Hubert Humphrey: The Conscience of the Country, Arnold A. Offner, Yale University Press, 512 pages

Was the Cold War liberal Hubert Humphrey the “conscience of the country,” as a mostly admiring new biography would have it? Or was he a “shallow, contemptible, and hopelessly dishonest old hack” who was “the purest and most disgusting example of a Political Animal in American politics today,” as Hunter S. Thompson judged him in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72?

I incline to the latter view, from a drug-addled Kentuckian, despite my having wept as an eight-year-old when HHH lost to Nixon. But Arnold A. Offner, a Lafayette College professor of history emeritus, makes the best case he can for Humphrey as the Happy Warrior of the guns-and-butter set.

Hubert Horatio Humphrey—or Hubert Horatio Hornblower, in Jimmy Carter’s memorable malaprop—was the son of a Doland, South Dakota, pharmacist. The Land of Infinite Variety was not enough for this class valedictorian. High-schooler Humphrey hungered for fame, later recalling:

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You know, when I was a young man in South Dakota, everything—everyone—even the state itself seemed so anonymous. I always felt—gosh, I’ll live and die out here and nobody’d ever know that I ever was. I had to get out.

He got out.

Hubert studied pharmacy in Denver, political science at the University of Minnesota, and he married a South Dakota girl, Muriel, upon whom the raising of their four children would entirely devolve. He kept his eyes on the prize; as Offner writes, “Washington became Hubert’s Mecca; he longed to live and work there.”

Though an ardent World War II hawk, his growing household “made it relatively easy for Humphrey to give priority to family finances over military service.” He was, however, photographed in uniform at an induction center; the picture made the papers, timed nicely in anticipation of his successful campaign for mayor of Minneapolis in 1945. A subsequently discovered hernia rendered him 4-F and kept him out of harm’s way.

As mayor he was a voluble reformer, idealistic (he desegregated the bowling alleys of Minneapolis) but neglectful of his family. “I literally live for the job,” burbled Hubert, who did not even join his wife and kids on their summer vacations. Domestic life held no charms next to the lure of power.

Humphrey burst onto the national political scene when at the 1948 Democratic convention in Philadelphia he taunted segregationist Southerners that “the time has come in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.” Humphrey attacked the issue without the glibness one associates with his career; why, he asked, should African Americans, “who have ancestry in this country longer than 99 percent of the whites,” be barred from voting and subjected daily to indignities and humiliation?

The convention adopted a progressive civil rights plank, Deep South Dixiecrats walked out and nominated the South Carolina horndog Strom Thurmond for president, and Mayor Humphrey no longer ached in anonymity.

Minneapolis was too small for a man of such vaulting ambition. Later that year he was elected easily to the U.S. Senate, where he quickly established a reputation as a blabbermouth and know-it-all, though in time his eagerness to please and non-abrasive personality made Humphrey part of the club.

Offner, a scholar of U.S. foreign policy, devotes more time to Humphrey’s Cold War internationalism than he does to his conventional, if frantically pursued, domestic liberalism, which ran the predictable gamut from support for slum clearance and urban renewal (which is to say the destruction of America’s central cities) to the panoply of New Deal and Great Society social welfare programs. He was ahead of the curve on national health insurance, a vocal advocate of ending national origin quotas for immigration, a friend to whatever organized labor demanded (including ever-swelling military spending), and a champion of federally-secured civil rights for African Americans. His skill as Senate majority whip helped smooth the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. No one ever doubted that he was sincerely committed to these causes.

There is a proud and courageous peace tradition in Minnesota. It threads from Congressman Charles A. Lindbergh, fiery foe of U.S. involvement in the First World War who was dubbed “the Gopher Bolshevik” by The New York Times, through the antiwar dentist-Senator Henrik Shipstead to Bob “Masters of War” Dylan to Senator Eugene McCarthy, whilom Humphrey protege and Catholic distributist who stood up against the war machine and paid for it with his career.

This lineage does not include Hubert Humphrey, who relished the memory of doing battle with “Minnesota’s isolationists,” whose pacific tendencies he saw as recrudescent in the New Left.

Humphrey was a founder of the liberal anticommunist pressure group Americans for Democratic Action. He red-baited Cold War skeptics as appeasers; those who opposed the Marshall Plan were “unthinking bedfellows of the Communist Party.”

