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Did Minnesota Nice cost Hubert Humphrey the ’68 election?

According to former Carter administration official Stuart Eizenstat, Humphrey neglected to make use of a damaging recording of his opponent, Richard Nixon.

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

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.

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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.”

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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.