Did Minnesota Nice cost Hubert Humphrey the ’68 election?

Hubert H. Humphrey statue
MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson
A statue honoring Hubert H. Humphrey stands on the grounds of the Minnesota Capitol.

Did Hubert Humphrey decide that his Minnesota-ness required him to pass up what he considered dirty politics in 1968, and did that decision cost him a chance to win the presidency in 1968?

Stuart Eizenstat, who worked on the Humphrey campaign and held high positions in the Carter Administration, told a Minneapolis audience last night that the answer is yes.

About two-thirds of that tale is familiar to me, and might be to you, but Eizenstat added an ending that I haven’t heard before, which I’ll lay out just below.

Eizenstat was Jimmy Carter’s chief domestic policy advisor and (according to last night’s testimony) formed a close bond with Carter’s vice president, Walter Mondale. The two were reunited last night, at the U of M’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs for a banquet at which Mondale introduced his old friend as the keynote speaker.

Eizenstat talked about many things, most of which I’ll skip for now. But during the Q&A he was asked if he could confirm an oft-told tale that, as Lyndon Johnson prepared to leave the White House, with the Vietnam War raging and his vice president, Humphrey, running against Richard Nixon for the job LBJ was leaving, Nixon was engaged in what might be called treasonous conduct to prolong the Vietnam war for his own political benefit.

Stuart Eizenstat
Stuart Eizenstat
The war was already an unpopular unsustainable quagmire. LBJ was pursuing negotiations. During 1968, efforts were afoot to organize talks in Paris about how to de-escalate. Nixon claimed to have a “secret plan” to end the war, which he didn’t (and the war continued long after Nixon took office), but it behooved Nixon to be perceived as the candidate who could bring peace.

Vice President Humphrey, as he ran to succeed LBJ, was under pressure from LBJ not to back away from Johnson’s policies, and as Johnson’s vice president, HHH’s popularity suffered from his association with the war.

At the end of last night’s event, Eizenstat was asked whether he could shed any light on that tale, and it turned out he was anxious to add something to the usual version, especially since we were convened in the Humphrey School of Public affairs. With light editing for flow, here was his final answer:

I was Humphrey’s research director in 1968. We were behind Nixon the entire campaign… Humphrey gives a speech in Salt Lake City in September, which is taken as a break from Johnson on Vietnam. His poll numbers start to go up.

[Sen. Eugene] McCarthy comes back to the party. [McCarthy, who had challenged Humphrey for the nomination, running as an anti-war candidate and had a following among young war opponents, had been sulking since the convention.]

And Lou Harris, who was then a premier pollster, tells us on the Saturday before the Tuesday election that, “Our last poll has Humphrey ahead of Nixon 45 to 42. Independents are breaking 2 to 1 for Humphrey. He’s gonna win, going away.”

So what happens? That’s Saturday. On Sunday, the President of [South] Vietnam, President Thieu, announces that he’s not going to go to the Paris Peace Conference that LBJ had arranged, which is one of the main reasons that a sort of hot air balloon of support for Humphrey was taking us over the top. The idea that the war may be ending. Thieu was going to the talks. Then Thieu says he’s not going.

Nobody understood then why [Thieu backed away from his commitment to attend the talks]. It’s now unmistakably clear. I’ve gotten it from people on the Johnson side and from Humphrey’s aides. Harry McPherson told me. Jim Jones told me. All of Johnson’s people have told me this.

Here’s what happened. J. Edgar Hoover, then the head of the FBI, comes to see LBJ, and says, “I can’t talk about this over the phone, I’ve got something very explosive to show you.”

It’s a transcript—the FBI has bugged the Nixon campaign. They’ve got tape of [Nixon campaign manager and later Attorney General] John Mitchell talking to Madame Chennault…

[Madame Chennault was a Chinese woman, who was the widow of World War II U.S. Air Force General Clair Chennault. She was active in U.S. Republican politics, and she was a secret go-between between the Nixon campaign and the U.S.-backed government of South Vietnam.]

She was the sort of doyenne of the Taiwan lobby and he [Mitchell] says to her: “Go to your friend [South Vietnamese] President Thieu and tell him not to go to Paris for the peace talks.”

And, he says to her, if Humphrey’s elected, you’re toast because he’s going to pull the U.S. troops out. But we, [that is Nixon, if he becomes president] will enhance U.S. support.

So, LBJ calls in his guys and says “What do I do with this tape?”

[And they advise him:] “You’ve got to leak it to the press. It will win the election for Hubert.”

And LBJ says “No, I’m not gonna do that. But I’m gonna give all this to Hubert and let him decide.”

