November 6, 1976
November 6, 1976

Hubert Humphrey lay on his back under an anesthetic. Just two days earlier, he defeated President Gerald Ford in a rout. He carried 30 states and 401 electoral votes, winning some 45 million votes. Just eight years earlier, he’d lost the presidency by a narrow margin. Now, he came into office in one of the great victories of the modern age. He had won, however, by concealing the truth about his own health.

In September 1976, after he’d clinched the Democratic nomination for president, Humphrey contracted a urinary tract infection. His doctors were concerned, believing that it was a symptom of something far more serious — a cancerous tumor. They urged Humphrey to withdraw from the presidential election and have surgery to remove the tumor. Humphrey dismissed the idea immediately. There were many reasons why it was an unacceptable option, not the least of which was that the presidency was now within his grasp. The polls showed him with a sizable lead over Gerald Ford, who was barely on the campaign trail, preferring to employ a “Rose Garden strategy.”

Humphrey, meanwhile, was criss-crossing the nation, including the South, with his running mate Jimmy Carter, whom he considered his “Lyndon Johnson.” Humphrey, in the metaphor, was Kennedy. It was almost unthinkable that Hubert Humphrey could play in the South, but in reality, he was still alive there. He’d go on to lose Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, and South Carolina, but he carried Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Louisiana. He credited Carter for each of them.

But in that doctor’s office he had decided that he would not give up his dream. He would become the 39th President of the United States, and he asked his doctor for antibiotics to take care of the UTI. They could have the surgery in November.

On the campaign trail, Humphrey grew slower and more feeble. In the lead-up to his two televised debates with President Ford, the candidate withdrew himself from the rigors of personal campaigning so he could prep for the events. Advisers noticed his thinning appearance. Were they really comfortable putting him on television next to Ford, the former college football star? It felt like they were making a Nixon in ’60-sized mistake, but Humphrey insisted. Their concern was for not. With the help of some makeup, Humphrey looked fine enough on stage, and his mind was as sharp as ever. He needled Ford on a whole host of issues, but it was the state of the economy that allowed Humphrey to draw his most distinct contrast.

The Democratic nominee hit the president on the stagflation of the era, he ridiculed Ford’s widely panned attempt at “WIN,” and he made his case that Gerald Ford was a good and decent man who was in over his head. He did not shy away from invoking the Nixon pardon and the need to move on from the Watergate nightmare. Would he clean up Washington? the moderators asked. Absolutely, he answered.

Humphrey and Ford debated to two draws — debates unlikely to move the needle for one candidate or another. Carter, however, delivered a knockout performance. It was, perhaps, helped by low expectations. When accepting the Democratic nomination for Vice President, Carter mistakenly called Humphrey, “Hubert Horatio Hornblower!” An unexplainable mishap that haunted the running mate in the earliest days of the campaign. The press questioned if he was cut out for the national stage. Carter proved them wrong.

His opponent, Bob Dole, stepped in it multiple times. Notably, he referred to recent military conflicts as “Democrat Wars” — doing so with a snarl — which upset most Americans. But the most memorable “gotcha” moment came later in the debate, when Bob Dole tried to link Hubert Humphrey to Richard Nixon, branding Humphrey “the consummate example of all that is wrong with Washington.”

Carter grinned. (He said later that he was in “total disbelief” at the case Dole was making. Here he was, the Republican nominee, trying to brand the Humphrey/Carter ticket as The Second Coming of Nixon.) In fact, he didn’t just grin. He laughed. “I can’t imagine a starker contrast to the days of Richard M. Nixon than the man who warned us eight years ago,” he said. It was a good line on its own, but Dole had gotten under Carter’s skin, so the peanut farmer went a bit further. “But if there is any confusion about any candidate’s integrity in this race, I can assure you we will not be consulting Richard Nixon’s hand-picked Chairman of the Republican National Committee.” Game. Set. Match.

The performance brought Carter closer with his running mate. Humphrey called him afterwards to say his congratulations, and he begged Carter to pick-up his campaign schedule. He was impressed with Carter’s skills, but he also knew that his own time on the trail would be limited. He was waking up every day in pain. He could afford to take time off because Ford was, too. Few questioned Humphrey’s motive. The press assumed the front runner was playing it safe.

On Election Night, Humphrey watched the returns with pride and joy. The day had come. He gave a roaring victory speech, thanking the voters for sending him to Washington and promising to do his level best to restore their faith in government. He had run on the slogan: A President You Can Trust. In reality, he had already violated that trust.

