Part 2 of Iric Nathanson’s excellent series tied to the 100th anniversary of Hubert Humphrey’s birth dealt with President Lyndon B. Johnson’s choice of Humphrey as his running-mate in 1964.
The saga of the Humphrey vice presidency is not a happy one. Humphrey, one of the greatest senators in history, sold great chunks of his political soul for the honor of serving under LBJ, a man who liked to say of those whom he similarly dominated: “I’ve got his pecker in my pocket.”
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s hard not to believe that HHH would have been better off — and would have been more likely to achieve his dream of the presidency — if he had stayed in the Senate and held onto his freedom of conscience, of expression and of political movement rather than plighting his troth to such a demanding groom.
LBJ’s astonishing legislative accomplishments as president entitle him to a place in the liberal pantheon. But where his political ambitions were concerned, he was a force of nature, and I don’t mean a rainbow.
Nathanson mentioned that while Humphrey was angling for veep gig, LBJ assigned him to take care of the potential disruption of the 1964 Dem convention over two competing delegations from Mississippi. Humphrey, with the help of his protégé, Walter Mondale, got it done, thus leaping over the last hurdle LBJ had established before Humphrey could be placed on the ticket. As Humphrey would later write about his attitude toward LBJ’s demands: “Whatever Lyndon Johnson wanted, Johnson would get.”
As Nathanson wrote: “And so, at Humphrey’s behest, Mondale was able to arrange at least a tenuous settlement of the dispute that gave the [Mississippi] Freedom Democrats some symbolic seats at the convention.”
All true. But that paragraph brought to my mind a fuller, much uglier, version of the incident that I learned in 2000, when Mondale launched an interesting and unusually honest series of public historical forums, based on the key episodes of his long and distinguished public life.
Sad, sorry but ultimately inspiring?
The very first forum, which I covered in my days as the Strib’s history guy, delved into the sad/sorry/but perhaps ultimately inspiring tale of the Mississippi Freedom Democrats. Humphrey was assigned by LBJ to fix the problem. Mondale was the lieutenant Humphrey dispatched to the front lines. But the story is dominated from offstage by LBJ’s ruthlessness and his ability to make men violate their own natures to do his bidding.
The real story is a reminder that the version of events presented to the public and the true behind-the-scenes version are often day and night.
Here are the high/lowlights of what I heard that day at the forum, which included breathtaking testimony from some of the actual surviving Mississippi Freedom Democrats:
In 1964, Mississippi’s “regular” Democrats had sent their usual all-white delegation to the convention. A biracial group of civil-rights activists, calling themselves the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, came to the convention claiming to be the legal delegates, since the regular Democrats had used classic racist tactics, up to and including violence, to preclude any blacks from becoming delegates.
According to secret tape recordings of Johnson’s phone conversations, LBJ — who had no real rivals for the Dem nomination but who was deeply paranoid where the Kennedys were concerned — believed that Bobby Kennedy might try to wrest the nomination from him. And LBJ believed a floor fight over the Mississippi delegations might become the pretext for Kennedy to ride to the rescue.
LBJ would, of course, win an uncontested first-ballot nomination and go on to a landslide election victory. On the other hand, when Bobby Kennedy took the stage on the convention’s last day to introduce a film tribute to his assassinated brother, the assembled Democrats broke into 22 minutes of heart-pounding applause. Come to think of it, LBJ’s heart must been pounding, too, but not in a good way. Anyway, although his Bobby fears were absurd, LBJ wanted to avoid any scenes during the march to “his” nomination.
‘We didn’t come all this way for no two seats’
So he assigned Humphrey to use his influence as the Senate’s leading advocate for civil rights to get the Freedom Dems to accept a fairly humiliating and unjust deal:
- The “regular” Dems would be seated as Mississippi’s delegates (in exchange for which they were expected to pledge to support the Johnson ticket in the fall; LBJ was worried about his chances in Mississippi).
- The national Democratic Party would agree that after 1964, no delegations chosen through race-biased procedures would be seated.
- But, for 1964, just two members of the Freedom Dem delegation would be given special at-large delegate positions.
- And Johnson had arrogated to himself the right to pick which two. And Johnson had chosen one white and one black from the MFD.
- And he had not chosen Fannie Lou Hamer, the black woman who had become an instant national celebrity after testifying to the convention’s Credentials Committee about the humiliations and beatings she had endured because she had tried to register to vote.
