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The final chapter: Hubert Humphrey returns to public life

Two years after losing the presidency to Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey ran for and won the Senate seat vacated by Eugene McCarthy.

Part four in a series
Post-election 1968 was a difficult time for Hubert H. Humphrey as he struggled to come to terms with his loss to Richard Nixon.

In a letter to his son, Doug, Humphrey acknowledged that he was “tired, achy, irritable, restless. … It was the emotional letdown from the campaign, and the realization that your Dad had been reaching for the stars and had not quite made it.”

Humphrey told his son that he had come so close to winning the presidency that “I could almost feel it. At least, I thought I almost touched it. It was like reaching the top rung of the ladder and your fingernails scratch the surface, but you fail to put your fingers around it and to hang on to it. You just slip away.”

Now, for the first time in 25 years, Humphrey was out of office, and he would need to make a new life for himself.

The new life began with a return to academia, where Humphrey had expected to make his career before politics intervened. A month after the 1968 election, he received two academic appointments: one at Macalester College, where he had taught political science 25 years earlier, and a second at the University of Minnesota, where he had received his undergraduate degree.

His new academic career was somewhat short-lived as politics began to reassert its hold on him. He had briefly considered running for governor of Minnesota but rejected that option because it would remove him from the national scene. “The pull of Washington, the need I suppose, to resurrect my career and previous reputation were too great,”
Humphrey acknowledged.

Back to the Senate
He succumbed to the pull when Eugene McCarthy announced that he would not run for re-election. Now, Humphrey would have a way to return to Washington by filling the Minnesota Senate seat vacated by his former colleague.

On June 13, 1970, Humphrey announced that he was a candidate for the U.S. Senate.

Calling for an immediate cease-fire in Vietnam and a withdrawal of American troops, the former vice president opened the door to another run for the presidency. He made the usual disclaimer that he had “every intention” of serving out the full six-year Senate term. But then he added, “I would be less than candid if I tried to pretend that I would turn away from the (presidential) nomination if it came my way.”

Then, another presidential run was only a future possibility. Before he could resume his political career, Humphrey needed to obtain the DFL nomination for the open Senate seat in September. That meant appealing to party activists, many of whom were still smarting over the events of 1968 and that year’s presidential nomination battle that had pitted Humphrey against McCarthy.

Two years later, some McCarthy supporters were still not ready to forgive Humphrey. They rallied behind a primary challenge from a young African-American university instructor named Earl Craig, who had been a McCarthy activist in 1968.

For Humphrey, Craig’s challenge for the DFL nomination was particularly troubling. “After a lifetime of championing the cause of the black man, I should now be faced by a black man who says that I am not sufficiently liberal,” he wrote to a friend. “If this is a way of testing a man’s character, believe me, mine is being tested.”

The New York Times observed that “Hubert Humphrey trying to return to the United States Senate … finds himself in a Minnesota primary fight that duplicates most of the divisions in the Minnesota ranks that plagued his bid for the presidency.”

The Times went on to note that Humphrey’s opponent was backed by many of McCarthy’s 1968 supporters. “The consuming interest of many of Craig’s supporters is not his success but the embarrassment and punishment of Humphrey. To settle 1968 scores with Humphrey, some Minnesota Democrats would prefer to see the election of his Republican opponent in November.”

Then the paper gave Humphrey its enthusiastic endorsement, saying that he had been “an outstanding Senator for 16 years and was capable of resuming his service in that body where he left off in 1965. Now 59, full of energy and ideas, he had much to contribute.”
Humphrey easily turned back Craig’s challenge in the September primary and went on to defeat his Republican challenger, Clark MacGregor, winning 58 percent of the vote in the November general election.

A much diminished role
The former vice president would return to Washington in 1971, but in a role that was much diminished from what it had been before he left. Now, he was a freshman senator and he would have to start working his way up the seniority ladder again. This time around, he would no longer have easy access to the White House, now that its occupant was Nixon.