As Jeff Taylor notes in Where Did the Party Go? William Jennings Bryan, Hubert Humphrey, and the Jeffersonian Legacy (2006), Humphrey “was an enthusiastic supporter of every U.S. war from 1938 to 1978,” as well as the American Empire’s overthrows, incursions, and swinging of the big stick in countries from Guatemala to the Dominican Republic to Castro’s Cuba.

No corner, no speck of the globe was off limits to Washington. In 1948, Humphrey endorsed Harry Truman over a former idol, the insurgent Iowa leftist Henry Wallace, because, he explained, “whatever happens in any part of the world finally concerns us”—a recipe for endless interventions, perpetual war, a hypertrophied state, the erosion of civil liberties, and the engorgement of the military-industrial complex. (To be fair, Humphrey was also a proponent of nuclear test bans and arms control.)

He was, in a sense, a proto-neoconservative who believed that nothing that happened in the world was outside the purview of the U.S. government. His career often intersected with the substantial men who rode the early waves of neoconservatism: Evron Kirkpatrick (husband of Reagan UN Ambassador Jeane), Max Kampelman, Ernest Lefever, Ben Wattenberg. He never met a defense budget hike he didn’t like, rebuking Eisenhower for not spending enough on the military, and he was among the staunchest boosters of U.S. aid to Israel. Perhaps Humphrey’s nadir, as Offner explains, was his advocacy during the McCarthy (Joe, not Gene) era of detention camps in times of emergency for those adjudged a danger to the country by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. He was for universal military training, expanded presidential prerogatives in foreign policy (congressional declarations of war were for mossbacks), and the outlawing of the Communist Party USA.

Like superhawk Senators Lyndon B. Johnson and Scoop Jackson, Humphrey panicked over the Soviet launch of Sputnik—memorably minified by Ike as “one small ball in the air”—which those seeking to get Washington’s nose into American schoolrooms used as the rationale for enactment of the National Defense Education Act in 1958.

“Freedom has no price tag,” intoned the Hump. He’d have been befuddled by Senator Fulbright’s plaintive maxim that “the price of empire is America’s soul, and that price is too high.” America was no empire, and even if it were, it’d be….the Empire of Joy!

No sooner had Hubert Humphrey entered the world’s greatest deliberative body than he began plotting his move up Pennsylvania Avenue. After failed tries for the Democratic vice-presidential and then presidential nods in 1956 and 1960—JFK’s surrogates accused him of being a draft dodger in the latter race’s critical West Virginia primary—Humphrey brown-nosed his way into the second slot on Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidential ticket of 1964.

We read, in Offner’s account, that LBJ wanted his vice president’s “pecker in my pocket.” The president demanded absolute loyalty, saying that “if he don’t want to be my wife, he oughtn’t to marry me.” Getting into the homoerotic spirit of this dance, Humphrey self-pityingly compared himself to the high school girl whom the football captain never asks for a date. Sounding like a superannuated whore, he said that “nobody has to woo me. I’m old reliable, available Hubert.”

He was a man of his word. As running mate and vice president, Humphrey was handmaid and helpmeet. He ran an energetic campaign, scolding GOP foe Barry Goldwater as a reactionary and an “unhappy” one at that. He lobbied tirelessly for LBJ’s ambitious legislative program; the president repaid him by wiretapping the phones in his office and Washington condominium and scoffing that Humphrey would rather shake a man’s hand than “cut his balls off.” (The gonads of other men seem to have been of great interest to President Johnson.) When the Humphreys hosted the president in their condo, LBJ insisted that Hubert recite, word for word, a pro-Vietnam War speech—even as the president relieved himself in the bathroom. Humphrey, by now thoroughly emasculated, complied. How proud Muriel must have been.

Offner is most interesting on the ways in which Humphrey stifled his early qualms about U.S. military escalation in Vietnam. When he expressed these reservations to LBJ in a 1965 memo, a furious Johnson upbraided him, whereupon Humphrey simply surrendered. He would spend the next three years cheerleading for Johnson’s policies, warning of a communist takeover of the world unless Americans had the “patience to work and bleed and die five thousand miles from home.” When Johnson announced a troop buildup, his vice president chirped that he could not have been “happier if Christmas came every day.” Victory, Humphrey assured audiences, was just around the corner. Tides were turning; new days were dawning. Half the task was to conquer “the new isolationism” at home.

He linked the war in Vietnam to Johnson’s War on Poverty. Washington was achieving a social revolution, at home and abroad; an Asian New Deal was in the offing, as our contemporary imperialists assured us that wars upon Saddam Hussein, Qaddafi, and the Taliban would give the Muslim masses the secularized consumerist-democracies for which they allegedly yearned. Even his friends smacked their foreheads in disbelief when Humphrey spoke of Vietnam as “our great adventure—and a wonderful one it is.”

