‘The Good Fight’: With Humphrey leading the charge, the 1948 election became a turning point in Minnesota’s political history

Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale pictured in 1948.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale pictured in 1948.

This is the first of three excerpts from “The Good Fight: A Life in Liberal Politics,” by Walter F. Mondale with David Hage (Scribner, 2010). Part 1 is set in the late 1940s. In 1944 President Franklin Roosevelt had feared that Minnesota’s progressive wing — made up of the Democrats, “mostly urban and rooted in St. Paul’s Irish immigrant community,” and, to their left, “the United Front crowd, political activists who leaned toward communists” — would split in two and he would lose the state to a plurality Republican vote. Roosevelt encouraged Hubert H. Humphrey — who had co-founded a progressive, anti-Communist organization called Americans for Democratic Action — to rebuild the state Democratic Party.

Hubert was the perfect choice. He was talented and ambitious and had no peer when it came to motivating a crowd. He also knew how to build coalitions. He understood farmers; he could speak their language on issues such as price parity and rural electrification, and he could convince them that he would be their advocate. He did the same thing with the labor movement. He would go over to the Minneapolis Labor Temple every other night and speak to union locals. He understood their goals, too, and he had dozens of ideas to advance the interests of working people. Then he started pulling together all the factions and convincing them that they needed each other to win, and that the old differences and suspicions were only holding them back.

In addition to his political skills, Humphrey had an energy that is hard to appreciate if you never saw him in action. When he was campaigning, he would barnstorm across the state, delivering ten or twelve speeches a day. His driver was Fred Gates, an old friend and longtime supporter, whom Hubert called Pearly Gates because he drove with such abandon. A car would travel ahead of Humphrey from town to town, with a loudspeaker to drum up a crowd, then Hubert would pull in riding in a flatbed truck, and he would speak from the back. Sometimes he would draw only ten or fifteen people, but he didn’t care. When he hit his stride he could stop traffic and bring Main Street to a standstill. (Barry Goldwater, a political rival but personal friend, once described the effect this way: “Hubert has been clocked at 275 words a minute, with gusts up to 340.”) Later, I traveled with Humphrey from time to time, and no matter how tired he was, you could see the color come back into his cheeks and his eyes brighten as he waded into a crowd. He could go for days without showing fatigue. “Don’t spend too much time in bed,” he told me once. “That’s where most people die.”

Because of his political skills and his tremendous energy, Humphrey attracted an entire generation of new talent in his wake. There was Orville [Freeman], of course, who served three terms as governor and then became U.S. secretary of agriculture. And Gene McCarthy, another political science professor, who became a congressman in 1948 and a senator a decade later. When Humphrey and McCarthy campaigned together, they were unbeatable. There was Gerald Heaney, an accomplished attorney who became a Democratic National Committee member and later a federal judge; Art Naftalin, a brilliant progressive mayor of Minneapolis; and Don Fraser, who was elected to Congress from Minneapolis in 1962 and became a distinguished leader on human rights and foreign policy. They were typical of that generation.

The Good Fight

Between 1944 and 1948, Humphrey worked constantly to unify Minnesota’s progressives, finding common ground between farmers and union members, intellectuals and business leaders — while gradually marginalizing the old United Front crowd. The result was the Democratic Farmer-Labor Party, or DFL, which would change the face of Minnesota politics for the next half century. But we got into some pretty rough fights along the way. In early 1948, hoping to earn the party’s nomination for the Senate in November, Humphrey made one last push to consolidate the organization behind him. One of his first moves came at the convention of the Young DFL in Minneapolis. We met at the old Minneapolis Labor Temple. The room was divided right down the middle, the United Front supporters on one side and our group on the other, and you could have cut the tension with a knife. I was afraid we were going to be outnumbered if it came to an endorsement vote, so I brought a big crowd over from the St. Paul college campuses — Macalester, Hamline, and St. Thomas. We packed that place, and I think we caught the other side by surprise. The hard-left people got up and gave their speeches about how we were fascists, then Humphrey got up and brought the crowd to its feet. At one point, someone in the audience asked if he thought the United Front supporters were actually members of the Communist Party. He said, “Well, if they’re not members, they are cheating it out of dues money.” A lot of people in that room had worked with Humphrey in the past, and I think they were stunned at the hard line he took. But he was mesmerizing, and we had the numbers, and he carried the crowd overwhelmingly. At the state convention a month later he did the same thing. He had the numbers and he won the crowd, and after that the party belonged to him.

Some people never forgave Humphrey for what they regarded as a purge of the left in Minnesota politics. But it showed the rest of the party — and voters across the state — that he could be a unifying force, that he represented something new in Minnesota politics and demonstrated that we had an alternative to the Republican Party.

Eugene McCarthy
MHS
Eugene McCarthy

With Humphrey leading the charge, the 1948 election proved to be a turning point in Minnesota’s political history. Humphrey won big, defeating the Republican incumbent, Joe Ball. [Harry S.] Truman carried Minnesota, becoming the first Democrat apart from Franklin Roosevelt to carry the state in a presidential race since the Civil War. We elected three new Democrats to Congress, including Gene McCarthy. In a few other races, we just missed. But you could see the elements: a generation of new talent, highly motivated, and the foundation of a new political movement. I packed up my things in Mankato and drove back to St. Paul that night after the polls closed. It was a good feeling. The next morning, Minnesota was a different state.

From time to time around this country, an extraordinary political figure emerges — a candidate who has that unique power of leadership, who breaks the mold and leads his or her state in a fundamentally new direction. In Minnesota, that figure was Humphrey. Minnesota was a cloistered, isolationist place when Humphrey came on the scene in the 1940s; he gave it a worldly, internationalist outlook. It was a state of conservative, self-reliant people. He inspired them to think about social justice and the role government could play in expanding opportunity. He put civil rights on the agenda in a state with a long history of bigotry and anti-Semitism. He brought ambition and a flair for innovation to people who, by nature, were cautious and shy. He didn’t simply establish himself as a leading figure in national politics, he built his state into an admired incubator of progressive ideas. Hubert brought out the decency and optimism in people, and he made Minnesota a different place.

From THE GOOD FIGHT by Walter Mondale with Dave Hage. Copyright © 2010 by Walter Mondale. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.


Tomorrow: Mondale, having locked up the 1984 Democratic nomination for president, begins his search for a running mate — just as President Reagan shows signs of increasing momentum.

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