S.5 E.3: Race and the Party of Lincoln

Learning for Life @ Gustavus host Greg Kaster interviews Gustavus alumnus and Virginia Commonwealth University history professor Timothy Thurber.
Posted on November 2nd, 2020 by

Historian and alumnus Timothy Thurber ’89 of Virginia Commonwealth University, talks about his research and book on the Republican Party and race in the three decades after World War II (it’s more complicated than we might think from today’s vantage point), his book on and assessment of Hubert Humphrey, his undergraduate education, and the personal rewards and helpful perspectives historical study offers.

Season 5, Episode 3: Race and the Party of Lincoln

Greg Kaster:

Learning for Life at Gustavus is produced by JJ Akin and Matthew Dobosenski of Gustavus Office of Marketing. Will Clark, senior communications studies major and videographer at Gustavus, who also provides technical expertise to the podcast, and me, your host, Greg Kaster. The views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of Gustavus Adolphus College.

In the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump received just six percent of the black vote compared to 91% for Hillary Clinton, and this was nothing new. Since 1964, black voters have by varying percentages resounding rejected Republican presidential candidates. What explains this and why does it matter? These questions are arguably more urgent than ever in an election year where one candidate, the incumbent president, has built his political brand and his presidency on appeals to whiteness. Appeals that have become even more frequent and explicit in response to the massive protests against the police killings of black women and men that have arisen across the United States the last several months.

All this is why I’m excited to be speaking today with historian Tim Thurber of Virginia Commonwealth University, whose terrific 2013 book, Republicans and Race: The GOP’s Frayed Relationship with African Americans, 1945 to ’74, I think is essential reading for anyone trying to make sense of the racial politics of the 2020 presidential election. And Tim, I am delighted to say, majored in history at Gustavus, graduating in 1989, and going to earn his PhD in US History at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. He’s an expert in the history of party politics and civil rights since World War II. At Virginia Commonwealth, he teaches both undergraduate and graduate course in 20th century US history, while also maintaining an active research agenda. In addition to the aforementioned book and various articles and book chapters, he’s also the author of an outstanding 1998 book titled the Politics of Equality: Hubert H Humphrey and the African American Freedom Struggle, 1945 to ’78.

He’s precisely why I wanted to speak with him for useful, and as you will hear, in someways surprising historical perspective on the Republican party, and this presidential election that approaching. Welcome Tim, I’m so thrilled, delighted we could reconnect for this, it’s been a while.

Timothy Thurber:

Thank you Greg. It’s a pleasure to be with you.

Greg Kaster:

Thanks so much. Let’s stay where I like to, you’re a historian too, we’re interested in origins, causes, so what lead you to Gustavus and where’d… You grew up in Minnesota, if I’m remembering correctly.

Timothy Thurber:

I did. Yeah. I grew up in the Twin Cities, and when it came time to look for a college, I was interested in getting away from home a bit, but not too far, so Gustavus fit that profile. I’m Swedish in my own background, family history, so there was that tie, and finally, I was very interested in a small college, with small class sizes and lots of emphasis on good teaching.

Greg Kaster:

And did you already know you wanted to be a history major, or was that something that came only in the course of your classes at Gustavus?

Timothy Thurber:

No, I’m not sure anybody shows up wanting to be a history major, or very few people anyway. I was interested in economics and remain interested in economic history and business, but was at first interested in pursuing something in economics. I also thought a bit about political science. I developed an interest in politics in high school, but yet in the course of fulfilling distribution requirements and such, had the good fortune to take American History and one class lead to another, and by my sophomore or so, I’d begun to think about teaching and wanting to study more history. I still enjoyed economics, but my interest was moving in other directions.

Greg Kaster:

I remember, I think Kate and I, my wife, Kate, who taught there as well, now retired, we met you probably… Well, we came in ’86, so that’s when we would have met you, and I guess that was your… Was that your sophomore year, maybe? Something like that.

Timothy Thurber:

Sophomore, yeah. I started in the Fall of ’85 and I believe it or not, do remember you coming in to give a guest lecture, in Kevin Byrnes’ US History survey class. Yes.

Greg Kaster:

Well, yeah, I was going to say, let’s do a shout out to Kevin, who was chair of the department when Kate and I were hired, and who really was your mentor at Gustavus. And I have a such a strong memory, I don’t know if it was your junior year or senior year, of you doing the… You got a Nation Endowment for Humanities Young Scholars Fellowship to work with Kevin, I don’t think they have that program anymore, unfortunately. But you did just a wonderful paper on Robert Kennedy, right?

Timothy Thurber:

Yes.

Greg Kaster:

Which, I don’t know, do you think that was the basis for your future work?

Timothy Thurber:

In some ways, it was an outgrowth of where interests were already headed, and that I think continued some momentum that was already there, and then it wasn’t that long after finishing that project that I graduated. And then immediately upon graduation, enter graduate school. I was again eager to continue studying history, so I went straight away.

Greg Kaster:

At UNC Chapel Hill, you worked with the great Bill Leuchtenburg. Is still with us? I can’t remember if he’s passed.