It never occurred to him that perhaps the political, social, economic, and military conditions of Vietnam—or any other country, for that matter—were none of Washington’s business.

His fealty to the despised Johnson estranged Humphrey from the establishment liberals who, having seeded U.S. involvement in Vietnam, had gingerly backed away. Offner concludes that Humphrey “lacked the personal and political strength…to contest the president and his power.” He also hoped to gain Johnson’s blessing as his successor, yet when the president, stunned by Senator Eugene McCarthy’s strong showing in the 1968 New Hampshire primary, foreclosed his reelection, the vice president found himself in a hotly contested three-way race with cool, cerebral anti-imperialist McCarthy and the torrid opportunist Bobby Kennedy.

RFK’s assassination and a nomination process dominated by party hacks combined to hand the Democratic standard to the vice president. (Eugene McCarthy won 40 percent of the primary votes, Kennedy 31 percent, and Humphrey just 2 percent, but two thirds of the delegates were chosen by caucus.) McCarthy, who declared that the “time had come to take our steel out of the land of thatched huts,” would not endorse Humphrey until just before Election Day, and then tepidly. Johnson pressured the candidate not to deviate from the hard line on the war; a frustrated Humphrey confessed to an aide, “I’ve eaten so much of Johnson’s shit in this job that I’ve grown to like the taste of it.”

When, in the last weeks of the campaign, Humphrey staked out a less hawkish line, his poll numbers improved as his relations with Johnson worsened, but it was too late: Richard Nixon, whom LBJ probably preferred anyway, was elected the 37th president. (In ’68 the peace candidate was comedian-activist Dick Gregory of the Peace and Freedom Party.)

Thrown off the public payroll for the first time in over 20 years, Humphrey plotted his return. He told reporters in Washington, according to Offner, that he “thirsted for political office the way an alcoholic did for drink, and saw Minnesota as an inadequate base to attract national attention.” This is pathetic, but the Hump got his wish when Gene McCarthy, whom he blamed in part for his loss, passed on a reelection campaign in 1970. Humphrey easily won the seat.

Back in the Senate, he voted against Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield’s amendment to begin the gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops from Europe. Once again, Humphrey sided with the internationalist East Coast against the non-interventionist wisdom of his Upper Midwest birthplace. He was a born-again dove on Vietnam when he declared for the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination, but then who wasn’t? Luck seemed with him when front-runner Ed Muskie self-destructed in New Hampshire, but the vim and vigor that year belonged to the populist Georges, McGovern and Wallace. Humphrey ran a nasty and joyless campaign and was bested by the liberal patriot George McGovern, a better and more honorable man and a far more genuine representative of the region than Humphrey. “Come Home, America,” pled McGovern—a beautifully resonant slogan which meant nothing to Humphrey, whose only home was in the citadel of power. Humphrey’s 1972 campaign, by the way, was largely financed by gifts of stock from the notorious Dwayne Andreas, titan of agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland, which were “far beyond the legal limit,” according to Offner.

For decades, such corporate sponsors funded Humphrey’s campaigns, paid for his plane travel, hosted his vacations, gave him sweetheart land deals, and managed a blind trust, padded with ADM stock, which made public servant Humphrey a wealthy man.

I don’t know that I have ever read a biography of a public man in which his wife, family, friends—even his mistress or mailman or pill-dispenser—are so little present. Muriel Humphrey, we learn, resented her husband’s absence from home and family. But Hubert had more important things on his mind.

Does having advanced views on civil rights for African Americans expiate a multitude of sins against peace? Does it atone for a career spent in the slavering pursuit of power, of centralization, of warmongering and the dilation of the military-industrial complex?

Arnold Offner has written a very readable and solidly researched biography—certainly not a hagiography, despite the subtitle—of a man who lived and breathed politics, who had a sincere concern for African Americans, yet who nevertheless in his Cold War liberalism promoted policies that had catastrophic consequences for the American Republic and the empire into which it degraded.

Hubert Humphrey would have contributed far more to the public weal and happiness had he spent his life dispensing bromides as an affably garrulous pharmacist in Doland, South Dakota.  

Bill Kauffman is the author of eleven books, among them Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette and Ain’t My America. He also wrote the screenplay for the feature film Copperhead.