With the Nov. 5 election only weeks away, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey was walking a very precarious tightrope. He had to find a way to appeal to anti-war Democrats, who were still resisting his presidential candidacy, without enraging President Lyndon Johnson. The Humphrey camp was starting to receive signals that the vindictive president might very well throw his support to Richard Nixon if Humphrey strayed too far from the administration’s line on the war in Vietnam.
A new biography by historian Arnold Offner, “Hubert Humphrey, The Conscience of the Country,” provides a behind-the-scenes look at the events of 1968 as Humphrey and his advisers struggled to deal with this central challenge facing his campaign. Offner, an emeritus professor of history at Lafayette College, tells how events come to a head in Salt Lake City when Humphrey met the challenge in a dramatic speech delivered 50 years ago, on Sept. 30.
Earlier during that election year, the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee had left the chaotic Chicago convention dejected, trailing Nixon by 16 points in the polls and still languishing under LBJ’s shadow. Continually demeaned and humiliated by the president, Humphrey told an aide at one point, according to Offner, “You know, I have eaten so much of Johnson’s shit on this job that I have grown to like the taste of it. “ Offner wrote, “Humphrey continued to behave more like a son who feared a punitive father (LBJ) than a man certain to become ‘captain’ of the Democratic team.”
By mid-September, Humphrey’s advisers were convinced that he needed to stake out his own position on the war to provide some daylight between his own views and those of Johnson. With the Paris peace negotiations sputtering, Humphrey’s staff began drafting a speech that spelled out the steps Humphrey would take to deal with the situation in Vietnam after he became president. His campaign used $100,000 of its dwindling cash reserve to buy a half an hour of air time on NBC for a nationally televised address that Humphrey would deliver on Sept. 30 in Salt Lake City.
But, in the hours leading up to scheduled TV taping, Humphrey’s aides and their outside advisers continued to argue among themselves about the content of the speech. Humphrey intended to call for a halt to the bombing of North Vietnam, but the arguments revolved around the conditions that the party’s presidential nominee would place on the conditions for the bombing pause. Some, including his hawkish chief of staff, Bill Connell, urged Humphrey to hue closely to the Johnson administration’s position, while others, led by Democratic National Chairman Larry O’Brien, pushed for a clean break with the administration — a bombing halt without preconditions. In the end, with key sections drafted by Humphrey, himself, the speech was something of a compromise. Humphrey said he would stop the bombing “as an acceptable risk for peace.” In weighing the risk and before taking action, he would “place key importance on evidence, direct or indirect, of Communist willingness to restore the demilitarized zone between South and North Vietnam. “
Humphrey decided that he would call Johnson just before the speech to inform the president about its content but not to seek Johnson’s approval. When the call was made just before the speech was about the air, Humphrey assured Johnson that he was not calling for a unilateral withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam. In later days, Johnson would complain about Humphrey’s efforts to pull away from the administration’s position on the war, but the president refrained from offering a clear judgment about the stance when he took Humphrey’s call.
In the days after the Salt Lake City address, the press and public reaction to Humphrey’s speech was largely positive. On Oct. 1, the Minneapolis Tribune’s front-page headline read “HHH Says He’d End N. Vietnam Bombing.” The Tribune reported that former Eugene McCarthy supporters in Minnesota, who had broken with Humphrey in the past, were applauding the speech.
“It is interesting to see that he (Humphrey) is coming around at least part way to McCarthy’s anti-war position,” one McCarthy loyalist told the paper. “It’s sort of tragic it has taken this long.” During the remaining five weeks of the presidential campaign, Humphrey’s poll numbers began to improve and campaign contributions started increasing.
In the end, on Election Day, after a tepid endorsement by McCarthy, Humphrey nearly caught up to Nixon, losing the popular vote by a margin of less than 1% even while trailing badly in the electoral college.
In the biography, Offner clearly admires the former vice president and lauds Humphrey’s domestic achievements. The book opens with an account of the then-Minneapolis mayor’s dramatic civil rights speech to the 1948 Democratic National Convention where he called for the Democratic Party “to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.” But Offner concludes the biography with a clear-eyed assessment of Humphrey’s tragic flaw: his inability to break with Johnson.
Offner writes, “What Humphrey lacked most was the spirit and courage he had shown as a young mayor and aspiring Senate candidate who twenty years earlier had successfully challenged a Democratic convention and an incumbent president to adopt his civil rights plan for their party platform. Had he done this over Vietnam in 1968, he might have won the presidential election.”
Even so, Offner maintains, “Humphrey was the most successful legislator in the nation’s history and powerful voice for equal justice for all, although he did not attain the presidency he coveted.”
The retired historian’s well-researched account of Humphrey’s career may not have uncovered much new information about the Happy Warrior, as Humphrey was known. But Offner’s 2018 biography will introduce a new generation of Minnesotans to the trials and triumphs of this state’s most notable 20th-century political figure.