[This post recalls a personal experience of the visit of a presidential candidate fifty years ago this week. It is meant to remember a Youngstown event at which I was present, not to invite a political discussion. Please refrain from political comments and debates.]
I cannot identify myself in this picture, but I was in this crowd. It was Thursday, April 27, 1972. Hubert H. Humphrey was in the thick of a primary campaign for the presidency running against Edmund Muskie, who withdrew from the campaign that day, and a field of other Democrats that included George McGovern, Alabama governor George Wallace, Washington Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, and Representative Shirley Chisolm, from New York. They were running for the nomination to oppose Richard Nixon, running for his second term. Humphrey had lost to Nixon in 1968, after the disastrous Democrat National Convention in Chicago.
In a few months, I would be old enough to register for the draft and vote in my first election. It was the spring of my senior year, and so the chance to get out of class, out of the building, and to hear someone I might be voting for was a draw. It was for roughly 1400 of us out of a crowd of 2000 who watched as Humphrey landed by helicopter and then mounted a truck bed that served as his speaker platform.
Principal John Maluso, who passed just this year (2022), welcomed him. Then a classmate, John Jovich, chairman of the Chaney Political Speakers Bureau, introduced him. After fifty years, I do not remember what Humphrey said and so am relying on the Vindicator account said.
He began by a promise designed to win our hearts, to create a cabinet level department of youth affairs. His argument was that “if they are old enough to vote and to serve in the armed forces they are mature enough to hold positions of responsibility.” Remember this was just two years after Kent State and all the demonstrations against the war in Vietnam.
He argued for releasing funds for a number of government projects that would create jobs and finance education. He argued that if we rebuilt Europe in World War II, we ought to rebuild America’s cities, as he helped to do in Minneapolis. Like almost every candidate ever, he argued for tax reform. Perhaps more controversial for the time, he favored amnesty for “draft dodgers” who fled to Canada, in exchange for some form of Peace Corps-like service to the country. While he opposed legalization of marijuana, he favored decriminalizing its use (yes, people argued this in 1972). He contended that President Nixon had not gone far enough in withdrawing from Vietnam.
Humphrey was just coming off a primary victory in Pennsylvania and would go on to win the primary election in Ohio, and actually won more votes in the primaries than Senator McGovern, but McGovern carried the key state of California in a closely contested election to win the nomination. As it turned out, he wouldn’t be running for a second time against Richard Nixon, who won the general election in 1972 only to resign office in 1974.
Still, I am glad I got to see him. He rose from mayor of Minneapolis to the U.S. Senate in 1948, running on a civil rights platform when this was extremely unpopular. He actually was the first to propose legislation to create the Peace Corps in 1957, later accomplished by President Kennedy, and he led the effort to pass the Civil Rights Act in 1964 before becoming Lyndon Johnson’s Vice President. His close association with Johnson’s unpopularity over Vietnam hurt his own political chances. Having failed in his first presidential bid, he returned to the Senate in 1971 where he held his seat until his death in 1978.
He was respected by political leaders of both parties and honored in death by former presidents Nixon and Ford, as well as President Carter. He was described as “a happy warrior” who fought for what he believed, but not with vitriol but with a smile. Bill Moyers wrote this of him, based on an interview with him in 1976:
He was called “The Happy Warrior” because he loved politics and because of his natural ebullience and resiliency. I asked him: “Some people say you’re too happy and that this is not a happy world.” He replied: “Well, maybe I can make it a little more happy…I realize and sense the realities of the world in which we live. I’m not at all happy about what I see in the nuclear arms race…and the machinations of the Soviets or the Chinese…the misery that’s in our cities. I’m aware of all that. But I do not believe that people will respond to do better if they are constantly approached by a negative attitude. People have to believe that they can do better. They’ve got to know that there’s somebody that’s with them that wants to help and work with them, and somebody that hasn’t tossed in the towel. I don’t believe in defeat, Bill.”
This is the man I saw on a truck bed in back of my high school four years earlier. He is rarely mentioned today and yet he defines for me the ideal of public service in public office. I’m glad I was there.
To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!