Politicians from both parties are reminding us of their experience and accomplishments as they run for president. Some résumés are more impressive than others. But what if one of those candidates told you that he was primarily responsible for the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act? You might want to give that candidate a second look. And what if that same man could also say that he introduced the idea of the Peace Corps? And Medicare? And the food stamp program? And the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty? You might say he ought to be president.
Forty years ago, in 1968, more than 31 million Americans did think that man should be president. But Hubert Horatio Humphrey was vice president during a time of unrest at home and war abroad, and he lost that election to Richard Nixon. It was a bitter defeat during a turbulent time, and Humphrey could have retired to his home in Waverly, Minn., and turned his back on the people who had turned their backs on him. But that would have required Humphrey to have been an angry man. He was instead a Happy Warrior, and in 1972 he was back in the U.S. Senate, once again serving the people of Minnesota, whom he loved and who loved him back as no other politician in modern memory.
When Humphrey learned in 1977 that his cancer would soon kill him, he did not give up on life, but embraced it. Weak and aged almost beyond recognition by chemotherapy, he spent his last days soaking up love, admiration and thanks from a grateful nation.
In October, President Jimmy Carter escorted Humphrey back to Washington from Minnesota aboard Air Force One, to the cheers of a waiting crowd at Andrews Air Force Base. Humphrey then accepted a special tribute offered to him by his Senate colleagues -- almost all of whom were in attendance -- on the Senate floor. In November, Humphrey addressed a packed House of Representatives. Never before had a U.S. senator been invited to address the House.
Thirty years ago today, Humphrey died in his home in Waverly. His body was flown aboard Air Force One to Washington, where it lay in state in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. Thousands of people filed by the casket to pay their respects. A memorial service was attended by Presidents Carter, Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon. It was the first time Nixon had returned to Washington since his resignation three years earlier. Humphrey then lay in state in the Capitol in St. Paul, where thousands more paid tribute.
Humphrey was only 66 when he died, yet he had lived his life to the fullest. His optimism and good humor are legendary, as are the contributions he made to his country and to those whose lives he touched.
In 1807, William Wordsworth asked:
Who is the happy Warrior? Who is he
That every man in arms should wish to be?
Had the poet lived in Humphrey's day, he would have found the answer.
David G. Gartner, now retired and living in Arlington, Va., worked for Humphrey from 1961 until he announced the senator's death on Jan. 13, 1978. His son, John, is an attorney in the Washington, D.C., area.