Timothy Thurber:

Oh, no, he’s still very much alive-

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, that’s what I [crosstalk 00:05:32]-

Timothy Thurber:

… and writing. I haven’t been in touch with him in a while, but he was always somebody in remarkable health, both physical and mental health, and continued to write books and be engaged intellectually after officially retiring from the university. He’s had a long a prolific career.

Greg Kaster:

Tell us a little bit about what your dissertation work was like, your research at Chapel Hill.

Timothy Thurber:

That was a continuation of, again, a merging of an interest in American politics, recent politics. My interest in more recent political history of the 20th century, grew out of an interest in current events, so to search for the roots of current events. While at Gustavus in various history class, I developed an interest in the Civil Rights Movement, and so those two streams of interest merged when I was looking for a dissertation topic, which lead me to the study of Hubert Humphrey.

Greg Kaster:

And that became the basis of your first book, I guess, your dissertation.

Timothy Thurber:

Yes, yes.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. Well, we’ll get to that in a bit. Let’s dive into the more recent book, which I just think is outstanding and I wish everyone would read it, could read it, should read it. The idea in there is really interesting. First of all, you point out there are sort of two dominant narratives about the Republican party and race. Maybe we could just start there, just tell us what those are, because you’re arguing against and revising those in the book.

Timothy Thurber:

Yeah. I try to turn some of the conventional wisdom on it’s head. The strongest one that resonated with me was the idea that somehow the party of Lincoln in the 1930s, 40s, 50s, somewhere up into the mid-60s, then did a sudden reversal. And in many ways, when I began to dig into the history of the 1940s and 50s, in particular, the book beginnings at the end of World War II, simply put, I just didn’t find much evidence for that. It was not so much often a case of hostility, although there was plenty of disagreement, particularly on economic questions about the role of government trying to regulate business. But going along with that was just a disinterest. Republican lawmakers in Congress tended to come from rural areas, didn’t have that much direct contact or experience with urban racial politics. The African American population heavily urbanized.

Again, we’re talking about geographic focus as well in the Northeast and the Midwest. Where most Republicans at that time came from, in the 1940s and 50s, there were only a handful of Republicans from the South in Congress. Once these… A prioritizing I think of other matters. There’s from time to time issues do crumble to the floor, yes, but I looked for evidence of engagement with civil rights issues. The stereotype of the party of Lincoln would suggest a real, at least, somewhat strong commitment to certain principles, and I just found the evidence thin for much of that early period.

But then the historical context shifts. Again, it builds over time from the 40s through the 50s, and certainly by the rise of mass direct action protests in the 1960s and other events, issues, as they always do in politics, come to the fore. And that’s not under anyone’s direct control, that’s history unfolding. In that different historical context, different situations emerge, and what I found, at least through the early 1970s, was a history of policy momentum, and I think again, one looks across at other areas of the history of public policy, a broad generalization holds true, and that is various policies of government require a momentum that for various reasons is hard to reverse.

What I found when I looked at, particularly in Congress, we often have a presidential focus, and the book does of course focus on Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, but I was also very interested in Congress, which tends to get underplayed as an institutional force in our politics and in our policy analysis. And what I found in Congress, in particular, by the late 60s and early 70s, was an alliance of liberal Democrats and a handful of Republicans who in effect voted to sustain the policy initiatives. The best example that comes to mind right now would be the Voting Rights Act. The Voting Rights Act comes up for renewal in 1970, and there are conservative voices who cut across party lines. Conservative southerners aligned with conservative Republicans looking to modify and basically weaken crucial aspects of the Voting Rights Act, but to make a long story short, they are defeated in Congress. And the Voting Rights Act, the core provisions that civil rights groups wanted, were renewed intact.

Again, there’s a history of momentum that is at play there and so I found in some respects, a relatively moderate, relatively even liberal, if we could use that term, and I think it fits in some cases, group of Republican lawmakers who were committed to these policy choices and were crucial in upholding the Voting Rights Act, again, in ways that organizations like the NAACP and donors at the time wanted. And again, to bring you back to presidents for just a second, again, Richard Nixon signed it. His motivations are complex, but he was under pressure from conservative advisors in his own administration saying, “This is not issue. We’re not going to get any votes out of it.” And even Nixon conceded in one of his letters saying, “I know there’s no votes in it for us, but I’m going to sign it anyway,” he said. He was a reluctant reformer in many ways, but again, he could have vetoed it, right? He-

Greg Kaster:

That’s right.

Timothy Thurber:

We talk about contingency and at that moment the president, whoever it is has a choice to make. What would have happened had he vetoed it? I don’t know, but he signed it, that’s the point. Again, for various motives, but also, I think, again, part of the larger point is building a policy apparatus that, at least through the early 70s, had acquired some momentum within the party.

Greg Kaster:

I love… Well there are many things I love about your book, but I love the focus on Congress, which is distinctive, different, and important, revealing, illuminating as you’re suggesting. And one thinks of Nixon… I know for me so much of what I… When I think of the Republican party, I think of it backwards from ’68. I just assumed the party’s always been the party of whiteness and reaction, but as you show so well, that’s not the case. Were these Republicans acting, perhaps not Nixon, but were they acting out of principle primarily? What’s your sense of what’s motivating these Republicans in Congress to support these policies?

