Hubert Humphrey
Hubert Humphrey; drawing by David Levine

These two books by Senator Humphrey are models of non-abrasive liberalism. During the Democratic convention they could be read in rolling chairs on Atlantic City’s boardwalk, by big business men, without their suffering the slightest ill-effect. In The Cause is Mankind for Humphrey allows business to share his exuberant affections for organized labor. “Two of the mainstays of our remarkable economic system,” Humphrey writes, throwing in a kind word for capitalism, “also seem to be two of our pet scapegoats—big business and organized labor.” Absoluton could hardly be more sweeping. “Bigness’ per se can be bad,” Humphrey concedes, “and I have made my past criticism of it.” Having made this stalwart admission of past radicalism, he proceeds to deliver what amounts to a eulogy.

“I do not think that we have many real grievances,” he writes, “to be urged against bigness in business today.” There are some Americans, he admits, who “hark back to the days before the managerial revolution, back to the days of the ‘robber barons.’ But this country and its economy have matured spectacularly since the trust-busting days…” “This is not,” Humphrey continues, “to minimize the evils of the past…The big businesses of bygone generations did, indeed, act in a pattern of savage repression of competition.” At this moment the perverse reader may vaguely recall the Westinghouse case. Weren’t its executives convicted recently of taking the government for millions of dollars through secret price conspiracies with other manufacturers of electrical equipment? Humphrey is ready to deal with such queasy recollections. “Current revelations of price-fixing and other priceholding practices,” he observes, with a delicacy of which he has never been accused before, “do not help to ease a strong historical suspicion of the motives of great corporations on the part of government leaders, small business men and others.” This tact, worthy of a senior public relations account executive, prepares us for his final plea on the subject. It is “high time that the traditional hostility between the intellectuals on the one hand and management on the other was ended.” Only an ebullient idealist like Humphrey could show such extremism in the pursuit of moderation.

These two books indicate that Lyndon Johnson picked a running mate almost his equal in the art of sweettalking. The Johnson-Humphrey ticket is not just a balanced ticket; balanced tickets are an old story. This is a more wondrous contraption. It’s not just that the rich like Lyndon and the poor like Hubert. It’s that they’re turning into Siamese twins. Johnson, the faithful Janissary of the oil depletion millionaries, is crusading against poverty while Humphrey, the darling of Americans for Democratic Action, is chucking chairmen of the board under their double chins. While the twin on the left moves right, the twin on the right moves left. How can poor Goldwater outmaneuver this dazzling political choreography?

Liberalism, as Humphrey presents it, is as unassailable as motherhood. For those who might consider him merely a salesman of social reform, he adds a little muscle-flexing: “Free government cannot stand,” he declares, “unless it is prepared to defeat aggression from without or within. Liberalism becomes a mockery when it is spineless and cowardly. No slogans, no longrange policies offering economic and social progress can defeat the threat of immediate naked force…Only force itself—and the willingness to use it swiftly, powerfully and courageously—can maintain a free government in power when subversion and terrorism are used against it.” Air Force Reserve Generals like Goldwater and Thurmond will be hard put to read that without snapping to attention.

Of all the Senate’s outstanding liberals in recent years, Humphrey clearly is the one that best fits the Lyndon Johnson format. Douglas, the foremost intellectual of them all, would be poison ivy to the rich, especially of Texas: his main fight has been for tax reform, particularly of depletion allowances. Not a word on these subjects in Humphrey’s books. Clark’s specialty has been rules reform, which attacks the Senate Establishment at its most vital point; he was barely called off from his dogged pursuit of the Bobby Baker case. These matters are also among the missing in Humphrey’s “Liberal program for America.” Morse, the bravest of the lot, has fought military aid and foreign adventure, casting with Gruening the only two votes in Congress against Johnson’s blank cheek for war in Southeast Asia. The best Humphrey offers on South Vietnam is that our military effort must be accompanied by social reforms to give its people “the will to fight.” This chestnut is a Pentagon staple, too. No other people in the world has shown so much will to fight, albeit on the other side, first against the Japanese, then the French, and now us. On military and foreign policy, Humphrey provides a compote of safe clichés and a truly Johnsonian agility at reconciling the irreconcilable. Thus Humphrey, the hero of the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, can praise George Meany’s “leadership in the international struggle for freedom,” a leadership which won him a medal from Adenauer for undercutting not only Kennedy’s but Eisenhower’s moves away from cold war.


The liberal Senator least imaginable as a running mate for Johnson would have been the late Estes Kefauver. That proud and incisive Tennessean not only treated the worshipful Pashas of the Senate, Byrd and Russell, with disdain but drew blood from big business by his campaigns against drug abuses and monopoly practices. His findings came to mind when I read Humphrey’s War on Poverty, a better book than The Cause Is Mankind, which is little more than an orgy of liberal platitudes. But even when discussing poverty Humphrey stays with the inspirational and avoids not only hard words but the hard problems. Humphrey finds it “astonishing” in the latter book that we are “the only major power with such a high rate of unemployment,” and that the US, “the epitome of free enterprise, the center of world capitalism” continues to tolerate the idleness of more than 5 per cent of its manpower and 16 per cent of its plant capacity. It is not so astonishing if we recall Kefauver’s revelations of the part that administrative pricing plays in maximizing profit for such basic industries as steel and autos. The profitable planned underemployment of resources has its counterpart in the underemployment of manpower, helping to create the wide human wasteland in which the colored, the unskilled, and the youth of our society wander in despair. If the war on poverty is to become more than a campaign slogan and a grab-bag of assorted welfare measures, some politically difficult problems will have to be tackled sooner or later.

When that time comes Humphrey will be ready for them, for he’s better than his books; indeed, his facility for these painless platitudes is the secret of his success. In the Senate he has made friends without making enemies, and it is this which has drawn Johnson to him despite their diversity of outlook. No liberal in the Senate has been more effective than Humphrey. None has been knocked down more often, only to rise and fight again. Much of what was best in the New Frontier came from measures Humphrey launched long before it. Medicare, the Peace Corps, the National Education Act, began with Humphrey. More than any other American, he paved the way for the nuclear test ban treaty. He had the nerve to make the politically dangerous issue of disarmament his own. No man in the Senate has been a firmer champion of the Negro; none worked harder to make the new Civil Rights Act the legislative triumph that it is. None has done more through Food for Peace to infuse a larger component of idealism into our foreign policy. Humphrey has known how to play the game and get results. No Democrat more deserved the Vice-Presidential nomination. The defects of these campaign volumes are more than compensated for by the genuine concern and the unquenchable optimism that shine through them. It is to Johnson’s credit that he picked him as running mate, despite his strong association with civil rights and the ADA. What this team of glad-handers may lack in intellectual subtlety they more than make up in political finesse. It will be tantalizing in the months ahead to watch, how they finesse each other.

This Issue

September 24, 1964