Humphrey told no one except his wife just how serious his prognosis was — not until after his victory when he brought in just two of his closest advisors to share the news that he was undergoing surgery on November 6th — less than 48 hours after his historic win. They could not believe what they were hearing, but just then Humphrey set the tone for the rest of his presidency: It was a routine operation. That’s what they were going to tell the American people. His advisors knew better, but they also knew the political reality — and the presidential history. No one was worse for Grover Cleveland sneaking off to have a similar operation preformed during his administration. Humphrey, they reasoned, had a certain right to privacy.

So, they informed the press that Humphrey was having a routine operation that had been delayed due to his campaign schedule. Few bothered to ask a follow-up question. Fewer wrote an article about it.

When he finally came to after the surgery, Humphrey’s doctors visited him and his wife in his hospital room. “Mr. President-elect,” one of the doctors began, “I fear that it is just as we expected. You were suffering from bladder cancer. The operation was a success, and we were able to remove the bladder.” Humphrey nodded his thanks. The president-elect shared the news with Norman Sherman, his incoming Chief of Staff, and no one else. Sherman, who previously served as press secretary during Humphrey’s days as Vice President, was stunned and asked the incoming president how he wanted to tell the American people.

A grim expression on his face, the president reached out and grabbed Sherman’s hand. “Norman,” he said, his eyes pleading, “I don’t.” With a simple nod their conspiracy began.

After Humphrey left the hospital, he and Norman gathered for a meeting at Humphrey’s Washington residence. There was only one item on their agenda: Jimmy Carter.

• • •

Hubert Humphrey did not share in the Washington establishment’s disdain for his Vice President. He had been happy to ride the ABC (Anybody But Carter) Movement to his nomination, but it was not out of spite for Carter. He simply wanted the presidency for himself. Now that he heard the six-letter word — Cancer — he felt a little differently. The reality was that he and Carter did not share the same philosophy. Carter was not a New Deal Democrat, but Humphrey was. He’d cut his teeth in the 1940’s, he’d brought the farmers and laborers together with the Democratic old guard in Minnesota. He envisioned this post-Nixon era as a possible second resurgence of New Dealism. It could happen, but not if he left his presidency to Jimmy Carter.

Sherman knew well how his boss felt, and he could not have agreed more. They had to do something to prevent Carter from assuming the presidency.

The problem for them was that Jimmy Carter was no Spiro Agnew. There was no dark secret lurking underneath the peanut farmer’s grin. He was who he said he was. An honest and good man. That’s why Humphrey liked him. He’d been happy to run with Carter — back when he thought he could make it a full term. He believed that Carter would help restore faith in government — and keep the Democratic Party’s coalition together. Humphrey had genuinely wanted to have Carter as Vice President, but now that he faced his own mortality — and so soon after taking office — he felt a different kind of urge. He wanted someone who would fulfill his vision.

More than anything, Humphrey hoped to pass a full employment bill. He had introduced the legislation during the Nixon administration, when unemployment hovered on the brink of double digits. It had come down some, but Humphrey still believed it necessary. His legislation would have required the federal government to step in to lower the unemployment rate. The bill set out provisions and metrics for the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy, involving the Congress directly in the Fed’s decisions with the aim of favoring the labor market. If, after a period of time, those measures did not work, it authorized the federal government to hire people at a competitive wage for projects determined by municipalities and local governments. Perhaps the most radical portion of the act was a provision that enabled citizens to sue the government for failing to provide them with a job. In effect, the legislation guaranteed every American the right to a job. It was a radical step and was a strong embrace of New Deal philosophy. [1]

Passing the legislation would not be easy, but Humphrey felt it could be done. For years, he had cultivated relationships on the Hill, and the stagnant economy provided him with the leverage he would need. The president wanted it to be his defining act — his legacy. Yet, he knew that it was one issue on which he and his incoming Vice President were diametrically opposed.

Carter saw something different when he looked at the economy. Sure, he was a Keynesian in name — hadn’t Kennedy said we all were? — but he first and foremost believed that the nation needed to get inflation under control. Unemployment was falling. Inflation was rising. Carter believed that the government would need to live within its means and push itself towards a balanced budget — no matter how much it would hurt or jeopardize programs long championed by the Democrats on the Hill. It was a new time, and Carter believed it required a president willing to do the politically unpopular thing to get the economy on the right track.

Humphrey could not have disagreed more. In the unique stagflation predicament, Americans would be more angry about not having a job than about the price of goods. All Americans yearned for the dignity of a job. The government could ensure that for them. That was Humphrey’s mission.

