Smith and Pearlstein: Ronald Reagan, Hubert Humphrey and the political divide

  • February 6, 2011 - 9:09 AM


In any ranking of the most influential liberal and conservative politicians of the last half of the 20th century, Ronald Reagan and Hubert Humphrey belong at the pinnacle.

We think of them as opposites, brilliantly eloquent champions for sharply conflicting views of government's role in our lives -- exactly the disagreement that most deeply divides Americans today.

Humphrey believed in government action to address social injustices and solve problems. Reagan famously said that government had become the problem rather than the solution.

Nearly every American (including the sometimes disagreeing co-authors of this commentary) tends to prefer the philosophy of one of these icons over the other's.

But today, on the 100th anniversary of Reagan's birth, and just months before the centennial of Humphrey's birth in May, we propose a mutual salute that recognizes how these two remarkable sons of the Midwest were remarkably similar in unappreciated ways.

Foremost, in contrast to the snarling that frequently dominates discourse and divides the electorate today, Humphrey and Reagan exuded relentless optimism and energy about their beliefs and unshakable confidence in the destiny of the United States, with the emphasis on United.

Both had resolve but little rancor. They were both lousy haters.

Cynics in their day often ridiculed what they saw as Reagan's and Humphrey's small-town, gee-whiz sunniness; a kind of innocent faith in a basic American goodness that surely would prevail in the end.

Supposedly sophisticated critics, on the left and the right, by the late 1960s were sneering at Humphrey's old-fashioned cheerfulness.

Worldly intellectuals ridiculed Reagan's "Morning in America'' imagery, as well as his corny and sometimes apocryphal tales, told with a Frank Capraesque glow.

But neither man ever lost or apologized for his sentimental optimism, and Reagan, no doubt drawing on his own kindred spirit, focused on this trait in 1984 when he awarded the Humphrey family a posthumous Congressional Gold Medal for Distinguished Service.

Reagan praised Humphrey lavishly for his buoyant spirit and told a story about how the latter's colleagues were frustrated that the "Happy Warrior'' couldn't stay mad at his worst enemies for more than a couple weeks.

Humphrey understood, Reagan said, "that though good men and women can disagree on this issue and that, we must always stay bound by a common love of country. ... [His life] affirmed the fact that the democratic process is alive and full of movement and action and great plans and decent dreams.''

Humphrey's and Reagan's common talents and traits took various shapes, starting with where they were born, in rooms above classic Main Street storefronts in small Midwestern towns, right here in the Corn Belt.

Their families struggled economically and personally.

At one point, Humphrey's family, which enjoyed some success with ownership of a drug store in Huron, S.D., had to sell a house to pay bills. Reagan's father was a mostly unsuccessful salesman who suffered from alcoholism; the family moved often among northern Illinois towns.

These were humble beginnings, and throughout their careers Reagan and Humphrey displayed a Midwestern humility and lack of pretentiousness; a straight-ahead style made neighborly by a down-to-earth decency, causing their strong convictions to come across as convincing and heartfelt rather than self-righteous.

Midwestern pragmatism was another shared value.

They were often fiercely idealistic, as witness Humphrey being the true founder of the Peace Corps, and Reagan proposing to Mikhail Gorbachev at Reykjavik the eventual banning of all nuclear weapons.

But they also were savvy realists who made deals when they had to, recognized the geopolitics and economics of a situation and steered clear of extremism.

Both, for instance, were Cold War fighters and internationalists, at times when elements within their political parties and ideological factions were communist or isolationist.

Reagan's anticommunist bona fides are well-known, from his pronouncements on the "Evil Empire'' to his call for Soviet leaders to tear down the Berlin Wall (which in fact crumbled just a few years later).

Humphrey emerged as a dominant figure in Minnesota and national politics after he helped unify the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, driving out communists in the process.

He came within a fraction of the presidency in 1968, and may have lost because of his strong and early support for America's long and tragic involvement in a shooting war against communists in Vietnam.

Max Kampelman, a highly regarded senior diplomat who served as a top-level lieutenant to both Humphrey and Reagan, said in a recent interview that there was no inconsistency in his lifelong support for Humphrey and his later advocacy as a lead arms negotiator in the Reagan White House.

Noting that Reagan counted himself "a friend and admirer'' of Humphrey, Kampelman says that he "was never asked to modify my views, and I was never asked to become a Republican. [Reagan] knew I was a Democrat and we talked about it.''

Humphrey and Reagan were pragmatists in the least-flabby sense of the term.

Both had been New Deal Democrats as young men during the 1930s and '40s, believers in Franklin Delano Roosevelt's expansion of federal economic security programs to address the ravages of the Depression and long-standing inequalities in the American economy.

Later, in better days, Reagan's views changed about what policies best nourished prosperity for all. Yet as frequently noted these days (by Democrats, anyway), Reagan agreed to raise federal taxes several times in the 1980s to reduce budget deficits, simplify the tax code and shore up Social Security.

Humphrey, for his part, frequently embraced capitalism and business and the notion of mom-and-pop entrepreneurialism, and often was viewed by the New Left as too accommodating to the corporate establishment.

In 1972, in his last campaign for the presidency, Humphrey criticized Democratic rival George McGovern's guaranteed federal income entitlement proposal. "People in this country want jobs, not handouts,'' he said.

Each man was driven by a pursuit of economic fairness and common sense, different as their routes to the goal sometimes were.

Co-author Smith would argue that for Humphrey, economic fairness and common sense translated seamlessly into quests for civil rights, federal investments in education and poverty reduction and public infrastructure, and equality of opportunity.

Co-author Pearlstein would argue that for Reagan fairness and common sense principally meant allowing Americans to keep more of what they earned while remaining free of as many governmental impositions as possible overall, while his conception of civil rights remained true to the kind of color-blindness and universalism that characterized the movement during its liberal heights from the 1950s into the 1960s.

The ultimate similarity may be that Ronald Reagan and Hubert Humphrey each had both progressive and conservative instincts.

They were progressive or liberal in the sense of embracing dynamic change and the goals of broader prosperity. They were both conservative in resisting revolutionary upheaval, favoring always democratic moderation and incremental change.

Most importantly, each contributed to the kind of national cohesion that lessens the chances of centrifugal forces -- perpetually powerful in an ever larger and more diverse nation -- throwing us unnecessarily into hostile space.

Mitch Pearlstein is president of Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis. Dane Smith is the president of Growth & Justice. Their think tanks are among the organizations hosting a celebration of the Humphrey and Reagan centennials beginning at 5 p.m. Feb. 21 at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Center. For more information, go to or

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