This morning a friend sent me a quote of John F. Kennedy, which seems apropos today: “If by a “Liberal” they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people — their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties — someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a “Liberal,” then I’m proud to say I’m a “Liberal.”
The friend didn’t know that a few hours later I was planning to take a look at the newly dedicated statue honoring former U.S, Vice-President and United States Senator Hubert H. Humphrey.
There were a few of us at the statue about 4:30 p.m. including George and Edna from Brooklyn Center (below photo, click all photos to enlarge).
Both reminisced fondly about Hubert as an important figure in their lives. George recalled the large numbers of African-Americans who paid respects to Mr. Humphrey when he died. Hubert was a lion for civil rights, before it was popular.
Humphrey and Kennedy, liberals, were colleagues in the U.S. Senate 1953-1960. Kennedy had served in the Senate 1953-60, till he took office as President of the United States 1961-63. Humphrey was a U.S. Senator from 1949-64, and again from 1970-78, and Vice-President of the U.S. 1965-69. Before his national recognition, he had been Mayor of the City of Minneapolis 1945-48.
Humphrey was only 68 when he died; 34 when he became mayor of Minneapolis. I remarked that politics is for younger people. It requires much energy.
The basic biography of Hubert Humphrey is here, at the website of the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of the University of Minnesota. Many of his memorable quotations can be found at this site as well.
In 2004 I happened across a book which mentioned a meeting with then-Senator Humphrey. It became the basis of my 2004 Christmas letter which remains on the internet here.
Here is a portion of the letter:
Early in October , while reading the excellent book, Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life (Henri J.M.Nouwen, Donald P. McNeill, Douglas A. Morrison. Image Books/Doubleday c 1966, 1983 pages 5&6), I came across a passage which grabbed my attention: “…compassion can at most be a small and subservient part of our competitive existence. This sobering idea was forcefully brought home to us during the early stages of this book. One day, the three of us visited the late Senator Hubert Humphrey to ask him about compassion in politics. We had come because we felt he was one of the most caring human beings in the political arena. The Senator, who had just finished talking with the ambassador of Bangladesh, and obviously expected a complaint, a demand, or a compliment, was visibly caught off guard when asked how he felt about compassion in politics. Instinctively, he left his large mahogany desk, over which hung the emblem reminding visitors that they were speaking with the former Vice-President of the United States, and joined us around a small coffee table. But then, after having adapted himself to the somewhat unusual situation, Senator Humphrey walked back to his desk, picked up a long pencil with a small eraser at its end, and said in his famous high-pitched voice, “Gentlemen, look at this pencil. Just as the eraser is only a very small part of this pencil and is used only when you make a mistake, so compassion is only called upon when things get out of hand. The main part of life is competition, only the eraser is compassion. It is sad to say, gentlemen, but in politics compassion is just part of the competition….”
I had two thoughts after reading this passage:
1) Here was a public person, well known for his compassion in public policy, relegating compassion in politics to the subordinate status of eraser.
2) I also was aware that an eraser, unused, soon hardens and becomes useless. Is this the same with unused human compassion?
Ours has become a brutally competitive society: winner take all, Losers are…losers. Compassion is, more than ever, only the eraser; its use determined by the Winner.
We have experienced, once again, the brutal polarity of U.S. elections. Once again the electoral “Super Bowl” has identified winners and losers. Once again, the U.S. population is described as split. I wonder: who qualifies for compassion? What does a ‘winner’ – and society at large – lose, in a winner-take-all society as ours has become?
What is the cost of this polarity to the United States? To the world at large?
Does a person deserve compassion as a right? Or does he or she have to qualify for it, or earn it? Do we each set up a ‘compassion boundary’, which we restrict to only certain people: family, certain friends, neighborhood, town, state, nation? Or does everyone in the world – an Iraqi? an Afghani? Someone in Darfur or Haiti? – equally merit compassion whether we know them or not? These are questions, I think, worthy of serious reflection and action.