In my New York Times this morning there is a review of a televised documentary on the House Judiciary Committee impeachment proceedings of ten years ago. Members of the committee are characterized in the documentary by narrator Charles McDowell as “obscure members of Congress, partisan politicians, suspected second-raters.” This description, says the Times reviewer, “is not uncharitable; it is realistic. There were no household names” among these members of Congress. The moral we are asked to draw is: the best defense against being a suspected second-rater is to become a household name. It should surprise nobody that journalists should put such nonsense about. After all, anything that increases the value of publicity increases the power of people who give and withhold and traffic in publicity, such as themselves.
Those of us who look to responsible journalists and to their daily and weekly product for our bearings in this confusing world must on this account learn to tread carefully. The “first rough draft of history,” as with mock-humility serious journalism is sometimes styled, can easily be corrupted by all sorts of institutionally embedded problems, not the least of which is the journalist’s belief that second-raters are people he has had no previous occasion to take notice of.
Corresponding problems may afflict later drafts of history as well. I have been reading with some amazement of the difficulties various writers have had, for example, in ascertaining simple facts about the life of John F. Kennedy. Two enterprising, and, so far as I can tell, reputable reporters, Joan and Clay Blair, some years ago apparently gave up their attempt to do a full-scale biography of John Kennedy and ended it at the point at which he was elected to Congress because the fog of disinformation put out by the late President’s family overwhelmed their capacity to evaluate the facts in a fair and dispassionate manner. And so in The Search for JFK they restricted themselves to giving, I believe for the first time, accurate accounts of John Kennedy’s education, his health, and his war record.
In their recent overview of the history of the Kennedy clan,1 Peter Collier and David Horowitz describe the attitude of the family thus:
Books, like everything else, could be bought. Scholars and writers could be seduced and later bullied by the family’s distinctive charisma so that they would want to write affirmation, to ratify a congenial version of reality, and to amplify the now self-propelling Kennedy myths. . . . No group has been more protected by literary sycophants.
The Kennedys, it seems, have been blessed with court historians of unusual skill and high professional standing (names on request) to whom they have given special access and who, in return, have written their histories from the unique perspective this access has afforded. Thus in their behalf have been committed several of the most flagrant—that is to say most successful—examples of contemporary history written to order. I doubt they are the only examples. Presumably, following the insight of Lord Keynes, we shall not be around to see how well these accounts stand up over the long run, and so it is important over the short run to spread a few caveats around.
At stake are two things. First, ordinary citizens pay, and pay heavily, for the distortion of their contemporary political history because what passes for consensus about contemporary history provides the framework that organizes the political choices we all must make. Common sense—as well as clear experimental evidence—tells us that the context within which questions are framed exerts a powerful influence on how they are answered. So if we get our heroes and our bums mixed up owing to the vagaries of public relations, that can lead to disastrously misguided public choices.
Moreover, there is a further impact on the way political leaders behave. As politicians learn that what counts is shadow and not substance, that the way to get ahead is to neglect the serious examination of public problems and to spend their energy positioning themselves, and courting the media, they will begin to behave accordingly. This I take to be the deeper meaning of a well-publicized remark made by Gary Hart when he first entered the Senate ten years ago. Looking around at his colleagues, and presumably in the mirror, Hart, with some self-satisfaction, said: “We’re not a bunch of little Humphreys.”
Hubert Horatio Humphrey, Democrat of Minnesota, who died in 1978 after thirty years at the center of national politics, was a remarkable figure in American political history: an overachiever, an idealist, an institution-builder, and a legislator of the first rank. He also failed to be elected President, and neglected as Vice President to spit in Lyndon Johnson’s eye. These two oversights, both of which I regret, did him no good. Finally, in an equally bad move, he died much too soon, at age sixty-seven, and missed out on the adulation that Americans heap rather indiscriminately upon political figures from Herbert Hoover to I.F. Stone, if they live long enough.
Humphrey appears as a supporting actor in a number of accounts of the postwar era, but his life and works have so far escaped sustained examination, an injustice considerably redressed by the recent publication of a full-scale biography by Carl Solberg.2 Of Solberg I know nothing, other than that he has done a thorough and conscientious piece of research—marred by only a few inconsequential mistakes. He evidently never knew Humphrey, but he has spoken to a lot of people who did, and has gone through the papers, the files, and the oral histories that are nowadays deposited in the wake of any reasonably active public figure.