Timothy Thurber:

I do think a good bit of it was principle. That as they thought about the nation and where it stood in the late 60s and early 1970s, certainly Cold War pressures are an issue for some, electoral pressures never go away, but I think to reduce it electoral politics is to oversimplify it. I’m thinking of figures here like Robert Packwood in Oregon voting for it, Mark Hatfield, Jacob Javits in New York. These individuals had been in the Senate for quite a while, and had been reelected, but as you mentioned earlier in the introduction, they never got black votes. In New York, the African American vote is overwhelmingly Democratic, so if you’re running as a Republican Senator, like Jacob Javits was, he’s not fairing much better than most Republicans were, when it comes to the share of the African American vote.

In many ways Javits was a pretty liberal figure, and conservatives within his own party tried to paint him that way, and he was defeated by a conservative, Al D’Amato [crosstalk 00:14:58]-

Greg Kaster:

Al D’Amato, right.

Timothy Thurber:

So the attack comes from the right. Again, a number of other scholars have made similar argument here, that something shifts in the Republican party, particularly in the 1970s on not just racial politics, but a number of other issues as well like economics and the welfare state and number of other things. These relatively moderate voices just… they’re gone.

Greg Kaster:

They’re gone.

Timothy Thurber:

Yeah, they’re gone by the time Reagan appears in 1980.

Greg Kaster:

Do you think… Actually, how are you to Nixon? Let’s start with Ike, let’s start with Eisenhower. What did you find with respect… I always think of him as sort of… he’s portrayed as this reluctant… very reluctant on the civil rights front, did you find that to be the case as you… I think you have at least one or two chapters about him in the book.

Timothy Thurber:

Yes, and I think that point more or less holds true. Yes. Eisenhower, I believe was reluctant to push for federal answers to racial matters. Again, for a while it’s not a priority. He’s president, he’s got his eye on, I think, other issues, but the something like the Little Rock Crisis, of course, becomes something. It’s impossible to ignore. We forget one of the, I think, more interesting things to me, at least when I was researching the book was… Again, historical memory becomes, what’s the word I’m looking for? We have a way of telescoping things and maybe remembering things in a way that people at the time didn’t experience. The example I’m thinking about here is the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Something now every grade school kid at least has heard of Rosa Parks, right?

Greg Kaster:

Right.

Timothy Thurber:

But at the time not that many people outside of the immediate civil rights community and then the New York Times, if I remember right, put them on the Montgomery Bus Boycott way back in the paper. Eisenhower’s attorney general said, “Well, we were kind of watching it, but we didn’t think it was that big of a deal.” And maybe that’s worthy of criticism, but nevertheless, the stuff that we remember about history, we often stitch together narratives looking backward rather than going from point A to point B to point C to point D. And I think that’s one of the values of history is that, again, we can see things differently when we try to immerse ourselves in that world. I found Eisenhower reluctant in some respects, but in other respects in areas of clear federal authority, he acted forthrightly.

He desegregated military bases, schools, and other institutions in Washington DC and so forth, and so it’s mixed record, yes, but nevertheless one that did a few things. But on the questions of voting rights and other things, again, very reluctant to use federal authority, and that would [crosstalk 00:18:03]-

Greg Kaster:

I wonder it he would have sign the… Did he have to sign the reauthorization? Did that come… No, it hadn’t been passed yet. [crosstalk 00:18:10]-

Timothy Thurber:

Yeah, no, 1957 Civil Rights Act he did move on-

Greg Kaster:

He did sign that.

Timothy Thurber:

Yeah, that was the first civil rights law passed by the federal government in 82 years or so, and-

Greg Kaster:

The Voter Rights Act of ’65.

Timothy Thurber:

… then eight years later… Yeah, the Civil Rights Act in 1957, fairly toothless in terms of oversight on voting in particular, and that again helps bring further attention to the voting injustices in the South. Then momentum would build up over time, but, yeah, it would take years. That’s a long time, right-

Greg Kaster:

Yeah.

Timothy Thurber:

… before we finally get the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Greg Kaster:

Right. A couple of things you said are music to my hears as a historian and a teacher of history. One, the role of contingency, what if? That is… I interviewed Jim McPherson, the great Civil War historian, Gustavus alum, and I learned so much about the role of contingency meeting him, and I’ve incorporated that much more into my teaching than every before. It’s one of what I call the seven Cs of history, contingency. And then the other thing, you’re so right about, you used the Rosa Parks example, where something from the past that looms so large in our present, may not have loomed that large-

Timothy Thurber:

It didn’t.

Greg Kaster:

… in the minds of most people at that time. And it’s funny you mentioned her because I a first term seminar, years ago, in the 1960s, I had a student… well, I was trying to have a student do some research on how the northern press covered the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and she was having trouble finding stuff. And I thought, “Now, come on.” But you’re right about the New York Times, I was really surprised by that. I thought it would be front page story, it was not.

Timothy Thurber:

Yeah, no, it’s just like so many things, our consciousness shifts as event unfold, and then we can’t go back to the old consciousness, right? But [crosstalk 00:19:56]-

Greg Kaster:

Right.

Timothy Thurber:

… respects, but I guess that’s life. Things develop over time, but yeah, a useful reminder that things that we in the present deem important or significant, yeah, people in the past didn’t see the world in the same way we do.

