Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Hubert H. Humphrey

Hubert Humphrey was one of the premier political figures of his time who remained a fixture on the national political scene for nearly three decades. He was a supreme legislator who served twenty-two years in the Senate but never achieved the presidential office he so coveted. He pursued the vice presidency or presidency on six occasions but only served one term as vice president. His career was one of great brilliance and disappointment, although his contribution to history was significant and valuable.

Hubert Horatio Humphrey, Jr. was born on May 27, 1911, in Wallace, South Dakota. His family moved to nearby Doland where his father, a pharmacist and ardent Democrat, served as mayor. South Dakota, like many rural states, experienced substantial economic troubles before the full onset of the Great Depression, and the poverty Humphrey saw during his youth profoundly affected him. He was also influenced by and heavily supportive of Franklin D. Roosevelt's attempts to alleviate the Depression with the New Deal programs.

Humphrey briefly attended the University of Minnesota, but went home to work in the family pharmacy after completing a course at the Capitol College of Pharmacy in Denver. He eventually returned to school in Minnesota and graduated in 1939. He completed his masters the next year at Louisiana State University the next year, writing his thesis on the political philosophy of the New Deal. After working for the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the Minnesota War Manpower Commission, and Roosevelt's 1944 campaign, Humphrey ran successfully for mayor of Minneapolis in 1945.

In 1948, Humphrey was catapulted to the national spotlight with a fiery speech at the Democratic National Convention. In his speech, he implored the party to adopt a civil rights plank in its platform and urged the party "to get out of the shadow of states' rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights." When Humphrey's message found support in the party, Strom Thurmond and dozens of southern delegates walked out of the convention. Thurmond would eventually be nominated as the Dixiecrat candidate for President.

Humphrey was elected to the U.S. Senate later that year. He was the first Democrat from Minnesota elected to the Senate since 1858. His overzealous quest for reform and outspoken demeanor won him few friends in his early Senate career. He famously provoked the ire of powerful Senator Harry Byrd of Virginia by calling for the abolition of a committee Byrd chaired. Byrd and other Senators isolated the overeager young Senator, but Humphrey later succeeded in ingratiating himself to his fellow Senators. He eventually became a well-respected and extraordinarily active legislator, sponsoring more than a thousand bills and joint resolutions during his first two terms alone. He took particular interest in issues of civil rights, labor, and education.

In 1961, Humphrey became Majority Whip and helped shepherd historic legislation through the Senate. He was instrumental in passing the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He served with distinction and great success in his position until Lyndon Johnson selected him as his vice president in the presidential campaign of 1964. Humphrey resigned from the Senate in 1965 when he became vice president.

Initially Humphrey was an active lobbyist for the administration's agenda and served as an effective congressional advocate for President Johnson. His numerous contacts and experience in the Senate were of great value to the administration. He was successful in helping to pass significant legislation, including the Voting Rights Act in 1965. By 1966, however, Johnson's domestic program, the Great Society, was losing support as U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War escalated. After Humphrey questioned Operation Rolling Thunder and the limits of what military action could achieve in Vietnam, Johnson decided to exclude the vice president from high-level meetings, and Humphrey's influence declined.

Although his influence in the administration became sporadic and generally limited, Humphrey served as the President's unofficial spokesperson and, despite his private doubts, one of the most visible champions of the administration's Vietnam War policy. His tireless support disappointed many of his liberal supporters and negatively affected his national popularity. In addition to representing the administration domestically, Humphrey also served as an ambassador-at-large. During his tenure, he made twelve trips abroad and visited thirty-one countries, traveling far more than any of his predecessors.

When President Johnson declined to run for another term in 1968, Humphrey won the Democratic Party's nomination. His campaign got off to a tumultuous start with the infamous 1968 Democratic Convention. Humphrey's attempts at unity and references to the "Politics of Joy" seemed wholly out of touch with the riots and protests going on outside. Furthermore, Humphrey had difficulty distancing himself from Johnson's unpopular war policy since he had been an advocate of it and continued to serve in the administration. He lost a close election to Richard Nixon and briefly retired to private life.

Humphrey returned to politics in 1970, when he was once again elected to the Senate. He pursued the presidential nomination in 1972 and expressed some interest in the 1976 nomination before eventually deciding not to run. In August 1976, he was diagnosed with cancer but was reelected to the Senate nonetheless. He remained active there until his death in January 1978.