Campaigning: Humphrey

His shoulders and back have the dogged hump of a retired middleweight who still works out on the body bag three mornings a week at the Y. But watching this candidate at work, you realize that his posture was actually molded by a generation of endless speeches in convention halls and precinct clubhouses, his shoulders set by thousands of hours of standing with his arms draped on a lectern or thrashing over his head. If he were preaching the gospel instead of politics, you could call it a pulpit slouch. The image is fitting. At fifty-seven, Vice President Hubert Horatio Humphrey is very much a preacher in the grand old mainstream tradition, modern standard revised. He is Billy Graham with an upbeat social doctrine, not so much running for President as calling us home, safely home, to be saved.

It is a style that springs naturally from the time and place of his youth, and it has served him well over the years. So well, in fact, that today it seems only fitting that the boy from behind the drug counter in Huron, South Dakota, should wow a Chamber of Commerce convention, that the Chautauqua tent and Grange hall Populist can make a Deep Southern audience jump to its feet. It is as though conservative America had finally come face to face with the conventional liberal wisdom of the past thirty-five years and discovered that it was only Hubert Humphrey. No man who smiles so much could be dangerous, and besides, Ole Hubert has changed.

He hasn’t. Humphrey is a near miracle of consistency who after twenty years in national politics is still about where he began — slightly to the left of the Lyndon B. Johnson of 1964. Technically speaking, of course, he has had no political position of his own during his vice presidency. He has spoken for the Administration, for the President, but rarely, very rarely, for himself. It is a disquieting thought in this extraordinary year that Humphrey’s greatest political asset may be the muzzle he has worn for three and one half years. Now he is free to sound exactly like Johnson without being him, and thus can test the thesis — as he surely intends — that the only thing most people disliked about the Johnson Administration was LBJ.

In retrospect Humphrey’s decision to run seems inevitable. Yet in the first weeks of his candidacy, he seemed oddly out of control of his own fortunes — less the captain of his fate than its happy captive, less running than compelled to run. He was truly the circumstantial candidate, summoned not by a cause but by events he was powerless to control, running because Johnson would not.

Yet the same circumstances that made Humphrey a candidate soon made him a formidable one. As was clear from the start, by taking himself out of the race and moving toward peace negotiations, Johnson robbed Kennedy and McCarthy of both their fattest target and their biggest issue.

The Vice President attempted to transform himself virtually overnight from a half-comical, half-pitiable figure into an heir apparent, an emergent power in his own right. In a few weeks, in a handful of key public appearances before farmers, union members, and businessmen, Northerners and Southerners, he managed to prove his appeal to a broad cross section of his party.

Humphrey’s appeal to liberals today, of course, is but a vestigial remnant of his strength with the non-Communist left throughout the 1950s. And in the eyes of many of his old allies who encamped with Kennedy or McCarthy in 1968, the new Hubert is but a vestige, morally and ideologically diminished by his years of faithful service to the Great Emasculator.

Their case is obvious. “I will not run away from the programs of this Administration,” Humphrey has time and again declared. “I do not intend to disavow either President Johnson or the Johnson-Humphrey Administration.” In fact, as Vice President, Humphrey has embraced all of his President’s programs — including the war — with a zeal that sometimes even the White House has found embarrassing.


Humphrey’s new strength among old enemies more than counterbalances his weakness among old friends. Once anathema to the captains of finance, he has served as a leading emissary from the Administration to the business community. Once a Dixie byword for all things detestably liberal, today he is the candidate of the South.

While the irony of his new Southern appeal is obvious, the reasons for it are less so. First, the irony: in 1948, he provoked the Dixiecrat walkout at the Democratic convention; in 1964 he pushed the civil rights bill through the Senate; but today he is the first choice of such Southerners as Governor John J, McKeithen of Louisiana and the President’s conservative Texas buddy, Governor John B. Connally.

The irony diminishes when one realizes that politicians usually have reasons for what they do. The South, first of all. has perceptibly changed since 1964, and certainly since 1948. Wide-scale (by Southern standards) voter registration of Negroes has dramatically altered the tone and content of the old racial politics everywhere but Mississippi and Alabama, and there are changes even there. To the region’s newstyle moderate politicians—and its emergent liberals—Humphrey is no demon. Even unregenerate segregationists like Lester Maddox of Georgia have learned to tolerate Humphrey, have learned not to flinch when he throws his arm around them and welcomes them into the fold.