Eizenstat says that for years after 1968, that was as far as his understanding of the story went. He didn’t know whether LBJ had ever followed through and given Humphrey the power to make the final decision on whether to reveal Nixon’s perfidy. Until, he said:

Years later, I met at the home of Max Kampelman — Fritz [Mondale] knows him, he was a sort of grey eminence in the Humphrey circle — and I tell this story at the dinner table. And Max says, “Do you want to hear the rest of the story?” So I said, “Of course.”

And he said, “Well Johnson did bring it to Hubert. And Hubert called us in, and he said, ‘Boys, what do I do with this transcript?’ And they all said, ‘You’ve gotta get it to the press. It will win the election for you.’

“And Humphrey said: ‘I’m from Minnesota. We believe in clean politics. I’m not gonna play that way.’”

“If you go to the Vietnam memorial,” Eizenstat said, wrapping up the tale, “you’ll see that about 40 percent of the kids who died, died after Nixon was elected.”

As I mentioned at the top, much of this anecdote has been public for years, and is widely believed. But not, as far as I know, the final bit where LBJ leaves the decision up to Humphrey, and Humphrey declines, because Minnesotans believe in clean politics.

Humphrey and even Kampelman, are no longer with us to confirm the tale.

Comments (17)

  1. Submitted by K Holden on 11/20/2018 - 10:35 am.

    This is what MinnPost is researching and writing now? I can’t begin to describe how irrelevant this is. Hubert Humphrey???

    • Submitted by John Clouse on 11/20/2018 - 12:20 pm.

      It’s relevant to those dead soldiers and their families, isn’t it.

    • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 11/20/2018 - 01:13 pm.

      Like Sid Hartman, Eric is blessed with the title of “columnist” and with that he has an open lane to express what interests him. The tale he told would have changed history in a significant manner and deserves reporting. You may find solace in the conservation of newsprint and ink though….

  2. Submitted by Jackson Cage on 11/20/2018 - 11:33 am.

    I guess, to some, history is irrelevant. I’m confused as to how Humphrey construed not publicizing a candidate subverting the policy of the American government as “clean politics”. That would be like not publicizing election meddling by the Soviets.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 11/20/2018 - 12:17 pm.

      I wondered about that, too. The only explanation I can think of is that revealing the information would have meant revealing that Hoover had bugged the Nixon campaign, with the approval or acquiescence of LBJ.

    • Submitted by David Fox on 11/20/2018 - 12:51 pm.

      The Johnson Administration knew of the Nixon campaign’s approaches to the South Vietnamese offering a better deal from a future Nixon Administration than what Johnson was offering if they held our until after the US election because the US had bugged the South Vietnamese representatives in Paris to make sure they were not dealing with the Communists behind the US. Johnson and his advisors did not want the South Vietnamese to know that the US bugged them, so Johnson, and by extension Humphrey, kept quiet what they had learned about the Nixon campaign’s interference in the negotiations.

  3. Submitted by Daniel Gardner on 11/20/2018 - 02:17 pm.

    For those who study history, this is very relevant. K Holden – please note.

  4. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 11/20/2018 - 02:22 pm.

    The more things change – the more they seem the same….

    According to Mr. Black – Nixon probably was involved in treason and the Federal Government bugged an out of power campaign and shared this info with LBJ.

    Sounds familiar?

    • Submitted by David Fox on 11/20/2018 - 08:21 pm.

      This is not just according to Mr. Black. The audio tapes of Johnson discussing what they knew about the Nixon campaign from the taps on the South Vietnamese in France were released in 2016 or 2017. What Mr. Black is describing is simply the truth. The Nixon campaign violated US law and conspired with the South Vietnamese to delay the peace process until after the US election. More than half of the US and Southeast Asian military and civilian casualties of the war occurred after Nixon was inaugurated.

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 11/21/2018 - 09:49 am.

        Mr. Fox, he is trying to draw a parallel between bugging a foreign diplomatic mission in a foreign capitol, and the FBI wiretap (issued pursuant to an FISA warrant) that picked up phone calls to and from the conspiracy to commit Trump. Anything Trump has an equivalent to something some Democrat did, somewhere, sometime.

        Of course, a real parallel would mean that the Trump cabal was caught in an act of treason. Skeevy malfeasances and campaign law violations are pretty much a given with that crowd, but it seems extreme for a supporter to accuse them of levying war against the United States, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.

        • Submitted by David Fox on 11/21/2018 - 10:18 am.

          I am not really sure how your comment relates to mine. In my two comments, I was only pointing out how it was that the Johnson Administration knew about the illegal interference in US foreign policy by the Nixon campaign and why the Johnson Administration did not come forward with the information they had at the time.