And, heaven knows, Humphrey was active. Solberg chooses to place Humphrey in the stream of Midwest progressivism, and compares him to another prairie orator who never got to be President, William Jennings Bryan. Thus, the high point of Humphrey’s life, as Solberg tells it, Humphrey’s Cross of Gold speech, is the moment in 1948 when Humphrey led the charge in support of the minority civil-rights plank at the Democratic convention.
I suppose this is defensible as a piece of dramaturgical carpentry, but it seems to me desirable to think of real lives as governed by less symmetrical and convenient rhythms. Humphrey was, to be sure, a catalyst of some important political forces in 1948, but he was that and much more later on in the Senate—notably in his brilliantly sustained virtuoso performance in managing the 1964 civil-rights law through to enactment. “All told,” Solberg says, “he fathered more important legislation from origin to enactment than any other member of Congress in history.”
This is an astonishing claim, on at least two counts. In the first place, it may very well be true. The mind races off in trivial pursuit of possible competitors: Sam Rayburn? George Norris? Henry Clay? Humphrey’s record was arguably as long and even more varied than what these three did. In the second place, if it is anywhere near to being true—and that it certainly is—then why doesn’t this fact about Humphrey swamp everything else we know about him? Where are the public celebrations of so heroic a lifetime of accomplishment?
All swallowed up by the Vietnam war, I’m afraid, and by Humphrey’s unwillingness—maybe incapacity—as Vice President and then as presidential candidate to draw the line and protect himself against Lyndon Johnson’s sadistic bullying. Here is Humphrey on his father’s response to losing his store and his home in the Depression: “After this terrible loss he carried not an ounce of bitterness, of apology or defeatism. Right up to the time he died . . . he continued . . . to plunge into life, the bitter and the sweet, with nothing held back, without protecting himself with suspicion, reserve, or emotional caution.”
This seems to me a significant key to Humphrey. It was not merely his heritage and his nature to go all out, and to fail adequately to protect himself. It also may have been Humphrey’s conscious belief that his energy, optimism, and enthusiasm were resources that were so fundamental to his everyday existence that to hold them back would be in some personal sense unthinkable, an abdication. A nastier man—even a more reserved one—would have been a less accommodating Vice President for Lyndon Johnson, and it can be argued that it would have been better for the country if Johnson had been forced earlier to bear the whole brunt of justifying his Vietnam policy.
In any event, sharing that burden damaged Humphrey badly with his old liberal constituency. One consequence was that, as Humphrey calculated, he could never become President without Johnson’s aid. That calculation played a part earlier in his decision to become Johnson’s Vice President in the first place. Later on, so long as Robert Kennedy was alive, Humphrey could count on Johnson’s support and that of a very sizable anti-Kennedy bloc in the Democratic party. Kennedy’s death, as Solberg points out in the best fragment of political analysis in the book, deprived Humphrey of all his anti-Kennedy support, including Johnson’s. Far from helping his candidacy, Kennedy’s death weakened Humphrey to such an extent that, I would argue, it deprived him of the Presidency.
I think Humphrey would have been an original, ingenious, energetic, and successful President, but we will never know. We do know that given half a chance he did extraordinary things with the political institutions he did inhabit. Unlike his famous Democratic contemporaries to whom he lost various battles—John Kennedy, Estes Kefauver, and Johnson—Humphrey was a party builder in his home state. His competitors were at best selfish factionalists in local politics. Not Humphrey, who gave encouragement to a full generation of younger Democratic political activists after taking the lead in stitching together the Democratic-Farmer Labor party of Minnesota. By the account of this biography, he worked well collegially, giving plenty of room to the superior organizational talents of Orville Freeman, welcoming the intellectual contributions of Evron Kirkpatrick and Arthur Naftalin. Of course, he was universally acknowledged to be the group’s star turn, but this seems reasonable enough: Humphrey’s personality had star quality. He bubbled over with energy, good will, wit, and intelligence. He was corny, open, affectionate, and tremendously appealing in a bull session with peers or making a campaign speech to the folks. And he loved to talk, to take an idea he had just heard and play with it for a while, working it into his intellectual repertoire. The stories are endless describing his virtuosity as a public speaker, weeping sentimentally with one eye while counting the house with the other, weaving new ideas together with old homilies.
