August 14, 1977

Vidal

Donor
August 14, 1977

Jimmy Carter was in his office when he heard Walter Cronkite’s voice. "We go live now to the White House..." It was too early in the day for this to mean anything good. Something was happening.

He stepped out of his office and into the larger room where many of his staff had desks. There was a television set there and the staff was slowly gathering around it. “We apologize for the interruption, but we have been told that President Hubert Humphrey is about to address the nation from the White House Press Room. We go live to the White House now.”

The shaky feed showed the fragile and thin 39th president stepping up to the podium. Carter could not believe the president’s appearance. He’d looked in poor health at the start of the year, but as spring dawned and the cherry blossoms bloomed, Humphrey had put on some weight again. Carter assumed that the weight loss was just a side effect of the grueling campaign. By May, he saw little reason to question the president’s health. The president picked up his public schedule and had taken a more active role in negotiations with Congress, particularly over the employment bill. Looking at Humphrey now, though, Carter feared for him — and wondered if he’d made a mistake.

“Thank you all for coming,” Humphrey said. Behind him was Scoop Jackson, the president’s already imperiled choice to succeed Carter as Vice President.

Though Jackson was a strong nominee on paper — a New Deal Democrat who had a more conservative foreign policy that could win him votes across the aisle — his appointment was falling victim to a long-standing issue within the Democratic Party: regional politics. Carter had been a Man of the South, and Humphrey’s decision to replace him with someone from outside the region angered the Southern Senators and Congressmen who believed that it was unfair of Humphrey to use one of them to get the votes for the presidency and then cast the Southerner aside after taking office. They planned to launch a filibuster of Jackson’s nomination, or at least stall it as long as they could. Humphrey expected to pick up Republican votes, but Senators Dole and Stevens, two of the more prominent voices in the caucus, said it was an issue that the “Democrats need[ed] to resolve.”

“I am here to make a very solemn announcement,” Humphrey continued. “Four days ago, I was taken in for surgery at Walter Reed Medical Center. It was a procedure having to do with an intestinal blockage. In the course of the operation, my doctors discovered that I am suffering from terminal cancer. They do not know how long I have to live, and I will be beginning an intensive regimen of chemotherapy.”

In the White House Press Briefing Room, photographers flashed their cameras and reporters, scribbling notes, looked up in horror — their pencils taking a reprieve just long enough for the shock of the announcement to set in. Some, in the post-Watergate era, were wondering about the ethics of all of this. Four days ago, the president had undergone surgery. Who would have been president had an issue occurred? There was no Vice President, which meant that any letter invoking the 25th Amendment would have required that Tip O’Neill, Speaker of the House, assume the duties. But wouldn’t that necessitate O’Neill’s resignation — even if just for a few hours? Some reporters had another disturbing follow-up thought: Was Congress even notified?

Others were wondering how long the president had known. Howard Baker’s question from the Watergate hearings came washing over them — What did the president know, and when did he know it?

Others simply had concern for a man they had known for decades. Some had cut their teeth covering the Johnson White House. They had wrritten articles about Humphrey’s relentless and triumphant efforts to secure passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Here was a great legend of American history slipping away.

He concluded his brief remarks with an appeal to Congress: Confirm Scoop Jackson and do so quickly. Left unsaid: Time was running out.

The first question came from the back of the room: “How are you feeling, Mr. President?”

Humphrey smiled his thanks for the question. “Some days are better than other. I look forward to spending the time I have left with my family and loved ones — and fighting for the American people, as I have done each day of my life. The cause is not over yet. The work continues. We will pass the Full Employment Act before I leave this office.” The legislation was already in Conference Committee, but sometimes the two houses of Congress went unable to resolve their differences. Humphrey made clear he expected them to.

Helen Thomas rose from her seat near the front to put it bluntly to the president. “Mr. President, first let me express my sympathies, and please excuse my candor, but, it’s my responsibility to ask: Will you be resigning?”

