gets off a sardonic remark about his job. The vice presidency, he told a gathering this spring, is “an awkward office in our political system, but one which offers a great opportunity for character building.”

As one who had spent his career on Capitol Hill, he did not know the men who run the federal bureaucracy except the highest officials, so he set out to meet them, down to the second and third executive layers in the departments and agencies. He made a close study of the process of presidential decision-making, with the help and cooperation of Secretary of State Rusk, Defense Secretary McNamara, and CIA Director Richard Helms.

Over a period of time he strengthened his personal staff and began demanding more exacting performances from its members. He now has two Foreign Service Officers on loan from the State Department. He has brought in new men and has let others go, although his kindhearted nature is such that he always has found it extremely difficult to fire people. Of all the men around Humphrey today, the two most important are William Connell, his longtime administrative assistant, who runs the shop, maintains liaison with both the White House staff and the Democratic National Committee, and is in on everything; and Washington attorney Max Kampelman, who is his principal private adviser and who would be a very big man in a Humphrey Administration.

The men who work for Humphrey revere him and are admired for their energy and dedication. If anything, they tend to be too enthusiastic. At times they have acted as if they were running a perpetual campaign, not for the presidency, but for the vice presidential renomination, and they have displayed a tendency to think they see Robert Kennedy hiding behind every bush along the way.

A comfortable bed

Denied participation at many of the most important presidential councils, Humphrey resorted to the use of memoranda (in one, for example, he suggested Charles Weltner, the liberal Georgia ex-congressman, as chief of the Democrats’ youth activities). He worked hard at the jobs the President did give him. And he passionately defended the President’s policies, both foreign and domestic. Especially, and at high cost of his currency among the liberals, has he been diligent in his support of the President’s Vietnam policy.

His friends say that Humphrey is completely pragmatic about Vietnam: as Johnson’s Vice President, his bed is made, and he must not only lie in it but somehow find a way to make himself comfortable. His future is a clear-cut one, dictated by his past decisions. First, he must be renominated. Second, he must work to see that he and Johnson are re-elected. Then, and only then, will it be possible for him to start thinking about 1972.

As Robert Kennedy’s fortunes increased and Johnson’s stock dropped, Humphrey began to worry about the possibility of being clumped from the ticket in 1968. “I’ve only got one constituent to worry about, and that’s the man in the White House,” he was telling friends a year ago. The problem was that Johnson liked him well enough but didn’t entirely trust him; the simple fact seems to be that the President thought his Vice President talked too much. As a result, although Johnson saw him frequently, he never really let him in on very much.

Humphrey knows he talks a lot; one of his favorite speech openings is to kid about it. But he has his reasons. He believes people expect a bit more “than just a twentyminute address from a Vice President.” He is a good speaker, who knows how to judge audience reaction. And most of all, he knows a lot. His interests are as intense as they are varied, and he has a memory of near total recall. “He’s like a computer,” one staff member says. “There are some subjects he doesn’t even know he knows — until you push the button.” But a White House aide, who appreciates these qualities, adds: “If only he’d cut twenty minutes off each speech, he would be the most effective speaker in the nation.” The problem—in both public and private talk — is that in those final twenty minutes Humphrey tends to go beyond his original intent; in public address it sometimes leads to extravagance, in private conversation to unconscious revelation.

“Come have a drink”

The big change came just before the Vice President’s spring European trip. There was a certain new presidential warmth evident following last November’s elections — GOP gains forced Johnson to think again about who his Democratic friends are — but if a date must be set for the real thaw, it should be placed about the beginning of February. There were stories about him slipping back and forth from the White House, but for a change these were pleasant tales. Suddenly the phone was ringing, and the President was on the line: come to dinner, come to lunch, come have a drink, come on over here and let’s talk about the budget, about Vietnam, about practically everything Humphrey had been wanting to talk about for the past two years. In April, the President assigned Humphrey to manage efforts on behalf of the Administration’s program in Congress; henceforth, the order regarding legislative liaison was to be “Clear it with Hubert.” But the Administration’s bills are so bogged down that the President seemed to accomplish little by placing Humphrey in charge of legislative proposals except to remove responsibility for their failure from his own door.

During the coming months it is also Humphrey’s job to convince Democrats — and especially liberal Democrats — that disunity can only produce defeat. “Don’t spit in the soup we’re all going to have to eat” is his theme. But it remains to be seen just how effective he will be among disenchanted liberals who already have written him off as a prisoner of Johnson. Concurrently, Humphrey has been working the South more and more, to persuade Southern Democrats that divorce from the national party would open the door to Southern Republicans and hurt all Democrats in 1968.

Johnson’s decision to send Humphrey south makes good political sense, for Humphrey is a politician of liberal reputation who never fails to make a favorable impression on conservative audiences. They are charmed to discover he is no monster, and his missionary work there this year could produce some valuable delegate converts along about 1972. But the President’s newfound interest in the South (for that matter, in Humphrey himself) may also indicate that he has concluded that the Johnson-Humphrey ticket is in for a tough go of it elsewhere in the nation in this next election, never mind 1972.

Southern wiggles

Humphrey’s chief Southern sponsor thus far is Louisiana governor John McKeithan, who found him helpful and understanding during the Bogaloosa racial violence. He passed the work to Mississippi’s Paul Johnson, who was delighted to learn that although Humphrey believed in the strict observance of the desegregation guidelines, he also held that every politician must be allowed “a little wiggle room.” By mid-April the Vice President’s Southern campaign had reached the stage where he was in Atlanta, strolling arm-inarm with Georgia’s Lester Maddox and proclaiming him “a good Democrat.”

Himself a good man of decent instinct and humane intent, whose ideas often have been years ahead of their time, the door-to-door salesman of national politics (there is no harder way to make a living, no more uncertain mode of existence), who has managed not only to exist but to progress on a smile, a shoeshine, and what appears to be an unassailable faith in the belief that right eventually will gain might, his approach to those challenges of the future will be about the same as has been his approach to his past and present difficulties. As Andrew J. Glass of the Washington Post notes, “Just as Johnson practices the politics of consensus and the Kennedys practice the politics of challenge, Humphrey practices the politics of optimism.”

It might seem a bit old-fashioned and possessed of more than a little Stevensonian naïveté, but who’s to say it doesn’t work? It has brought him a long way and could take him farther still. — Douglas Kiker