You are now entering the Jewish Currents archive.

The Last Resort: Hubert Humphrey’s Shadow

Al Vorspan
July 10, 2016

by Al Vorspan

humphrey-speech-14-july-1948THE OTHER DAY I got a telephone call from an ambassador. It was David Saperstein, now a U.S. Ambassador at Large for Religious Liberty. David is a wonderful guy whom I mentored when I was the Director of Social Action for the Reform Jewish movement, and I hired him and watched him develop into one of the most respected social-justice figures in Washington, DC. As the head of our Religious Action Center, David had helped put together the coalition of conscience that helped to achieve miracles in civil rights and equal justice.

He was calling now to ask a small favor. A reporter for the New York Times was doing an article about the late Senator Hubert Humphrey (D-MN), and David had sicced him on me because I grew up in St. Paul and heard Humphrey lecture at the University of Minnesota in the 1940s and was inspired by his courageous civil- rights speech at the 1948 Democratic convention.

I had a memorable encounter with Humphrey earlier that year, when he had just emerged into national attention. I was a young eager beaver, just married, a naval veteran of World War II, trying to paste together a few small public relations assignments to make ends meet. One such was to go to Atlantic City, then a thriving and exciting outpost, to locate this freshly-minted Minnesota senator, who was arriving by train to address a Jewish convention, and wangle an interview for a small Jewish journal.

When the train pulled in and passengers swarmed off the train, I ran up and down the platform with mounting desperation, looking for the senator. Suddenly, a man nearby yelled Senator, Senator! and I heaved a sigh of relief as this fresh-faced and vigorous man with a briefcase rushed into a big black limousine. My prey was here — and about to be ambushed! I pounded on the car window. The man looked at me and shrugged. Defeat and failure unfolded before my eyes. Then the driver of the limousine stuck his head out and shouted Senator, Senator, last call for the Senator Hotel!

Moments later, I spotted a smiling man meandering on the platform, carrying a briefcase. It was Senator Humphrey, friendly and delighted to meet somebody from the Gopher State. He was waiting for a cab: Would I like to ride along so we could chat?

DURING MY CAREER of forty years in social-justice work, Humphrey was an important person in my life, playing a mixed role, sometimes as friend, sometimes as opponent. As senator, he was a cordial friend and adviser to me and especially to the Religious Action Center, the agency I helped to create in Washington that became the site where the landmark civil rights legislation was drafted. Both Humphrey and Walter Mondale, his successor in the Senate, maintained close relationships with the Jewish communities of Minnesota. One of my rabbi friends tells the story of officiating at a Jewish wedding and finding at the last moment that he had forgotten his kippah. Not to worry, said Senator Humphrey, whipping his own kippah out of his pocket.

The love affair between Humphrey and the Jews only intensified when he became vice-president to Lyndon Johnson and helped to fight the seemingly historic War on Poverty. But then the escalating war in Vietnam, begun under Kennedy, began to suck the oxygen out of the air of American politics. I was among the first to get disillusioned, sickened by the posturing and the lying and the dying, and, like a growing multitude of Americans, I turned against the war and its sponsors.

I worked vigorously to persuade my organization to oppose the war, and after months of stormy controversy, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations did become one of the few Jewish organizations willing to defy the fury of the Johnson Administration — and the cajoling of the Israelis. My wife and I and our four kids marched through tear gas in D.C., lobbied, and prayed for an end to the war. Indeed, I was so invested in ending the war that I took a leave of absence from my job and a novice in electoral politics, plunged into a race in the Fifth Congressional District of Long Island as an anti-war candidate.

I was beaten in the primary contest by a popular maverick, Allard Lowenstein, who was widely credited as the individual who brought down Johnson and his war. More than anybody, Lowenstein had galvanized college campuses and stirred young voters to action. The fact that he was a carpetbagger who moved into my Long Island district to win a seat in Congress meant little to voters consumed with rage about the war and agog over the national celebrity who was eager to represent them.

During the campaign, with Senator Eugene McCarthy (D-WI) dogging him as the anti-war candidate in the primary season, Johnson made the surprise announcement that he would not seek reelection. I broke down in tears of relief and thanksgiving: LBJ would step aside and his vice-president, Hubert Humphrey, would be the Democratic standard-bearer. Almost immediately, however, Humphrey came under withering assault from anti-war Democrats: Why had he not broken with Johnson’s policies? Where was his conscience? How could we support this sell-out, this clone, this coward?

This fury overtook the last days of my campaign. A group of my supporters, including neighbors and close friends, came to see me to deliver an ultimatum: Repudiate Humphrey, or, sadly, we will not be able to vote for you.

Incredulous, I said: Wait. The choice is down to Humphrey vs. Nixon. Are you saying there is no difference?

Exactly, they replied. They are equally evil. No moral difference, two rotten apples, and in good conscience we cannot vote for you unless you denounce both.

I refused their demand and I lost the election. I would have lost anyway, but long after I got over the defeat and watched the corrupt and ruthless President Richard Nixon seek to organize a coup against the Constitution of the U.S.A., I remembered my self-righteous friends who had helped usher this man into the White House.

I tell this story not to win sympathy or to claim wisdom, but as a dire warning to my fellow liberals who today believe there to be no real difference between Clinton and Trump . . .

Albert Vorspan is the senior vice-president emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism and former director of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism. He was integral in the establishment of the Religious Action Center in Washington, DC. He is the author of several books on Judaism and social justice, as well as a numbe rof books of Jewish humor published by Doubleday. He has written for the op-ed page of the New York Times and the New York Times Magazine, as well as Time, Moment, Reform Judaism, and many other periodicals. During World War II, he served in the Navy as a gunnery officer on a destroyer escort in the Pacific. In 1984, he received the Allard Lowenstein Memorial Award of the American Jewish Congress; in 1987, he was honored with the Maurice N. Eisendrath Bearer of Light Award by the Reform synagogue movement.