Humphrey had expected the question and prepared for it. “Thank you, Helen. I intend to follow the guidance of my doctors, and I will perform the duties of this office — to which I’ve been elected — as long as I can, and I will make another thing clear: I will not resign until a Vice President has been confirmed — and that Vice President will be Scoop Jackson.”

Jackson, behind the president, nodded.

Another reporter tried to cut in, but Thomas controlled the floor. “Senator Jackson, a question for you, if I may. When you were offered the vice presidency some eight or nine days ago — did the president make you aware of his health condition?”

Jackson stepped to the podium. “I knew that he had an upcoming surgery for a stomach issue, but I was not aware that he was suffering from terminal cancer, no.”

Humphrey added, “I, myself, was not aware that I had terminal cancer until after the surgery.” Terminal cancer. The adjective was crucial to Humphrey’s statement. It made it honest.

For another twenty minutes, the press asked all sorts of questions. Some pressed the president on his condition, but no one in the room went as far as to challenge his timeline of events or the Constitutional issues that may have arisen as a result of his surgery. There would be plenty of time for that, but it would not happen now.

As Humphrey walked off the screen, Carter retreated silently to his office. His Energy Department staff were greatly unnerved. Down the hallway, an irate Ham Jordan threw a stapler at the television screen. Of course this was why they wanted Carter gone.

When he reached his boss’s office, the Secretary was stoic. “Mr. Secretary, I simply can’t believe it. The audacity…”

Carter raised a hand. He was seething on the inside as the pieces began to fall into place. The fragile Humphrey in December asking him to become Secretary of State. The icing out. The final coaxing into the Department of Energy. Why hadn’t Carter seen it? How had he not sensed that he was being pushed out for a reason. And now his chance at the presidency was gone.

“I just don’t know…” he finally said.

Jordan was pacing, his hands on his hips. “I mean this is ridiculous! It all makes sense now!”

“I suspect the president knew as far back as December,” Carter said, his mind replaying the conversation about Foggy Bottom.

“You know, Ham,” he continued, “I think if Humphrey had just told me — had just said he had cancer, and he didn’t think I was the man to replace him — I think I would’ve resigned. I would have done that for him. I just wish he had been honest with me.” Jordan didn’t believe that for a second, but if that’s what Carter wanted to tell himself…

In retrospect, the president’s cancer seemed so clear, but in those days after the Inauguration, nobody had reason to suspect something as serious as terminal illness. There were whispers, yes, that Humphrey was aging at an alarming rate. But didn’t every president? It was a job that killed healthy men — and he was one of the oldest to assume the office.

Jody Powell joined them and crafted a statement expressing his sympathy to Humphrey and his family. After it was issued, Carter looked at Powell and Jordan and asked them if they were ready?

“For what, boss?” Powell asked.

“To primary a sitting president.”

• • •

Humphrey invited a group of Southern Senators and Congressmen — the holdouts over the Jackson nomination — to the White House for a frank conversation about what came next. He needed their votes to confirm Jackson, and there was no time to waste. Further, the South had no leverage. If they delayed the Jackson nomination, it would simply mean that when Humphrey passed, Tip O’Neill assumed the office.

Some in the South weren’t worried by this at all — they assumed that Tip O’Neill would never take resign the Speakership, and that instead he would pass on the presidency so he could keep his job, meaning that one of their own — James Eastland of Mississippi — would take the presidency. Eastland was old, but he was not too old to perform the duties for the rest of Humphrey’s term.

And that’s why Tip O’Neill was in the meeting. “I want to make perfectly clear that I am prepared to accept the duties of the presidency if I am called upon to do so,” he he said. Eastland, who was in the meeting, grimaced. The rest of them knew it was over.

Humphrey did not come without an olive branch — after all, he still needed their votes for the Full Employment Act. Jackson made them a promise: “I assure you that my Vice President, and the man I ask to run with me in 1980, will be a Southerner.”

