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The Legacy of Hubert H. Humphrey

  • Blog Post by: Steve Hunegs
  • August 3, 2012 - 9:23 AM

Historian David Pietruska reminds us in his book "1948: Harry Truman's Improbable Victory and the Year That Transformed America" of the muddle that was that remarkable election – the year in which Hubert Humphrey was elected for the first time to the United States Senate.

Only 51.3% of Americans bothered to sort out the four major candidates and vote.

Many prominent Democrats openly supported drafting Dwight Eisenhower right up to the Democratic National Convention.

Thomas Dewey's running mate, Gov. Earl Warren of California, detested his presidential candidate's leadership circle.  Ironically, Warren’s wife voted for Harry Truman.

The arch-segregationist Strom Thurmond nearly threw the election into the United States House of Representatives.

Henry Wallace, the second Vice President for Franklin Roosevelt, turned a blind eye to the Communists who were running his campaign for their own purposes.

Thomas Dewey, who had come to prominence as a bold prosecutor of mobsters, campaigned in a style resembling the "prevent defense" in football – take no chances and let the election day clock run out, as though he was the incumbent.

The incumbent, Harry Truman, written off as a certain loser by the pundits pounded the Republicans ("the 80th Congress stuck a pitch fork in the farmers' back") in a manner unprecedented – many said demeaning – for a President.

The consensus expectation from Roper to Gallup was a Democratic Party fractured along its antebellum and Progressive Party axes could not win a national election after 16 years in power with a standard bearer missing the magnetism of FDR to hold together the New Deal coalition.

Truman and his advisors saw things differently.  Workers, despite the post war recession and inflation, saw low unemployment rates unimaginable during the Depression with which the Republicans were inextricably connected.  African Americans saw the desegregation of the armed forces in 1947.  From Appalachia to the West Coast, the power of the federal government brought everything from the TVA to the Grand Coulee Dam meaning electricity and a higher standard of living for tens of millions Americans.

These successes aside, for the Democrats, the muddle within the muddle was civil rights.  The person in the middle of the muddle was Minneapolis Mayor Hubert H. Humphrey.

On one hand, Humphrey had led the civic fight against the pernicious anti-Semitism and racism of the City of Lakes.  Minneapolis passed among the first open housing and anti-job discrimination ordinances in the country – models for the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

On the other hand, Humphrey was face to face with his own electoral destiny as the DFL candidate for United States Senate in 1948, a mere four years after he helped create the party.  He even harbored, according to Pietruska, a hope he could be the Vice Presidential candidate. 

Humphrey faced pressure from all sides.  The diluted majority report for civil rights for the Democratic platform was a terrible insult to returning African American Second World War veterans who returned to Jim Crow after fighting and dying for their country, among other things.  Other party mandarins told him leading the fight for a vigorous civil rights platform would splinter the Democratic Party and finish off any slight chance of a Truman victory as well as Humphrey’s political career.

Aided by the big city bosses of New York, Chicago and Philadelphia – people later excoriated by the Democratic party – who acknowledged the time had come for civil rights,  Humphrey marched up to the podium of the Philadelphia convention and the Democratic Party  marched forthrightly into the “bright sunshine of human rights” with the adoption of the minority report.

Humphrey, by doing the right thing, took a major step towards immortality. As Ira Shapiro noted in the "Last Great Senate: Courage and Statesmanship in Times of Crises": "the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was probably the most important legislative accomplishment in American history."

On August 4, the State of Minnesota will honor the immortality of Hubert H. Humphrey with the unveiling of a statue on the Capitol grounds.  If you take a look you can imagine the bi-partisan promise of American governance with Thomas Dewey and Everett Dirksen to name a couple – from a time when a more magnanimous impulse radiated through American politics.

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