In 1968, Vice President Hubert Humphrey lost the presidency to Richard Nixon in one of the closest elections in American history. Regardless of party, he was one of the most accomplished legislators and political leaders of the twentieth century. And, having met him too many times to count when I was a kid, he was one of the nicest men I have ever encountered.
He died 40 years ago today, January 13, 1978.
In my book, And Then I Met...Stories of Growing Up, Meeting Famous People, and Annoying the Hell Out of Them, I recounted my first meeting with "The Happy Warrior." This is an excerpt from that book:
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In 1960s and 1970s San Francisco, newsman Jim Dunbar's AM Show on station KGO was a staple of local morning television. From 6:30 to 8:30 a.m., Dunbar hosted a live call-in program with newsmakers. While watching the station one Saturday in 1971, I heard an announcement that Senator Hubert H. Humphrey (D-MN) one of the most recognizable political titans of that generation, would appear with Dunbar the following Monday morning. I called my classmates and fellow political junkies Dan Swanson and Roger Mahan. Together we concocted a plan to cut eighth grade classes and try to meet Humphrey when he arrived at the studio.
Writing this story five decades later, I am mindful that with each passing year Hubert Humphrey's name registers with fewer people. That was not true when I was young. A Washington heavyweight for decades, the former pharmacist and Minneapolis mayor first won election to the U.S. Senate in 1948. He ran unsuccessfully against John F. Kennedy for the 1960 Democrat presidential nomination, but four years later President Lyndon Johnson tapped him as his running mate. As the 1968 Democrat presidential nominee, Humphrey lost the White House to Richard Nixon by a whisker. After recapturing his old Senate seat two years later, and with the 1972 presidential campaign around the corner, he itched for a rematch with the Republican president.
Humphrey was more than a politician to me. He was an early inspiration. As a fifth grade boy during his 1968 presidential run, I read a Life magazine profile on him. It told of his experience as a young Midwestern pharmacist making his first visit to 1930s Washington and the newfound passion for politics he found there. One night, after an exhilarating tour of the monuments, he rushed off an excited letter to his fiancée back home. After pleading with her not to laugh at him, he wrote that if he applied himself then maybe he could return one day as a congressman. She didn't laugh, they married, and along the way he helped shape almost every landmark law of his era. That magazine profile on HHH showed me that if an ordinary Midwestern druggist could accomplish such great things through politics, then maybe one day I could do the same. Once I connected those dots, I set my compass.
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Well before daybreak that Monday morning, Dan, Roger, and I caught the trolley to downtown San Francisco. To get to KGO, we walked many long blocks down dark streets while passing hobos sleeping in doorways and winos urinating in the gutter. It was a spooky journey for three boys, but we arrived safely. A friendly studio doorman told us that if we waited by the front entrance we would encounter the senator coming into the building.
Whenever I saw television coverage of famous political leaders making public appearances, they always had Secret Service, police motorcycle escorts, and photographers wedged between them and their throngs of fans. Expecting this setting for Humphrey's arrival, I assumed that every distant siren signaled their approaching motorcade. I watched for him while I studied people riding in every passing car. Thankfully, I was ready when a plain sedan double-parked in front of the studio and dropped off its passenger. I raised my camera and snapped a picture of Humphrey as he stepped unescorted from the car.
He bounded toward us with a broad smile and a friendly greeting. While signing autographs, he showed a genuine and unhurried interest in each us. He asked our names and he wanted to know where we came from. When Dan told him that we lived and went to school in nearby Daly City, Humphrey chuckled, "Daly City—that sounds like Chicago!" [A reference to Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley.]
When he heard that we liked politics, he beamed with enthusiasm. While the KGO doorman tried to hurry him along, he stood on the sidewalk and spoke of his love of public service. He encouraged us to work hard in school, and he expressed the hope that we would one day join him in Washington. He wished us luck, waved goodbye, and then he headed inside the studio.
Here was my first political hero in the flesh—a man who almost became president—now encouraging me to keep up my interest in government. He left me so tongue-tied that I could only mumble thanks. I don't think I had a bigger thrill as a boy. Half a century later, the memory of that excitement remains undiminished.
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Back at our junior high school Advanced Government class, our chutzpah in meeting Humphrey became the stuff of classroom legend. It so impressed our teacher Mr. Lasley that he ran interference with the principal to help clear our unexcused truancy.
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Over the next few years, Dan, Roger, and I became regular fixtures outside KGO. Whenever newsman Jim Dunbar scheduled an interview with any national political figure, we rode the predawn trolley into town, ran the gauntlet of street derelicts, and waited outside to get autographs, take pictures, and seek advice on politics. Thanks to the studio staff, we met many notables making their way through San Francisco in the early to mid-1970s. We became so familiar to Dunbar and his crew that they sometimes let us watch his interviews from inside the control booth.
Each visit there proved memorable, and making these connections with famous leaders at an early age taught me an important lesson beyond autograph collecting. In sizing up so many of them personally, I developed the confidence that someday—someday—I could do this, too.