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How Biden learned from Humphrey, and what that may say about him today

Norman Sherman, whom HHH admirers know as a long-serving adviser to and staff member for Humphrey, wrote a piece linking the two for The Hill.

The best thing I know about Joe Biden is that he ended the presidency of his despicable predecessor. Maybe some other Democrat could’ve done it. Maybe not. But Biden did.

Hubert Humphrey's vice presidential portrait
Library of Congress
Hubert Humphrey's vice presidential portrait
I believe we’ll all be better off for it, although I accept that there are some who disagree. The main point is that my enthusiasm is mostly rooted in whom Biden beat, followed by the fact that Barack Obama chose him as his running-mate, vouched for him, recommended him. Pretty soon, we’ll know a lot more about his priorities and abilities to be a good president, at a time when we really, really need one. I’m hopeful.

As a young man (which I no longer am), who didn’t grow up in Minnesota, I had a similar lack of enthusiasm for Hubert Humphrey, whom I knew mostly as LBJ’s long-suffering vice president, and as the loser of the presidential election of 1968, which gave us Richard Nixon.

But I’ve been a Minnesotan for almost 50 years now since I had those views, and I’ve learned how wrong I was about Humphrey, a great, great leader on civil rights and many other liberal causes as mayor of Minneapolis, and as a U.S. senator. Every time I think about how great Humphrey was, and how much I underrated him, I renew an oath not to be quick to judge people based on little knowledge, or cavalier about people or important elements of character.

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I wanted to confess how wrong I used to be about Humphrey to call your attention to a piece I just read that links Biden to Humphrey, and is written by someone who knew Humphrey extremely well, and Biden pretty well too.

The piece linked the two with a small reminiscence published over the weekend in The Hill by Norman Sherman, whom HHH admirers know as a long-serving adviser to and staff member for Humphrey. He was one of Humphrey’s main guys.

In his piece for The Hill, Sherman talked about interviewing Biden when Biden was a young senator, still in his first term, and Humphrey had recently died. And Sherman was struck that young Biden referred to Humphrey as “The Boss.”

It really made no sense. Humphrey hadn’t been Biden’s “boss.” When Sherman asked him about the reference, Biden seemed almost unaware he had said it, but Biden knew how to explain what he meant.

Biden confessed to Sherman that he had started out assuming Humphrey was “a windbag, old, out-of-touch … a political Neanderthal hanging around beyond his time.”

Biden, Sherman explained, had come up as a critic of the Vietnam War. Humphrey, who was vice president to Lyndon Johnson, was a blabbermouth who had carried water for the war and seemed like a “sellout” to LBJ.

But then Biden got to know Humphrey, and came to view him as “the smartest senator that he served with,” Sherman wrote, adding:

“As Biden described his relationship with Humphrey, it was clear to me that — from the beginning in the Senate and probably before — [Biden] knew what he didn’t know and was eager to learn. Biden asked and he listened. He held views strongly, about people and policy, but understood that he might be wrong — and accepted evidence that he was.”

Humphrey, after his vice presidency under LBJ and his failed presidential campaign in 1968, had come back to the Senate with a lot of experience, perspective and knowledge of how to get things done, how to debate in favor of a bill, how to work the committee system, the media.

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In the interview, Biden described how wrong he had been about Humphrey and how quickly he realized it.

What Biden discovered, once a senator himself, was that Humphrey — demonstrating his skills on the floor in debate, his knowledge in committee discussion, his skill dealing with the media — was the smartest senator that he served with, if you wanted to make progress on the issues that mattered. That’s what made him, in Biden’s view, worthy of the nickname “the Boss.”

Something about that exchange, about Biden’s change of view toward Humphrey, changed Sherman’s view of Biden. As Biden assumes the presidency, which Humphrey tried but failed to reach, Sherman writes that:

“Looking back on that interview, I am encouraged to believe that Joe Biden comes to the Oval Office with strong views informed by serious study. As a good president, he will look to his Cabinet for advice, not adoration; he will turn to experts to inform and hone his views.

“Senator Biden learned from the Boss. He listened and he learned. That inherent skill will make President Biden able to truly make our country great again.”

We’ll see about that, together over the next four years. That meeting that changed Sherman’s view of Biden occurred in 1978. That’s 43 years ago. I hope Sherman is right. His full piece from “The Hill” is viewable here.

Hat tip to Bob Meek for circulating Sherman’s “Hill” piece via email.