Will a progressive legacy shape a brighter future?

Progressivism in Minnesota helped shape Washington state's political culture. A PBS film will explore the life of former Sen. Hubert Humphrey, whose politics forever changed the country for the better and whose legacy may still leave hope for a less partisan atmosphere.
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From the campaign trail in 1968: campaign manager Larry O'Brien, Vice President and presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey, and aide Ted Van Dyk.

Progressivism in Minnesota helped shape Washington state's political culture. A PBS film will explore the life of former Sen. Hubert Humphrey, whose politics forever changed the country for the better and whose legacy may still leave hope for a less partisan atmosphere.

Minnesota is a good place to get political renewal. Many of the state's sons and daughters (including a future senator, Warren Magnuson) migrated west to Washington and, over many years, provided to our state the upper Midwest progressivism that so characterized it.

I gained refreshment late last week at Hamline University in St. Paul, where a two-hour film on the life of former Sen. and Vice President Hubert Humphrey was previewed for a local audience. It will be shown nationally in October on PBS stations. After the showing, Lousiana State University political scholar Bob Mann and I answered questions about Humphrey and Humphrey's time from the audience, which included former Vice President Walter Mondale, now 82, a Humphrey protege, and members of the Humphrey family.

The Humphrey film itself was the inspiring story of an idealistic dreamer, whose family owned a prairie-town drugstore, who rose in time to become Minneapolis' mayor, U.S. Senate whip, vice president, almost president, and then again a senator. More impressive than the jobs he held was the landmark legislation he sponsored and saw to passage in health care, education, arms control, international cooperation, and, most importantly, civil rights.

Humprey's dramatic speech at the Democrats' 1948 Philadelphia national convention transformed forever the party's posture on civil rights. It was on behalf of a pro-civil rights minority plank opposed not only by President Harru Truman, running that year for re-election, but also by Southern delegates (from Democrats' so-called Solid South). Humphrey's speech brought the convention floor to a roaring frenzy and the plank to victory.

Southerners walked out of the hall and formed a Dixiecrat Party, supporting Sen. Strom Thurmond in that fall's election. Left-wingers also took a walk and supported the candidacy of former Vice President Henry Wallace. Despite these defections from two flanks, Truman won re-election — in large part because of the intensity generated by civil rights supporters.

Sixteen years later, Humphrey's great achievement was the Civil Rights Act of 1964. If his 1948 speech changed the Democratic Party forever, the Civil Rights Act changed the country forever. Humphrey led pro-civil-rights forces in the Senate through a long filibuster by opponents (It took 67 votes then to break a filibuster, not the 60 now required). Victory came when Humphrey persuaded Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen to support the bill. Humphrey gladly shared credit, on its passage, with Dirksen and other Republicans (most notably California Sen. Tom Kuchel) who had mobilized their colleagues behind the legislation.

I joined Humphrey that year, coordinating a successful effort to gain him the 1964 vice presidential nomination, and served as his assistant through his vice presidency, which saw Great Society triumphs and Vietnam tragedy.

The most satisfying part of those years, I told an audience questioner, was that Humphrey and others in the capital made their judgments and political decisions almost wholly on the basis of their perceptions of the country's needs. President Lyndon Johnson, inexperienced in foreign affairs, became trapped in an inherited Vietnam commitment. But, even there, he thought he was doing the right thing for the country and, in 1968, foreswore a second-term candidacy so that he could devote full time to seeking an end to the war. Pollsters and political consultants were around, but they were fringe players and generally irrelevant to the main game.

Someone in the audience asked if we could return to that kind of principled, serious politics and put behind us the hyper-partisan, polarizing game that is being played today. Mann, 52, responded negatively. We had gone beyond a point of return, he said, and he doubted that a Humphrey could even emerge and succeed in today's environment. As an alumnus of that earlier time, I disagreed.

Perhaps our generational differences, I thought, accounted for our differing viewpoints. We had gone, in our history, through some bleak political periods but, in the end, principled leaders had emerged at critical times and Americans had responded to them.

Younger audience members had not known of the 1930s to 1970s history contained in the film. Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy, the young Democrat-Farmer-Labor Party, and, for that matter, the struggles for civil-rights and Great Society agendas were too long past. (I had to consider that, to them, the times were as distant as those of Grover Cleveland had been to my political generation).

Mondale said it was energizing to see the film and be reminded of so many historic events. We recalled how, in 1964, we had gone together to Atlantic City to try to secure the vice-presidential nomination for Humphrey. Mondale would later be a senator, vice president, and presidential candidate in his own right. Another son of Minnesota and its political traditions.

The meeting broke. Outside, St. Paul's old homes and tree-shaded streets were much the same as when I had last seen them years before. (Visitors most often get to Minneaplis, seldom to St. Paul). But the downtown and other shopping neighborhoods had been refurbished. Trees and flowers were blooming. Who could be a pessimist in such surroundings?

The country has changed dramatically for the better since Humphrey and his progressive generation began their political journeys out of the Depression. It was easy to recall his voice, talking always about his hopeful dreams for the country. I felt better leaving Minnesota than when I had gotten there. I had no doubt we would get past these presently disappointing days and back on track.  

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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.