Historical Figures Series: The Remarkable Career of Hubert Humphrey: Epilogue

David B Morris
9 min readJun 3, 2023

1976: The Campaign that Never Happened, His Final Years, and His Legacy

He could have gotten it but he didn’t want it at the end.

When Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace on August 9th, 1974, the ramifications across the political world were earth-shaking. Perhaps the most important was that the Democrats electoral prospects, seemingly shattered by Nixon’s landslide two years earlier, immensely improved. Many initially believed that Ted Kennedy would finally take the plunge and make the run for the office that had seemed an inevitability for him since the assassination of his brother Robert in June of 1968. But in September of 1974, he announced that he would not. This opened the field.

Over the next year, more than a dozen candidates would announce for the Democratic nomination, some taken more seriously than others, some of whom made more ambitious attempts. George Wallace was by the far the one the party was the most concerned about, but others included Congressman Mo Udall of Arizona, Senator Birch Bayh of Indiana, Henry Jackson of Washington (whose run in 1972 had collapsed early on) and the unknown Governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter.

As much as the party looked towards future, some of the old names from the past considered that there hopes were not exhausted. In the fall of 1975, few believed that the primary struggle would result in a first ballot nomination. The idea of a brokered convention was possible, and if that were to happen might the party turn to a name from the past. The names that came up were the three men who had suffered the most at the hands of Richard Nixon: George McGovern, Edmund Muskie and Hubert Humphrey.

McGovern, despite being vindicated by Watergate, was basically considered a political leper by the Democratic party but held his tongue about it. Muskie, the early favorite for the Democratic nomination in 1972, had been the subject of sabotage by the Nixon campaign early on and his early portrayal as the front-runner had hurt him, Only Humphrey still had the esteem of his party, and of the three major candidates he was the only one who took the attitude that it might be possible. He didn’t actively go after it, but he didn’t say no outright either.

He was also recovering from surgery from bladder cancer and was tired of racing around the country. He didn’t believe that there would be a stalemated convention that the primaries would shake out a winner. McGovern and Muskie didn’t agree on that, but each said that if it happened, the party would most likely turn to Humphrey. Liberals who hadn’t been able to abide him 1968 and 1972 were looking at him with a kind of nostalgic forgiveness, perhaps even fondness. As the summer of 1975 passed, he began to rise in the Gallup poll, moving ahead of Wallace in late October. He began to settle his campaign debts for as little as three to four cents on the dollar, and friends of his established committees to do so. At the annual AFL-CIO convention, Humphrey was cheered and mobbed, and he coolly nursed it. But despite all this, he was reluctant to dive in, This did not stop the movement; in New Hampshire and Illinois, write in and a movement to draft Humphrey was being held by Congressman.

George McGovern, who was still trying to work up momentum for him, had a conversation with Humphrey at one point, suggesting that the two of them run as a unity ticket: Humphrey as President, McGovern as Vice President. Nothing came of it.

But in the primary campaign, even as Carter began to make his rise to the top, the ghost of Humphrey was still there. During the New York primary campaign, in Buffalo, several uncommitted but undisguised slates for Humphrey were organized and there were several more throughout the state. On primary night, even as Jackson had won with 38 percent of the vote, sixteen uncommitted delegates ended up going to Humphrey.

Two days after the New York primary Humphrey made a stop in Pittsburgh where Jackson was campaigning in the Pennsylvania primary. Jackson was hoping labor would campaign for him. The problem was in Pennsylvania showed Humphrey was polling far better than Jackson was — in fact, he was neck and neck with Carter for the lead. At that point, Congressman Paul Simon and Bob Bergland disclosed that they were opening a Draft Humphrey headquarters, with or without the candidate’s permission. Henry Jackson could not escape the fact that many in Pennsylvania viewed him as a stalking horse for Humphrey and it completely destroyed his campaign there — and not long after, his national campaign.

After Jackson lost, he and Udall all but begged Humphrey to get into the race. The pressure was starting to mount and the head of the New Jersey delegation demanded he file a slate for the primary there. He himself thought he might be the nominee, but some of his old friends like Ted Van Dyk urged him to stay out.

That day he had a meeting with his brain trust asking him what to do. Most urged him to run. Then he asked them: “What would you do if you were me?” Two changed their minds. The opposition argued that it might be too much of a long-shot move and he might very well make a fool of himself. No one who left the meeting was sure what Humphrey would do, probably not even Humphrey.

He had a conversation with Muriel, who had spent much of the last several months opposed to it. However, his wife had changed her mind and told him that: ‘He ought to do it…He could win.” Apparently Muriel did not like or respect Carter that much both on his positions and his attitude which had combative and abrasive towards him.

