Hubert Humphrey was one of the nation’s most prominent liberal politicians in the mid-20th century, and his long career made him one of the leading figures in U.S. Senate history. Known for his oratorical skill, he argued tirelessly for legislation addressing issues of civil rights and nuclear disarmament, long before such causes became accepted by the mainstream. As Lyndon B. Johnson’s vice president, Humphrey lost the support of many liberal Americans as the voice of the administration’s Vietnam War policy. When Johnson stepped aside in 1968, Humphrey won the Democratic presidential nomination, losing by the narrowest of margins to Richard M. Nixon in the general election. In 1970, he returned to the Senate, where he remained until his death eight years later.
Hubert Humphrey’s Early Life and Career
Born in Wallace, South Dakota, in 1911, Hubert Humphrey Jr. left his home state to attend college at the University of Minnesota. Early in the Great Depression, he returned to help manage the family drug store, later earning his pharmacist’s license. Humphrey completed his bachelor’s degree at Minnesota in 1939, followed by a master’s degree in political science at the University of Louisiana. Back in Minnesota, he was hired to teach political science as part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA).
Humphrey launched his political career in 1943 with a failed run for mayor of Minneapolis, then taught at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, and gained exposure as a radio news commentator. In 1945, he won the mayoral race, and would serve in the post until 1948. That same year, he attracted national attention with an impassioned speech at the Democratic National Convention, in which he argued that the party’s presidential platform should include a civil rights plank. In the race for a U.S. Senate seat that fall, Humphrey’s populist-style coalition of Democrats, farmers and labor unions propelled him to victory in a state that hadn’t elected a Democratic senator since 1901.
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Humphrey as Senator and Vice President
Over the next 16 years, Humphrey was a leading liberal voice in the Senate, focusing on issues of social welfare, civil rights and fair employment. He became the Senate majority whip in 1961. Though his “do-gooder” stance angered the conservative Washington establishment, more liberal observers celebrated his oratory skill and forward-thinking idealism. After years of fighting for nuclear disarmament legislation in the 1950s, he was able to win bipartisan support for the Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty of 1963. He did the same for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, despite having to confront southern filibusters in the Senate. That year, Humphrey became vice president under Lyndon B. Johnson, who won the presidency in a landslide over Republican Barry Goldwater.
As vice president, Humphrey worked tirelessly on behalf of legislation such as the Food Stamp Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, funding for Medicare, the establishment of the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Office of Economic Opportunity and the creation of the Head Start program. He also supported funding for the arts and for solar energy research. On the other hand, Humphrey would display increasing conservatism (to the dismay of more left-wing Americans) as the administration’s leading spokesman for U.S. war policy during the conflict in Vietnam.
Humphrey’s Presidential Candidacy and Later Career
After the embattled Johnson announced he would not seek reelection in 1968, Humphrey sought the Democratic presidential nomination. He chose not to contest primaries against rivals Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy (who was assassinated on the night of the California primary), but won the nomination at the tumultuous Democratic National Convention in Chicago, during massive demonstrations against the Vietnam War. After trailing Republican Richard M. Nixon in the polls, Humphrey began to build momentum that September when he announced that, if elected, he would halt the U.S. bombing campaign in South Vietnam. He ended up losing to Nixon by 510,000 votes in one of the tightest presidential elections in history; many people claimed that he would have won if the election had been held one week later.
After being reelected to the Senate in 1970, Humphrey made another run at the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972, but was unsuccessful. In 1976, he published his autobiography, “The Education of a Public Man: My Life and Politics.” Humphrey died of cancer in January 1978.