Humphrey ’68 DNC Nomination Acceptance Speech Reaction

You’ll see this alluded to in future political posts, but I personally am not a fan of Hubert Humphrey. I’m sure he was a noble civil servant and a nice guy in real life. I just find him to be a bad orator and his public persona strikes me as very pompous and hallow. Between running for President like 5 times and helping to sabotage my hero, George McGovern in ’72, I see him as like the Hillary Clinton of the Democratic Party’s previous generation. Someone should have told him “Dude, it’s not gonna happen. Let it go already.”

Not that it’s super important, but I dislike the way Humphrey accepts right away. Personally, I think that it’s important to build up to that moment in your speech. It’s the one sentence everyone is expecting you to say, and when you do so immediately it lets all the anticipation escape the room prematurely rather than build to an effective crescendo.

“Quietly and silently” is a great example of Humphrey’s terrible rhetoric. Like, dude, if both words mean essentially the same thing…just pick one goddamnit. I know I’m guilty of the same thing on occasion, especially in rough drafts, but that’s why I’m not a highly paid script writer isn’t it?

To the best of my recollection, this is one of only two times a Democrat ever stooped to quoting the Bible in their nomination speech, and unlike JFK, this feels a lot more unnecessary. Personally I don’t care if Humphrey or anyone else is religious, I just think mixing religion and politics together is very inappropriate and alienating. This applies whether it be a religious discrimination law, “in god we trust” on our money or a quote in a speech. Not everyone is a Christian and not every Christian feels government should be guided by religious principles.

“Testing…testing…give our testament” is another lovely Humphreyism. Here’s some more laughably bad examples in the speech:

Using “challenge” two sentences in a row.
“something new…something different”
“issues” twice in two sentences
“debate” twice in two sentences
“debate, discussion and dissent”
“great, good gentle”
“grief-stricken nation when our leader was stricken”
“when the hopeless find hope they seek better hope”
Using “open” three times in four sentences.

Ten minutes in and not a single word of substance has been said. Just empty platitudes and summarizing the democratic process of the DNC. Nothing whatsoever about Humphrey himself, his platform, nothing of RFK’s work or death, or Eugene McCarthy and his supporters bravely challenging a sitting president of their own party to fight for a cause they believe in. The first two are kinda essential in a convention speech to introduce yourself to the voters, the final two would make for some great emotional appeals and perhaps bring some disaffected anti-war progressives on board.

I will say I like the quotes from FDR, Truman, Stevenson, JFK and LBJ at least. That felt like a really powerful examination of the party’s history up to that point, something I’ve never seen in any other convention speech. Besides McGovern quoting Yates, I’ve never seen a poet quoted in a speech either, until I saw Humphrey quote Thomas Wolf. So I will give credit where it’s due for these rhetorical devices.

There’s this weird “ta-da!” musical cue that comes on at certain applause lines. It feels so corny and unnecessary. At one point the speech even pauses for half a minute while this random little musical interlude starts to play. It’s one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever seen in a convention speech. It’s not a holdover from a bygone era in politics because none of the 50’s or 40’s speeches did this. Nobody afterwards has utilized this either, and for good reason. It’s just this lone misguided experiment that reduces an already bad speech to self-parody.

The line about the call for freedom in Vietnam and how Humphrey intends to answer it must have felt like a slap in the face to McCarthy/RFK supporters. Humphrey also says that he hopes voters will see the differences between himself and Nixon, yet nowhere in the speech does he say enough about himself or his ideas to even give us something to judge by. You’d think a line like this would be a lead in to talking about Nixon’s flaws and Humphrey’s strengths, but no. Another missed opportunity in this half-baked speech which desperately needed a rewrite.

Humphrey’s not even talking about himself or his own actions when he starts in about Czechoslovakia, but rather just talking in generalized/poetic terms. A lot of bland platitudes like “tyranny will fail to stamp out liberalism” rather than “I will defend Czechoslovakia”/”my strategy is…xyz” Humphrey seems to think he’s writing a poem as opposed to a political advertisement for his ideals, which is a uniquely Humphreyist flaw that permeates every speech I’ve ever seen him deliver.

When Humphrey talks about the problems of urban America, he doesn’t even lay out a policy to help them or even go into what their problems actually are. He literally says “we’ll find out the answer in the next four years”…what the fuck is that? Why can’t you just tell us what your plan actually is? Did he just not have one and was he really so arrogant to run for the sake of running, without a platform he believed in? Why is that so hard? Isn’t that what you’re there for? Haven’t you at least thought of this if you’re going to run for President 5 goddamn times?

This was godawful. Just unbelievably incompetent. But it’s bad in a different way than Mondale or Dukakis’ convention speeches. [Those, of course, are coming soon.] Those were hindered by uninspired delivery and openly ceding ground to Reagan. The problem with Humphrey is he said absolutely nothing of substance at all. Nothing whatsoever. He never told us who he is as a man, what his platform is, why Nixon is bad. Nothing. It’s nothing but a series of vacuous platitudes and bad poetry. There’s some truly abysmal turns of phrase and repetitions of the same word twice or more in as many sentences back to back. It reads like a first draft nobody bothered to proofread. But I know it wasn’t—that’s just Humphrey’s signature terrible rhetorical style. He thinks he’s some kind of great wordsmith in the vein of F. Scott Fitzgerald or Robert Frost. He delivers this grating speech with an unearned confidence to the point where it just feels cringe-inducing to actually listen. He really needed a collaborator, someone to just say “Dude…you’re not even half as eloquent as you think you are. Just write a normal speech.

It’s especially frustrating considering how close the election was, and how literally any one difference could have tipped the scales. If Humphrey’s speech had been better, it might just have made all the difference in the outcome of the election. What’s more is he had so much to work with. RFK had just died, and that alone might have been a great rallying cry (Imagine a line like: “Let’s win this one for a great man who spent his life in service to his country. Let’s show the world that Democrats will never be silenced!“) Something to that effect would have been a magnificent call to arms. What’s more, Nixon had already lost and he was tied to the past administration of Eisenhower. Humphrey had a golden opportunity to bring up how Nixon was literally a man of the past, a man whom America had already rejected. There was a lot of energy and passion in the emerging New Left that also might have been tapped into somehow. Just give some platitudes about winding down the war, and/or drug decriminalization and you’ve got it in the bag. This horrible speech is such a wasted opportunity from a man whose Presidential aspirations are like a dog chasing a car, not even knowing what he’d do if he actually caught it.

1 Comment

  1. Glad to see you got more writing done this weekend. I am a big fan of everything you write. You are especially good at political analysis. Never liked Humphery myself, and not being a Democrat never heard this speech before.

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