CARL SOLBERG has done a thorough job in collecting information and commentary on Hubert Humphrey, man and politician. It is evident that he has read what has been written about Humphrey by Humphrey himself and by others. He has included information gathered through the techniques of what is called "oral history," and has, according to the preface of the book, studied the Humphrey Papers, recently opened to the public by the Minnesota Historical Society. Out of all of this has come a pedestrian book.
The book is substantively not very different from other books that have been written about Senator Humphrey, possibly because there was so little about the Humphrey career that was either private or secret. The public and the private man were much the same.
In this book, the well-known stages in the life of Hubert Humphrey are re-offered, some with additional supporting facts and witnesses. The pictures that emerge may be a little clearer, more detailed, possibly better defined, than some that have been given us in the past, but the substance remains unchanged.
Although the positive achievements of Hubert Humphrey are noted--his legislative accomplishments (a little overstated), his special gifts as an orator, demonstrated most notably in his civil rights speech at the Philadelphia Democratic convention in 1948, a speech which set the Democratic Party on a course which brought it despite delays and distractions to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964--the overall tone of the book is one of tragedy, marked by Humphrey's failures in his bid for the vice presidency in 1956, and his bid for the presidential nomination in 1960, and finally by his defeat by Richard Nixon in 1968. Undoubtedly there were distressing, possibly tragic aspects to the Humphrey career, but these were largely offset by his successes and achievements, not fully or appreciatively noted in this book. The energy, time, and spirit that Humphrey gave to speeches are presented almost as though Humphrey was indulging in a bad habit, when in fact it was in these speeches and through them that he may well have made his greatest contribution to the good of the commonwealth. During the years from 1948 to 1964, when there was little legislative progress in the field of civil rights, he was on the speaking trail, giving hope to the victims of discrimination, encouraging their leaders to action, and challenging politicians in power or seeking power to act. He was a favored and willing speaker not just in the cause of civil rights, but of Israel, of labor, of agriculture, of the poor.
His proficiency and readiness as a speaker may have hurt his chances for presidential office. He who preaches the crusade may not be called upon to lead it. In American politics one can say rather extreme, even radical, things, if one says them in such a way that people don't remember what was said or who said it. In Hubert's case what was said was remembered. It was also remembered that he had said it. His language stood out. He delighted in giving speeches. His delight, not unlike that which I assume a jazz trumpeter must feel as he improvises, was creating new music.
I recall one experience in the early '50s. Senator Humphrey was being very restrained. It was during the Eisenhower administration. He was being considerate of the president and of the Republicans. The press had begun to write of "the new Humphrey," and then in the middle of a structured and restrained speech he took off. "Ike," he said was "a bird in the gilded cage--kept by the Republicans in the parlor, singing sweet songs to all who passed by, while back in the kitchen the Republican blackbirds were eatng up the public pie." The speech went on to greater heights. I asked him subsequently what had happened to the "new Humphrey." "I just heard the whistle blow," he replied.
When I saw him shortly before his death, he recalled the good nights of speaking in the past. "You," he said, "would give the audience jokes and philosophy. I would give them the politics and the pep talk, and the guest speaker would not even want to come on. I wish we could have one more good night like those."
The tragic or near-tragic elements in Humphrey's life were two, both noted with sympathy by Carl Solberg--one his continuing financial difficulties and the other his abusive treatment by Lyndon Johnson.
Humphrey's financial troubles began before he entered politics. They were problems common to most persons coming into adulthood in the Depression years. They continued on through most of his political life, and ended only in the years after the 1968 defeat. Running for the presidency even in the time of the less costly politics of the '50s and '60s was expensive. Humphrey, as the book points out had no personal fortune, or wealthy relatives to draw on, and only a few persons who might have been called "large" or "reliable" contributors. Much of his support was sparse and marginal, and often from demanding contributors. He summarized his feelings about his fiscal dependency one day when he was showing me his new house on Lake Waverly. This was before he became vice president.
First he told me that the house was a copy of Lyndon Johnson's guest house. Then as we went on through the house into the kitchen, he paused suddenly and said, "Do you know what my problem is?" I said that I did not. He continued, "Well, I'll tell you. I've got too damn many friends who get it for me wholesale." He then went around the kitchen, cataloging appliances, fixtures, linoleum, noting what he had paid for each wholesale, and what he would have paid if he had equippe the room on his own, retail. In each case the wholesale price was higher, obviously for better articles and installations, than he would have had to pay for equipment he thought adequate. He had spent more than he would have otherwise spent, and also entailed obligations.
The author notes and describes the other tragic strains in the Humphrey career, that of his relationship with Lyndon Johnson, and the abuse which he accepted as a part of that relationship, but leaves the reader with no better understanding of either why Johnson so abused Humphrey or of why Humphrey tolerated the abuse.
With the arrogance allowed book reviewers, even to the point of criticizing editors, I suggest that the book might better have ended with Chapter 38. The last chapter, entitled "The Man and His Legacy" reads like something the editor or the publisher asked the author to include in the book.