He knew now that his time in the presidency would be limited, and he needed to pass the legislation. If he ran out of time, Carter would water it down or toss it out altogether. Or he needed a different successor.

Humphrey had also been talking with Ted Kennedy about the possibility of universal healthcare legislation. Kennedy was excited by the prospect — it had long been an important issue to him, and it was the proverbial white whale of Democratic politics. Humphrey was optimistic, too. He believed that a major healthcare bill was the great unfinished business of the Johnson presidency. It could be done.

But not with Jimmy Carter. Though Carter had promised some kind of legislation, Humphrey knew that his running mate’s preference for balanced budgets would complicate any kind of push for a single-payer healthcare system. He needed a different successor.

As much as he appreciated what Carter could do for his campaign and for his administration, Humphrey never anticipated that Carter would be the man to follow him into the Oval Office. All along, he’d planned to retire after a single term, knowing that his health would not hold out for two, and he would throw his arm around Walter Mondale, his protege from Minnesota, and he’d do all he could to make sure Mondale became president in 1980. His diagnosis had changed all of it.

As he and Sherman considered their options, Humphrey reflected on his own vice presidency and some of the frustrations it had brought him. It was a job you could talk someone out of wanting, and that’s what Humphrey had to do. To entice his Vice President, he would offer him a better job.

The way Hubert Humphrey saw it, Jimmy Carter would always be dodged by doubts about his foreign policy experience. If he assumed the mantle of Secretary of State, he could put those questions to rest. He could pitch it to Carter as a stepping stone to the presidency — a better stepping stone than the one he was already on. Sherman liked it, and he agreed that Carter’s Georgia boys would jump at the chance. There may have been a little Northern elitism in their assessment of Carter and his clan. Surely, those “boys” had some understanding of the political system. After all, they’d propelled a one-term governor of a Southern state to come within a hair of the Democratic nomination for President of the United States, besting well-established Senators within the Party — only to come just a bit short. It wasn’t a bad record for a couple of country bumpkins.

And so, with their mind made up, Humphrey prepared to make Jimmy Carter an offer he wouldn’t refuse.


[1] Relied on Reaganland for my characterization of the bill.
Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh Humphreywhatthefuck?

I say that with all love by the by, this is a great start to the timeline!
I saw you sketching this out in the villa, but I wasn't expecting it so soon! Very excited to watch this car crash. Poor Jimmy.

When accepting the Democratic nomination for Vice President, Carter mistakenly called Humphrey, “Hubert Horatio Hornblower!”
Overjoyed that this still happened

Deleted member 145219

Ooh Hubert. Why didn't you have your bladder removed in 1970 when you were advised?

Humphrey in ATL is some weird combination of King Viserys (in the show) and Otto Hightower meshed into one.

House of the Donkey.
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I saw you sketching this out in the villa, but I wasn't expecting it so soon! Very excited to watch this car crash. Poor Jimmy.

I wasn’t either but the final scene came to me yesterday and I wrote it and then I looked and saw today was the 45th anniversary and it felt like fate lol

Overjoyed that this still happened
Lol sometimes you just gotta cage the butterflies
It may dip a little too far into House of Cards for some readers, and I respect that criticism, but, again, all we can try to do on this site is balance the interesting with the plausible.

More than a story about Humphrey, it is a story about — you guessed it — Jimmy Carter. The man Washington would do anything to keep from the presidency. So, I present to you: The President Lay Dying. I hope you’ll come on this journey with me and enjoy it for the exercise that it is.

oooh interesting. I’ve toyed with Humphrey/Carter ‘76 Before but in a “no cancer Humphrey” context.


I wouldn’t say he really ran in ‘76. People supported him but he discouraged running. Looks like that’s not the case here.

Seems like he was prone to bad luck. In ‘60 he lost to JFK charisma, in ‘68 he became to closely identified with Johnson’s unpopular policies, and in ’72 the echoes of Johnson’s Presidency haunted him.
If his health had matched Reagan's...
A fascinating start Vidal. It seems we've never seen a good TL where Humphrey serves at least one full term as POTUS.

Was this the EC map?:

Maybe cool it with the ableism, he served actively as a senator up to his death following the same procedure OTL and wasn’t “humiliated” for it

I would add that the TLIAW looks to illuminate the health struggles facing HHH without making it into a farce. Really hoping to capture the struggle HHH faces as he knows he's dying and is afraid that his legacy will go unfulfilled with Carter as his successor.