Grave Sightings: Hubert Humphrey

Stacy Conradt
Stacy Conradt

With the state of politics lately, it’s hard to imagine a generous act of kindness from one political rival to another. But if Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon were capable of burying the hatchet, there’s hope for anyone.

Humphrey, a senator from Minnesota, ran for president several times. In 1952, he lost the Democratic nomination to Adlai Stevenson. In 1960, of course, he faced a charismatic young senator from Massachusetts named Jack Kennedy. In 1968, Humphrey, who was vice president at the time, came closest to the presidency—but Nixon triumphed by a little more than 500,000 popular votes.


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Though he graciously admitted defeat and pledged to help the new president-elect, Humphrey wasn’t shy about criticizing Nixon. Just 10 months after Nixon took office, Humphrey stated that the administration had done “poorly—very poorly” overall, citing the increase in interest rates and the cost of living. Nixon and his team, Humphrey said, had “forgotten the people it said it would remember.” He was still making his opinions known four years after the election, turning his eye to Vietnam. “Had I been elected, we would now be out of that war,” he told the press on January 10, 1972.


Stacy Conradt

The Watergate scandal broke later that year, and Humphrey no doubt felt validated. He mounted another unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1972, but lost the nomination to George McGovern. Humphrey briefly considered trying one more time in 1976, but ultimately nixed the idea. "It's ridiculous — and the one thing I don't need at this stage in my life is to be ridiculous," he said. The public didn’t know it at the time but the politician had been battling bladder cancer for several years. By August 1977, the situation had become terminal, and Humphrey was aware that his days were numbered.

When he knew he had just a few weeks left to live, Humphrey did something that would stun both Republicans and Democrats: He called former rival Richard Nixon and invited him to his upcoming funeral. He knew that Nixon had been depressed and isolated in his political exile, and despite the Watergate scandal and the historical bad blood, he wanted Nixon to have a place of honor at the ceremony. Humphrey knew his death would give the former president a plausible reason to return to Washington, and told Nixon to say he was there at the personal request of Hubert Humphrey if anyone questioned his motives.

Humphrey died on January 13, 1978—and when the funeral was held a few days later, Nixon did, indeed, attend. He stayed out of the Washington limelight, emerging right before the ceremony—to audible gasps. Humphrey’s gracious act must have been on Nixon’s mind when he listened to Vice President Walter Mondale sing the fallen senator’s praises: “He taught us all how to hope, and how to love, how to win and how to lose. He taught us how to live, and finally he taught us how to die.”

Nixon wasn’t the only former foe whom Humphrey had mended fences with. Barry Goldwater, who ran against Humphrey in 1964, had this to say:

“I served with him in the Senate, I ran against him in campaigns, I debated with him, I argued with him. But I don’t think I have ever enjoyed a friendship as much as the one that existed between the two of us. I know it may sound strange to people who see in Hubert a liberal and who see in me a conservative, that the two of us could ever get together; but I enjoyed more good laughs, more good advice, more sound counsel from him that I have from most anyone I have been associated with in this business of trying to be a senator.”

After the ceremony in D.C., Humphrey was buried at Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis. His wife, Muriel, joined him there when she died 20 years later.

Peruse all the entries in our Grave Sightings series here.

Why Do Supreme Court Justices Serve for Life?

Alex Wong, Getty Images
Alex Wong, Getty Images

There are few political appointments quite as important as a nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. Unlike a cabinet secretary or an ambassador, justices serve for life. In the modern era, that often means more than three decades on the court—thanks to increased lifespans, justices appointed in the next century are expected to sit on the Supreme Court for an average of 35 years, compared to the average of around 16 years that judges served in the past. Because of this shift, some scholars have begun to question whether lifetime appointments are still appropriate, as the definition of “for life” has changed so much since the constitution was written. But why do justices serve for life, anyway?

Well, for one thing, the U.S. Constitution doesn’t exactly specify that justices and the court are in a “’til death do us part” relationship. Article III says that judges (of both the Supreme Court and lower federal courts) “shall hold their offices during good behavior.” So technically, a judge could be removed if they no longer meet the “good behavior” part of the clause, but there are otherwise no limits on their term. In practice, this means they have their seat for life, unless they are impeached and removed by Congress. Only 15 federal judges in U.S. history have ever been impeached by Congress—all lower court judges—and only eight have been removed from office, though some have resigned before their inevitable removal.

