Was there ever a politician whose televised, public, full-text-of-the-speech personna conveyed so little of the real man? I don't think so. Hubert Humphrey was Senate Democratic Whip when I first met him. I thought of him as a walking, rightminded position paper. He was no one I was especially eager to meet, even though I dutifully admired what he stood for and said. In fact, when a friend told me he would be joining us for dinner the night I met him, I was a little disappointed: There went an easy, agreeable, relaxing evening, I figured -- it would be do-good and uplift all the way.
Enter Hubert Humphrey -- hilarious Hubert, reenacting the day's Senate debacles. Chief among these, as I recall, was the three-way encounter between himself, Senate Majority Leader Mansfield and Sen. Wayne Morse. Morse, as it happened, was very sore at Mansfield about something and wasn't speaking to him. Hubert played all three parts: Mike Mansfield sitting in the Senate chamber, pinch-faced angry, glaring straight ahead. . . Hubert sitting next to him awash in discomfort as Morse, standing, peered down at Hubert and boomed: "Will you tell the Majority Leader for me. . . "
Hubert: "Why don't you tell him yourself, he's right here."
Mansfield -- motionless, face forward, nothing.
Morse: "Please give him the following message. . . "
Hubert: "Oh, God. . . "
And then the approach of Strom Thurmond, still a Democrat, intending to go golfing but wishing to be informed if anything happened --"Remember, Hubert, you're my leader, too."
Hubert Humphrey as Strom Thurmond's leader. Shades of 1948. . . It was splendid, and he loved it. He made a pledge to Thurmond. "Nothing has happened around here for 25 years, but if it does, I promise you, Strom, I'll let you know."
"Thank you, Hubert. You're my leader, too."
Humphrey made himself look as ridiculous as the others when he did his impersonations, maybe even a little more so. He had that rarest of gifts: Humor that was sharp but never vicious or self-bolstering at the expense of others. It was the human condition with all its oddities and strengths and weaknesses and surprises that entertained him. We went to a rather no-account nearby restaurant that night where Humphrey had never been; but the headwaiter, overcome by a rare encounter with celebrity, boomed out in a voice no diner (for two blocks around) could miss: 'Your usual table, senator?"
Humphrey loved it, and did everything he could to help. "Oh my, yes" he said, not knowing which way we were going to be led. When he had pondered the menu and placed his order, he remembered to add after whatever it was: "You know, my usual. . . "
We had become friends. It was the first spring of Lyndon Johnson's presidency, when no one seemed to have any criticisms more serious than that the President shouldn't be lifting his dog up by its ears. Hubert was honchoing the civil-rights bill through the Senate, and one day he committed some kind of indiscretion about what Johnson might or mightn't take in the way of compromise, and this went out over the wires. Hubert almost immediately called a press conference to say he had been utterly mistaken and was sorry if he had given any impression that Lyndon Johnson was even considering any compromise. To our insistent and repeated questioning he steadfastly replied: No, Lyndon Johnson hadn't called him or got angry or demanded this backdown. . . he, Hubert, was acting on his own to correct an error.
A few minutes later, when he had gone on to the Senate floor and I had repaired to the gallery, our eyes met, and I expect I gave him a disbelieving, skeptical stare. Humphrey, reached up with both hands, gave his own ears a terrible upward tug, very nearly lifting himself off the floor, grinned at me and turned back to his Senate business.
And now he was about to be Vice President. Somehow, it seemed to me, of the candidates who had got a political reprieve by virtue of the tragedy that had struck the Kennedys, Hubert was the only one who could stay free of that aura of having profited from someone else's disaster. At the Atlantic City convention where he had been nominated --author Theodore White has likened to Caligula on "I've Got a Secret" -- there was a big party for him. I stood on a table with some other press in the jam-packed room while the guitarist who had been the sad troubador of his 1960 presidential campaign played the old Hubert Humphrey song and everyone cheered and some people wept a little. Things were so morbid and sinister at Atlantic City in 1964, there was so much worse about to come, and people seemed to sense as much. Hubert's stem-winding speech ("But not Barry Goldwater") was their last collectively happy moment for years.
You talk about forgiveness and toleration. It was the day of the Wisconsin primary in 1968, a few days after Johnson had announced he wouldn't run again, and Humphrey was in New York making himself scarce to the press, deciding how he was going to play it. I was in New York too and made an insupportable pest of myself, calling his press aide Norman Sherman every 10 minutes on the minute, importuning for a ride back on the vice-presidential plane during which I would be granted an interview. I wore them down: Be at the Waldorf Towers at 8 p.m.
I was there, coming straight from cocktails with the editor of the magazine I then worked for. I was shown up to a suite where Humphrey's aides, including then-Sen. Mondale but not Humphrey, were making phone calls and otherwise pursuing a variety of political chores. They offered me a drink. I accepted -- several times. You know what is coming. Pretty soon Humphrey called down and invited me up to a suite where he and Dwayne Andreas had been watching the Wisconsin returns. He was in his usual good spirits. I, by then, was in much better spirits than usual. Another drink was proffered and received.
I can still remember the airborne "exclusive interview," but only in these respects. We sat facing each other on the small jet plane, and I would ask if he were going to run and each of his two, side-by-side faces, four eyes and all, would look very earnestly back at me, and he would say something -- who knew what? I had to report to my office the following day that I had a good news/bad news story. The good news was that I had gotten the much-sought-after interview. The bad news was that I was bombed out of my head by the time it occurred and hadn't the vaguest idea what Humphrey had said. The only thing I remembered well was his amiable concern -- he never let me forget it afterward -- as he instructed the future Vice President of the United States upon our landing: "Fritz, make sure she gets home."
Well, he was going to run and everyone knew it. It was during that campaign that the old Reporter magazine, which I worked for, announced it would soon go out of business. Washington being Washington and all of us being the irredeemable smart alecks that we are, the exchanges I had with people over the prospective demise of the magazine were invariably either gossipy or "clever." Everyone, it seemed, had a witty remark or an unflattering psychological theory to offer for the occasion --
For the last issue of the magazine I was doing a piece on his campaign and was in a huge crowd of journalists and campaign supporters and just plain spectators one day when he came out of some hotel ballroom on his way to a motorcade. He spotted me. I nodded hello. But he stopped and then came over. He had just heard the magazine was going out of business, he said. I got ready with clever replies one, two and three and none-of-your-business four, though I should have known I wouldn't have need for any of them. Hubert Humphrey had only one reaction and concern: "Are you okay? Do you need a job? Can I help?" I said, No, it was okay, I had a new job. "Are you sure?" he worried. "Let me know if you're not okay."
And that, quintessentially, was Hubert. For the public figure and especially for the campaigner the crowd out there tends to be one glutinous mass of statistics and blurred presences, a heave and surge of faceless, nameless voters to be placated and wooed, above all else an undifferentiated, shapeless mob. Humphrey, looking into it, always and only saw people.