I’ll direct everyone to an excellent op-ed today from Rick Perlstein on the occasion of Hubert Humphrey’s centennial.

One of the ways to understand what an enormous figure Humphrey was is that one could easily write very different remarks on his legacy and still be correct. Perlstein emphasizes the extent to which the nation turned away from Humphrey’s vision in the last thirty years, and that’s one reasonable way to look at it. But one could also think about the extent to which the United States in 2010 is very much Hubert Humphrey’s world. If we think about the major accomplishments of postwar, post-FDR liberalism, you get: fighting and winning the Cold War; ending formal segregation and the acceptability of explicit, public racism; and basically eliminating poverty among older Americans. Humphrey played a central role in each of them. And then the specifics go on and on, from food stamps to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty to the Peace Corps…the Senate page on Humphrey is a good start.

Humphrey’s failure to win the presidency despite multiple attempts, his service as vice-president, and his association with the war in Vietnam all (mostly unfairly) tarnished his reputation, especially with baby boomers; his speaking style was easy to mock, especially once it was associated with losing candidacies. But that same speaking style produced one of the most important speeches in American history — no, I don’t think that’s an exaggeration — his civil rights speech at the 1948 Democratic Convention, which Perlstein rightly mentions. There are, of course, big “historical forces” reasons that the Democrats turned from supporting to opposing racism, but individuals count too, and Humphrey was perhaps the individual who counted the most, from then through the final legislative successes of 1964 and 1965.

Perlstein says that Humphrey is forgotten…I don’t know whether that’s true or not, but it certainly shouldn’t be. Hubert Humphrey was simply one of the most important politicians in American history, and one whose legacy was, as far as I’m concerned, almost entirely a positive one, both in substance and style. In other words, a great man, and a great American.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

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Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.