"Muriel Humphrey," in Women in Congress, 1917-2006. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of History & Preservation, U.S. House of Representatives. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2006.
The archetypical political wife, Muriel Buck Humphrey supported her husband, Hubert Humphrey, during a career that took him from being a clerk at his father’s pharmacy in North Dakota to a political powerbroker in the Minnesota Democratic–Farmer–Labor Party and national prominence in the Senate and, finally, as Vice President. But when Senator Humphrey passed away in 1978, his political partner and adviser, Muriel, emerged to fill his seat and carry out his programs. As only the second Minnesota woman ever to serve in Congress, Muriel Humphrey pursued her own interests during her brief tenure, supporting an extension of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) ratification deadline and advocating several programs to benefit persons with mental disabilities.
Muriel Fay Buck was born on February 20, 1912, in Huron, South Dakota, to Andrew and Jessie May Buck. Her father supported the family as a produce middleman, buying and selling such staples as cream, eggs, and poultry. Muriel Buck was raised in a Presbyterian home and was educated in public schools. From 1931 to 1932, she attended classes at Huron College. It was at that time that she met a young man tending counter at his father’s pharmacy, Hubert Horatio Humphrey.1 On September 3, 1936, Muriel Buck married Hubert Humphrey and, within a year, Muriel began helping to fund her husband’s college education at the University of Minnesota and his graduate studies at Louisiana State University.2 They raised a daughter and three sons: Nancy, Hubert III, Bob, and Douglas. Hubert Humphrey went on to teach political science at the University of Minnesota and at Macalester College during World War II. He also served as the state chief of the Minnesota war service program as assistant director of the War Manpower Commission in 1943. Two years later he launched a long and storied political career by winning election as mayor of Minneapolis. Humphrey became a powerful force in the state’s Democratic–Farmer–Labor Party (DFL). In 1948, he was elected to the first of three consecutive terms as one of Minnesota’s U.S. Senators. In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson chose Humphrey as his running mate on the presidential ticket. After their landslide victory, Humphrey served as Vice President from 1965 to 1969.
Muriel Humphrey played an indirect part in her husband’s early political career, keeping a certain distance between her role as mother and Hubert’s public life, but also assisting him as an informal advisor. She recalled their talks in the kitchen: “I’d say something while taking care of my babies and later it would be part of his speech.”3 It was not until Humphrey’s first Senate re–election campaign in 1954 that his wife actively participated in public appearances on his behalf.4 From that point forward, she gradually played a more active role in her husband’s political career. When President Lyndon Johnson chose Hubert Humphrey as his 1964 running mate, the Wall Street Journal described Muriel Humphrey as one of her husband’s key advisers: “Not only is the relationship between Hubert and Muriel Humphrey a genuinely warm and close one, but he has particular respect for her judgments of people and common sense assessments of situations. Mrs. Humphrey has never ‘gone Washington,’ and the Vice President feels that gives added weight to her opinions.”5 During the term that Hubert served as Vice President, the press portrayed Muriel as a dutiful and supportive wife: an adoring grandmother who sewed children’s clothes (and her own), as well as an avid gardener.6 But Muriel Humphrey also logged more than 650,000 miles on campaign trips and official visits during her husband’s long political career.7 After his unsuccessful campaign for the presidency in 1968, Hubert Humphrey was elected U.S. Senator from Minnesota in 1970. He won re–election in 1976.
In 1977, Hubert Humphrey was diagnosed with terminal cancer and passed away in January 1978. Minnesota Governor Rudy Perpich appointed Muriel Humphrey less than two weeks later, on January 25, 1978, to serve in her husband’s Senate seat until a special election could be held later that fall to fill the remaining four years of his term. Widespread public sentiment supported Muriel Humphrey’s appointment. It was both testament to the Humphreys’ partnership and a reflection of Minnesotans’ belief that she would know how best to try to bring her husband’s programs to fruition.
But the move served a political purpose as well. The 1978 elections in Minnesota would occur with the top three posts on the ticket held by unelected officials—senior Senator, governor, and junior Senator. Perpich’s predecessor, Wendell Anderson, had resigned his gubernatorial post in December 1976 with the understanding that Perpich would appoint him to the Senate seat vacated when Walter Mondale became Vice President. Observers believed that the appointment of another politically ambitious member of the DFL to Hubert Humphrey’s seat would set off a controversy that could hurt them at the polls.8 Muriel Humphrey debated whether or not to accept and conferred with two political confidantes, Representative Barbara Jordan of Texas and Representative Lindy Boggs of Louisiana. “They both wanted me to accept the post and run for office,” Humphrey noted.9 Humphrey denied she was acting as merely a caretaker for the seat (postponing a decision on whether she would stand for election in the fall of 1978 to the remaining four years of the term), viewing the opportunity as a chance to help the DFL Party through a troubled period. “As a Member of the Senate, I believe I can help complete some of the very important legislative business that Hubert hoped to finish,” Humphrey said during her appointment announcement.10 Sworn in by Vice President Walter Mondale on February 6, she added modestly, “I hope I can fill Hubert’s shoes.”11
During her 10 months in office, Muriel Humphrey served on the Foreign Relations and Governmental Affairs committees. In her first speech as a Senator, Humphrey urged ratification of the treaties turning over control of the Panama Canal to Panama and guaranteeing the canal’s neutrality, positions once espoused by her husband. On the Foreign Relations panel she also cast a key vote in favor of President James Earl “Jimmy” Carter’s proposal to sell military aircraft to Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia.12 From her seat on Government Affairs, Humphrey sponsored a successful amendment to the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 that extended better job security protections to federal employees who exposed waste or fraud in government. The Senator also had the opportunity to witness the completion of a major segment of her husband’s work with the passage of the 1978 Humphrey–Hawkins Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act, attending the White House bill–signing ceremony.13 The measure declared that it was the policy of the federal government to promote full employment, extend economic growth and increase real income, balance the budget, and create price stability.