Cooler heads thought Humphrey talked too much and too long. Especially when he was tired or out of sorts his public utterances became shapeless and endless, but at his best, as Solberg rightly says, there was nobody better. And the constant experience of having to put thoughts together for public consumption was a sort of discipline for Humphrey, fixing and ordering ideas in his mind and facilitating his mastery of the substantive ins and outs of more public policies than any politician of his generation, from taxes to agricultural policy, from Medicare to nuclear disarmament. Small wonder that Nikita Khrushchev elected to spend eight hours straight in a marathon private conversation the first time he met Humphrey.
The Senate turned out to be a nearly ideal arena for the exercise of Humphrey’s overwhelming talents, although it certainly did not start out that way. When Humphrey arrived there, in 1949, he was fresh from his civil-rights triumph at the Democratic national convention—one of the results of which was a Southern walkout and a handful of electoral votes from the solid South cast for the Dixiecrat presidential candidacy of Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. The Senate was dominated by these same Southerners, many of them intelligent, dignified, and deeply conservative men from one-party states with restricted lily-white electorates. Ensconced in their protected political niche, in loose coalition with the bulk of the Republicans in the Senate, they conducted genteel guerrilla warfare on the New Deal, and ran their affairs with the collegial decorum of an exclusive men’s club.
The collegiality of the place may have been its Achilles’ heel; although Humphrey’s brashness and his unswerving commitment to an enormous laundry list of progressive causes at first kept him out of the good graces of the walruses who dominated the Senate, Humphrey was an immensely charming and clubbable man, good-humored and without the capacity to bear grudges. And, as his elders observed, when he got his teeth into a subject he mastered it thoroughly. In time he found himself on good terms throughout the chamber, the unofficial ambassador from the Senate’s out-gunned and outnumbered liberal Democrats to the rest of the body.
Much has been made of Lyndon Johnson’s role in brokering Humphrey’s acceptance by the Senate club. Although Johnson entered the Senate on the same day as Humphrey, he had already served for six years in the House of Representatives, and was well connected in Washington and in and around the Capitol building. As a Senator, Johnson pursued an erratic course unencumbered by substantive commitments, zigging to protect his flank with his conservative Texas constituents, zagging to protect a possible future as national leader of the Democratic party. In short order Johnson was Richard Russell’s protégé and Russell installed him as party leader in the Senate with a mandate to reach all the way across the spectrum within the chamber. Johnson was in his element, wheeling and dealing endlessly, and somewhat vacuously, since, with Dwight Eisenhower in the White House, any serious Democratic programs were on hold. His main amusement consisted of stealing small coups from the plodding William Knowland, the Senate Republican leader.
In the Eisenhower years, over the full span of time that Johnson led the Senate Democrats, the real agenda of the Democratic party—the agenda that would become the party program once the Democrats regained the White House—was in the custody of Paul Butler’s powerless Democratic advisory council and of Senate liberals such as Herbert Lehman, Paul Douglas, and most important of all, Hubert Humphrey.
Lyndon Johnson, ever hungry to stamp his initials on public property, transformed the management of the Senate in his eight years as Democratic leader. What had been a council of elders became a much more tightly controlled and hierarchical apparatus operating out of Johnson’s hip pocket. And as proved to be true of more than one of Johnson’s achievements, it crumbled rapidly once Johnson left the scene. Johnson’s successor, Mike Mansfield, had no burning desire to push his colleagues around, and Johnson’s attempt as Vice President to maintain his leadership of the Senate Democratic caucus was firmly rebuffed. Johnson also tried, in 1960, to advance his presidential candidacy through his senatorial contacts. It was a failure; John Kennedy’s analysis of what it took to win—neglect senatorial duties, persuade state party leaders in the big states—was better.
