Lost in my emails, I recently unearthed a forgotten message from a colleague, named Nick. He had sent me this email and attachment because we had been discussing the withered state of our democracy and whether it would survive the many assaults upon it and the neglect of its core obligations by average citizens.
Nick’s email contained a speech written by a fellow Minnesotan, our former Vice President, and now-deceased statesman, Hubert H. Humphrey. The speech was given as he accepted the MURRAY-GREEN AWARD in Washington, D. C. May 9, 1974. This was a copy of the exact speech given by Humphrey, including his handwritten editorial remarks, additions and redlines. He had made numerous alterations to the text before delivering the speech. Just looking at this photocopy shows a great deal about the man’s mind, passions and depth.
Humphrey was one of the good guys. He was an old-fashioned politician that put effort into truth-telling and integrity. He reminds me of many of his generation that believed in ethics, morality and the power of a hand-shake deal.
People can say what they want about his political views. I am not interested in critiquing his ideas in this space. However, much of what he wrote should be read again because it still pertains to all of us that care about democracy and how fragile it can be. Humphrey reminds us of the importance of the words of our founding fathers who crafted the Constitution, and the need for all citizens to sustain our democracy and promote the common good in our day-to-day lives.
I herewith include several excerpts of his speech as a reminder of the gift of our democracy and the challenge of achieving its lofty goals. Humphrey passionately states that democracy is not just a lot of aspirational words or obtuse ideas. Rather, it can and should be tested and negotiated on a daily basis in order for our country to sustain its greater meaning. He writes,
“The Preamble to the Constitution says it all. It spells out the faith, aspiration and purpose of America. The first three words are most important. They establish for all time that America is “We the People”. Not we the government, we the politicians, we the political parties, we the rich, we the white, but “We the People”. This is the central reference, the focal point of American government.”
“To form a more perfect union (note the even way back then the word union was prominent in the major political documents). As we approach our Bicentennial in 1976, we must forge the people of this country into a more perfect union with each other. This is not possible in a bitter land –in a country where interests are narrowly defined and relentlessly pursued. It is only possible if tolerance and compromise are understood as working principles in a democracy.”
He comments rather vehemently about the need to promote the common good. He states:
“Promote the General Welfare – The important word here is “promote”. This is an active word. It implies that if the well-being of citizens is threatened unless you do something about it. It does not say government is to be neutral. It says that government is to be responsible for improving the lives of the people.”
On the subject of liberty:
“Secure the Blessings of Liberty — to ourselves and our posterity. Yes, the “blessings of liberty” is the way it is put (in the Constitution). Today we usually take it for granted. But the people who wrote this had just gone through a bloody war to secure their freedom from foreign dominance.Their courage purchased this “blessing” of liberty and we must never forget that it can be lost. Nor should we overlook that fact that liberty can be eroded from within as well as attacked from without.”
“There is not a single reference in our Constitution protecting the government from the people, but rather, to protect the people from the abuse of power by those in government. There are the fundamentals of which the Constitution, indeed American government itself, is based.”
Finally, Humphrey makes comments on the need for government to project more heart and soul and less technology. He said,
“Democracy can only work if it has a heart as well as a brain. Government by computer may be more efficient, but it can never be of, by, or for the people. And it can never be more just. Democracy can only flourish when the tears and laughter, anguish and joy, fears and hopes of the people are a very part of the political process. Democracy can only survive when there is a partnership between the government and the people that is based on and held together by mutual trust and faith.”
Ironically, his speech could be given today. I dare say, he could have not imagined in 1974 how unsettled and vicious our public conversations would become in 2018. Humphrey outlines 3 major needs that should be addressed to preserve and sustain our political system.Those needs have not been eased in over 40 years. He argued for the need to:
- “Remove the shadow of shame, doubt, and mistrust that has been cast over the entire political process.
- Reverse the growing income gap between the rich and the poor.
- Anticipate the inevitable changes of our modern technological society and to direct them to our benefit.”
If you have a chance to read his entire speech, I would encourage you to do so. Regardless of his party affiliations, he was a thinking, optimistic, contributing citizen trying to make a difference and to rally fellow citizens to play their part in a perfectly, imperfect democracy. Most of all, I am grateful for the commitment of this decent man, for his social conscience and his concern for the general welfare of his fellow citizens.
For more information, visit the following link: http://www2.mnhs.org/library/findaids/00442/pdfa/00442-03674.pdf