Humphrey also championed liberal causes that were distinctively hers. She cosponsored a successful joint resolution to extend the deadline for ratification of the ERA by an additional three years. She also proposed a nationwide advocacy system to protect the rights of seriously disabled psychiatric patients and backed universal testing of pregnant women to prevent mental retardation in babies.14 In September of 1978, the Senate approved her amendment to the Department of Education Organization Act that changed the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to the Department of Health and Human Services. During her tenure she admitted that she found the Senate at first to be “frightening. Especially presiding at meetings,” she noted. But she did not lose her humor. “It’s awfully hard for me to rap the gavel or interrupt when someone is talking. My upbringing was that you never interrupt your elders, but I’m learning.”15
On April 8, 1978, at a dinner in St. Paul honoring her late husband, Muriel Humphrey announced her decision not to seek election to the remaining four years of his term. Speaking to reporters, Senator Humphrey remarked that it was a “difficult decision,” noting that “like Hubert, I feel stirred by the purpose and the promise and the challenge” of elective office. But after spending much of the past three decades in public life, spanning 12 elections, she yearned “to return to Minnesota in November and resume life as a private person with ample time for my home, family and friends.”16 Humphrey’s Senate term expired on November 7, 1978, following the election of David Durenberger to serve the remaining four years of Hubert Humphrey’s unexpired term.
After completing her Senate service, Humphrey retired to Excelsior, Minnesota. In 1979, she married an old family friend and widower whom she had known since her high school days, Max Brown. The couple settled in Plymouth, Minnesota, where Humphrey–Brown spent time with her family and largely away from the political spotlight. In 1998, during Hubert Humphrey III’s campaign for governor of Minnesota, she appeared on the campaign trail with him. That fall, Muriel Buck Humphrey–Brown passed away in Minneapolis on September 20, 1998.
1Carl Solberg, Hubert Humphrey: A Biography (New York: Norton, 1984): 52.
2Linda Charlton, “The Newest Senator From Minnesota: Muriel Buck Humphrey,” 26 January 1978, New York Times: A18; Marilyn Hoffman, “His ‘Inspirational’ Force,” 9 August 1968, Christian Science Monitor: 6.
3Solberg, Hubert Humphrey: A Biography: 195; Helen Dewar, “Important Business to Finish: Friends Unsurprised by Muriel ’s Decision,” 26 January 1978, Washington Post: A3.
4Dorothy McCardle, “Muriel Humphrey Adds Special Campaign Spark,” 27 October 1968, Washington Post: H1; Dorothy McCardle, “Hubert Humphrey Is Her Husband,” 14 July 1968, Washington Post: H1; Sue Cronk, “Minnesota’s Muriel: She Can’t Place the Faces, But She Gets the Votes,” 9 August 1964, Washington Post: F6.
5Alan L. Otten, “Humphrey ’s Helpers: Vice President ’s Advisers Influence His Many Projects,” 1 March 1965, Wall Street Journal: 10.
6“Sharing the Distaff Ticket… Lady Bird and Muriel,” 28 August 1964, Christian Science Monitor: 1.
7Marilyn Bender, “Showing Campaign Style All Her Own,” 23 September 1968, New York Times: 38; Hoffman, “His ‘Inspirational’ Force”; Irvin Molotsky, “Muriel Humphrey Brown, Senator, Dies at 86,” 21 September 1998, New York Times: B12; Charlton, “The Newest Senator From Minnesota: Muriel Buck Humphrey.”
8See, for example, Douglas E. Kneeland, “Mrs. Humphrey Seems Assured of Offer of Senate Appointment,” 18 January 1978, New York Times: A14; Jon Nordheimer, “Perpich to See Mrs. Humphrey,” 25 January 1978, New York Times: A12.
9Karen DeWitt, “Muriel Humphrey Ponders a Big Question—To Run or Retire?” 8 April 1978, New York Times: 11.
10Jon Nordheimer, “Muriel Humphrey Accepts Appointment to Husband’s Senate Seat,” 26 January 1978, New York Times: A18.
11“Senator Muriel Humphrey Is Sworn In,” 7 February 1978, Washington Post: A2; Charlton, “The Newest Senator From Minnesota: Muriel Buck Humphrey.”
12Albert R. Hunt, “Sen. Humphrey to Give Carter Key Vote In Senate Panel on Arms Sale to Mideast,” 11 May 1978, Wall Street Journal: 7.
13Edward Walsh, “Humphrey–Hawkins Measure Is Signed by the President,” 28 October 1978, Washington Post: A9.
14DeWitt, “Muriel Humphrey Ponders a Big Question—To Run or Retire?”
16Douglas Kneeland, “Mrs. Humphrey Decides Not to Seek Election in Fall,” 9 April 1978, New York Times: 27; Douglas Kneeland, “Race Is Clarified as Mrs. Humphrey Declines to Run,” 10 April 1978, New York Times: A18.