“Humphrey came back to the Senate hoping to play an important role in the Ninety-second Congress as a legislative craftsman,” noted his biographer, Al Eisele. “He had prepared proposals in the field of national health insurance, federal revenue sharing and disarmament and arms control. But he quickly discovered that the Senate had changed as much as he had, and that the levels of power he was once able to push so adroitly were no longer available to him.”

Still, he plunged ahead with a full legislative agenda, much as he had done during his earlier terms in the Senate. He promoted a plan to establish a National Domestic Development Bank to revive declining urban and rural communities and led a successful effort to cut off funds for the Supersonic Transport airplane (SST). 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.

As he regained his footing in the Senate and a place in the national political spotlight, “his dormant political sap began to rise,” wrote Eisele.

Another run for the White House
By the summer of 1971, Humphrey kept edging closer to another presidential run, telling one press group, “I’ve got the sails up. I am testing the water. I am not salivating but I’m occasionally licking my chops.”

That fall, Humphrey was a candidate in all but name only, as he and his team of advisers began gearing up for the following year’s early primaries. Then, on Jan. 10, it was official. He would seek the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination. In a statement in Philadelphia, he noted: “In my years of government experience, I have learned an essential fact. We may suffer an occasional defeat. We all do. But with determination and faith, a man or a nation can grow from defeat.”

Sens. Edward Kennedy, Walter Mondale and Hubert Humphrey at a Minnesota DFL fundraiser in 1971.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Sens. Edward Kennedy, Walter Mondale and Hubert Humphrey at a Minnesota DFL fundraiser in 1971.

As the presidential nomination cycle got under way, Humphrey would achieve some wins but suffer more defeats. Now, George McGovern, who had staunch antiwar credentials as a Senate dove, was the Democratic Party’s rising star. McGovern would go on to win the key Wisconsin primary, but lose to Humphrey in Ohio and Pennsylvania. But Humphrey’s campaign resources were fast depleting as McGovern was pulling ahead in the delegate count. The California primary was scheduled for June 9. It could tip the balance back toward Humphrey, and he knew it was “make or break” for him.

“California is the Superbowl of Democratic Politics,” he wrote to a friend. “If we win, we go on to win in Miami. If we lose, that will be like falling in with a bulldozer filling in.”

In the end, the McGovern bulldozer did fill in. By a narrow margin of 5 percent, Humphrey lost California and his presidential quest was over. Again he would have to suffer the pain of defeat. In an interview after the June primary, Humphrey acknowledged that “the presidency was a tremendous goal in my life, one that I am not going to achieve.”

Even if the prized goal of the presidency had eluded him, the ebullient Minnesotan still had important work to do in Washington. “I will keep pounding away at what I believe is right from the rostrum of the Senate. I will be damned if defeat is going to shut me up,” he declared defiantly.

But soon, Humphrey would have to face a new foe, more formidable than any he had encountered in the political arena.

Final days
In June 1967, Humphrey underwent exploratory surgery for a urinary disorder. That surgery discovered a malignant tumor on his bladder. When the tumor was removed, Humphrey was confident that he had been cured.

But the cure had not been permanent. In 1973 the cancer returned, and Humphrey underwent a series of painful radiation treatments. “It was devastating. He would stumble out of the hospital, doubled up in pain,” Carl Solberg reported. “Then, after an hour or two the pain would subside. Humphrey would head to the office as if nothing had happened, chat with visitors and in the afternoon stroll to the Senate floor to manage the foreign aid bill.”

Three years later, in 1976, Humphrey and his advisers briefly considered another run for the presidency, but the ailing Minnesota senator soon abandoned the idea. “It’s ridiculous — and the one thing I don’t need at this stage in my life is to be ridiculous,” he said.

By now, the cancer had spread and Humphrey underwent surgery to have his bladder removed.