That was good enough for them.

By the end of the month, Jackson had appeared before a Special Joint Congressional Committee for four days of hearings. On September 1, 1977, the House of Representatives voted 399-30 to confirm him. On Tuesday, September 6, 1977, the Senate of the United States voted 84-14. Later that day, with the entire cabinet behind him — Secretary of Energy Jimmy Carter, painfully smiling, included — Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson, took the Oath of Office to become the 43rd Vice President of the United States. Only John Tyler would spend less time in the role.

Some twenty days later, the same group gathered to watch as Hubert H. Humphrey signed the Full Employment Act into law. It was a crowning achievement for the 39th president. It would also be his final public appearance.
 
Man, if Jackson's nomination gets through that's going to be a hell of an issue for the future of the party. Let's assume that Humphrey dies in 1978 or thereabouts as per OTL. Jackson either loses the election afterwards or he survives long enough to die before he complete a full term. I admit my dislike of the man and some of the....questionable decisions he made may colour this but I have to imagine Humphrey's pain and medication is combining to make some really dumb decisions.

Actually a mild question from an outsider to American politics, and forgive me if I'm stepping on any problems here. I understand a lot of the reaction here is situational, a result of a deep distrust of the system as it stands starting with the failure of the Vietnam War then the Watergate scandal then Nixon's pardon and now at last to here. So I understand that a lot of the ethics of Humphrey not being as thorough in disclosing his health issues are being heightened by....well, the seventies being the seventies. Barring obvious concerns about age, was there as much scandal as when Eisenhower had issues with his heart and his health in 1956 ? I ask because Humphrey saying he'll follow the doctors advice reminded me of that story that the specialist who diagnosed Eisenhower insisting that a second term was vital to the health of the General. Was it wildly known that he'd suffered ill health or did that come about after the fact?

“You know, Ham,” he continued, “I think if Humphrey had just told me — had just said he had cancer, and he didn’t think I was the man to replace him — I think I would’ve resigned. I would have done that for him. I just wish he had been honest with me.” Jordan didn’t believe that for a second, but if that’s what Carter wanted to tell himself…
It's interesting to think this through. I don't know. I don't know at all.

Jody Powell joined them and crafted a statement expressing his sympathy to Humphrey and his family. After it was issued, Carter looked at Powell and Jordan and asked them if they were ready?

“For what, boss?” Powell asked.

“To primary a sitting president.”
Ahhhhhh fucking chills. The idea of it being Carter who ends up in the Kennedy spot is a delightful twist!

And here we go. Humphrey's on his way out and, well, President Jackson, eh? A Jackson vs Carter all out brawl, what a thing to behold.
 

Vidal

Donor
Actually a mild question from an outsider to American politics, and forgive me if I'm stepping on any problems here. I understand a lot of the reaction here is situational, a result of a deep distrust of the system as it stands starting with the failure of the Vietnam War then the Watergate scandal then Nixon's pardon and now at last to here. So I understand that a lot of the ethics of Humphrey not being as thorough in disclosing his health issues are being heightened by....well, the seventies being the seventies.

Something to keep in mind is that as of now, nobody ITTL knows that Humphrey's diagnosis dates back to December 1976. Humphrey has so far not lied, saying only that he was informed he had terminal cancer after the intestinal operation -- which is true. He was diagnosed with cancer before, but his doctors at the time did not deem it to be terminal.

Barring obvious concerns about age, was there as much scandal as when Eisenhower had issues with his heart and his health in 1956 ? I ask because Humphrey saying he'll follow the doctors advice reminded me of that story that the specialist who diagnosed Eisenhower insisting that a second term was vital to the health of the General. Was it wildly known that he'd suffered ill health or did that come about after the fact?

