05/26/2011 02:37 pm ET Updated Jul 26, 2011

The Legacy of a Liberal

In recent decades, our political discourse has often been dominated by the claim that federal government cannot properly or effectively create public programs regulating individual behavior to pursue a more just and flourishing American society. The presidency of Ronald Reagan gave voice to that belief and the centennial of his birth earlier this year provided an occasion for Reaganites to celebrate this doctrine and its most prominent proponent.

Fortunately this basic tenet of conservative thought has not always been popular. If it was, we'd live in a much less appealing nation. The crowning accomplishment of the public service of Hubert H. Humphrey refutes this precept of Reaganism, and the 100th anniversary of Humphrey's own birth, which occurred May 27, 1911, serves as an appropriate time to give Humphrey, and the liberalism he championed, its due.

Humphrey was the architect of many innovative programs of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, initiatives including the Peace Corps, Food for Peace, Medicare, anti-poverty measures, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and mutual reduction of nuclear weapons. These measures, and many others which bore Humphrey's mark, were controversial when he proposed them but ultimately became part of America's public policy consensus.

Yet Humphrey's greatest legacy was the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Nearly one-half century later, it is hard to believe that anyone would oppose this seminal law which prohibited businesses from refusing to serve or hire African-Americans or other minorities based on their race. In fact, many resisted it. Opponents argued that the law mandating that private businesses not exclude potential customers or workers based on race was an unconstitutional intrusion on liberty and property rights. Moreover, they claimed that federal government had no business imposing a national standard on behavior which they insisted should be left to individuals and regulated, if at all, by states or markets.

The opposition to (and support of) the Civil Rights Act was bipartisan. Every southern Democratic senator opposed it. Senator Barry M. Goldwater, soon to be the Republican presidential nominee, was one of only six Senate Republicans to vote against the measure. Another critic of the measure was Humphrey's fellow child of 1911, Reagan, who that summer made his national political debut as an articulate spokesman for Goldwater conservatism.

The Senate presented the main hurdle for the legislation. Southerners inevitably filibustered civil rights measures and a two-thirds vote was then required to stop debate. Since 18 of the 59 Democrats were southerners committed to defeat the measure, success depended on obtaining sufficient Republican support to achieve passage.

The story of Humphrey's skillful legislative management requires more words than this space allows and has been told elsewhere. For present purposes, it suffices to say that he carefully organized civil rights forces to combat the filibuster, he patiently built a growing coalition, and he eloquently articulated the constitutional, policy and moral arguments in support of the measure. Most significantly, he successfully courted the Republican minority leader, Senator Everett Dirksen, the key to the additional votes needed. Humphrey struck compromises to win Dirksen's support while preserving the crucial features. When the bill passed, he let Dirksen receive the public accolades. Yet Humphrey's leadership was also essential to the passage of the measure in a robust form.

Humphrey's stewardship of this legislation demonstrated important aspects of his public service. He believed government had an important role in addressing public problems to achieve just solutions. He approached the civil rights issue with a moral clarity which would not be diverted by the shibboleths of Goldwater, Reagan and others who complained about the federal government intervening in "personal" matters. Humphrey was committed to shaping workable public policy, not simply posturing to curry favor with constituents. And he understood that politics, skillfully performed, was the means to achieve progress.

Some never forgave Humphrey for becoming a public cheerleader for Lyndon Johnson's Vietnam policies while vice president. Humphrey had vigorously opposed escalating the war during his early days in that office, counsel which outraged Johnson who proceeded to humiliate him as only Johnson could. Humphrey's subsequent defense of the war was unfortunate. Yet his role regarding Vietnam was simply as a spokesman, not as a policy-maker.

When it came to civil rights, he was, however, a policy-maker and an effective and creative one at that. The law he helped pass in the summer of 1964 played an important role in diluting the ugliest stain on American history.

Humphrey deserves to be remembered, on his centennial and always, for demonstrating that effective political action can forge national policy regulating individual behavior to make America a better and more just society. The liberal politics he practiced helped bring America closer to its highest ideals notwithstanding the opposition efforts of the most effective voices of the conservative conscience. That lesson is worth remembering and repeating in contemporary political discourse.