Greg Kaster:

Exactly, and that’s part of the magic and power, I think of historical research, where you uncover that. What about Nixon? I teach the course on ’68 and I can’t… Right away the southern strategy, or when you’re thinking Nixon and race and Wallace and race, what’s the case for Nixon and civil rights beyond that he signs the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act?

Timothy Thurber:

Such a puzzling figure, but that’s what everybody says about Nixon, and oddly enough I’m working on a little project on Nixon right now.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, really.

Timothy Thurber:

Yeah. A long story, it’s going to be a book for classroom use, very short. A synthesis of existing work, it’s not archival based, but I’ve spent the last year or so reading quite a lot about Richard Nixon.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, then you’re the person I need to talk to about that.

Timothy Thurber:

Say what you want about Nixon, he’s always fascinating, right?

Greg Kaster:

I hear you.

Timothy Thurber:

Never dull to read his memos or his scribbling on what his aides are sending him. I’m persuaded in many ways by what University of Michigan historian Matt Lassiter argues, that in many respects Nixon was articulating a suburban strategy. It’s southern in part, yes, but I see it as heavily emphasizing suburban homeowners across the nation more so than white southerners. In regards to policy, again, there’s some surprising turns. Right?

Greg Kaster:

Yeah.

Timothy Thurber:

One sees the emergence of affirmative action in the federal government, and then eventually enforcing contractors across the nation, big corporations. Here too again, the history of policy momentum. I mentioned the Voting Rights Act, but the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was strengthened in the early 1970s. It was given additional enforcement powers, not in exactly the way that civil rights organizations had hoped, but there was not a roll back. Again, conservatives in both parties were eager to get the federal government, as they might say, off the backs of business, when it came regulating labor practices for non-whites, but also for women.

And so there is with the extension, I believe the year is 1972, when the EOC was strengthened. New categories of employees are brought under federal oversight, again, the numbers escape me at the moment, but we’re talking about hundreds of thousands, if not more, employees, including, I believe, at universities brought under federal labor protection, against job discrimination including, again, it’s racial in part, but it’s also applying to women. It’s a vast expansion of federal power. Again, there were vigorous debates. Civil rights groups wanted even stronger enforcements, so it’s kind of a compromise, but it’s hardly a roll back, right?

Greg Kaster:

Right.

Timothy Thurber:

It’s a roll back at all. Again, why did that happen? It happens in part because of the coalitions forming in Congress, but also, again, Nixon signed it. And so those provisions are still with us.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, and I think on your point, which comes through so clearly in the book, it’s not a roll back is important. I confess, I’ve approached Nixon, it’s a roll back. Reading your book has helped me to think anew about all of that.

Timothy Thurber:

Well, it’s both/and, again-

Greg Kaster:

Well, it’s mixed, right?

Timothy Thurber:

It’s mixed, very much so. I’m not a Nixon apologist by any means.

Greg Kaster:

No, no, no, right.

Timothy Thurber:

But again, at the same time, I’ll just cite one other thing, there is greater school desegregation in the south under Nixon, and again, Nixon doesn’t deserve… he doesn’t play the major role in this, other things are at work, no president’s in control of all things, but nevertheless, I do think there’s a role that Nixon played there. But on the other, with his rhetoric, sometimes his actions, in 1970s the federal government did go court to try to slow down school desegregation. There’s a lot of animosity between the Nixon administration and the NAACP and other prominent civil rights organizations. Black Americans, in terms of their opinions and voting patterns, don’t see Richard Nixon as an ally in many respects. He was on stage with figures like Strom Thurmond and that and more, so again, it cuts a number of different ways. But again, I think that’s one of the points about studying history, history’s often ambiguous, mysterious, can teach us something about ambiguity and-

Greg Kaster:

Listening to you, you’ve been particularly, drawn to that, I think, and good at that, because wasn’t your… this takes us back to your undergraduate years, your paper on RFK was really about that, if I’m remembering correctly. Was he a principled guy or… Am I right? Am I remembering… a pragmatist [crosstalk 00:25:28]-

Timothy Thurber:

Yeah, that’s… most on the right track, yeah. Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. I think that complexity and ambiguity is important. I’m teaching our methods course right now, and there’s a whole section on the reading for tomorrow about ambiguity and I’m trying to do my best to get the students comfortable with that.

Timothy Thurber:

No, I try to emphasize that in all my classes. It’s a hard message, I think, in many ways to get across, but I do, I feel more strongly than ever after years of teaching and reflecting on lots of different things personally and professionally that… Yeah, an appreciation for complexity and ambiguity is central to some many things, not just our teaching, but also in our personal lives and just life in general.

Greg Kaster:

Exactly. I try to tell my students, history it’s not the same as melodrama, evil villains and all good… It’s not simple, right?

Timothy Thurber:

Right.

Greg Kaster:

If only, it’d be a lot easier to teach. What has happened to the Republican party? Let’s imagine you were writing an epilogue to the book today, is it fair to say the party is basically abandoned the black vote for good reason. Is there any hope that they would ever become a party engaged with black voters the way the party once was?

Timothy Thurber:

Good question. And we’ll see. I find the 2020 election to be interesting in so many ways, but this is one of many issues I’m interested in see how things turn out. Everything here again is relative. They start from such a small base. And polls, I don’t read that many polls, and I take them with a grain of salt, but just the few that I’ve seen suggests that, well, is there something happening that, again, Trump could get 15% or even approach 20 that would be a pretty sizable jump in many ways.

