Of Hubert Humphrey it can be said that something became him more than the way in which he choose to play out his life. There was no hiding, no pretending, no note of simplicity. He lived his life to the fullest until his last breath. And he lived it, as he wished, in public.
He was quite purposeful about this: he frankly wanted to be remembered and to set a public example. Of course, he did. The legacy he leaves is probably unlike that of any other public figure in our history. It was, simply, how to live.
"I want to kind of set an example, if I jean, of public service," he said during, a long conversation last spring. "Not that I'm any paragon of virtue, because I'm not. But I'd like people to think of me as a man that really gave himself to his country and did something in public service. To make public service an honorable profession. That's really what I'd like more than anything else. It's maybe the one thing that sustains me more than anything else."
He instructed his not to schedule him so tightly. When he walked the halls of Congress, he wanted to be able to spend as much time as possible with ordinary people. That was a conscious decision, too.
"I said to my staff, 'Let me tell you something: When I come back from the Senate over there I'm a walking historical object. I'm a piece of the history of this capital.' And it's a fact. Now I can rush by people or I can go by and be good and gentle, maybe say a little word to somebody and take a little time.
"And somebody always reaches out. They'll say, 'Well, I was with you in '68.' And they'll say: 'Don't you remember when you shook my hand at Battle Creek? Or 'I waited for you in Flint, Michigan until 11 o'clock at night.' And they'll tell me all these things, you know. And they've got their kids with them and the kids' eyes are kind of rolling around, wondering what's this all about. But I'm a part of the history of some of most furbulous years in this country. So as I tell the person who schedules me, 'Look, don't be worried if I'm a little late or something like that. I'm going to take some time to say hello, to some kids. So, if I've got someone waiting for me, let 'em wait.'"
The way he viewed his illness was characteristic, and remarkable.
"I've got to be honest about it," he said. "I try not to think about my illness much, but I do have to recognize that cancer is, like my friend, a cancer specialist out at Rochester, said: 'Hubert, cancer is like a thief in the middle of the night. It can stab you in the back any time. You never know it.'
"So what is my theory, my philosophy? Not live it up, but live each day, do what you want to do with whatever you have. Get the most out of it. Look ahead as far as you can.Don't worry. There's not much I can do about it.
"As I told those doctors the other day, I said, 'Listen, if you let me die, it's going to cost you millions of dollars 'cause I can get you more money for your cancer research than you'd ever believe possible. Keep me alive.' So I joke with them about it.
"But in my own heart I know that you've got a time clock in you and sometime somebody speeds it up. I don't like self-pity. Let's put it frankly. I think people are bored with people who go around with that stuff. So I just do the best I can. And have a good time most of the time."
Few of our public figures suffered more personal humiliations than Hubert Humphrey. His vice presidency under Lyndon Johnson, was tormenting - what he described, kindly, as "difficult years, but learning years for me." It was a measure of his decency that he was able to look back on that time without bitterness. He was even able to laugh at it.
"If I made any little deviation from anything that he [LBJ] thought was the way it should be, he'd shoot it down. There wasn't this businessof saying. Well, now he's entitled to his point of view or giving the entitled to his point of yiew or giving the kind of confidence you ought to have. He knew the kind of man that he was, and I considered it a great honor to be Vice President.
"My vice presidency was a very active one during a very difficult period. As I have said to my wife and the close family, 'Many things that Dad did during that time will not be known simply because there was too much static.' But we opened up these Job Corps camps. We helped get through Congress a war on poverty. I was the co-sponsor. I coordinated a lot of that stuff. I was busier that a cat on a tin roof with a dose of castor oil in a windstorm trying to cover up.
"And, believe it or not I was in consultation many times with Johnson. He just didn't want a lot of people to know it. He didn't want anybody to upstage him, and he knew I had a national following. In fact, I had a bigger one than he had when he was Vice President, and also with the press. Believe me, he kept careful eye on me with the press. 'Who did you see?' he'd say. Every time there was a column by either you or Broder or Reston that was critical of him, or said something critical, he'd say: 'Did you see those fellows? You out with that Georgetown crowd?'"
But his real heartbreak came during his presidential race in 1968. As he said, "the big disappointment, of course, was the heartache of '68, because I never should have let Nixon be President. Never, And, of course, he lied to get to be President just like he did after he got in office. He pretended he was a new man, and a lot of people bought that nonsense because they were so angry with everything we'd gone through - three assascinations, the civil rights revolution in this country, the incredible bitterness over the war in Vietnam, and the kind of heavy-handedness of our administration.
"But we should have won. We never should have let Nixon become President, and let what happened to this country happen. That's the big disappointment I had in my life. And sometimes I just tears in my eyes and say, "Why in the hell did we do that?'"
Without realizing it, in the course of that memorable conversation, Hubert Humphrey dictated his own epitaph. Here's how he put it:
"What I want more in life, than anything else now is respect, which I think I'm beginning to earn and get. I don't want to be President. I don't want to be Vice President. Or Secretary of State. Or majority leader I know that those things are not mine to be, and I have put them very neatly aside, without remorse.
"But what I do want to be known for in the history books - and I am interested in that - is that I was an effective man in government. That I was a decent man, and that I knew my job. That I knew how to get things done, and that I did important things in government."
Of that judgment, there is no doubt.
A personal nore: On the day Hubert died, I was having lunch with a friend. He mentioned Humphrey, and said he had done an impulsive thing. "I get tired of writing letters to windows," he said. "It's so frustration and inadequate; so I sat down and wrote Hubert a very personal letter. I told him I loved him."
I wish I had done that.