Sunday, May 29, 2011

Corruption of Power Up Close

He would have turned 100 this weekend, but Hubert Humphrey is a forgotten figure--a hero of the Civil Rights era, V.P. of the U.S. and yet, in the end, a good-hearted man destroyed by the corruption of power and the desire for it.

I was a witness to his downfall with failings of my own as it unfolded.

At the 1948 Democratic Convention, Humphrey sounded a call that led to a walkout of Southern delegates:

"To those who say, that we are rushing this issue of civil rights, I say to them we are 172 years late...the time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states' rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights!”

Truman won reelection that year, and Humphrey, a former Republican, went to the Senate where he became a champion of Liberal causes until Lyndon Johnson put him on the ticket in 1964.

LBJ wanted a smiling silent partner, a role ill-suited to the ebullient Humphrey. (At one Washington dinner, as M.C. I had had to tug at the back of his jacket to make him stop filibustering the dozing postprandial crowd.)

As America turned against the Vietnam War, Humphrey was assigned to dampen media opposition. At a meeting with editors, he took the hardest possible line against any negotiation to end it.

“Why not?” I asked, “Even the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs is willing to try.”

He glared at me. “But I’m the Vice President of the United States!”

“Yes, sir,” I answered, “and that’s what worries me.”

A few days later, Humphrey’s chief of staff came to smooth things over: “After years of agreement, you’re not going to turn against Hubert over this one issue?”

No sale. “It’s not his judgment I question, it’s his character.”

After being tear-gassed along with protesters at the raucous 1968 convention that nominated him for President, I was asked to campaign for Humphrey as I had for Eugene McCarthy. I refused, saying I would vote for him but do nothing more.

Humphrey lost by the narrowest margin in an election that gave us Richard Nixon and, eventually, Watergate

Looking back, my feelings about Humphrey’s behavior are unchanged, but I have doubts about my own.

I thought about all that in 2000, waiting to cast my ballot for Al Gore in a line of college students eager to vote for Ralph Nader. Hubert Humphrey may have been done in by eagerness to become President, but that corruption by power doesn’t excuse those of us who remained purists and punished him for it to the nation’s detriment.

Happy Birthday, Hubert. Sorry for us all.


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hking said...

Robert, we do have a connection. I was a college student in 1968 who went "Clean for Gene" in the spring of 1968 by shaving my beard. I was not at the '68 Democratic Convention in Chicago, but I did follow from my home about 2 hours south. I did march with Martin Luther, King Jr, in the January 1968 Clergy and Laymen Against the Vietnam war and again in the summer at the Poor People's March on Washington. I did not know the liberal HH from an earlier time.