Two American political giants of the mid-20th century were among the 12 U.S. vice presidents I have heard deliver speeches.
Neither achieved the nation’s highest office, but Hubert H. Humphrey and Nelson A. Rockefeller accomplished much in their lifetimes.
Dubbed “The Happy Warrior,” by his Senate colleagues, Humphrey served as the 38th vice president of the United States from 1965 to 1969, under President Lyndon B. Johnson. He represented Minnesota in the U.S. Senate from 1949-65 and 1971-78.
Humphrey was an unsuccessful candidate for president in 1960, losing the Democratic nomination to John F. Kennedy. In 1968, Humphrey won the Democratic nod after a bruising convention, and narrowly lost the White House to Republican Richard M. Nixon. Humphrey tried again in 1972, but his party chose Sen. George McGovern, D-South Dakota, as its standard bearer.
Meeting ‘The Happy Warrior’
In 1976, Humphrey again was considered one of the leading contenders for the Democratic nomination for president. Although he wasn’t actively seeking it, there was a push within the party to draft him. He was the principal speaker at the Indiana Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner in Indianapolis on April 10, 1976. I secured a press pass for the event.
It was a jovial gathering — Democrats were smelling victory in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal — and Humphrey was at his best, reveling in the attention of the more than 1,000 dinner guests. To the dismay of some of the bigwigs at the head table, after dinner several of us walked up to Humphrey, asking him to sign our programs. (I still have that souvenir.) He was gracious and flashed that famous smile, chatting with each of us as he gave us his signature.
In reviewing the speech he gave that night, I was struck by how Humphrey seemed to be ahead of his time. Among the agenda items in his speech were a national health care system, better ways to finance quality education, a fairer tax system and protection for the environment.
“If we believe in the right of every American to a full life, then we need a national health care system that provides quality health services for all at the lowest possible cost,” he said.
“If we believe in the right of all Americans to pursue excellence, we must support efforts to improve the quality of education and the way it is financed.
“If we believe in fair play, then we must have a tax program that eliminates the glaring tax loopholes that make it possible for the super-rich and the giant corporations to pay little or nothing while the middle-income taxpayer bears the major burden of government expenditures.
“If we want to improve the quality of life for all Americans, then we must protect our environment and conserve our resources.
“If we believe in an expanding economy, then we must have an energy program that assures America of energy resources for decades to come. And, most important, we must have national leadership that works with compassion and understanding and is clearly ‘of, by and for the people.’”
Humphrey didn’t live to fulfill all those dreams. Four months after that speech in Indianapolis, he announced he was suffering from terminal bladder cancer. He died on Jan. 13, 1978, at the age of 66.
Humphrey’s legacy included civil rights, Medicare, the Wilderness Act, the Peace Corps, the Food for Peace program and arms control.
‘Rocky’ backed Gerald Ford
Nelson A. Rockefeller, grandson of billionaire John D. Rockefeller, served as governor of New York from 1959 to 1973.
After unsuccessfully seeking the Republican presidential nomination in 1960, 1964, and 1968, Rockefeller was appointed vice president under President Gerald R. Ford, who came to the presidency following the resignation of President Nixon in August 1974.
I attended the 1976 Republican National Convention in Kansas City and heard Rockefeller address the convention in support of his boss, Ford, who was in a tight race for the presidential nomination against former California Gov. Ronald Reagan.
“The American people do not understand or appreciate the contributions of President Ford and his administration to this nation and the world,” Rockefeller said. “Jerry Ford took the presidency in the worst constitutional crisis this country’s had since the Civil War. By calm, deliberate and open actions and by shear guts, he kept this nation from being torn apart at the seams.
“And if it took a football player who played center without a helmet to pull us through, I say thank God we had him to lead the team,” he said.
A battle on the convention floor
My other memory of Rockefeller at the convention was a fracas I witnessed on the convention floor between the vice president and a rabid Reagan delegate from North Carolina.
Rockefeller was seated with the California delegation when the delegate waved a Reagan sign in his face. Rockefeller grabbed the sign, folded it and put it under his chair. The incident got heated and in retaliation, the North Carolina delegate ripped out the California delegation’s lone telephone (which served as the only communication to the podium). The Secret Service got involved and held the man for an hour before allowing him to return to the floor.
Rockefeller died Jan 26, 1979, of a heart attack at the age of 70. His legacy includes university campuses, affordable housing, grand state building complexes in New York and other philanthropy.
Over the years, I’ve heard speeches by 10 other vice presidents: Spiro Agnew, Gerald Ford, Walter Mondale, George H.W. Bush, Dan Quayle, Al Gore, Dick Cheney, Joe Biden, Mike Pence and Kamala Harris.
Quayle was surprise pick
The biggest surprise I had in 20 national political conventions I attended was in August 1988 when Republican presidential nominee George H.W. Bush picked junior Indiana Sen. Dan Quayle as his running mate. My wife and I flew on the same plane to New Orleans with senior Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar.
Lugar invited me to sit with him on the plane so I could interview him. Lugar, who had a similar experience as Quayle (being on the short list of vice presidential picks in 1980), said Quayle should enjoy the media attention while it lasts. “As soon as they make the announcement, the media will flee,” Lugar said, never considering that Quayle had a chance to be selected as the vice presidential nominee.
I remember Quayle’s deer-in-the-headlights look when he attended a private reception with the Hoosier delegation the next day after the stunning announcement.
I also attended the first press conference with Bush and Quayle in a room with several hundred members of the national press at a New Orleans hotel. After it was over, I thought Quayle had done well. But all the national reporters around me complained loudly how poorly Quayle had performed. It was then I realized he was in for a rough ride.
Quayle got the last laugh, winning the vice presidency with the Bush ticket. But the duo lost their bid for re-election four years later to Bill Clinton and Al Gore.
Quayle’s political career went nowhere after his defeat in 1992. He moved to Arizona in 1996 and had a brief run for the presidency in 2000, but fared poorly in the polls and he ultimately endorsed George W. Bush.
The outlook for the political future of the current Hoosier vice president, Mike Pence, is uncertain. He remains in the shadow of his outgoing boss, Donald Trump. (I first met Pence when he was running for Congress 20 years ago.)
Elected governor in 2012, Pence got his start in talk radio and might remain viable politically by returning to that medium. On the radio in Indiana, he called himself “Rush Limbaugh on decaf.” He could make a bid for a second term as governor in 2024, but today his future is murky.