The only Supreme Court justice Congress has tried to impeach was Samuel Chase, who was appointed by George Washington in 1796. Chase was an openly partisan Federalist vehemently opposed to Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican policies, and he wasn’t afraid to say so, either in his role as a lower court judge or once he was appointed to the Supreme Court. In 1804, the House of Representatives, at then-president Jefferson’s urging, voted to impeach Chase, accusing him, among other things, of promoting his political views from the bench instead of ruling as a non-partisan judge. However, he was acquitted of all counts in the Senate, and went on to serve as a Supreme Court justice until his death in 1811.

The point of giving justices a seat on the bench for the rest of their lives (or, more commonly nowadays, until they decide to retire) is to shield the nation’s highest court from the kind of partisan fighting the Chase impeachment exemplified. The Supreme Court acts as a check against the power of Congress and the president. The lifetime appointment is designed to ensure that the justices are insulated from political pressure and that the court can serve as a truly independent branch of government.

Justices can’t be fired if they make unpopular decisions, in theory allowing them to focus on the law rather than politics. Justices might be nominated because a president sees them as a political or ideological ally, but once they’re on the bench, they can’t be recalled, even if their ideology shifts. Some data, for instance, suggests that many justices actually drift leftward as they age, no doubt infuriating the conservative presidents that appointed them.

The lack of term limits “is the best expedient which can be devised in any government, to secure a steady, upright and impartial administration of the laws,” Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist No. 78. The judiciary, he believed, “is in continual jeopardy of being overpowered, awed, or influenced by its coordinate branches,” and “nothing can contribute so much to its firmness and independence, as permanency in office.” Without lifetime job security, he argued, judges might feel obligated to bow to the wishes of the president, Congress, or the public, rather than confining their work strictly to questions of the Constitution.

While lifetime appointments may be a longstanding tradition in the U.S., this approach isn’t the norm in other countries. Most other democracies in the world have mandatory retirement ages if not hard-and-fast term limits for high court judges. UK Supreme Court justices face mandatory retirement at age 70 (or 75 if they were appointed before 1995), as do judges on Australia’s High Court. Canadian Supreme Court justices have a mandatory retirement age of 75, while the 31 justices of India’s Supreme Court must retire by the age of 65. Meanwhile, the oldest justice now on the U.S. Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is currently 85 and kicking. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., the oldest justice in U.S. history, retired in 1932 at age 90.

Though the U.S. Supreme Court has never had term limits before, there have recently been serious proposals to implement them. Term limits, advocates argue, could combat partisan imbalances on the court. Presidents wouldn’t get to appoint justices purely based on whether someone died while they were in office, and the stakes for political parties nominating a justice would be slightly lower, possibly leading presidents and Congress to compromise more on appointments. One popular suggestion among political analysts and scholars is to impose an 18-year term limit, though critics note that that particular plan does bring up the potential that at some point, a single president could end up appointing the majority of the justices on the court.

In any case, considering such a change would likely require a constitutional amendment, which means it’s probably not going to happen anytime soon. For the foreseeable future, being on the Supreme Court will continue to be a lifetime commitment.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

Dolly Parton, They Might Be Giants, and More Featured on New Album Inspired By the 27 Amendments

Valerie Macon, Getty Images
Valerie Macon, Getty Images

Since 2016, Radiolab's More Perfect podcast has taken what is typically viewed as a dry subject, the Supreme Court, and turned it into an engrossing podcast. Now, fans of the show have a whole new way to learn about the parts of U.S. history which textbooks tend to gloss over. 27, The Most Perfect Album, a new music compilation from Radiolab, features more than two dozen songs inspired by each of the 27 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, from freedom of religion to rules regulating changes to Congressional salaries.

More Perfect assembled an impressive roster of musical talents to compose and perform the tracklist. They Might Be Giants wrote the song for the Third Amendment, which prohibited the forced quartering of soldiers in people's homes. It goes, "But the presence of so many friendly strangers makes me nervous, and it does not mean that I'm not truly thankful for your service."

For the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, Dolly Parton sings, "We carried signs, we cursed the times, marched up and down the street. We had to fight for women's rights with blisters on our feet." Less sexy amendments, like the 12th Amendment, which revised presidential election procedures, and the 20th Amendment, which set commencement terms for congress and the president, are also featured. Torres, Caroline Shaw, Kash Doll, and Cherry Glazerr are just a handful of the other artists who contributed to the album.

The release of the compilation coincides with the premiere of More Perfect's third season, which will focus on the 27 amendments to the U.S. Constitution. You can check out the first episode of the new season today and download the companion album for free through WNYC.

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