True Believer: Hubert Humphrey's Quest for a More Just America

Image of True Believer: Hubert Humphrey's Quest for a More Just America
Release Date: 
February 13, 2024
Basic Books
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“In True Believer, Traub traces not just Hubert Humphrey’s life but the rise and fall of mid-20th century liberalism with all of its courage, promise, triumphs, contradictions, compromises . . . exemplified in the talents, fortunes, and failures of one man.”

The War at Home, Glenn Silber and Barry Alexander Brown’s searing documentary on the antiwar movement at the University of Wisconsin, captures Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey at a fever pitch in a 1966 visit to Madison. Seething with disgust and indignation at the student protests that greeted him there and at nearly every campus he visited, and looking every bit the buttoned-down establishmentarian, Humphrey aggressively defends Vietnam War escalation against anyone despicable enough to challenge it. “If you can show us how to get out of Vietnam without destroying what little freedom is left there, we’ll put the placards that are around here in the hall of fame, rather than the hall of shame,” Humphrey rages. “The truth is, the protest has but one alternative: just leave. That’s what Hitler said. We do not intend to just leave.”

It’s hard to reconcile the Humphrey who recklessly likened student protesters to Nazis in The War at Home with the youthful, ebullient crusading Humphrey of 1948. In a single courageous speech delivered in support of a proposed civil rights plank at the ’48 Democratic convention, Humphrey redefined the Democratic Party and helped change the course of American history.

“To those who say that we are rushing this issue of civil rights, I say to them we are 172 years late,” Humphrey proclaimed to a convention dominated by segregationists and proponents of an anodyne party platform indifferent to civil rights. “To those who say that this civil rights program is an infringement on states' rights, I say this: The time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states' rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.”

With that single, uncharacteristically concise 12-minute speech, Humphrey propelled himself into the vanguard of a new generation of liberal Democrats determined to legislate a second reconstruction into being.

James Traub’s True Believer: Hubert Humphrey’s Quest for a More Just America, examines the full arc of Humphrey’s life, beginning with experiences that formed his beliefs and political character along the way, particularly his direct exposure to the entrenched injustice of the Jim Crow South as a Louisiana State University graduate student in 1939, and what it taught the future legislative crusader about the northern race prejudice that he’d long overlooked.

True Believer also does much to explain how the man who boldly beckoned America into the “bright sunshine of human rights” rededicated his bully pulpit, 20 years later, to defending America’s descent into the miserable and misbegotten quagmire of Vietnam.

But Traub, author of What Was Liberalism?: The Past, Present, and Promise of a Noble Idea, a deep dive into multiple (and often divergent) liberal traditions that have defined most of American politics through two-and-a-half centuries, is not just interested in chronicling a single politician’s career. In What Was Liberalism, Traub calls Humphrey “the incarnation of mid-twentieth-century American liberalism.” He describes that particular liberal era as characterized by “a faith in the individual, openness to debate, optimism about man’s prospects, and a pragmatic skepticism toward all absolutes, doctrinal or theological.”

In True Believer, Traub traces not just Hubert Humphrey’s life but the rise and fall of mid-20th century liberalism with all of its courage, promise, triumphs, contradictions, compromises, limitations, and myopic insufficiencies exemplified in the talents, fortunes, and failures of one man.

True Believer arrives hot on the heels of Samuel G. Freeman’s Into the Bright Sunshine: Hubert H. Humphrey and the Fight for Civil Rights (2023), a thorough examination of Humphrey’s early life and career, and follows fairly soon Arnold A. Offner’s Hubert Humphrey: The Conscience of the Country (2018). Offner’s book also covers Humphrey cradle to grave, and goes to similarly great lengths to show how Humphrey learned to balance his Happy Warrior exuberance and idealism with pragmatism once he reached the Senate, returning often to Humphrey’s tendency to advance bold legislation, vigorously battle Senate colleagues determined to derail or dismantle it, and ultimately pivot to settling for “the crumbs” if only crumbs were left.

Offner, like Traub, also devotes considerable time in his briskly paced narrative to the father-son relationship that developed between Humphrey and his political mentor, Lyndon B. Johnson, which significantly boosted Humphrey’s career in national politics and irreparably damaged it.

Though Johnson and Humphrey reached the Senate in the same year, 1949, Johnson amassed power much more quickly, largely due to his astonishing ability to win friends and impose his will on them, and his genius for the horse-trading that made legislation move and stall. Johnson singled out Humphrey as the one “bomb-throwing” liberal that he would deign to work with and use as a conduit to others of his ilk.

In exchange, Humphrey was enrolled in what Traub calls the “Lyndon Johnson Academy” of Senate maneuvers and mastery. Humphrey’s first assignment was to make inroads with his ideological opposites in the Senate’s conservative bloc of segregationist southern Democrats and business-first northern Republicans.

Humphrey proved adept at making these sorts of connections not just because of his ambition, but also because he simply loved people, and forging alliances and endearing himself to people came naturally to him.

However adept a Johnson pupil Humphrey proved, Traub writes, “The relationship between the two could never have been fully equal, and not only because Johnson was the party leader. Johnson brooked equal or subordinate relationships only so long as he had to; his need to dominate amounted to an insatiable hunger. Humphrey never sought that kind of power over others. And so from the outset Lyndon Johnson would dominate Hubert Humphrey.”

Early on, True Believer reads like hagiography, a celebration of not only Hubert Humphrey’s irrepressible liberal idealism but also the seemingly infinite possibilities of mid-20th century liberalism itself. Even though Humphrey would suffer the first of three humiliating presidential campaign losses in 1960, his most joyful and fruitful period, in Traub’s telling, immediately followed Kennedy’s election. During the next four years, “Humphrey, as majority whip . . . replaced Johnson as the concert master of the Senate orchestra.”

