Originally published June 25, 2016
Poor Hillary. She labors on the first draft of universal health care during her husband’s presidency, provides a generally reliable liberal vote and builds bipartisan bridges in the senate, and becomes a loyal team-player during the Obama administration, enjoying unprecedented public approval and fourteen straight years as the “most admired woman in America.” But now, progressives neither like nor trust her, she could barely vanquish a dotty septuagenarian New York Jew preaching a proletariat revolution, and she has the second-worst favorability rating of any major party candidate for president since they started keeping score (any guesses who has the worst?). So what gives? Why is Hillary “likeable enough” at best? Why are so many Bernie Babies saying they’d rather eat Drano than vote for her?
One common answer is that she’s simply someone who operates better behind the scenes than in front of the camera. She is said to be quite a work-horse, but not much of a show-horse, and it has become increasingly clear that she’s especially flawed as a race-horse. The Toteboard appreciates this argument, to a point, but (as always) finds it far more edifying to look into the past for some parallel that might help better explain the present. In this case, there is really no better example than someone whom many Toteboard readers may not even be old enough to remember: Hubert Horatio Humphrey. Back in the day, Humphrey was once, as Tom Lehrer sang, “a fiery liberal spirit.” As early as 1948, he pushed an anti-segregation plank into the Democratic platform, and spoke memorably about moving the party and country “into the sunshine of human rights.” He was at the forefront of matters such as nuclear disarmament, domestic and international humanitarian aid, and, believe it or not, the Peace Corps (three years before JFK was elected president). Through the 50’s and early 60’s, Humphrey’s lefty bona-fides were as solid as they came.
But by 1972, Hunter Thompson was picturesquely writing that “Hubert will peddle his ass to almost anybody who wants a chunk of it,” and forty years after that, civil rights icon Harry Belafonte recalled Humphrey as a “craven opportunist” who had no compunction about disenfranchising black voters and using his power to silence ideological critics. How did HHH transform from one who could articulate concerns for treatment of those “in the shadows of life” as the “moral test of government,” to a conniving party apparatchik whom progressives could only grudgingly support?
The answer? Ambition.
As is too often the case with political figures, Humphrey’s ideological commitments tangled with his presidential aspirations, and the Faustian deals he cut would forever come back to haunt him. Humphrey had his eye on the White House as early as 1952, when he launched a largely symbolic “favorite son” candidacy in Minnesota. He ran seriously for the office in 1960, but he was no match for the Kennedy charisma, money, and Hollywood connections, and was pretty much drubbed in every primary where the two competed head to head. What’s more, although he and the Kennedys may have been ideological soul-mates, he was basically written off as a Midwestern rube and excluded from their inner circle. At this point, you could feel genuinely sorry for the guy.
And that’s when Humphrey decided that the only way he could ever become president was through the vice-presidency, and he lobbied Lyndon Johnson hard to make him his running mate in 1964. LBJ picked him (over CT senator Thomas Dodd), but at a cost: Hubert was expected to do Johnson’s dirty-work, support publicly a Vietnam war he privately opposed, and even hold his tongue privately if he wanted LBJ’s support for a future presidential run. In for a penny and in for a pound, Humphrey let the machine delegates anoint him in 1968 without entering a single primary, played the cranky and senile uncle when he unsuccessfully mounted delegate credentials challenges to head off George McGovern in 1972, and tried to ooze into the nomination yet again in 1976 when he hoped the party bosses would turn to him during their “anybody but Carter” panic. Humphrey actually returned to the senate in 1970 and worked aggressively for things like full employment legislation, but the left never forgave him.
And that’s Hillary’s problem, or at least one of them. The left can look the other way when a politician makes compromises in the interest of the public good – you don’t see many of them railing today against Bill Clinton for his “third way” centrism when he managed to sign the Family Leave Act and the Brady Bill, or Johnson for twisting arms to push through the Civil Rights Act, or even Lincoln for lying outright to get the thirteenth amendment passed. And they can even live with high profile Democrats like Joe Biden or John Kerry voting to authorize the Iraq war, or the many Dems who have been consistently pro-business, simply because that’s who these people are and they (seemingly) arrived at their positions honestly. But when it looks like Hillary’s Iraq war vote was to maintain presidential viability, when it looks like she benefited financially from her relationship with Wall Street, when you add up all the cattle futures and Whitewaters and Travelgates (the email thing is probably a red herring), and maybe even her marriage to an equally ambitious but morally ambiguous alpha male, it begins to look like her political and personal aspirations may have trumped her ideological commitments, and may even have genuinely clouded her judgment. And that’s when the left becomes very unforgiving.
“There is a passion in the human heart,” Joseph Stefano wrote fifty-odd years ago, “which is called aspiration. It flares with the noble flame, and by its light man has traveled from the caves of darkness to the darkness of outer space. But when this passion becomes lust, when its flame is fanned by greed and private hunger, then aspiration becomes vulgar ambition – by which sin the angels fell.”