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Hubert Humphrey, whose life will be celebrated May 27, brought millions out of the shadows and into the sunshine of human rights

A fair amount of thoughtful reminiscing has already occurred this year on the centennial of Hubert H. Humphrey's birth. And in today's toxic and polarized climate, the remembering has tended to emphasize that Humphrey was respected and even loved by his enemies, that he didn't mind compromise at all,  and that he was a pragmatic  problem-solver who valued business AND government.      

All true. But on May 27 at Minneapolis City Hall — the former vice president's actual birth date and the actual place where his career in elected office began — we'll be treated to a full-day, 12-hour policy-and-history smorgasbord  that will celebrate Humphrey's actual and truest essence, along with a forward-looking focus on how to renew his legacy.           

At his core, Humphrey was a progressive zealot. He was a passionate, unapologetic advocate not only for the racially oppressed and the poor, but for the vast and vulnerable middle class, and not only in his state and country, but all over the world. Further, he was relentlessly optimistic about the reality of improving people's lives and their economic security through democratic governments. And then he actually made that happen, from civil-rights legislation, to Medicare and federal education investments, to arms-control treaties, to fighting brutal communist dictatorships, to the establishment of the Peace Corps. Thus his immortal nickname, "The Happy Warrior.''

Intellectual heft and a deep knowledge of history
Overlooked by many is the fact that Humphrey was much more than a great talker and doer (and he was one of the greatest rhetoricians of all time). Humphrey also had intellectual heft and worked from a deep knowledge of history, economics and public policy. As a political-science professor, with degrees from Louisiana State and the U of M, and as a professor at Macalester College, he loved to delve in to the deviltry of the details, as well as the grandest vision.       

Accordingly, the Hubert H. Humphrey Birthday Centennial Reunion and Policy Discussions will feature not just the grand and poignant speeches from old friends and staffers, and the videos and the fond memories, but about a dozen break-out conversations devoted to aspects of his accomplishments and what those might say about the future of progressive policy.      

Among about a dozen  topics are these:  The Future of American Workers; Healthcare & Aging; Ending Poverty; 21st Century Governing; Liberty & Equality; U.S. in the World; and Citizens in Politics.        

The break-out topics illustrate the impressive range of things Humphrey helped accomplish in our nation and world. One of these alone would place somebody prominently in the history books, and there's a reason he has been listed by historians as among the three or four greatest American legislators of all time.

To review three major categories of major impact by Humphrey:       

Civil Rights and human rights. Books could be written about his role in civil-rights legislation, from taking on segregationists and white supremacists in his own Democratic Party in 1948 to actually leading the charge on the floors of Congress for civil-rights and voting-rights laws in the mid-1960s. Lesser known is how Humphrey in the 1940s took a Minneapolis power structure for its shameful record of anti-Semitism.            

Social services and economic security. The Health and Human Services building in Washington, D.C., is named for him. Humphrey either was an original force or a leading architect of the 1960s investments that helped dramatically reduce elderly poverty, through Medicare, as well as programs ranging from food stamps to Head Start, and that, despite a drumbeat of uninformed criticism, sustain and help improve the lives of millions of American families every day.        

International affairs. Minnesota and the United States were typically isolationist, and the progressive coalition before Humphrey reorganized it in the 1940s was sympathetic to Marxism and Soviet communism. Humphrey helped create a powerful and popular DFL Party by driving out those elements, and over 30 years he was among a handful of the most influential national leaders who skillfully led America's Cold War confrontation with communism. And yet he was no McCarthyistic red-baiter, anything but nationalistic or xenophobic. He is generally given credit for driving the United States toward a positive, peaceful and humane internationalist leadership, and is credited with accomplishments including arms-control treaties and the Peace Corps.      

Mistakes and downsides
A life that matters this much, and in which so much is said and done, inevitably contains mistakes and downsides. Excessive loyalty to President Lyndon Johnson damaged him and prevented him from voicing honest assessments about the disastrous Vietnam War, and led to his very narrow defeat to Republican Richard Nixon for the presidency in 1968. Arguably, too much was promised in the War on Poverty, and some Great Society programs were not designed or managed well. This had a lot to do with the loss of faith in government, although many political scientists link that most closely to Nixon's Watergate scandal.     

We would have been better off with Humphrey than with Nixon, but regardless, Humphrey improved our world. And to bring it all home, he transformed our Minnesota forever for the better. This passage from his acolyte, former Vice President Walter F. Mondale, in his recent book "The Good Fight,'' just about says it all.     

"Minnesota was a cloistered, isolationist place when Humphrey came on to the scene in the 1940s; he gave it a worldly, internationalist outlook,'' Mondale wrote. " It was a state of conservative, self-reliant people. He inspired them to think about social justice and the role government could play in expanding opportunity. He put civil rights on the agenda in a state with a long history of bigotry and anti-Semitism. He brought ambition and a flair for innovation to people, who by nature were cautious and shy. He didn't simply establish himself as a leading figure in national politics, he built his state into an admired incubator of progressive ideas. Hubert brought out the decency and optimism in people, and he made Minnesota a different place.''  

(To participate in some or all of the Humphrey Centennial Reunion and Policy Discussions , go to the website. Information and interaction about the event is also possible through a Facebook page.) 

Dane Smith is the president of Growth & Justice, a research and advocacy organization that advances policies aimed at expanding economic prosperity.

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Comments (1)

Years ago (and I do mean AGO, like 45 or so), I was active in the DFL and on the State Central committee. It was the halcyon days of Humphrey, Freeman, Mondale and McCarthy. One of the most fun, exilerating, and rewarding parts of the experience was having a connection with these shining lights -- but always topping it off was Humphrey's orations, and I got to hear plenty of them. Possibly the best political orator of modern times.

And it also was the best of times for Minnesota politics, especially if you were a Democrat. But, to give proper credit, the Republicans had sensible, moderate and effective leaders as well.

Trite, I know, but "those were the days!"