Kennedy’s method of persuasion was tailored to the fears that many state party leaders had about a Roman Catholic on the ticket. Most of them were themselves Catholics, but they remembered Al Smith’s failed candidacy and so convincing evidence of electoral popularity was what Kennedy needed to provide, and what he delivered by contesting and doing well in a couple of primary elections. In doing so, the footsteps he was following belonged not so much to Al Smith as to Estes Kefauver of Tennessee. Kefauver was one of the luckiest men ever to sit in the Senate. As a liberal he was an outcast so far as the Southerners were concerned. Nor was he much of a legislative worker, or compelling orator. He had not much money, a complicated domestic life, and came from a small state, yet from the spring of 1951 until his death a dozen years later, Kefauver was always a factor in presidential politics. He was a tireless campaigner and did well in primary elections from 1952 onward. But more to the point, he was a popular figure, television’s first political hero.
The story comes right out of a science-fiction B movie. By chance a stray bug is irradiated by the mad scientist’s beam of light. Instantaneously the bug grows into a creature big enough to eat Cleveland. That is what happened to Kefauver, who chanced to be holding hearings on organized crime just at the instant when most of the nation was first wired up for television. Kefauver’s hearings became a runaway daytime TV hit, and Kefauver, who conducted himself before the camera with a gravitas reminiscent of Gary Cooper, or at least Randolph Scott, became a new sort of Senator: the grasshopper who bests the ants. Or almost: Kefauver got to be Adlai Stevenson’s running mate in 1956, but he never won the big prize. Kennedy, following the same game plan but with far greater resources, made it all the way to the White House less than a decade after Kefauver first burst upon the national stage.
Like Johnson, like Kefauver, like Kennedy, Humphrey was a publicity hound. Publicity was a resource. What made Humphrey different from the others was that he used the publicity as a way of advancing not only Humphrey’s ambitions but also Humphrey’s substantive agenda. Virtually everybody in public life has a few pet programs. Humphrey’s interests ran right across the board, and they were serious interests, leading to serious legislative commitments. They led also to relationships with interest groups that ranged far beyond his Minnesota base. Humphrey became famous as the sponsor of Senate bills that were going nowhere—for the moment. The time came, however, when a fair number of Humphrey initiatives—Medicare, the Peace Corps, and the nuclear test-ban treaty are three good examples—bore fruit.
Humphrey was not necessarily the original inventor of these or the dozens of other additions, large and small, that he made to the legislative record and to public policy in our time. His role was more often to spot a good idea and put it into play, to talk it up, to stimulate technical evaluation of its consequences, to encourage proponents, wear down opponents, and convert bystanders. This process of policy incubation is frequently necessary in our system, which requires elaborate clearance procedures for political innovations to move forward to enactment.
This sort of work is the serious work for which Americans pay salaries to our national legislators. It does not diminish Johnson’s accomplishments in managing the Senate as an institution, or Kennedy’s and Kefauver’s ingenuity in exploiting the Senate as a springboard for their presidential ambitions, to state that it was Humphrey more than any other modern Senator who figured out how to use the Senate to create new public policy. This was a valuable example to his peers and to his younger colleagues, not least because policy incubation has become so significant a part of the Senate’s distinctive contribution to the political system.
The men’s club that Humphrey entered in 1948 is no more. It was killed in part by Johnson’s need to run the place as a one-man band, as he did for a while, and the subsequent reaction to Johnson’s domineering ways. Television played a part as well, in opening up a whole new range of political opportunities for Senators who knew how to get publicity. As senatorial ambitions grew, so did senatorial staffs, creating little empires. These little empires increasingly are run for the benefit of little emperors, who today interact on less intimate collegial terms with their fellow Senators than they once did. The Senate is now a rather individualistic, outward-looking place, and each Senator pursues a very busy and absorbing private agenda. Insofar as a part of that agenda includes cultivating a small portfolio of public policies, and maintaining a level of expertise and serious involvement in them that goes beyond the perfunctory and the purely exploitative, the best contemporary U.S. Senators have turned themselves into “little Humphreys.”
So far, the history of our times does not read this way, mainly, I suppose, because contemporary American political history centers on Presidents, on Kennedys, and on winners, not losers, of presidential campaigns. So even though there is now a bust of Humphrey in the Capitol building, his real significance in American politics has yet to be fully appreciated.
1The Kennedys: An American Drama; see the review by Paul Johnson in last month's COMMENTARY.—Ed.
2Hubert Humphrey: A Biography, Norton, 572 pp., $19.95.