There is, of course, a purely negative reason for all this sweetness and light: Humphrey isn’t Bobby Kennedy, Gene McCarthy — or Lyndon Johnson. He is a known quantity, predictable, and neither a “traitor” to his region like Johnson, an unknown “egghead” like McCarthy, nor a “ruthless” infighter like Kennedy. And Humphrey’s very consistency in the cause of civil rights stands to his favor. Today he makes his best civil rights speeches in the South (a fact which became one of the first clichés of his campaign); but then, Billy Graham himself was preaching a suspiciously integrationist doctrine to mixed audiences in Alabama back in 1965. It may be only the harmless novelty of it all that brings out the crowds in Baton Rouge and Oxford, or perhaps it is Humphrey’s evangelism. He offers reconciliation and redemption, and the Deep South is one part of this country where people still want, desperately want, to be saved.

Southern exposure

But finally, of course, there is the hard political reason: if Kennedy or McCarthy were leading the ticket (or Johnson, for that matter), most of the South might well be lost to George C. Wallace. That is a prospect few regular Democrats outside Alabama find pleasing, and one they will fight to prevent. With Humphrey as the nominee, the region’s “anti” vote would probably split rather evenly between Wallace and the Republicans, and the Vice President — as no one knows better than the South’s Democratic pros — could end up carrying most of the old Confederacy.

From the outset, Humphrey’s Southern strategy was the heart of his campaign for the nomination. The region’s bloc of convention delegates was the one major power center that he could have, just for the asking, and that Kennedy could not even get near. If Humphrey was to stop the Kennedy blitz, he had to move fast, with all the steel he could muster, on his main opponent’s major weakness. After nailing down the party’s Southern right wing, he could then start wrestling for possession of the middle and the left.

Outside the South, his sources of support read like a guidebook to the Democratic coalition that has endured, however shakily, since the first Roosevelt Administration. Some of the pages are missing — most Eastern intellectuals have effectively dropped out; some elements of labor are gone; unions themselves can no longer be sure they control their members; poor whites have drifted off toward Wallace; the big-city machines have all but vanished; the Negro columns are torn. But Humphrey’s present and potential control of the traditional sources of Democratic power is impressive. He entered the race without Kennedy’s checkbook and vaunted charisma and staff; he could never command McCarthy’s youthful legions nor equal his disestablishmentarian charm. Yet in this year of the new politics, he is still the old politics’ resourceful master.

Binge of prayer

As a banquet hall preacher, his style is resoundingly eclectic. He is capable, in the same day, of quoting Tocqueville, FDR, Victor Hugo, JFK, Martin Luther King, Jr., and St. Augustine, and making them all sound like Norman Vincent Peale.

To the despair of reporters, he uses his prepared speeches much as rough notes to a sermon, following the main points more or less verbatim, but ad-libbing extended elaborations on the text. At times he seems unconscious of his audience, and rambles along as though on an exalted binge of prayer. One night in a smoky, chokingly hot motel convention hall crammed with dazed Ohio party regulars, he spoke for a solid hour from a text a staff member had clocked earlier at twelve minutes flat. His notorious longwindedness, one adviser asserts, is born more of a rural plainsman’s sense of the oratorical proprieties than anything else; if people are actually going to travel to hear you speak, you might as well give them their money’s worth. But even the staunchest revivalist must bend to the pressures of the age. As a concession to television, Humphrey today keeps most of his speeches under fifty minutes and wears makeup anytime there are cameramen in sight.

Yet he is obviously not a television candidate; and if enough people keep saying that, his audience may just decide it loves the way he talks and looks, much as millions of Americans every year defy all standards of critical taste or glamour by tuning in on Ed Sullivan. His typical live audience outside college campuses, Washington, and New York is made up largely of middleaged couples wearing funny hats and waving stolidly straightforward signs proclaiming “Unity with HHH.”

Humphrey would certainly not be a television candidate if the middleaged didn’t watch television. But things being what they are, he and his wife, Muriel, appeared once together on the Mike Douglas Show and drew 40,000 letters.

