(Excerpted from James Rogan's 2018 book, On to Chicago: Rediscovering Robert F. Kennedy and the Lost Campaign of 1968)
On March 31, 1968, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey spent the evening in Mexico City trying to focus on the dinner given in his honor at the home of the ambassador to the United States, but through it all he kept one eye on the clock. Twelve hours earlier he was packing for this trip when a sudden commotion outside his Washington apartment caught his attention. He looked out the window and saw a motorcade parked outside. Walking toward the building entrance was the tall, lumbering figure of President Lyndon B. Johnson. Humphrey rushed to open the door; Johnson blew in, greeted Mrs. Humphrey and then asked to meet privately in the bedroom with his vice president.
When they were alone, Johnson told Humphrey that he would deliver a nationally televised speech on the Vietnam War that evening. Johnson then handed Humphrey two sheets of paper with alternative speech endings. Humphrey reviewed the first, which contained two brief paragraphs with Johnson's formal announcement that he would seek re-election in 1968 – an announcement Humphrey (and the rest of America) anticipated. The second possible ending, which declared that Johnson would forgo re-election, left Humphrey speechless. As Humphrey handed back the papers to the president, Johnson said that he had not decided which ending to use, and that Humphrey would have to listen to his speech that night to learn the answer. After swearing Humphrey to secrecy, Johnson returned to the White House; a few minutes later the Humphreys departed on their diplomatic mission.
Later that afternoon, on the flight to Mexico, Humphrey reflected on Johnson's threat to withdraw from re-election. He dismissed it summarily as yet another example of LBJ's famous theatrical streak. With Sen. Robert F. Kennedy's recently announced challenge to Johnson's renomination, anybody who knew the president knew with certainty that he would never surrender the presidency to a man he hated.
In Mexico that night after dinner, Humphrey and the other guests gathered in the ambassador's library to hear Johnson's speech. Pandemonium broke out when, in the last minute of a 40-minute address, and after telling listeners that he wanted to devote all of his efforts to ending the war, Johnson stated firmly, "I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president." Within seconds of this bombshell announcement, scores of reporters seeking comment overloaded the embassy's switchboard, while in the outside lobby the press pool covering the trip pounded on the library door and shouted questions to the official party on the other side: Was Hubert Humphrey now a candidate for president?
Hubert Horatio Humphrey. By 1968 he was perhaps one of the most recognizable political figures in America. As mayor of Minneapolis, Humphrey first won election to the U.S. Senate in 1948 – the same year he caused a walkout of Southern delegates to the Democratic National Convention when he rammed a civil rights plank into the national party platform. As one of the leading liberals in Congress throughout the 1950s and 1960s, he sponsored landmark legislation such as Medicare, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Peace Corps and nuclear disarmament. When President Kennedy signed the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, he gave Humphrey (the man JFK defeated for the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination) the pen as a souvenir and told him, "Hubert, this is your treaty. It had better work." Chosen by Johnson as his 1964 running mate, Humphrey remained a loyal vice president, but by 1968 he felt deeply conflicted between private concerns over Johnson's Vietnam policies and personal loyalty to his mentor.
Now, in Mexico, and despite the warning Humphrey received at his apartment meeting that morning, Johnson's announcement caught him off guard. He delayed making any decision about a second presidential candidacy that night – and for almost a month thereafter. With most primary filing deadlines having expired already, Humphrey understood that the election calendar would force him to bypass that route and seek delegates in the states where selection was governed not by primary voters, but by party elders in caucuses and state conventions. In 1968, only a small percentage of national convention delegates were chosen through the primaries, so a potential late start did not concern him terribly.
During this interval, the public's attention diverted to the Democratic primary states where the two "peace" candidates, Kennedy and Sen. Eugene McCarthy (both of whom entered the race earlier to challenge Johnson for renomination), slugged it out. Humphrey ceded the spotlight to them, gambling that Kennedy had far less organizational support than most imagined, and that the gadfly McCarthy had even less.
It was 50 years ago today, April 27, 1968, that Hubert Humphrey formally entered the presidential race. His announcement received only passing notice, but the media's indifference mattered little. Kennedy and McCarthy might have held the hearts of the party's antiwar wing and the college students, but (with Johnson's grudging acquiescence) Humphrey had the establishment. While Kennedy and McCarthy ramped up their mutual attacks on each other in their quest for the small pockets of primary delegates, a few days after Humphrey's entry, his private poll showed that without contesting a single primary he already had 900 of the 1,312 delegates he needed to win the nomination. By June 5 of that year, the night Kennedy won the California primary and then was cut down by an assassin, Humphrey had enough votes to lock up the nomination.
After losing the presidency to Richard Nixon that November in one of the closest elections in U.S. history, Humphrey left politics briefly after his vice presidential term ended in January 1969. When Eugene McCarthy declined to seek re-election to the Senate the next year, Humphrey jumped into the race to succeed him and won the seat.
Returning to Washington and itching for a rematch against Nixon, Humphrey ran for the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination, but lost out to Sen. George McGovern. (Stories of my many boyhood meetings with HHH, and with scores of other notables, are in my third book, "And Then I Met … Stories of Growing Up, Meeting Famous People, and Annoying the Hell Out of Them," available at the WND Superstore).
Re-elected to the Senate in 1976, doctors diagnosed Humphrey late that year with terminal cancer. He fought the disease bravely while maintaining his Senate duties until death claimed him at age 66 on Jan. 13, 1978.
A passion for justice, an unfailing love of country and an infectious optimism earned Humphrey the sobriquet for which he was known in life, and which still conjures his memory 50 years after his greatest quest: The Happy Warrior.