It is conventional wisdom among the political cognoscenti in New Jersey that the odds of a New Jerseyan being elected president are virtually prohibitive.
Only two United States presidents have had a residential link to New Jersey. Grover Cleveland is the only New Jersey native to become president. Cleveland was a resident of New York State at the time of both his elections to the White House. Prior to his election to the presidency, Woodrow Wilson served as governor of New Jersey and president of Princeton University.
Yet few political observers know how close former New Jersey Governor Richard J. Hughes came to attaining the presidency, without even having any driving aspiration to reach the Oval Office. Dick Hughes was one of 1968 Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey’s three finalists for the vice-presidential nomination, in competition with Humphrey’s eventual selection, Maine U. S. Senator Ed Muskie and Oklahoma U.S. Senator Fred Harris.
I believe that if Humphrey had selected Dick Hughes as his running mate, he would have been elected as our nation’s 37th president, defeating Richard Nixon and his crooked, bigoted running mate, Maryland Governor Spiro T. Agnew. Had Humphrey then served two terms, Dick Hughes would have been his natural successor.
Dick Hughes would have brought two major assets to the Humphrey campaign: 1) his fundraising prowess; and 2) his First Lady, Betty Hughes.
The Humphrey campaign was running out of money at the time of his September 30 Salt Lake City speech, in which he promised to halt the bombing of North Vietnam. Ed Muskie was an abysmal failure as a fundraiser, able to raise only approximately $10,000. By contrast, Dick Hughes was a superb fundraiser, capable of raising hundreds of thousands of dollars at a time when such amounts were deemed to be prodigious fundraising feats.
Betty Hughes was a media star in her own right, with popular television shows and newspaper columns to her credit. In fact, had Dick Hughes been selected by Humphrey, Betty Hughes would have been the most media savvy spouse of any candidate on a national ticket in modern American political history. She would have been the darling of television talk shows throughout America, and her effervescent personality would have won the hearts and votes of millions of Americans.
Yet in order to understand how the presence of Dick Hughes on the 1968 Democratic national ticket could have enabled Humphrey to achieve victory, it is essential to understand 1) the reason why Humphrey did not select him; and 2) the final Electoral College results.
Dick Hughes was appointed Chair of the Credentials Committee of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the ultimate thankless task. Yet in this capacity, he made landmark history for civil rights and equality for African-Americans. Under his leadership, the Credentials Committee seated an insurgent Mississippi integrated delegation and ousted half a segregated Georgia delegation handpicked by racist Governor Lester Maddox, replacing them with an integrated group led by one of the stars of that tumultuous 1968 Convention, Julian Bond.
The leadership of the Democratic Party of the South in those days was still a lily-white, racist preserve. The courageous actions of Dick Hughes made him unacceptable to Southern governors as a running mate for Humphrey. Governor John Connolly of Texas, later a Republican and ironically, a personal friend of Hughes, conveyed this message to Humphrey. Humphrey acceded to the wishes of the Southern Democratic Party leadership and selected Muskie instead of Hughes.
This was one of the worst mistakes of Humphrey’s career. Humphrey only carried one Southern state, Texas, with its 25 electoral votes, and Muskie was only able to win one additional state for Humphrey, Maine (4 electoral votes). In an election where the popular vote margin between Nixon and Humphrey was less than one percent, Humphrey was only able to win 191 electoral votes, with 270 needed to elect.
What if Humphrey had defied the Southern Democratic Party leadership and selected Dick Hughes as his running mate? He probably would have lost Texas and Maine for a combined total of 29 electoral votes. Yet I firmly believe that a Humphrey-Hughes ticket would have obviously carried New Jersey (17 electoral votes), plus the three states that by paper thin margins ultimately gave Nixon the election: Illinois (26 electoral votes), California (40 electoral votes), and Ohio (26 electoral votes). Victory in these three states plus New Jersey would have given Humphrey a total of 271 electoral votes and the presidency.
As an undergraduate at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, a Chicago suburb, I very closely followed the 1968 election, particularly in Illinois. The following explains my reasoning behind my belief that a Humphrey-Hughes ticket would have carried Illinois, California, and Ohio:
Illinois: During the 1968 general election campaign and on Election Day, Chicago Mayor Dick Daley did virtually nothing on behalf of the Humphrey-Muskie ticket. The subpar Humphrey vote in Chicago, combined with defections of Democrats to the third party candidacy of George Wallace, resulted in Humphrey losing Illinois, a state in which Dick Daley had played an instrumental role (both legal and possibly illegal) on behalf of JFK’s victory in the state in 1960.
Had Dick Hughes been on the ticket, however, Dick Daley would have moved mountains on behalf of the Humphrey campaign, for one reason: Dick Hughes was a fellow Irish-American! And for Dick Daley, this meant everything.
California: Humphrey lost the state because of his failure to win the votes of a sufficient number of anti-war Democrats who had supported Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy in the primary. Although Dick Hughes, like Humphrey, had loyally supported the Johnson Vietnam policy, he had a high degree of acceptability to antiwar Democrats, due to his defense of the free speech rights of Eugene Genovese, a Rutgers professor who openly advocated victory for the Vietcong. Governor Hughes vehemently disagreed with Genovese yet vigorously defended his academic freedom right to express his views. This made the New Jersey governor far more acceptable to antiwar Democrats than other LBJ loyalists. It would have rallied California anti-war Democrats on behalf of the Humphrey-Hughes ticket, enabling them to carry the Golden State.
Ohio: Humphrey lost this state mostly due to defection of blue collar workers and union members to George Wallace. Few American political figures were more successful at attracting voters from these two constituencies than Dick Hughes. He would have brought these defectors to Wallace home to the Democratic ticket, enabling Humphrey to win the Buckeye State.
It is fascinating to think of how a Humphrey-Hughes ticket victory in 1968 would have changed American history. All the nightmares of the Nixon years, most notably, the harsh polarization, Kent State, and Watergate would have been avoided. The withdrawal from Vietnam would have proceeded at a much more rapid pace. That would have set up a landslide Humphrey-Hughes reelection victory in 1972. In 1976, Dick Hughes would have been the logical Democratic presidential nominee, avoiding another American presidential disaster, Jimmy Carter.
In that election of 1976, however, Dick Hughes would have faced as his Republican opponent one of my major historical heroes, Ronald Reagan. Yet Reagan’s victory over Hughes would not have been a sure thing. Dick Hughes would have been a far more formidable general election opponent than the two hapless opponents Reagan faced in the general elections of 1980 and 1984, Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale, respectively.
How would Dick Hughes have fared as a president? His biographer, John Wefing put it best to me in a recent conversation. As Wefing stated, Dick Hughes was a magnificent communicator, with a unique ability to bring together disparate and conflicting parties and forge a consensus. This would have enabled Dick Hughes to achieve remarkable success in the Oval Office.
None of this happened, because of the courage of Dick Hughes as Chair of the Credentials Committee at the1968 Democratic National Convention. Yet he never regretted his actions. As his stepson, former Morris County Prosecutor Michael Murphy related to me, Dick Hughes always said that doing the right and moral. thing was more important than anything else – and he really meant it.
Courage, conviction, character, and competence -that was Dick Hughes. These qualities made this good and great man an excellent New Jersey governor – and another superb role model for our new governor, Phil Murphy, to follow.
Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman.