This year is the centennial of Hubert Humphrey’s birth. Not many Americans under 40, or even 50, remember him. He died of cancer in 1978, while still a senator, with characteristic joyful aplomb, and with the world sympathetically watching. Like Adlai Stevenson, or William Jennings Bryan, he was a liberal hero, a frequent presidential candidate, an orator and idealist admired by millions but whom destiny and tragedy blocked from higher office.
Humphrey shared his birth year with another idealistic, small town Midwesterner similarly renowned for charm and optimism, whose star was providentially rising, even in old age, just as Humphrey’s was setting. Ronald Reagan and Humphrey were in fact good friends of many decades, starting in the 1940s, when both were active in Americans for Democratic Action and other liberal (and anti-communist) causes. Revealingly for both of them, they remained friends even after Reagan turned right starting in the 1950s. Humphrey even visited Reagan while he was governor. They almost could have run against each other, had Reagan snatched the Republican nomination from Richard Nixon in 1968, or if both had grabbed their respective parties’ nominations in 1976. In both cases, the eventual presidential winners were less winsome personalities.
Both Reagan and Humphrey were shaped by the Great Depression and were ardent devotees of Franklin Roosevelt. Of course, Humphrey, as Lyndon Johnson’s vice president, enthusiastically boosted the Great Society as the logical next step. Reagan established his political career on passionate opposition to the Great Society, famously winning conservative hearts with his 1964 “Time for Choosing” television broadcast for Barry Goldwater.
Humphrey and Reagan were also both raised and molded by small town Protestant religiosity endowing them both with a lifelong reforming, crusading, and confident spirit. Their churches still echoed 19th revivalism while also embracing early 20th century Social Gospel progressivism, especially in Humphrey’s case. Reagan, thanks to his devout mother, grew up in the Disciples of Christ, professed faith as a boy and received baptism, taught Sunday school, and attended a denominational college. In later decades, he was not an ardent churchman but retained his faith, and became a Presbyterian, even as elites of his denomination loathed his policies. Reagan, of course, relied on political support from conservative evangelicals of the emerging Religious Right. But most Mainline Protestants, ignoring their prelates, also voted for him.
His small town lacking a Lutheran church, to which his devout mother adhered, Humphrey attended a Methodist Church as a boy. Only 3 years before his birth, northern Methodism had crafted the “Social Creed,” a succinct Social Gospel appeal mostly focused on labor rights. By the 1920s, when Humphrey was a youth, progressive Methodism in the upper Midwest was in full swing. In 1932, groaning under the Depression, northern Methodism officially renounced the “profit motive,” i.e. capitalism. Thanks to sensible Methodist businessmen, the denomination in 1936 stepped back from this virtual embrace of socialism. Through his later decades, Humphrey would attend Methodist and United Church of Christ congregations. He was himself a virtual icon of liberal Protestant activism, never losing faith in government’s supposed power to heal every social ill. Methodism’s Council of Bishops met Humphrey in 1959, among other senators, and preferred him over a young JFK. The crest of Humphrey’s career was his fight in the U.S. Senate for the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Overthrowing segregation in the 1960s was likewise the political summit of liberal Protestantism, after which its institutions sank into less noble and far-left causes, fueling the loss of millions of members.
Official Mainline Protestantism, like much of liberalism, was radicalized by the Vietnam War. That war of course estranged Humphrey from much of his liberal support base. As Johnson’s Vice President, he initially strove to support military victory against Vietnamese communism, while also helping enact LBJ’s massive social welfare programs and other sweepingly transformative social changes. By 1968, he was carefully airing his doubts about the war, enraging Johnson, but still not mollifying the anti-war Left, which infamously disrupted Humphrey’s nomination at the riotous 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.
A recently aired PBS documentary called “Hubert H. Humphrey: The Art of the Possible” was mostly an ode to a liberal hero. Its only criticism predictably focused on his loyal support for LBJ’s war. Interviewees like Walter Mondale, a fellow Minnesota senator and eventual U.S. Vice President, praise Humphrey while lamenting how the war robbed him of the presidency. Mondale even accuses Richard Nixon, or at least his campaign, of treason for reputedly urging South Vietnam to reject LBJ’s last minute peace initiative to swing the presidential election for Humphrey. Seemingly Mondale was not equally distressed by LBJ’s altering a war to affect an election.
The film engagingly chronicles Humphrey’s modest youth, including his Methodist Social Gospel influence, his meteoric political ascendancy as Minneapolis Mayor, electrifying Civil Rights crusader at the 1948 Democratic Convention, U.S. Senator and Vice President. Humphrey predictably rebounded from his narrow 1968 presidential loss to return to the U.S. Senate, dabbling with presidential runs in 1972 and 1976. His terminal illness, which aged him about two decades within months, solidified his image as a joyful warrior. He reached out to friends and foes during his final days, including a still reclusive and disgraced former President Richard Nixon. Humphrey invited Nixon to his own state funeral, held in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, and where Nixon in 1978 made his first major state appearance after his 1974 Watergate resignation. The documentary closes by scrolling through the dozens of legislative enactments of larger government that Humphrey successfully championed. Were these programs actually successful? Nobody interviewed bothers to ask.
PBS probably would not air a similar laudatory ode to another failed presidential candidate of that era, Barry Goldwater. The “American Experience” PBS documentary about Reagan aired in the 1990s was mostly favorable, while still briefly faulting Reagan for homelessness and even indifference to AIDS. Even PBS could not suppress Reagan’s warmth, strength and optimism, which his friend, Humphrey, shared. The Reagan and Humphrey documentaries both hailed their elegant earthly exits as axiomatic of their character, for Reagan embodied in his Alzheimer’s announcement, and for Humphrey, in his outreach to Nixon.
Although ending at different places ideologically, Reagan and Humphrey, thanks partly to their early 20th century Midwestern religiosity and sensibility, both typified the appealingly sunny side of American politics. Sharing similar pasts, each was more interested in the future. And Humphrey, like Reagan, even in defeat, believed his nation’s best days were always ahead.