Pep-Non-Babbitt Style

The Cause is Mankind by Hubert Humphrey. Praeger, $4.95.

As a liberal, I won't challenge the liberal consensus: Hubert Humphrey is different. Unlike Johnson today and Kennedy in 1960, Humphrey is not simply the lesser of two evils. He is a positive good, the best candidate since Adlai--no, better than Adlai, because he can talk to folks without the crutch of irony. He fights harder than Wayne Morse, yet smiles. He dreams bigger than Chester Bowles, yet does his homework. He is a male Eleanor Roosevelt.

Unfortunately, he recently fell prey to a spreading political malaise and wrote a book--or rather, a campaign potboiler, entitled The Cause is Mankind. Humphrey didn't actually write this book; he talked it, dictating during lulls in the Senate's civil rights debate. The short, ringing sentences burst out awkwardly at the reader like applause lines from an extemporaneous address.

The Senator races breathlessly through his 171-page narrative, treating every possible political topic--from foreign aid to mental health--and capping each rhetorical flourish with a crescendo of statistics: "Exports now account for 4 per cent of our gross national product. The six countries of the European Common Market export 12 per cent of theirs--three times our rate. Other countries do better." Rarely does he stop to elaborate the data, to consider for example the obvious fact that not all countries need export the same percentage of their output.

Why this haste? Part of the explanation lies in the circumstances surrounding the writing of the book: Humphrey was busy. Yet, much of the book's ebullient and cluttered catholicity stems directly from the nature of Humphrey's liberalism. A football coach of a politician, constantly exhorting and rallying and cheering, the Senator has little time for analytic ponderings. He conceives the political world as a bundle of pressing problems, not as a sheet of graph paper to be inscribed with this or that ideological pattern.

The Minnesota Senator well realizes, and doesn't regret, the haziness of his ideology: "(Liberalism) ... is basically an attitude toward life rather than a dogma--characterized by a warm heart, an open mind, and willing hands." He speaks of compassion far more than justice; he stresses understanding and deprecates revenge. Dramatically different from the leftist radicalism of the '30's and the civil rights militance of the 60's, his is the "soft" liberalism of the 40's--a liberalism which fades rather easily into paternalism.


Humphrey's modesty and jocular self-criticism usually divert him from this pitfall, but occasionally his language does wax overly solicitous. For example, in the section on labor, he defends unions by citing their anti-communism and by noting that they have provided a cozy sense of belonging for millions of poor immigrants. The chapter studiously avoids discussion of income distribution or economic justice.

To the Senator government is not a holy crusade, but a vehicle which "smooths the way for new men and new ideas." He defends all the liberal tenets--from foreign aid to equal rights--by illustrating the salutary effect they would have on the nation's capital growth. Certainly there is moralism in his politics, but there is also a large dose of boosterism. Where Sinclair Lewis' Babbitt deprecated the poor for their lack of "pep," Humphrey says he wants to inject the talents of the poor into the economy as a shot of "pep--non-Babbitt style."

Humphreyism, and modern liberalism generally, has been attacked from three distinct directions: the political right, the political left, and the "aesthetic" left. Some of the criticisms leveled are far from superficial, but the Senator's short book offers only superficial, replies.

The right-wing critique, shorn of its Goldwaterite absurdities, takes issue with none of Humphrey's compassion but very definitely with his propensity for converting compassion into instant action. Humphrey's book virtually oscillates between sighs of concern and ambitious plans for new Federal commissions, and one needn't embrace reaction to question the wisdom of this congested flow of proposals.

The left-wing political critique of Humphreyism is concisely expressed in Wealth and Power in America by Gabriel Kolko, a radical who challenges all the liberal assumptions. Humphrey extols our "democratic economy," the increasing equalization of incomes, and the dissolution of corporate monopolies. In reply Kolko offers a welter of charts and figures, concluding that the income tax has done little equalizing, that a very few men still control most of the corporate structure, and that things are getting worse, not better. The implication of the Kolko argument is clear: this is hardly the time for Senator Humphrey to court businessmen and propose feeble study commissions.

Liberalism also draws salvos from the "aesthetic" left, whose self-appointed leader, Norman Mailer, summed up the critique in his Presidential Papers of last year. Mailer vents his spleen more on the language than the content of liberalism. Claiming to "understand" the poor, he resents liberals who classify the underprivileged as "problems:" "These are people, not quandaries, and they're hep enough to hate the big cement housing projects that 'tolerant' progressives build so proudly." Compassionate and sincere, Humphrey may be; hep, he is not. Where Mailer calls for an artist-politician, sensitive to the people's "existential" needs, Humphrey's words suggest the enthusiasm of a Rotarian recently converted to the mystique of social engineering: "We must utilize our educational system to feed more brainpower into the machinery of American foreign policy."

Obviously it is very easy to attack our Vice-President-to-be, from nearly any political direction. Still, I doubt that any of his critics, from Miller to Mailer, will ever strike a really telling blow. Humphrey may disdain the President's art of dodging partisan thrusts, but he does know how to stand still, absorb them, and learn from them, growing sager and more maddeningly lovable all the while.

In time, I trust, he will even outgrow the compulsion to write books.