Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Flashback: With a Verve that Would Have Dismayed Other Men, Hubert Goes Back to the Senate a 4th Term Winner and Announces He Will Run for Majority Leader Against West Virginia’s Robert Byrd. But Not So Fast.

[Fifty plus years of politics written for my kids and grandchildren].

Fighting for His Life.

After the surgery that removed his bladder, Hubert Humphrey recovered quickly…noticeably thinner with his hair now white (he later re-dyed it to the old black and reddish hue) and propelled by his stunning fourth term election to the Senate was well on the road to winning his old prestige as a policy-maker. He called a victory news conference and briskly announced that he would run for the post of majority leader against West Virginia’s Robert Byrd. The betting was that Hubert would win, too, since Byrd’s old KKK membership was still fresh in everyone’s minds. Then he and Muriel went on a Caneel Bay vacation.

But there he came down with a case of the flu that convinced him what doctors had difficulty communicating—that his health was frail. Reluctantly when the Senate convened in January, 1977 he telephoned Byrd and said that he was giving up the effort and wished him well.

His Democratic colleagues were so touched—and worried for him—that they voted a new post for him to take, deputy pro tem of the Senate which added $8,000 to his $60,000 salary (raises always meant much to Hubert), a limousine and a Capitol office. Because it returned him to the Senate leadership, it meant that he could…hurrah!...go to the White House with the rest of the leaders for breakfast there as in the old days.

Things looked good for a time. Then he called his doctor, Edward Berman from Minnesota and said he was doubling up with stomach cramps. Sent to the hospital it was determined he now had intestinal blockage. He was operated on at the University of Minnesota medical center in Minneapolis. He now had to have a second colostomy—one of stool, one of urine.

Amazingly, he was on his feet the next day—but Dr. Berman came in with bad news: the abdominal tumor they removed had spread through his entire pelvis. The doctors told him “terminal.” And everyone knew the peppery Hubert Humphrey was dying. When he emerged from the hospital he was so gaunt one newspaper unkindly described him as nothing more than “a skull on a stick.” But a week later he walked onto the stage to a standing ovation at the Minnesota AFL-CIO convention. He pounded the rostrum and unfurled a lengthy—46 minutes—speech outlining goals for America’s cities. Richard Nixon called him to cheer him up and promised to come and see him in Washington. On October 3, President Carter stopped in Minnesota to pick him up and give him a ride to Washington on “Air Force One.”

Time was running short. Humphrey was asked to do something no other U.S. lawmaker had done in the history of the republic—address a joint meeting of House and Senate. The members were sobered at his appearance but he cheered them up, saying one thing was pleasant. He had lost his hair through the chemo and when it stopped, new hair came in and it was curly! The audience laughed through their tears. He attended the dedication of a new Health, Education and Welfare building that was suddenly named for him.

Later he was guest of honor at a fund-raiser in Washington for a projected Hubert Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs to be built at the University of Minnesota. I attended. His last words to me whispered from the dais: “Do you still hear from Gene?” I got the unmistakable feeling that McCarthy had not called him—but Richard Nixon did, several times.

Then, finally, President Carter invited him to Camp David which was a fresh experience. In all his years as vice president he was never invited to go there by President Johnson.

Gone to Another Meeting.

It was all but over. He flew back to Minnesota in the company of Sen. Mondale. His pain was growing more intense. When they used pain-killer to dull it, he lapsed into a coma. He died at 7:15 p.m. on January 13, 1978. He was sixty-six. Someone who knew him well said that the epitaph on his tombstone should read “Gone to another meeting.” He had issued orders to be buried right away and that whatever ceremony would take place would be without his body present, as a “celebration.” But his family and the White House ruled otherwise. His body was flown to Washington where it lay in the Capitol rotunda. Then back to Minnesota where it lay in state in the Capitol at St. Paul where 40,000 lined up outside on a terribly cold Minnesota winter day to pay their respects.

The funeral was at House of Hope Presbyterian church in St. Paul. President Carter spoke in tribute and three TV networks covered it. But the topper was a rip-roaring eulogy by Hubert’s favorite preacher, the Rev. Robert Schuller, TV minister and proprietor of the “Crystal Cathedral” in California. Three-thousand people in the church listened to Schuller for seemingly hours. When he finished it was getting dark.

And so Hubert Horatio Humphrey, Jr., an evangelist himself, was buried in the dark at Minneapolis’ Lakewood cemetery. A great man? I have my doubts but a good one.

More about his legacy next time.

1 comment:

  1. No question HHH was less guilty than his fellow politicos of putting self-serving ambition ahead of the needs of his Country, and thereby costing American lives and many times more of those of our ally South Vietnam.

    But guilty he was. I would not want to "go to another meeting" with The Big Boss with that on my conscience.