‘Greatest president we never had’

“How do you ‘do justice?’ How do you balance idealism with pragmatism?” asked James Traub, elucidating a key theme of his latest book, “True Believer: Hubert Humphrey’s Quest for a More Just America.”

Traub, a journalist, professor at NYU Abu Dhabi and Sharon resident, will be speaking about the book at the Hotchkiss Library of Sharon on Sunday, March 10 at 4 p.m.

“True Believer” follows Humphrey, a pharmacist’s son with more hours in the day than Beyoncé, from his idyllic childhood in Doland, South Dakota, through his remarkable political career as chairman of the liberal, anti-communist Americans for Democratic Action (expunger of the Communist elements in Minnesota’s Democratic and labor machines), Mayor of Minneapolis (destroyer of organized crime and obstructer of government corruption), Senator for Minnesota (champion of labor and liberalism,, anti-communism, Soviet containment, foreign aid, nuclear nonproliferation and civil rights), Vice President to Lyndon Johnson (enforcer of the Civil Rights Act and, distressingly, a mouthpiece for Johnson’s position in Vietnam), presidential candidate for the United States. In his last decade Humphrey served as a Democratic “elder statesman” — a powerful advocate for disarmament, foreign aid, civil rights, employment opportunity, housing opportunity, “law and order and justice,” people with disabilities, the aging, for labor, and pretty much everyone else).

“The question I always begin with is, why should anybody who didn’t live through that moment read this book?” said Traub, a journalist who has written eight books, on affairs foreign and domestic, as well as writing for The New Yorker, The New York Times, Foreign Affairs and others, and authors his own ominously-titled Substack, “A Democracy, If You Can Keep It.”

“[Humphrey’s] brand of pragmatic, incremental, melioristic idealism is really important,” said Traub. “Biden, too, is a meliorist who is blamed for timidity on the left—he too suffers from the sense among so many progressives that he’s failed their high hopes,” as Humphrey did. “So those lessons, to me, are both perennial and particularly relevant to our moment.”

Humphrey was an idealist, but he was also a legislator, a statesman in a sense that seems almost archaic today. In the name of progress, he encouraged his colleagues not just to accept “half a loaf,” but, at times, to content themselves with crumbs. He believed that incremental change could lead to real change, and during his lifetime, that was true.

Reading True Believer as a millennial, I was also fascinated by another central theme of Humphrey’s story: the role that race has played in the undoing of the American liberal consensus, which governed the country’s politics from FDR’s election in 1932, through Dwight Eisenhower’s Republican administration, until the “law and order” election of Richard Nixon in 1968.

According to Traub, it was Humphrey who succeeded in making Civil Rights a central tenet of the Democratic Party in 1948, and who, after a solid two decades of arm-twisting, politicking, speechifying and, above all, talking — more or less nonstop — finally succeeded in passing the Civil Rights Act in 1964. This month marks the sixtieth anniversary of the introduction of the watershed legislation.

The Civil Rights Act, “perhaps the most important piece of legislation” to come out of the 20th century, said Traub, “was both the apogee” of the nation’s liberal ideal and, in a sense, its undoing: Once Black Americans had been legally elevated to equal footing with their white compatriots, white labor began to vote conservative for the first time in the country’s history.

“Anybody who writes about history sees profound patterns in human life and in human society, which are constantly recurring,” said Traub. “If you’re thinking about the nature of power, and how certain people wind up in power, that’s a perennial question.”

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