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First Person

Essay by Adam Wahlberg

I am in one foul mood. It’s 11:30 on a frigid night in late October and I’ve been in airports and airplanes most of the day. I get off the light rail train at the Hennepin County Government Center stop, four blocks from my condo in downtown Minneapolis, and am lugging my bag across Fifth Street when a man emerges from the darkness and approaches me.

“Buddy, could you spare a couple dollars?”

I know this man. I’ve seen him in my neighborhood plenty of times. He’s a middle-aged white fellow with electric-shock brown hair and a left eye that floats. He’s wearing a blue jean jacket and no hat or gloves. He’s friendly, not threatening, but right now he’s in my way.

“Get the hell away from me,” I say.

The man’s eyes widen with surprise and fear. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. God bless,” he says and quickly walks in the other direction.

“These people,” I say under my breath.


Illustration by Barry Blitt
I take a few steps up the street before stopping to look back. The man is now on the corner of Fifth and Marquette, blowing on his hands. He takes a right and heads toward the river, disappearing from view. The temperature is 13 degrees and I have $80 in my pocket.

I stand on the curb a long moment, wondering when and how I became this guy. I shoot a glance across the rail line to Minneapolis City Hall. Hubert Humphrey is looking right at me.

It’s not the first time I’ve felt Humphrey’s presence in my life. I live four blocks from his city hall statue, eight blocks from his Metrodome, 12 blocks from his public affairs school at the University of Minnesota, and 11 miles from his airport terminal, into which I had just flown. He’s everywhere in my life. And now he seems to be speaking to me.

I’m 41. Humphrey (B.S. ’39) was heading back to the U.S. Senate by the time I was born. Before that he was mayor of Minneapolis, a U.S. senator, vice president under Lyndon Johnson, and then the Democratic candidate for president. He died when I was in grade school. I never met him, voted for him, heard him speak, or experienced him in any firsthand way. But I’ve always been inspired by images of him. It’s the smiling thing. He’s always beaming in photos, especially when surrounded by throngs of people. The Happy Warrior. With how polarized the discourse has become, are people even allowed to be happy in politics these days? We have a comedian in the Senate right now who has barely cracked a smile in two years. Humphrey’s attitude was rare back then; it seems impossible now.

And Humphrey never seemed more joyful—eloquent and optimistic—than when he was speaking on behalf of the disenfranchised. In 1948, he implored his party to “get out of the shadow of state’s rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.” It was a line that would move the nation—and moved some Dixiecrats to stage a walkout. He would use the word shadow again to great effect 29 years later, at the dedication of his eponymous building—the headquarters for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services—in Washington, D.C.: “The moral test of government is how it treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the aged; and those in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy, and the handicapped.”

This is a guy who knew how to speak to need.

I know what I need to do. I’ve been thinking about it for some time.

Within 20 minutes I’m home and unpacked and on my computer. I pull up the Humphrey School’s “Mid-Career Master of Public Affairs” web page, which I have bookmarked, and go to “Apply Now.” I stay up most of the night writing the required personal statement, which includes this passage:

Urban poverty. I’ve lived downtown for 10 years and I’ve never seen it this bad, partly because it hasn’t been this bad, not since the Great Depression. Just look at the numbers: America currently has 14 percent of its citizens living at or below the poverty level; in Minnesota it’s 10.5 percent. And in Hennepin County alone, on any given night, there are 3,000 people with nowhere to go. Astonishing. Much too high.

But it’s not the numbers that get you. It’s the eyes. They’re heartbreaking.

I finish, sit back, and think, Hubert, are you sure about this? A week later, after gathering references and records, I hit “send.”

While I wait to learn whether I’ve been accepted, I begin volunteering at People Serving People, a full-service homeless shelter in my neighborhood. I help with the Sunday dinner. It’s rewarding work; the staff is superb, the volunteers earnest, the clients as fascinating as the high-powered business and public figures I regularly encounter as part of my day job. I always walk home uplifted.

And it’s quite an education on all the services—housing, meals, job-skills training, childcare—required to serve this population. Policy studies show that it’s ultimately a cost savings to a city to provide folks with resources to step up and out of poverty. But it does cost money.

Humphrey understood that social change wasn’t free, and he was never shy about asking for the funds. From 1949 to 1960 in the U.S. Senate, he wrote more than 1,000 pieces of social legislation alone. His first sponsored bill, for a health insurance program, was eventually enacted in 1965 as Medicare.

I know I don’t need a graduate degree to learn how to be nicer to panhandlers. Still, it occurs to me that to truly provide value to an organization—as a staff member, volunteer, or board member—you have to offer more than good intentions. You have to know the numbers. I figured a public affairs degree could teach me how to analyze the data and prepare me to be part of the solution. Pragmatically speaking, it came down to dollars and impact. Government has the most of both.

Today, I’m finishing my first course in the M.P.A. program, the wonderfully titled Leadership for the Common Good, and it’s been exciting and challenging with spirited classroom debate—some of it about Humphrey himself. In our third week, we watched a documentary about Humphrey called The Art of the Possible that set off a robust argument about the man.

The question among some of my classmates was whether he showed enough moral courage over the Vietnam War when he was vice president. Could he have done more to dissent from Johnson and bring the war to an end? Some believe so. And it’s probably a fair point to say that whatever naïveté and sunny optimism he brought to domestic politics may have blinded him in foreign policy. But I tend to be a bit more sympathetic and agree with the words of another U.S. vice president from Minnesota, Walter Mondale (M.A. ’51, J.D. ’56), who says in the film, “I think he was in an awful trap there.”

That he was. He stopped smiling for a while.

But then Humphrey came back home and lit up again.

Students and historians everywhere will forever debate Humphrey’s vice presidency, including in this, the year of his 100th birthday. But few would disagree that, in the words of Bill Moyers, who was White House press secretary during the Johnson administration, Humphrey was one of the most effective legislators in American history. And he certainly can lay claim to being the leading policymaker on civil rights issues in the 20th century.

I know I’m grateful for him. At an important moment in my life, he was there to remind me to be civil to all people. And that’s when I decided to get out of the shadows.
Adam Wahlberg, a graduate student in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, is the editor-in-chief of Super Lawyers magazines. He lives in downtown Minneapolis.

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