Highlights of Humphrey’s majority whip glory days included the successful passage of a bill to establish the Peace Corps, which Humphrey conceived, championed, and delivered, and deftly marshaling bipartisan support to break an epic filibuster and pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

But even as Traub places Humphrey at the center of mid-century liberalism’s most momentous triumphs, he also documents Humphrey’s near-lockstep alignment with Cold War Liberalism’s McCarthyite-lite excesses. He traces Humphrey’s aggressive anti-Communism back to the late 1940s, when as mayor of Minneapolis he worked to purge the Reds from the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party he had helped to bring together just a few years earlier.

Humphrey also made a clean break with his political hero Henry Wallace in 1947 when Wallace refused to distance himself from the Communists in his progressive movement, avowing, “We, too, believe in the century of the common man . . . But we are not prepared to see the century of the common man become the century of the Comintern.” Interventionist anti-communism would distinguish the Americans for Democratic Action founded by Eleanor Roosevelt, Walter Reuther, and other New Dealers and later led by Humphrey from Wallace’s Progressive Party.

In 1951, Humphrey even pushed bills to bust Red-friendly trade unions, and in 1954 he aligned himself with domino-theory thinking when he declared, ““Losing Southeast Asia is unthinkable. It cannot happen. It will not happen.”

As Traub takes pains to point out, such strident affirmations of anti-communist sentiment placed Humphrey in the center lane of liberal and Democratic thinking in the Truman and Eisenhower eras, and very much in line with the two Democrats who would occupy the White House in the 1960s, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.

It was both Humphrey’s political alignment with and loyalty to Johnson that made him LBJ’s choice for vice president in 1964 when Johnson won the Democratic nomination and a full presidential term, and total subordination defined their relationship going forward. Friends and advisors cautioned Humphrey that the vice presidency would cost him his freedom, and that Johnson would “cut his balls off.”

If LBJ is portrayed as ruthless and relentless in his pursuit of power in Robert Caro’s biographies, in True Believer—where we see him mostly through his relationship with Humphrey—Johnson comes across as downright sadistic, delighting in any opportunity to belittle and demean his vice president.

Johnson made it clear to Humphrey at the outset that, as vice president, following the president’s every command was his first and only job. Johnson summarily ignored Humphrey and cut him out of the loop on Vietnam after the vice president offered observations and recommended an alternative approach to the war. Humphrey reluctantly relented, accepted his diminished role, and fell in line. “Leaning over backward was nothing new for Humphrey, at least in regard to Johnson,” Traub writes. “But something even worse seemed to be creeping into his manner—the flinch, or cringe, of a creature who expects a beating.

After Humphrey assumed his new role as the administration’s most combative traveling apologist for its controversial Vietnam policy, Johnson demanded during a dinner in the Humphreys’ home that Humphrey recite one of his Vietnam speeches for him while LBJ lounged on the sofa. “Humphrey realized that the president was literally telling him to declaim, like a child asked to stand up on a chair and recite the Gettysburg Address,” Traub writes. Midway through the ordeal, when Johnson left the sofa to use the bathroom, he called back, “Keep talkin’.”

When singer-songwriter and satirist Tom Lehrer penned his poignant lament “Whatever Became of Hubert?” he didn’t know the half of it.

While Traub doesn’t go as far as historian Luke A. Nichter in his 2023 book The Year That Broke Politics: Collusion and Chaos in the Presidential Election of 1968 to charge that Johnson, after opting not to seek a second term, colluded with Richard Nixon to swing the 1968 election to the Republican, he makes it clear that Johnson did little to help and much to undermine Humphrey’s efforts to succeed him as president.

With or without Johnson’s help, Traub reveals, the odds were stacked against Humphrey from the get-go. The “Dump the Hump” attacks were all too predictable, given the near-impossibility of Humphrey distancing himself from the lies, betrayals, and failures of the Johnson administration. If Humphrey’s ill-fated campaign was doomed by the shocking images of brutal police attacks on protesting students in nearby Grant Park that played alongside his backroom nomination by party elites and union bosses at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, “the Hump’s” drubbing was years in the making.

Humphrey’s hostile reception, particularly among youthful audiences, as he traveled the country defending the war in 1966–67, demonstrated that the mid-century liberal establishment had already lost the New Left. “Sometime in the previous two to three years, the sixties had given way to ‘the Sixties’—the era of confrontation and rage, of radical repudiation of social and political institutions, of disdain for ‘bourgeois’ values, of utopian dreams and revolutionary plans,” Traub writes. “It was the great misfortune of Hubert Humphrey’s life that he reached the heights of political power in the midst of that tumult. More than any other of the major politicians of his day, Humphrey had dedicated his life to the pursuit of justice through politics. But the kids he was debating did not share Humphrey’s faith in liberal reform or even his understanding of what politics was.”

Though Humphrey regained his Minnesota senate seat and rediscovered his personal politics of joy in the early 1970s—and even remained for a time the Democrats’ putative standard-bearer—he never got close to the presidency again, even though he entered several primaries in 1972 and flirted with a “Stop Carter” run in 1976.

Perhaps Humphrey’s final contribution to presidential politics, as Traub tells it, was convincing his senatorial protégé and fellow Minnesotan Walter Mondale to become Carter’s running mate in 1976, whatever the personal costs. Mondale, Humphrey believed, faced the same impediments he always had. Traub maintains that Humphrey never wavered in his certainty that as a small-state politician with little personal wealth, his only possible path to the presidency ran through the vice presidency. “All the way with LBJ” was the only way for him.

Some lessons of the Lyndon Johnson Academy—like its many emotional scars—proved permanent.