Humphrey and Biden: One Presidential Scholar's Two Political Heroes
tags: presidential history,Joe Biden,Hubert Humphrey
Ronald L. Feinman is the author of Assassinations, Threats, and the American Presidency: From Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama (Rowman Littlefield Publishers, 2015). A paperback edition is now available.
This scholar has been fascinated by the presidency for more than sixty years, and has taught at the college and university level for nearly fifty years. In that half-century and more of being dedicated to the analysis of American politics and political history, this scholar has embraced two political “heroes” who epitomize his basic values and personality.
This is an appropriate time to explain this fascination, and why this author sees these two individuals as sharing common traits that drew his interest and caused him to feel emotionally committed to them.
These two “heroes,” both long term US Senators and presidential nominees, were Hubert H. Humphrey in 1968 and Joe Biden in 2020.
This author first became fascinated with presidential campaigns and history of the presidency as a teenager in 1960, when Humphrey competed against Senator John F. Kennedy in the presidential primaries, most notably in Wisconsin and West Virginia. He followed the 1960 campaign closely, and while he certainly saw John F. Kennedy as impressive, immediately he gravitated to Humphrey as someone who caused strong emotions of support, and from that point on, Humphrey was his favorite political leader, and he was thrilled when Humphrey was chosen by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 to become his vice president.
Humphrey had a fascinating 16-year career in the US Senate from Minnesota from 1949-1965, after serving as Minneapolis Mayor from 1945-1948. He had been a gadfly in the Senate, someone who often challenged the status quo by embracing of New Deal Liberalism, and had promoted many significant ideas and programs, and been famous for his debating talents and endless ability to argue on many major policies and ideas. Humphrey was the chief promoter of future legislation on civil rights, Medicare, Federal aid for education, the Peace Corps, and the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Clearly, he was a star of the Senate.
Humphrey gained the title of “The Happy Warrior,” and had a constant upbeat, cheerful, and optimistic demeanor and manner. While he often spoke excessively and was long winded at times, it was easy to feel great admiration for him. He came across as genuine, sincere, decent, compassionate and empathetic, and that drew this author to “love” him, and prefer him in 1968, even though he had been loyal to Lyndon B. Johnson on the controversy over the war in Vietnam, which this author opposed. But this scholar still thought he was far superior to Robert F. Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy in his political credentials and personality, and was dismayed by the division in the Democratic Party, which sadly contributed to Humphrey’s defeat for the presidency by Richard Nixon, an event that this author found extremely disconcerting.
But when Humphrey returned to the Senate from 1971-1978, this author was content, while believing that he would not gain a second chance for the presidency, although he tried for the nomination again in 1972. When Humphrey was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1977, and died in January 1978 at the age of 66, it affected this author very badly, as if Humphrey was family. With Humphrey gone, the question that arose was whom in the later generation of leadership, someone close to the age of this author, in the late 1970s, would replace Humphrey in the same emotional manner in the mind of this scholar.
This author had noticed a young US Senator from Delaware, Joe Biden, who had suffered from a personal tragedy just as he was elected to the Senate two weeks before his 30th birthday in 1972, losing his first wife and daughter in a traffic accident, in which his two sons were seriously injured. This was a man who displayed then, and ever since, similar qualities of Hubert Humphrey, including being genuine, sincere, decent, compassionate, and empathetic.
Joe Biden had served one term in the Senate at the time of Humphrey’s passing, and had been influenced by Humphrey, who had been one of a number of Senators who assisted Biden through the adjustment to his family tragedy. It was clear that Biden had the characteristics of being upbeat, cheerful, and optimistic in his demeanor and manner, and immediately, it was clear to this scholar, that Biden was his new “hero”. Biden also had the similar “shortcoming” of being overly verbose and long winded at times, but it came across as a human trait that seemed “lovable”. Joe Biden cared about people and causes, in a way very similar to Humphrey, and ever since 1978, he has replaced Humphrey, in the author’s mind, as his favorite political leader.
The fact that both Humphrey and Biden had shortcomings, and were “imperfect” and not always “correct” in their utterances, actions, or votes, did not take away the feeling that there was something special about both. The career of Joe Biden led to his being Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman from 1987-1995, including being in charge of controversial Supreme Court hearings for nominees Robert Bork in 1987 and Clarence Thomas in 1991. Biden also was Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman from 2001-2003 and 2007-2009, and he had to deal with many controversial foreign policy matters, which led to strong criticism and opposition from many, but he became noted for his courage and principles on such issues.
Biden also became acknowledged as someone who could “cross the aisle” and “get things done”, and many Republicans found him to be likeable, having the ability to be bipartisan and able to work with others cooperatively, and respect and pursue compromises that advanced many causes. Biden would go on to serve for six terms in the US Senate, the 18th longest service in that body in American history at this writing. He had been the sixth youngest Senator in American history, and the second youngest since the 17th Amendment established popular vote for the US Senate in 1913.
Biden’s pursuit of the presidency fell flat in 1988 and 2008, and he suffered two brain aneurysms that nearly killed him in 1988, and lost his son Beau in 2015 to cancer. But he always displayed dignity and courage, and his reputation for expertise and legislative skills led Barack Obama to ask him to be his vice president in 2008. Biden became the most active and engaged vice president since Walter Mondale in the late 1970s, and a true “bromance” developed between Obama and Biden. However, when Biden passed on the opportunity to run for president again in 2016, due to his son’s death, it seemed unlikely that he had a future political career after 44 years of public service, more than any president, except John Quincy Adams..
But surprisingly, Biden entered the 2020 presidential race, and even after doing poorly in the Iowa Caucuses and New Hampshire Primary in the winter of 2020, he recovered in South Carolina, and overcame his rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination. He went on, in the most tumultuous political year since 1968, to overcome the most controversial and despised president since Richard Nixon, in the person of Donald Trump.
And now at age 78 and 2 months, Joe Biden will be inaugurated as the oldest president in American history on January 20, 2021, with major challenges unmatched since Abraham Lincoln in 1861 and Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, and in some fashion, more imposing than even those two presidents faced.
This author and scholar is excited, thrilled, and optimistic that Joe Biden will become a national leader of massive significance and historic importance. For many Americans who have underestimated him, one can hope that they will see him as a president who made a difference. This would satisfy, in the mind of this presidential scholar, the sense of loss felt when his first political hero, Hubert Humphrey, failed to defeat Richard Nixon a half century ago!
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