I don't remember exactly what the public knew about his health before, but I do recall -- at least from Michael Beschloss' account during Trump's COVID scare -- that once he was admitted, Ike's doctors were very forthright, putting out regular updates, etc. about the president's health.

Ike dying from his '55 heart attack is a contender for my next long-form TL after Jimmy Two! So I may have more to say on this at a later point.
 
I can't imagine Carter's going to do very well against Scoop. Jackson may be stiff and wooden, but he's going to be an incumbent President who's domestic policy positions place him firmly in the party's mainstream.
I think only plausible path for Carter to even take the fight to the Convention is if Scoop bungles the Iranian Revolution and you end up with 'Iran is Farsi for Vietnam' stickers popping up everywhere, but even then.
 
Well, there’s goes my prediction about Dale Bumpers! Either way, he’d be a strong contender for Jackson’s VP. Jackson, though, would need to pick him sometime before the end of 1979 to help blunt Carter’s primary challenge and give AR Dems time to choose a new Senate nominee before 1980.

Also, given the national trauma of seeing a President die in office, Reagan’s going to have a much harder time convincing voters to overlook his advanced age.
 
Wow. I can't imagine how livid the entire Carter staff and Carter himself feels.

I am shocked it wasn't Senator Church though. The biggest risk with Scoop is his aneurysm hitting early ( as he died in 1983 ) due to being president
 

Vidal

Donor
Wow. I can't imagine how livid the entire Carter staff and Carter himself feels.

I am shocked it wasn't Senator Church though. The biggest risk with Scoop is his aneurysm hitting early ( as he died in 1983 ) due to being president

The flip side of this is that as president, his doctors would be regularly looking at his heart and could, for example, send him in for an abdominal aortic ultrasound.
 
I don't remember exactly what the public knew about his health before, but I do recall -- at least from Michael Beschloss' account during Trump's COVID scare -- that once he was admitted, Ike's doctors were very forthright, putting out regular updates, etc. about the president's health.

Ike dying from his '55 heart attack is a contender for my next long-form TL after Jimmy Two! So I may have more to say on this at a later point.
Much obliged for the clarifications and while you've obviously got a ways to go yet, that timeline sounds like it could be really interesting!
 
Some in the South weren’t worried by this at all — they assumed that Tip O’Neill would never take resign the Speakership, and that instead he would pass on the presidency so he could keep his job, meaning that one of their own — James Eastland of Mississippi — would take the presidency. Eastland was old, but he was not too old to perform the duties for the rest of Humphrey’s term.
They can't have possibly been that stupid, right? I mean, O'Neill may prefer the speakership but I seriously doubt he'd even consider letting James Eastland of all people near the presidency. Moot point because of course O'Neill put them in their place, but nonetheless, the Southern segregationist's ability for self-delusion continues to astound.
Ike dying from his '55 heart attack is a contender for my next long-form TL after Jimmy Two! So I may have more to say on this at a later point.
Ooh, I like that! Probably avoids a lot of the things that led to Nixon's psyche being in the wrong place for his presidency.
 
The vice president question is so tough largely because there's no really great candidate. You can't pick Carter, and the South's other flagbearer would be... George Wallace. Lol. From that point, you have major difficulties, because there's a huge risk in selecting someone who's too young or too liberal. Bentsen makes the most sense overall, but what if he's not Southern enough? You've got some incredibly slim pickings as far as guys who you can trust to be on a national campaign. Maybe Bumpers really is the best choice.
 
The vice president question is so tough largely because there's no really great candidate. You can't pick Carter, and the South's other flagbearer would be... George Wallace. Lol. From that point, you have major difficulties, because there's a huge risk in selecting someone who's too young or too liberal. Bentsen makes the most sense overall, but what if he's not Southern enough? You've got some incredibly slim pickings as far as guys who you can trust to be on a national campaign. Maybe Bumpers really is the best choice.
There’s also Florida Governor Reubin Askew, but he may be too similar to Carter politically.
 
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