What happened on Thursday is still a subject of debate. Paul Simon later said he had talked to Humphrey and he had told him he was going to run, and he scheduled a press conference for that afternoon. However, Humphrey had a conversation with Tim Keefe the manager of the Jackson campaign in which he had read an article in the Washington Post which clearly argued that if Humphrey ended up running now, it would split the Democrats and lead to the bitterness that had cost them two straight national elections. Humphrey and his wife read the article, and since both of them were now having second thoughts, this calcified the doubts in their heads.

At the press conference that had been scheduled, Humphrey announced he would not run in the New Jersey primary and since his name was already on the ballot in states such as Oregon, Nebraska and Idaho, he would have to campaign there and he had no organization. He made it clear he was not campaign, not that he was not running — but the media chose to read it the other way.

What Humphrey did not reveal at the time was his health concerns. His doctor had told him he was okay, but in the back of his mind he was concerned about recurrence. Those concerns turned out to be justified. Not long after Carter accepted the nomination, Humphrey’s doctors told him that his cancer had returned. His gall bladder would be removed in October of 1976. One month later, he won reelection to the Senate.

After the 1976 election, he ran for the post of majority leader, but lost to Robert Byrd of West Virginia. In an act to honor him, the Senate named him Deputy President pro tempore. It was a resolution creating a position stating that any former president or vice president who served in the Senate would be entitled to this position. No other man has held it. He continued to be active in the Senate in the Carter administrative, telling him on May 1977 that the U.S would enter a period of high unemployment without an economic stimulus and that such a rise would lead to one in inflation. He also argued for ta preventative health care program in order to not fund soaring health costs.

On August 16, 1977, Humphrey revealed that he was suffering from terminal bladder cancer. On October 23, Carter, who had come to respect Humphrey, honored him by giving him command of Air Force One for his final trip to D.C. On November 3, he became the first person other than a member of the House or the President to address the House when it was in session. One of his final speeches contained the lines: “It was once said that the moral test of Government is how that Government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.” This is referred to sometimes as the ‘liberals’ mantra” and it sums up Humphrey’s attitude towards government perfectly.

On January 13, 1978 Humphrey died at his home in Waverly, Minnesota. He was only 66. His body would lay in state in the rotundas of both the Minnesota and U.S. Capitol buildings.

Coda

Despite his myriad accomplishments in his time in the Senate — and I have only touched on some of them in the course of these articles, he is nowhere near as remembered in history as he deserved to be. When the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birth occurred, conservatives across the nation celebrated and paid tribute; the centennial of Humphrey’s birth, just three months after Reagan was barely acknowledged even by Democrats. Everything that Humphrey accomplished in his first sixteen years in the Senate has been permanently overshadowed by his cheerleading of the war in Vietnam, which as these articles have illustrated, were not his fault.

Among his many other accomplishments were how he transformed the political landscape in his home state of Minnesota. Before his election to the Senate in 1948, it was the most Republican states in the Union. After Humphrey’s election, it has become a bulwark for the Democratic Party ever since. Many of the men who served in the Senate going forward: Eugene McCarthy, Walter Mondale as well as Governor Orville Freeman, were Humphrey prodigies. Paul Wellstone and Mark Dayton. It is impossible to imagine a world where Amy Klobuchar would have become Senator or Ilhan Omar a member of Congress without the groundwork that Humphrey laid for them.

Hubert Humphrey is without doubt the last truly great losing candidate that either major party had held in the half-century since. More than any other non-president he has done more for the cause of civil rights than any elected official — and has received far less credit for it. There is little doubt if he had been elected president in 1968, the Vietnam War would have ended at least five years earlier and the liberal causes that he spent his life fighting for would have been part of the agenda of politics. Instead, for the next forty years the White House would be dominated by the Republican party and an increasingly conservative movement that spent so much of its energy turning in its back on all the causes Humphrey spent his life fighting for.

I imagine today Humphrey would admire the progressives that fight for causes he embraced, but I think it as likely he would be repulsed by their unwillingness to compromise, not merely with Republicans but their own party. As someone who came charging into the Senate determined to change things and spent his early years fighting the old guard, he would understand their frustration but he would also know that would need to learn patience to get things done. He knew what empty victories were as opposed to real change — though I suspect he would admire their determination to make their points of view known for the world to see, and he’d understand why some people would want them to just be quiet.

I don’t know if Omar, AOC or the rest of ‘The Squad’ even know who Humphrey is and I have little doubt that if they do, they will still bad-mouth him for not fighting hard enough or compromising so that he could achieve his goals. But they are living in the world that Humphrey helped make for them — and I think he would be fine if they didn’t know who he was, only that the causes he though for were.

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David B Morris

After years of laboring for love in my blog on TV, I have decided to expand my horizons by blogging about my great love to a new and hopefully wider field.