Mondale, who was then Minnesota’s attorney general and a convention delegate, was appointed to chair that committee. A lifelong civil-rights champion, Mondale was surely sympathetic to the Freedom Democrats. He was also an enthusiastic Humphrey man. At the 2000 forum, he would say: “The excitement I felt about helping Humphrey become vice president was central to everything I did at the convention.”
The deal was adopted by the Credentials Committee and announced at a televised news conference before the Freedom Dems could discuss the plan, which Mondale later acknowledged was a mistake. When the Freedom Dems heard about it, Hamer publicly and famously responded:
“We didn’t come all this way for no two seats.”
At the 2000 Mondale forum, Ed King, a white minister, a Freedom Democrat and one those whom LBJ had approved for one of the two delegate seats, recalled a tense meeting during which Humphrey and a roomful of civil-rights heavyweights — including Roy Wilkins, Andrew Young, United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther and, yes, even the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. himself — did Johnson’s bidding by pressuring the Freedom Dems to take the deal.
King said that the final bitter pill that the Freedom Dems couldn’t swallow was that they wouldn’t even be allowed to choose which two of their members would get the token delegate positions. King wanted to give up his spot and allow the group to choose a substitute, knowing that Hamer would be chosen.
Three low moments
That led to one of the three lowest moments in the tale, as Ed King related it that day. King quoted Humphrey as saying that Johnson had ordered him to make sure that “that illiterate woman” would never be a delegate.
Here’s the second of those low moments, again as recalled that day by Ed King:
When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. seemed about to side with the Freedom Dems on part of the discussion, he was told by Reuther, a close Johnson ally, to shut up unless he wanted to see his financial support from white northern liberals dry up. Ed King said Martin Luther King Jr. complied and continued to publicly side with Johnson and Humphrey.
Finally, King recalled another meeting, in which Humphrey told the Freedom Democrats of the good things that would happen if he, a strong civil-rights advocate, could be positioned high in the administration as vice president.
According to Ed King, Hamer told Humphrey that all he was worried about was whether he was going to get a big job. But many of her colleagues in Mississippi had lost their jobs (Hamer herself had lost hers, for her activism) and risked losing more by standing up for freedom. While tears welled up in Humphrey’s eyes, Hamer warned him that if he sold his soul in order to get the job he wanted, he would never be able to use it do the good things he was promising.
In the end, no one was happy. Most of the regular Mississippi Dems walked out of the convention. Although the Johnson-Humphrey ticket won a landslide victory, Mississippi was one of the six states Barry Goldwater carried by the breathtaking margin of (hold your breath) 87-13 percent. Humphrey endured four years of condescension and exclusion from LBJ. Yes, the vice presidency did put him in a position to gain the Dem nomination in 1968, but his obligation to maintain LBJ’s Vietnam policy — enforced by direct threats from Johnson of what would happen to him if he strayed — cost him the election to Richard Nixon.
So how can I say, as I did far above, that this sad, sorry tale may have been ultimately inspiring?
Because the team of Humphrey and Johnson did put through the civil-rights bills of 1964 and 1965, which are — symbolically and substantively — a big part of the reason that the treatment accorded to Fannie Lou Hamer would be unimaginable today. Because the Democratic Party did indeed adopt rules that would make it impossible for Mississippi to send an all-white delegation to any future convention. Because Humphrey’s elevation to the ticket got Mondale into the Senate, where he did a lot of good and important work and eventually into the vice presidency (Humphrey advised him to take Jimmy Carter’s offer), which changed the nature of that office into something much bigger than it was when Humphrey suffered through it.
And maybe even because it’s true, as all of the practicing politicians in this sad, sorry tale would say, that you can’t do any good if you don’t get elected, which is in some sense one of the larger lessons that we are celebrating this month when we celebrate the life and accomplishments of Hubert H. Humphrey.
And then there’s one last nice coda, of which I was unaware until I read Iric Nathanson’s final installment. In case you missed it, it picks up after Humphrey has gone back to the Senate:
“At a meeting of a national Democratic Party policy group, he was in the chair as the group approved a resolution condemning the Nixon administration’s Vietnam policy and calling for an immediate withdrawal of all American troops by the end of 1971. When the vote was taken on the resolution, Humphrey took that as a sign that Johnson’s hold on him had finally been broken. ‘My God. It finally happened!’ he was heard to exclaim.”
Monday: ‘Into the bright sunshine’ — HHH’s civil-rights agenda
Tuesday: Loyal lieutenant: On the ticket with LBJ
Wednesday: The Humphrey-McCarthy battle of 1968
Thursday: The final chapter: Humphrey returns to public life