In late October, Humphrey was discharged from the hospital, only days before winning another Senate term in the Nov. 4 election. That election saw the return of the White House to Democratic control with the election of Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale, Carter’s vice presidential running mate. Mondale, a fellow Minnesotan, would hold the same post that Humphrey held 10 years earlier as Lyndon Johnson’s vice president.

Now, looking increasingly frail, the indefatigable Humphrey resumed his Senate duties, struggling to maintain a normal work schedule as best he could. But his health continued to deteriorate over the next two years. After lapsing into a coma, Hubert Humphrey died at his home in Waverly, Minn., on Jan. 13, 1978, at the age of 66.

Humphrey’s body was flown to Washington to lie in state at the Capitol and then back to Minnesota for a funeral at St. Paul’s House of Hope Presbyterian Church. In a Jan. 15 editorial, the New York Times eulogized the former vice president. “Hubert Humphrey and death seemed intrinsically incompatible,” the Times observed. “Few human beings have ever been in love with life or enjoyed life’s challenges more than he did. He gave unstintingly of his heart, mind and physical energy and he left America a better country for his efforts.”

President Jimmy Carter, Muriel Humphrey, Vice President Walter Mondale and Joan Mondale view the procession of Hubert Humphrey's coffin out of the Capitol rotunda.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
President Jimmy Carter, Muriel Humphrey, Vice President Walter Mondale and Joan Mondale view the procession of Hubert Humphrey’s coffin out of the Capitol rotunda.

The legacy
Hubert Humphrey did not live to see the huge changes that would roil American politics during the latter decades of the 20th century. In Minnesota, he would have been pleased with the emergence of Paul Wellstone, whose oratorical skills came close to matching those of Humphrey.
But Minnesota’s leading 20th century political figure would have been angered and frustrated by an emerging conservative ideology that viewed government as the problem rather than the solution. And he would have been deeply distressed by a widening divide that continued to degrade the American political system well into the current century.

Throughout his decades-long career, Humphrey believed deeply in American politics and its higher purpose in addressing the critical issues facing this country. Mainly, he sought to achieve this higher purpose in the U.S. Senate.

“Humphrey more or less invented the modern senator, as we now him,” observed Carl Solberg, “… creator, educator, innovator, using his place and prominence to define issues for the broader public — and ultimately, through mastery of the interminable process of committee, cloakroom and floor maneuver, translating these issues into law.”

While he was often derided as a “knee-jerk” liberal by his ideological foes, Humphrey, in fact, was adept at building coalitions and compromising, when needed, to move forward toward his ultimate goal.

As far back as 1945 and his election as mayor of Minneapolis, the city’s chief executive reached out to the city’s more conservative business leaders in an effort to establish a broad base of support for his campaign to combat municipal corruption. Later he would tap the brother of Minnesota’s Republican governor to spearhead the city’s new human-rights initiative. In the Senate, he would work tirelessly with his Republican counterparts to achieve passage of a landmark civil-rights bill in 1964.

More than anything else, Humphrey had an uncanny ability to infuse his own energy and optimism into the broader political sphere as he worked to move his agenda forward. While his intelligence and the force of his personality brought notable successes during his years in public office, there were failures as well. The great tragedy of his career was his inability to more fully bridge the huge political gap facing this country over the War in Vietnam. But Humphrey was not one to be bowed by defeat. His innate optimism propelled him back on to the political scene after his loss to Richard Nixon in 1968.

Hubert Humphrey showed us how politics could be a force for good — how it could strengthen the American commonwealth and improve the lives of its citizens. It is a lesson we need to relearn during these difficult times in the early 21st century.

Monday: ‘Into the bright sunshine’ — Hubert Humphrey’s civil-rights agenda
Tuesday: Loyal lieutenant: On the ticket with LBJ
Wednesday: Two favorite sons: the Humphrey-McCarthy battle of 1968
Thursday: The final chapter: Hubert Humphrey returns to public life