Another era?

Humphrey, of course, has problems, and one of them is that Lyndon Johnson long ago debased the liberal rhetoric that is Hubert’s stock in trade. Johnson in 1965 could proclaim to Congress that “we shall overcome” and make it seem that a new age had dawned. Today Hubert Humphrey sings “We Shall Overcome” at a black church convention in Detroit, and it isn’t even worth reporting. Johnson believed in his rhetoric, and so does Humphrey, but it doesn’t really seem to matter anymore. Now that the Great Society is fading fast, the Vice President wants to replace it with the New Democracy. Johnson had to use his slogan in three different speeches before anyone really paid any attention to it. It took Humphrey even longer, and even after the “New Democracy” was duly enrolled with all the greats and the news of the past generation, nobody seemed really to care that another era had been born.

Playing possum?

LBJ’s own attitude toward his loyal deputy has an ambiguity which is currently occupying the attention of Washington’s Lyndonologists. Is he really playing possum about the Humphrey candidacy in order to stay “above politics” and work undistractedly for peace? Or is there an element of resentment of all potential successors; a reluctance to surrender power or prerogative even to a handpicked heir?

Humphrey has certainly augured few changes. In fact, the chief affliction of his campaign has been his extraordinary reluctance to engage, directly and firmly, the basic issues of the Johnson presidency. He is not, he declares, simply going to run on the Johnson-Humphrey record, he is going to build on it. But he doesn’t say in what direction. One can search the speeches of the first weeks of his campaign without finding a single idea with teeth in it.

Waiting for more

It is not that Humphrey doesn’t stand for anything, but rather that he stands for so much that it all blurs, rendering him seemingly committed to few specific positions. He is on both sides of the barricades and getting away with it. In one of the first major speeches of his candidacy, he managed to come out both for “building bridges” to mainland China and shoring up the nation’s defenses against the international Communist threat. The New York Times, whose reporter had been briefed in advance, found the China policy part of the speech promising enough to play it page one, and even went so far as to take heart, on the editorial page, at Humphrey’s courageous gesture. Without benefit of briefing, the Washington Post played the story the opposite way; both papers were right.

His position on the Kerner Commission riot report has been equally elusive. First it seemed he felt the report was too harsh. Then Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, and in a truly moving and eloquent speech before some Long Island businessmen, Humphrey called for full implementation of the report’s recommendations. Since then he has vacillated. On occasion he says that the Kerner Report was, in effect, simply a national “health report” and “not an obituary”; with the right diet and a little fresh air, we should get well soon.

In the same vein, the candidate of happiness and joy can affably observe that “the best foreign policy that America could have is a successful, humane domestic policy,” that “the best thing about the War on Poverty is that it was started.” One waits for more, but it so seldom comes.

As for the war, the central issue of the campaign, Humphrey has decided simply to ignore it by emphasizing what he foresees for the postwar period. The nation, he says, must not lapse into another postKorea slump after the boys come home from Saigon, and his point is well put and well taken. But he does not say how he will get the boys home.

Yet Humphrey’s refusal to engage the substantive issues has made excellent tactical sense. His first priority was wooing and winning delegates, who are usually impressed less by issues than by the ability to win. Kennedy could attack him as the candidate of “pablum and tranquilizers,” but he was on the outside trying to get in. Early in the campaign, Humphrey simply made a flat policy decision that he would not discuss issues in detail until after the primaries were over.


The Vice President and his advisers are acutely aware that, for the first time in his political career, Humphrey and his times are converging. Today he is neither too early nor too late; the question now is whether he and the people he is speaking to can recapture their own relevance, which is another way of asking whether the old system is going to work.

There will be plenty of time for Humphrey to show where he stands on the issues. The real question now is where the country stands and where it will stand at the end of the summer. Most of Humphrey’s people are like most people in the United States — white, middle-class, middle-aged — and now they feel buffeted by the black and the poor and the young. Humphrey’s gift as a preacher is that he can infuse these people with a kind of undifferentiated goodwill that can seem as exalting as grace. It doesn’t necessarily last long, or show itself in works, but at the very least it is a warm and friendly sensation.

In a country suddenly so in need of bonds, that seems not too modest a start. — Philip D. Carter