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It has been 44 years since Hubert Humphrey died on Jan. 13, 1978. His political career began in 1945 as mayor of Minneapolis. He succeeded a corrupt mayor who was later sentenced to a 10 years in prison. Humphrey inherited a city then known as the capital of anti-Semitism in the United States. He cleaned up the town and took on the problem of racism. He was 34 years old.
Elected to the U.S. Senate in 1948, he had an illustrious career there until 1965 when he became Vice President of the United States. Burdened by his support of the Vietnam War, he lost the presidency to Richard Nixon in 1968, but was elected to the Senate again in 1972. Only in recent years has he been widely rediscovered. He is often now quoted in newspaper articles and several biographies have been written about his accomplishments, short of icon, but close.
But one bit of testimony to his influence has not been recounted, but continues today. In 1973, he welcomed a new senator from Delaware to the Capitol. Joe Biden was 31 years old, barely out of diapers when Humphrey was elected mayor, and more recently had opposed the Vietnam War and was for Sen. Eugene McCarthy, not Humphrey, in pre-convention 1968. He thought of Humphrey as a blowhard and a relic of yesterday. That soon changed.
Biden’s wife and a child died in an automobile accident. In his misery, he said he might not serve as senator, but remain in Delaware to mourn and heal. Humphrey, back in the Senate, urged him to come and promised whatever help he could to the freshman senator. It was not the reason Biden changed his mind, but Humphrey made an immediate, if unexpected, difference.
In 1978, the Minnesota Historical Society had me interview people who had known Humphrey, among them, Joe Biden. I learned more about Biden than more about Humphrey. He recognized that he did not know everything. He looked to others for information, and he was willing to change his mind if something suggested he should.
He recognized that others’ experience might give them insight and knowledge he did not have and from which he could learn. As the interview went on, he referred to Humphrey as “the boss.” That seemed odd, so I asked if he called all his elders in the Senate “boss.” He seemed bewildered and asked why the question. When I said he had used the word about half a dozen times, in referring to Humphrey, he smiled and said he never used the term about others and didn’t realize he had about Humphrey. Humphrey had gone from a deprecating “blowhard” to “boss” because Joe Biden was capable of learning, secure in acknowledging mistakes, and naturally, almost without thinking about it, humble. None of that ordinarily comes to senators.
Biden’s ego was not so great that he could not adapt to unexpected realities and new information. He sought information and he was not rigid. Those are qualities of a good president and absent from a lousy one. We have the proof.
Norman Sherman of Coralville has worked extensively in politics, including as Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s press secretary, and authored a memoir “From Nowhere to Somewhere.”