In 1952, the college assembly of Gustavus Adolphus College, St Peter, Minnesota, was not favorable to Democrat Senator Hubert Humphrey’s politics. Indeed, Lutherans in Southern Minnesota in that presidential election year carried the epithet of ‘the Republican Party at prayer’. I was president of the Democrat Club (all ten) and asked to read an appropriate scripture lesson for the unenthusiastic…almost hostile…assembly. The student body did not boo or hiss when President Carlson introduced the Senator…but they wanted to. The chill was as heavy as a nor’easter off Lake Superior.
The Senator started with, ‘I want to thank both of you who voted for me in the last election…’ Ice melted and the chill lessened. The ‘Happy Warrior’, as he was kindly and cuttingly known, was immediately in control of the student body. He was humorous and always went over time. This speech would be no different. He finished with his usual punch into the air: ‘Your next shortened class is a gift from the Democrat Party, Buck Emberg, president…see Buck for meeting times’. He nodded encouragement to me with his bright smile dominating his entire face. Enthusiastic applause erupted from the hostiles! A gift from a Democrat!
In the years I knew him, the Senator gave me two lessons I still carry: first, if you are serious about life, make fun of yourself; second, choose your enemies carefully and then make friends of them. Frequently, when driving his election car, Byron and I heard him take on unreceptive, antagonistic crowds, turning them into laughing, yelling supporters. His special Hubert tricks were smiles, humor and self-deprecation. When the fish were hooked he began his real speech and, like the wily fisherman he was, played them to an appropriate crescendo, landed them and then quit; the ‘lunker’ fish was in the canoe. Yes, he was long winded but I never saw him lose a hooked crowd…even in the deeply dozing village of Sleepy Eye.
I do not intend to name-drop, but, seventy years later, it gives me pleasure to say that Hubert Horatio Humphrey was my friend. He was not known as the Happy Warrior because of his negativity. Hubert was also the senior senator from Minnesota and, later, the Vice President of the USA who came within a whisker of being president. He had an amazing ability to remember names, faces and events. I imagine scores of people, like me, also say the same of him: ‘he was my friend’. He was that sort of person.
As the Democrat Club’s president, I drove Hubert’s campaign car. I might add there were no FBI, CIA or Secret Police guarding him, nobody. He loved to wade into a group of antagonistic Republcan farmers, attempting to win a few converts. I letter-boxed for the party, listened to his endless lectures and asked his counsel a number of times. Amazingly, when he became Vice President he did not forget me and answered letters immediately, even when I lived in Canada. His wisdom concerning things political seemed infinite. Hubert died thirty-five years ago and I am still hooked by his communication skills.
I am now an old man in my ninth decade who dreams of former glories and last night I dreamed of Hubert. He was sitting in the red, white and blue election car’s passenger seat, garrulous and noisy as usual. He was singing ‘Joe Hill’. We were heading to the never-ending political rally associated with all politicians. With banners flying, people lined the streets cheering; the farmers stood five deep. The dream village was once more Sleepy Eye…before the Dutch elm disease destroyed the trees. The village, mottled in sun and shade, was a Rockwell painting of small town America. Startled, I awoke and turned on the bed lamp, confused yet pleased with the warm visitation by an old comrade.
Dreams are an endless fascination of mine and I used them as therapy in my former career as a counselor. I know the power of dreams in unlocking deep secrets. Young people tend to have traumatic dreams in which animals, airplanes or people taunted, haunted or pursued. Elderly counselees enjoyed talking about their dreams, which were usually about old loves, old happenings, old dogs, long-gone families and quite often about simple, unfulfilled sex.
Grandfather, an unregenerate political Wobblie, was a conductor for the DM&IR in Proctor, Minnesota. He was devoted to the history of Swedish/Finnish Socialists and especially labor leader Joe Hill. Executed, Joe was a hero. Rocking in his squeaky wicker chair, grandpa often hummed, ‘I dreamed I saw Joe Hill Last night’…and then he became quiet. Hubert, a left wing Democrat, remained intensely loyal to the working class and the Wobblie cause. In my dream, Hubert knew the words of the Robeson ballad well. He sang loudly in his baritone voice. From a room far back in my mind I heard grandpa sing along with Hubert:
‘I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night
Alive as you or me
Said I, but Joe, you’re ten years dead;
I never died said he.
I never died said he.
Where working men are out on strike
Joe Hill is at their side.’
…then the rest of the verses faded into the sun and shade of Sleepy Eye.
The dream was over. I sat in the kitchen, cup of coffee going cold. The second lesson Hubert gave me leapt from my cup! I was in the Rotunda of the Capitol in Washington DC. The year was 1954. I was on a scholarship from university, sponsored by the Senator. The Rotunda has the effect of swallowing all visitors. It is the holiest of holies for any aspiring young American with dreams of politics, and I was certainly one of those.
From the far end of the Rotunda came a loud and familiar voice, “Buck! Floyd! Come over here. I want to introduce you to some of my friends”. It was the distinctive and friendly voice of the Senator. I remember shaking vigorously. Who was I to meet? Standing next to Hubert was his unholy, hated enemy, Everett Dirksen, the right wing Republican Senator from Illinois. They were obviously enjoying each other’s company. Dirksen was a believer in the Taft Hartley Law, passed some years prior after the Democrats lost control of Congress. The law declared it illegal to have a closed shop and union shops were outlawed. The result was a decade of industrial/union strife. The law also gave sweeping new powers to big business, a disaster to my liberal roots; and Dirksen was a strong supporter of that law! Not only that, Dirksen was a friend of the despised Republican Senator Joe McCarthy, who was the opposition to all liberal-minded people.
Then the bomb…Hubert asked Dirksen something like, ‘My house tonight or yours Ev?’ ‘My house Hube and don’t be late’. Gob-smacked was not the word for my reaction. How could Hubert even talk to the Devil Incarnate…the Leader of the Senate Republican Minority? As Dirksen walked away with his entourage, Hubert remarked, ‘Damn fine man that Everett. We get good things done together. Damn fine man.’
It was obvious that these two warhorses chose the time for battle and their differences in politics and government did not get in the way of a productive relationship as well as an abiding friendship. Through the smoke and clouds of their political battles, they learned to see value in each other. I puzzle about how many politicians today have that mental strength. Not enough.
First lesson: make fun of yourself, do not take yourself too seriously and enjoy the moment. Second lesson: work to make your enemy your friend. Amazingly, I have discovered these lessons work, making life more pleasant, even easier. Today’s intensely conflicting world could well take these lessons from the Happy Warrior of the middle twentieth century, Senator Hubert Humphrey.
Editor’s Note: Dr Buck Emberg was born in Duluth, Minnesota and graduated from Gustavus Adolphus College in 1955. He and Joan, have taught and travelled the world and reside in Tasmania, Australia, Joan’s natal home. They are the authors of many folk history books and contribute to newspapers and magazines. Buck’s PhD thesis concerned itself with Australian colonial penology of the middle 19th century.