So Close, But Yet So Far
I wonder how many people today remember Hubert Humphrey? I was forced to consider how people are remembered today, and for what, by a rather fabulous documentary film called 'Primary.'
Humphrey twice ran for President (1960 and 1968), and was Vice President for four years inbetween. In 1960, the year of 'Primary', Humphrey failed to win the Democrat party nomination for President, losing out to JFK, which is what is detailed in Robert Drew's documentary.
It is a strange film, an unbiased record of the two Democratic contenders on the campaign trail in Wisconsin. We follow them as they travel around the state, talking to supporters, and even (as they did in those days) petitioning for support in the street. The two candidates were a contrast between the modern and the old-fashioned, Kennedy greeting hordes of fans (ready prepared with campaign song 'High Hopes'), bare-headed and comfortable in front of a television camera, while Humphrey gave many stump speeches to small groups of people, and answered questions on the radio while wearing his rather dashing trilby.
What struck me most was how the film managed to be fair-handed and non-partisan in a way that no documentary maker could hope to do now. Certainly, Kennedy is better received, and speaks to louder crowds, but Humphrey is shown to have more of the personal touch. The really astounding thing is, I actually liked them. Obviously, I wasn't alive at the time, and frankly had little idea about Kennedy and had never heard of Humphrey. Still, I'm a man of my time, and that time being the Britain we live in today, I obviously feel a deep loathing towards all politicians. I can't honestly say that I've ever felt any of them deserve more than failure.
So I looked into the life of Mr Humphrey, who had particularly won me over with his avuncular fashion, sharp dress sense and endearingly hopeless campaign song (imagine a rather earnest version of 'Humpty Dumpty'), and guess what? The bloke was a really good politician, who actually did some good in the world. In 1945 he became the Mayor of Minneapolis, and promptly set about fighting racism. He reformed the police force, and after just three years as Mayor, Minneapolis was no longer known as the anti-seimitism capital of America, and the racism faced by its African American community was lessened. Humphrey was behind the drive to put a civil rights plank in the Democrat national platform, which in 1948 accommodated racial discrimination in the South under the name of 'states' rights', famously declaring:
"To those who say that this civil rights program is an infringement on states' rights, I say this, that the time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadows of states' rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights."
He was elected to the Senate, and subsequently re-elected twice, fighting for civil rights and humanitarian aid for other nations during his time in office. 'Primary' also shows that the man was pretty much incapable of nastiness - his only attempt at going on the attck is to tell a small meeting of dairy farmers that the editorial boards at 'Time' and 'Newsweek' magazines are laughing at them, but that said people 'couldn't tell the difference between a corn-cob and a eukelele' - and that he was on good terms with his 'friend' Kennedy, an interesting contrast between recent Democrat primary opponents John Kerry and John Edwards, who looked to me as if they were always hoping the other would drop dead.
Of course, everyone does things wrong. Humphrey was wrongly supportive of the Vietnam War, and who can say that was right? Still, I've decided I quite like the man. Therefore, today's question is; why is it that just forty years ago politicians were genuinely connected with the voters, were willing to meet them, and talk to them, while today they are so distant, and consequently reviled? Whose fault is that - the politicians', the media, or, just possibly, is it us?
Ah, if only he'd had a better campaign song . . .