  5. Submitted by Nathan Johnson on 11/20/2018 - 10:49 pm.

    It would have been tremendous to have HHH as POTUS, especially for the time. Having read his autobiographies, he sounded like a leader, forward-thinking, a team player, well liked, respectful and respected.

  6. Submitted by Alan Nilsson on 11/21/2018 - 12:25 pm.

    ‘Honorable, negotiated settlement with North Viet Nam’ : This was the essence of the presidential acceptance speeches at the national Republican/Democratic conventions. Given the hundreds of speeches given by HHH in support of the administrations war policies; Given his strong (Joe) McCarthyite anti=communist stance (Sponsored, among other measures,an unconstitutional bill amendment providing for the internment of those who were members of the the Communist party): It would have been unlikely that HHH as POTUS would have provided a quick exit from the war.

    Both Nixon and HHH did some things which we might admire (Nixon gave us the EPA, for example). They were never known, however, for any moral opposition to the war in Viet Nam.

    • Submitted by John Evans on 11/23/2018 - 04:14 pm.

      I am somewhat suspicious as well, for some of the same reasons. But remember, the Paris meetings were scheduled precisely because Johnson wanted out of Viet Nam. From what we know, Humphrey wanted out even more.

  7. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 11/21/2018 - 11:43 pm.

    What strikes me is that the story sounds like a legend. A legend that tells a truth about an important person but which is nonetheless false. What strikes me as false about the legend is that it has Humphrey trotting his conscience out in public to overrule the pragmatic advice of his advisors. If Humphrey had actually been given this “magic bullet” and already decided it was not “clean politics” to use it, it seems pointless and beneath him to “make a show” of his ethical decision to not use it. On the other hand, if he decided not to use this information, why even discuss it with anyone? The whole story strikes me as a sort of story that reinforces the legend of Humphrey’s integrity as a public leader which really does not ring true as having actually happened.

  8. Submitted by Pat Terry on 11/22/2018 - 04:03 am.

    No

  9. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/24/2018 - 10:46 am.

    I don’t believe MN “nice” kept Humphrey quiet. This looks like urban-legend wannabe. He might have said something like this to someone at some point, but it wasn’t the actual rationale. It’s a somewhat entertaining anecdote of little true historical import.

    We know for instance that Johnson confronted Nixon with the information, there’s a tape of the conversation that Ken Burns used in his Vietnam documentary. Nixon denied it. Johnson made a deliberate decision to keep this info under wraps, Humphrey would have had to defy that decision in order to bring the info into play. Humphrey was many things but he was NOT the defiant candidate in 1968.

    Besides, the claim itself is fundamentally irrational. If you “believe” in clean politics you would expose dirty politics, especially when lives are at stake. How could Humphrey’s silence possibly be construed as ploy to keep politics “clean”? If we were to assume that this WAS Humphrey’s reasoning we have to conclude that Humphrey was a moral imbecile.

    We don’t need any additional information to explain Humphrey and Johnson’s decisions to withhold Nixon and Kissinger’s treason from the public. It has long been know that the Democratic Party’s interest in preserving the appearance of a reliable executive “institution” with integrity has always trumped it’s interest in justice. Of course a more sinister explanation and frankly the most parsimonious explanation is that since ending the war wasn’t Humphrey’s agenda, machinations that prolonged war were of little interest to him, and he simply failed to recognize the political threat… he did after all at that time think he was winning.

    We saw this again when Bush and Reagan made a pre-election deal with the Iranians later on, and of course we now have Trump and the Russian’s. Had Johnson and Humphrey exposed Republican treason back then it might very well have precluded subsequent treacheries.

    To my mind the most significant aspect of this whole story is the extent to which Democrats demoted EVERYTHING to mere campaign strategy. When treason by a presidential candidate can’t rise above the pay grade of the campaign strategists you’re Party is on the verge of moral incoherence. Regardless of the effect on the campaign one way or another the nation deserved to know about Nixon and Kissinger’s treachery. No one can claim that a political system that puts guy like this in the White House is a reliable system buttressed by democratic integrity. Win or lose these war criminals needed to be exposed. The fact the most powerful men in the Nation were incapable of navigating this basic moral challenge gives us more insight into the historical context than many might want to admit.

    This early drift towards Democratic conciliation with toxic Republican behavior and policy puts us on a course towards the Trump Presidency. The next several decades see neoliberal/centrist Democrats legitimizing more and more toxic Republican agendas.

    This was a disgraceful low point in US politics and cute anecdotes about MN “nice” don’t make it any less so.

Leave a Reply