Greg Kaster:

What’s the… The largest in ’64 is 15%, if I remember-

Timothy Thurber:

In ’64, yeah, it just falls off the cliff in ’64, and never recovers. And it bounces between 10 or so and 15 and then down, as you say, into single digits. It starts from almost nothing but we’ll a have to see what happens this year. Again, I think at some level it’s… say what you want about politicians, I think most of them can count, and see well, who’s on our team and who’s on the other team and in many ways, act accordingly. I think that some of it… I think an under appreciated story in terms of politics in terms of African American voting, again, particularly since the 60s and 70s, I think a lot of Republican party’s animosity and vice versa is rooted in cuts to government, right?

Greg Kaster:

Yes.

Timothy Thurber:

That since the 1970s, employment in the public sector has been very strong for African Americans, in education, policing, the federal government, a number of other areas-

Greg Kaster:

Helped to create a black middle class, really.

Timothy Thurber:

The black middle class, and there again, you can tie that back in some ways again, to affirmative action hiring practices, and other things certainly. But it was tool to the middle… a stepping stone to the middle class, and again, the turn in rhetoric but also in policy, right-

Greg Kaster:

Right.

Timothy Thurber:

… at the federal level but also at the state and local level, let’s not forget that too. Right?

Greg Kaster:

right.

Timothy Thurber:

It’s not all about the president in Washington, it’s what’s happening in the states. It’s all of the cuts to… and a lot of rhetoric directed against the public sector coming from the Republican party, and I believe that’s also a big factor.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. I think… Talked with some other historians, my colleagues about that, yeah, that… Well, you even say this in your book at some point, that behind… To understand the racial politics of the Republican party and the Democratic party, we’re really talking about two different views of government and of society, and that cuts to the public sector, they’re racialized inevitably, right?

Timothy Thurber:

That’s right.

Greg Kaster:

Because so many African American people are affected by that, as you say, not just at the federal level, but state and local as well. I’ve been struck too, this isn’t obviously original, but the way Trump’s rhetoric sometimes crudely, echoes Nixon’s, have you been struck by that as well?

Timothy Thurber:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

Or even Wallace’s I suppose. Wallace’s maybe more than Nixon’s.

Timothy Thurber:

Yeah. No, I think one can make some links there, absolutely.

Greg Kaster:

The suburban, you mentioned Nixon’s sort of… the suburban strategy, southern strategy, but also suburban strategy, certainly Trump seems to be trying to play that card as well. What about Humphrey’s role? I want to talk a little bit about that. I find Humphrey a fascinating figure. I’ve grown to be more interested in him since teaching the ’68 course. I don’t know if you know this book by Michael Cohen, he’s a journalist for… to that Michael Cohen, but a journalist for the Globe who wrote a book on the ’68 election, and, wow… It’s funny, my respect Humphrey both has increased as a result of reading that book and in a way decreased. Decreased with respect to his stances on Vietnam. How long it seemed to take him to come around.

But talk to us a little bit about Humphrey and civil rights. We’re here in Minnesota, you’re from Minnesota, it’s a subject dear to Minnesotan’s hearts. What were findings in that book? What was your thesis in that book?

Timothy Thurber:

In part, I was interested in two broad areas. One is, again, the questions of voting and battles against legal segregation, but also economics. The civil rights [inaudible 00:31:40], and Humphrey didn’t create this, this was in the movement from the beginning. That racial equality, racial justice demanded fighting on many different fronts as it still does. We have lots of balls in the air at the same, so to speak. Questions about participation in the political process, questions about desegregation of public institutions, public places, public accommodations as well as schools, and then the question, again, back to jobs and economic opportunity or the lack thereof, questions of poverty. In the book, I was trying to bring together Humphrey’s engagement with all these things and found, particularly, towards the end of his life, in a post 1960s environment, he was engaging and wrestling with questions that are still very much with us. And again, I [crosstalk 00:32:38]-

Greg Kaster:

Absolutely.

Timothy Thurber:

… in the 90s as well. The politics, the frameworks was still very much with us then as I think it remains with us now. Questions of how do you build coalitions? Can you build coalitions across racial lines? Across class lines? What options in a post 1968 context does the Democratic party have in terms of which way it goes on questions of the role of the state and economic affairs? And ongoing, again, efforts to preserve what had already been achieved in the 1960s. All these things struck me as particularly interesting, again, with Humphrey in the last couple chapters or so in the book, wrestling with the economic crisis in the 1970s, which hit lots of Americans hard. An attempt to build a universalist political coalition and the difficulties in doing that, the hazards, the challenges as his career wound down. The engagement with those issues, particular, drew my interest.

And then in the earlier period, again, when I circle back to what we were talking earlier, I did find Humphrey, of course, as the stereotype or popular image holds, out there as one of a handful of voices. Again, I just didn’t find that many politicians in neither party as I looked at the 1940s and 50s, all that interested in racial justice, racial matters, but Humphrey was there. And so that part of it I think is largely upheld. Like any politician, he trimmed and [inaudible 00:34:30], that’s part of the game of politics, but relatively speaking was there literally showing up, right?

