Sunday, December 04, 2005

Hubert Humphrey's forgotten rhetoric

I didn't vote for Hubert Humphrey in 1968. In fact I couldn't stand him. I sat out the presidential election and thereby helped the odious Richard Nixon get elected, prolong the war in Vietnam by five more years, and run amok domestically, working out his destiny as a major crook who was also President of the United States. My reacton to Humphrey, "The Happy Warrior," stemmed from his uncomplaining water carrying for Lyndon Johnson and his war. It was the defining issue for me and many others in those years, just as the Iraq mistake is a defining issue now. I don't regret my decision, although I regret its consequences, which to my mind were the result of a morally unacceptable policy Humphrey pursued.

Last weekend I finished reading the late James Chace's book, 1912:Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft & Debs--the Election that Changed the Country. I recommend it. If you think Bush is bad, you should read about Woodrow Wilson: white supremacist, hypocritical adulterer, assailant of civil liberties to an extent that is barely credible even by the Bush Administration's sorry standards. After reading about Wilson's domestic civil liberties transgressions in John Barry's book, The Great Influenza, I was so stunned (all I knew about Wilson was he was a former college president and championed The League of Nations) I went out and got some other books about the home front in World War I. There I read he was even worse than portrayed in Barry's book. And Chace's book added many other unflattering details, to the point that Taft comes off better than Wilson. But I digress.

Having finished Chace's book midway through the weekend I was looking around for another one and I had to hand Victor Navasky's quasi-memoir, A Matter of Opinion. Navasky was the long time editor/publisher of the left periodical The Nation (he has now ceded both positions to Katrina vanden Heuvel). The book is long and so far I have just reached the halfway point (the blog and my day job interfering). But what grabbed my attention was a short section on the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968 when Humphrey was nominated. Navasky was reporting from within the convention. I was outside it in the streets with a medical team mopping up the blood left in the wake of Mayor Daley's constabulary's efforts to ensure a peaceful convention for Hubert Horatio Humphrey. Navasky had been covering Humphrey during the campaign and gave a glimpse of the typical stump speech:
My notes showed that in the course of his trip the loquacious Mr. Humphrey spoke of "the politics of hope, not fear," "the politics of the future, not the past," "the politics of public service," "the politics of commitment--not by word but by deed," "the politics of service rather than noise," "the politics of happiness," "the politics of tomorrow," "the politics of personal sacrifice," "the politics of self-involvement," "the politics of commitment, personal service, personal action." ("This is what I call the Volunteer Generation," he told an educational television interviewer.)
Navasky tells this story in the context of admitting he used it to do a "gotcha" on Humphrey, who had criticized his rivals' use of the New Politics as "just a phrase." But what struck me was the content of these phrases. The Politics of personal sacrifice? The Politics of public service? The Politics of commitment? The Politics of hope not fear? In 1968 they might have sounded like empty rhetoric, but in George Bush's America it is almost inconceivable to hear any politician utter these sentiments. It's a measure of how far we have regressed since Reagan (also on my list with Wilson and Bush as one of the worst presidents). Today's empty rhetoric is also empty of any idea of service, cooperation or helping each other.

I didn't vote for Humphrey but I wouldn't mind having his ilk around again.