The Minnesota Model—Unglued

Any assessment of Minnesota’s political history must accord a place of honor to Hubert Humphrey, one of the most remarkable politicians ever to appear on the American landscape. Humphrey was rarely out of the national limelight from 1948, when he delivered his stirring civil rights speech at the Democratic National Convention, until his death from cancer in 1978. His legendary political and oratorical skills and accomplishments as mayor of Minneapolis, U.S. senator, vice president, presidential candidate, and again senator, were of such a magnitude that his name is engraved on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services headquarters and in the hearts of millions of Americans.

Humphrey came excruciatingly close to realizing his lifelong dream of following his hero, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, into the White House. But he saw that dream turn into a nightmare in 1968, because of his perceived role as a cheerleader for Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam war policy. Few things bothered the eternally optimistic Humphrey, but he never got over his lost bid for the presidency, a loss made that much more unpalatable by the fact that he lost to Richard Nixon. At the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, 1968, he went into his bathroom and flushed the toilet, a fitting symbolic gesture to a year of failure and frustration.

Many people are still convinced that it was Humphrey’s fellow Minnesotan Eugene McCarthy who kept him from the White House. McCarthy’s opposition to the Vietnam War certainly ignited the potent anti-war movement that led to President Johnson’s surprise announcement that he would not run again. Did it sink Humphrey’s hopes too? It was undeniably damaging, but two other factors were even more critical. First was the assassination of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy on the night he defeated McCarthy to win the California primary. Even though McCarthy gave up his candidacy shortly afterward, Humphrey instantly understood when he heard the news: Kennedy’s assassination would so poison the political atmosphere that even though he was certain to win the Democratic nomination, it would cost him the election, he told his wife, Muriel, at the time.

Even more important to the outcome of the election was Humphrey’s refusal to break with Johnson on the war until very late in the campaign. Then, too, Johnson’s attitude toward Humphrey was understandably ambivalent; the hawkish Richard Nixon was more likely to prove him right on his convictions about Vietnam than Humphrey ever would. Humphrey himself admitted as much to me in a 1971 interview. He made it clear that he believed Johnson was finding it difficult to loosen his grip on the reins of power, and that he may even have preferred Nixon, a successor who wouldn’t “cut and run” from the war in Vietnam.

“What I think happened all through this period was that the president couldn’t help feel that here he was, a man that had given up the presidency, and here was his vice president, a man that was maybe going to get the presidency, and how could that vice president not endorse everything that the president had been for?” a visibly anguished Humphrey told me as we sat at his lakeside home in Waverly. “He was absolutely, totally involved [in Vietnam]. That was his major consideration. He had put so much into it and gone through so much pain and suffering for it that there was just no way that he could disengage himself from it. And any retreat from his position that he didn’t make himself looked like it was sabotaging his efforts.”

Whatever the reason for Johnson’s lukewarm support of Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy was the catalyst for the anti-war protests that hobbled Humphrey’s presidential campaign. McCarthy blamed Humphrey for failing to denounce the harsh measures taken against his supporters during violent demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. His refusal to support Humphrey until the closing days of the campaign, and then only half-heartedly, undoubtedly contributed to Humphrey’s defeat. In some ways, Humphrey’s star was forever tied to McCarthy’s; McCarthy’s decision to retire in 1970 opened the way for Humphrey to return to the Senate. (Today, McCarthy is 87 and something of a political ghost living in a Georgetown retirement home. He has devoted his remaining years to writing poetry and his memoirs.)

The disastrous 1968 campaign had a far-reaching effect on the Democratic Party. The party tried to regroup, and they asked another Minnesotan, Congressman Donald Fraser, to chair a commission (with South Dakota senator George McGovern) to overhaul the process by which the party chooses its presidential nominee. The “delegate selection reforms” suggested by the McGovern-Fraser Commission in 1970 are still in effect today. They limited the power of party bosses, and made it possible for McGovern to win the Democratic nomination in 1972, and for Mondale to win it 12 years later.

Despite Walter Mondale’s humiliating defeat by Ronald Reagan, in which he carried only his home state and the District of Columbia, he remained a viable political candidate right up until last November, when his party pressed him into service. The political experts were certain that Minnesota voters would return him to the Senate in Wellstone’s place—only to see him upset by Norm Coleman in an election that turned largely on public revulsion to that disastrous memorial service. Mondale made no secret of the fact that the Wellstone memorial cost him the election. What’s more, Democratic polls indicated it had a spillover effect that helped defeat Democratic Sen. Jean Carnahan in Missouri and Max Cleland in Georgia; in other words, the controversial rally cost Democrats control of the Senate.

Although his days in public office are over now, Mondale’s legacy remains as impressive as any Minnesota politician before or since. In addition to his service as Minnesota’s attorney general and U.S. senator, as Jimmy Carter’s vice president, he and Carter redefined the nature and role of the vice presidency. In a lecture sponsored by the Senate Majority Leader last September, Mondale explained that Carter asked him shortly after they were elected for a written proposal of his ideas about the vice presidency, all of which Carter agreed to implement. “In retrospect, it redefined the vice presidency,” Mondale said.

Mondale’s unsuccessful attempt to return to the Senate may have marked more clearly than any other event the decline of Minnesota’s power and influence in the nation’s capital. As the last of a long line of public officials of the stature of Humphrey, McCarthy, Freeman, MacGregor, Burger, Blackmun and the others, he can serve as the epitaph for all.

A new generation of Minnesotans is now in place in Washington, led by Democratic Senator Mark Dayton and his neophyte Republican colleague Norm Coleman, along with veteran House members Jim Oberstar, Marty Sabo, Collin Peterson, and Jim Ramstad. But they are still minor stars in the national political constellation. Until one or more of them—or another ambitious and talented Minnesotan—bursts upon the scene, and once again takes center stage in D.C., the North Star State will have to live in the reflected glory of those who came before.

Albert Eisele is founding editor of The Hill, a weekly newspaper that covers Congress, and author of Almost to the Presidency, a dual biography of Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy.

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