Greg Kaster:

Right.

Timothy Thurber:

In ways that other politicians, again, in both parties, plenty of Democrats, I would argue in the 50s, didn’t pay much attention. Adlai Stevenson, John F Kennedy, no, right? [crosstalk 00:34:52]-

Greg Kaster:

Right, right.

Timothy Thurber:

… there.

Greg Kaster:

And what you said about Humphrey and economics, that I think is there in your book, it’s very powerful. It’s exactly where we’re at today, the economic dimensions of race or racism and civil rights, he was on it, really, I think from the start, very early.

Timothy Thurber:

Yeah, yeah.

Greg Kaster:

Come back to his efforts to build pluralistic coalitions, what’s your assessment of it? How successful was he in that endeavor? What were the major impediments?

Timothy Thurber:

I think the major impediments were, again, a larger, cultural and political moment in the 70s that was utterly disengaged, well, not disengaged, I would say, rather, cynical or pessimistic about the role of government. And make a long story short here, Humphrey the ardent New Dealer, Franklin Roosevelt was his hero. And so as Humphrey looked at the economic crisis in the 70s with unemployment mounting, again, high rates of poverty in particular parts of the country, Humphrey literally went back to the 1930s and saw the New Deal as a blueprint, to say, “Let’s, in effect, dust this off.” How are we going to deal with a society where more and more people are getting… unemployment’s rising in the 1970s, it much higher for African Americans than for whites, but it’s rising for whites too. And so the model is, for a while, to say, let’s a craft a policy that would have the federal government be, once again, as it was in the Great Depression, a employer of last resort.

And again, rooted in many of the same arguments that the New Deal was. That idleness was corrosive to the human spirit, that people would find common ground, Humphrey hoped. But again, faced resistance not just from across the aisle, but also within the Democratic party. By this time Jimmy Carter has ascended and Jimmy Carter’s not a New Dealer, to put it so simply. Again, there’s a larger pessimism I think, and again, that’s still very much with us obviously. About the idea that government could be a force for good. Humphrey remained committed to that throughout his life. And again, he learned that from the New Deal, through all of its imperfections, the basic landing point for Humphrey was that government can improve people’s lives. He saw that in his own family, in his own communities growing up and remained committed to that broad principle throughout his life, and tried to apply it in the 1970s, but in the wake of the 60s and the 70s, the national mood wasn’t there, so the effort fizzled.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. I think, it’s so true his sense of the role government can play. Listening to you describe it, it seems quaint in the current moment almost.

Timothy Thurber:

Oh, it sure does.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. You weren’t quite writing a biography, I realize, but still when you’re working on a book like that, how did you feel over time about Humphrey? Did you find yourself changing your view of him? Or coming to admire him more? Less? Mixed? Your relationship to the subject [crosstalk 00:38:24]-

Timothy Thurber:

Sure, good question. One thing that stood out was, and broadly speaking a greater empathy or sympathy or certainly again a revised view, I found Humphrey to be a sharper thinker than I think he’s sometimes given credit for. Particularly in 1968, he felt this very personally that a lot of folks on the East coast, in particular, who had been used to working in government, he’d been in government a long time, they kind of thought he was this corny mid-westerner, and I can understand where that comes from a bit. But in reading his speeches and looking more closely at him, I found a somewhat greater intellectual depth. You could agree or disagree with his answers to policy solution, right?

Greg Kaster:

Right.

Timothy Thurber:

But the idea that there’s more there in terms of intellectual heft, I think, than some of his critics, again, from the left, were inclined to acknowledge.

Greg Kaster:

That’s very interesting. Especially, when you think about Johnson himself feeling that where eastern elite seeing him as some kind of backwater, Texas hick, and then you’ve got Humphrey with the… he’s from flyover country, as we would say. I agree with that assessment actually, just based on this book I’ve read. I was impressed with some of, well, the policy memos he would send to Johnson, particularly the one about Vietnam. Yeah, I think that that… Well, you know much more than I [crosstalk 00:40:05]-

Timothy Thurber:

Labor too-

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, labor too.

Timothy Thurber:

… Humphrey comes out of the labor movement, retains strong labor support, compared to McGovern, and some of the other prominent figures by the 1970s in the Democratic party. And so there too, again, a seriousness of engagement with some big questions that I think [inaudible 00:40:28] some of the stereotypes.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, good points. What about your research for both books, it’s taking you into… Talk a little bit about that if you would, the… They’re both massively researched, Tim, my God, it was so impressive. In fact, with the most recent book, I just was thumbing through the notes just for fun, incredible. But tell us a little bit about that research process if you would.

Timothy Thurber:

Sure, as you say, it involved a massive amount of travel. I can’t even remember all the states at moment, as far west as California to Georgia, Florida, Texas, Abilene, Kansas, for Dwight Eisenhower, New York, and so I hit a lot of different parts of the country, spent a lot in archives and on the road for that book. And it was an exciting process of discovery, that’s one of the things I like about doing history, it’s a bit like detective work. And there’s a lot of tediousness to it, you’re sifting through, they’re just form letters and stuff that’s pretty meaningless, but then every once in a while, you hit something, so the light bulb moment, like, “Aha, this is really fascinating.” And there’s just an innate pleasure in piecing that stuff together that comes from the research process. I found that to be sustaining, because again, it took a long time to do that book, but it was rewarding in the end in many ways.

I also enjoyed, again, thanks to technology, was able to go online and read, OI can’t even remember how many years worth of Jet magazine, right?

Greg Kaster:

Oh, yeah, right.

Timothy Thurber:

And it’s all digitized, right?

Greg Kaster:

All there, yeah.

Timothy Thurber:

It was fascinating to read Jet magazine as a window into one aspect, obviously Jet doesn’t speak for all black America, nobody does, but it was a window. I didn’t find many historians using it, but Jet was very much engaged with politics, so I found stuff there that was just really wonderful and illuminating, but it only came as a result of doing the work of looking. I had to… it was literally quick scan, word searches weren’t enough. Sometimes, right now, you can do keyword searches and find zero things, but I didn’t find that to be helpful, at least in the case of Jet at the time. Maybe things are different now, but at the time, I felt like I had to scroll through every issue, because there was never… There was always going to be some kind of surprise or moment of unexpected delight even where, “Aha, I never would have found that if I hadn’t literally been moving sequentially through the pages and through that. But of course, it’s very time intensive.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. As you say, research, you said it so well, it’s both tedious and a pleasure, I agree. And to invoke a cliché here, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. And I found sometimes in teaching research to undergraduates, it’s hard to get that across. The time commitment that it takes, the willingness to scroll through things and maybe for six hours nothing comes up, but then there’s that moment, as you say, where, “Ah, I found it.” And keyword searches, absolutely, they don’t always reveal what you’re looking for. I’ve been doing some… The student newspaper, well, it’s not a newspaper, the publication, back in 1918, at Gustavus, digitized now through the archives, and I was just curious what was going on around influenza. And I was doing a keyword search pandemic, influenza, I couldn’t really find anything.

And then finally I just started scrolling, and I would find some interesting things. One of the things that was interesting was how normal things seemed to be at that time, by the way. The longest article I could find about influenza in the student publication was a lament about what it had done and US Army regulations, what it had done to the football season. [crosstalk 00:44:51]-

Timothy Thurber:

Some things never change.

Greg Kaster:

Exactly, right. But also just the fun, just the pleasure of scrolling through, it’s how we go back in time, it was just, it was really… Anyway, I’m off on a tangent here, but what about the congressional sources, what were you using there? And for the-

Timothy Thurber:

Same thing, the congressional record. I found stuff in the congressional record, but you really had to dig for it. All kinds of crazy stuff gets inserted into the congressional record, but when you go looking, you find, “Oh, this is relevant to what I’m looking for.” I found all sorts of juicy little nuggets that I found very revealing again about policy and political matters that the only way to get it was to open it up and sift through it. You obviously use the index as your starting point, but then once you get back into a bit, you just plow through it. I’m not reading every word of course in the congressional record, but I would look for stuff that… newspaper articles for example. Members of Congress liked to insert newspaper stories. Well, I wouldn’t have found that newspaper story, because I never would have looked at that publication on my own, but there it is right in front of me in the congressional record.

And then all of a sudden that opens up some important avenues and interesting insights that, again, wouldn’t have come to me had I not looked there.

Greg Kaster:

That’s kind of neat.

Timothy Thurber:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

The congressional record has its own archive in a way, as [crosstalk 00:46:22]-

Timothy Thurber:

Yeah. That’s right.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, that’s cool. In the time remaining, I want to step back a bit and hear what you have to say about history. We both know how it’s been a tough sell the last years, what’s your pitch for the study of history?

Timothy Thurber:

Good question. I tried to make it to students, and I absolutely agree, it’s a tough sell. Maybe it always has been, but I do think there’s somethings in our recent past that are making it a harder sell. What I try to say to students is a few things. One is that on a very personal level, I do believe history enriches our lives. It gives our lives some depth and flavor. They wouldn’t have… This is one thing that attracted me to history, everything that you could possibly be interested in has a history, sports, business, politics, art, music, food, all of it, there’s a history to it. And if you approach those things in your life without an awareness of the past, you might still enjoy them, but I argue, can’t quantify it, it’s just a feeling, but I believe it’s real, that your experience of those things and hence your life, and the lives of those around you, will take on a greater depth and that’s no small thing, I think.

You will have a more meaningful, richer experience, again, in your career, your family, your community, being a citizen, whatever, if you know something about the past. The other thing I would circle back to again is that point we raised earlier about complexity and ambiguity. I think that’s so important when we… Again, maybe this has been true of human beings for just about forever, but we tend to over simplify things. Very distrustful of idea logs of all sorts, and I think that comes in part from history.

Greg Kaster:

Yes.

Timothy Thurber:

That the worlds a lot more complex. We still have to make choices, we still have to act, but nevertheless, I think history can help us see things as more complex than many others might want to portray them. And in that sense might guide us, I hope, I think it’s far from guaranteed, but I would hope that it would guide us towards, again, some better decision making. That the world didn’t just begin this morning, it’s not just what happened in the last 15 seconds on Twitter, and so what happened yesterday or last year or a 100 years ago or maybe even further back than that, shapes what we do now. It may close off certain paths or make them narrower or may open up other things, but we are shaped by and can use history as we make, hopefully, some better decisions about where we might go in the future.

Now, then a couple things that’ll start, again, particularly in the pandemic, but even before the current crisis, I find myself, but also try to tell students, one of the things I take from history is, I’m pretty skeptical whenever I hear people trying to predict the future. We see this in the media all the time, about this is changing forever and this is never going back there or this is what’s going to happen-

Greg Kaster:

Yes.

Timothy Thurber:

… and that’s endemic to human psychology and maybe that’s a control mechanism of some sort. We can psychologize it I suppose, but just from a historical standpoint, one of the things that comes through to me is how many so called smart people in the past got the future very wrong.

Greg Kaster:

Exactly.

Timothy Thurber:

They were either too optimistic and things turned out much worse than they had hoped, or maybe sometimes they’re too pessimistic, and maybe the future’s not so bleak. I think we tend to catastrophize things right now, and again, I think there’s something about our own time with social media and the constant bombardment of information that I think exacerbates this, I think it’s always been there, perhaps, but I think it’s more pronounced given the media climate we’re in. But I tend to say, “Let’s hold off a second here. I’m not so sure it’s going to turn out that way. Let’s keep open that, back to that point about contingency, and let’s just see where this goes.”

Again, we have to make decisions based on the best information we can at the time, but again, I particularly find a lot of pessimism right now. And I understand where that comes from, but yet, again, the cycle… that’s one other theme that I would emphasize here is that someway in history also fosters a bit of gratitude in me. Yeah, we have problems, I’m not a Pollyanna, we have problems, every generation has problems. And again, I take a longer view of things as a historian, that’s just endemic to the discipline, and, okay, somethings have gotten worse. Again, it depends on your timeframe, and what you want to use to measure things, but there’s a lot that’s, I think, pretty good about modern life.

Greg Kaster:

Exactly.

Timothy Thurber:

Child mortality is down, right?

Greg Kaster:

Yes.

Timothy Thurber:

You take the long view across centuries. Death from certain diseases have declined dramatically, extreme poverty in the world is gone, well, not gone, I’m sorry, but it’s declined dramatically.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, no, I hear you. I know exactly… I-

Timothy Thurber:

It’s complex, again, it’s not a Pollyanna view that life is just hunkydory for everyone, that’s not what I’m saying at all, but then again, if you, again, it depends on your timeframe you want to use to measure but again, where I land on it is to say, “Hey, life wasn’t, oh, os great in the past, and all is not so terrible, now, or vice versa.” Again, it’s all complex-

Greg Kaster:

Exactly.

Timothy Thurber:

… and full of ambiguity, but maybe we should appreciate somethings. A few years back, read Robert Gordon’s book on economic history of the last century, it’s more big book, and he sort of has this cute little thought experiment, but I think there’s a profound point he’s making. He said, “Look, I’ll give you your iPhone and all the inventions in the last 15 years, if you let me keep the inventions in the first 30 years of the 20th century.” And he goes, “Look what happened, I get indoor plumbing. I get electricity, central heating and cooling.” There’s this incredible burst of technological innovation then that made life a lot better. Again, carry your bucket to the well if you want some water today.

Greg Kaster:

Exactly.

Timothy Thurber:

Let’s not romanticize that.

Greg Kaster:

Right. I sometimes say to friends and students, there’s something to be said for the 20th and 21st centuries. There’s actually a lot.

Timothy Thurber:

That’s right. Exactly. There’s a lot to be said. [crosstalk 00:53:29]-

Greg Kaster:

I think you said it so well. You certainly convinced me about why history matters. The other thing you touch on which I felt for a long time, but I feel especially strongly amid the current pandemic, is that history offers some sober lessons, but it also offers hope. Again, it’s a mix, and I think the other things you said, which I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is… and this is a point Sam Wineburg in some of his work, Historical Thinking, Sam Wineburg out of Stanford, history can help us slow down our thinking and take the long view and maybe be skeptical of some of these pronouncements that we know what the record is, of what you said, predicting the future.

Well, your students are lucky to have you. We were lucky to have you as a student at Gustavus. I don’t know if you ever took a class with me, I don’t think so. Maybe Kate or-

Timothy Thurber:

I took Kate’s Women of History class. [crosstalk 00:54:28] Somehow, I regret it, I’m sorry to say, I didn’t take you for whatever reason. I was lucky to have plenty of good professors in the history department, and also I-

Greg Kaster:

We were a great department and still are.

Timothy Thurber:

I remain deeply grateful for the education I received. It continues to be very profoundly influential and-

Greg Kaster:

We’re proud of our alums and my, God we have a lot fine historians out there, and you’re one of them. And hope to have you back on campus both just for a visit, but also maybe to give a talk at some point, when you can. Tim, this has been a real pleasure. I’ve become even more interested in political history, and your book has really only added to that. Take good care, thanks again. We’ll see what November 2020 brings.

Timothy Thurber:

[crosstalk 00:55:14], thank you Greg, it’s been a pleasure to be with you.

Greg Kaster:

Quite welcome, take care. Bye-bye.

Timothy Thurber:

Bye-bye.

 

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Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication JJ Akin
jakin@gustavus.edu
507-933-7510

 

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