The meeting

Humphrey in the late 40s

It was in November 1963 that Istomin met Hubert Humphrey during a lunch arranged by Eugenie Anderson. Mayor of Minneapolis from 1945 to 1948, Hubert Humphrey became a Minnesota senator in 1948. He belonged to the most progressive wing of the Democratic Party. He campaigned for an end to racial segregation and equal civil rights, better social justice and aid to developing countries. In 1963, he had just introduced a bill to create a Council and a Foundation for the Arts at the national level. The idea had appeared in Eisenhower’s time, but Congress had rejected it. This time the law was to pass: the National Council for the Arts was created in September 1964 and the Foundation was set up the following year. It would not be a ministry. The purpose was absolutely not to nationalize culture, but to support certain activities of creation, education and democratization. Its mission was also to promote American culture abroad, and to use it as a means of communication. Like Istomin, Humphrey was convinced that this battle was crucial in modern diplomacy and that America should send its best soldiers to the cultural front!

The Vice-Presidency and cohabitation with Johnson

Humphrey with Kennedy and Johnson at the White House (1962)

Istomin had left this lunch full of enthusiasm, completely won over by Humphrey’s ideas and personality, and by his simplicity, sensitivity, and culture. Humphrey was capable of putting his ideas before his political ambitions. In 1964, Humphrey became vice-president alongside Lyndon Johnson, who had far outstripped Republican candidate Barry Goldwater. This rise to the highest office did not prevent friendly ties with Istomin from being strengthened, particularly in December 1966 when Humphrey came to Puerto Rico to celebrate Casals’ 90th anniversary.

Vice-President of the United States

Cohabitation with Johnson was not an easy exercise for Humphrey, especially on the burning issue of the Vietnam War, which Johnson wanted to manage alone. Humphrey would have preferred not to embark upon the military escalation into which Johnson let himself be dragged. In the early days of his term, Humphrey expressed his desire to focus on negotiation. At this point, Johnson asked him not to take any public position on the subject that was not strictly in line with his own. From then on, Humphrey rigorously complied with this obligation, regardless of the cost. This loyalty would prove to be the main reason for his failure in the following presidential elections.

The 1968 presidential candidacy

On April 12, 1968, Humphrey declared his candidacy in a very difficult context. The situation in Vietnam had deteriorated sharply in January with the Tet offensive. On March 30, Johnson had announced, to the world’s amazement, that he would not run again. On April 4, Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, causing an outbreak of violence across the country. Two other candidates were seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination: Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy. On June 5, Robert Kennedy was murdered in turn and the tension continued to mount. Humphrey, remaining trapped in his obligations as vice-president, was reproached by young people and many intellectuals for his support of Johnson’s policy. The stakes were considerable. Istomin urged Humphrey to distance himself from Johnson’s position.

Istomin takes over as head of the Committee of Artists and Writers supporting Humphrey

It was essential to create an Arts & Letters Committee to improve Humphrey’s image among youth and intellectuals. Isaac Stern, who was also very close to Humphrey, would have been an ideal president, bringing to the position his notoriety and an impressive network of contacts, but his wife Vera refused. She felt that Stern’s image probably had more to be lost than gained by this venture. Istomin did not bother with such precautions. He decided to take on the mission with the sole help of a secretary, Pat Daniels, the wife of one of the leaders of the clothing workers’ union.

He undertook to contact all the names in his extensive address book, and even tried to organize a concert at the Lincoln Center. Eugene Ormandy, though usually a Republican sympathizer, was very ambivalent about Nixon and agreed to conduct, with the participation of many soloists. Martina Arroyo was to sing the famous Leonora aria in Fidelio: “Come, Hope, let not your last star be eclipsed in despair! O come, light me my goal, however far…” Istomin eventually gave up on the concert project, due to severe organizational difficulties and the high cost which would not have yielded a substantial profit.

Sinatra supporting Humphrey

As might be feared, given the context, the collection of signatures and the financial contributions were modest, despite Istomin’s efforts. Among the most prominent personalities who agreed to be included in the Committee were writers Conrad Aiken, John Steinbeck and Richard Wilbur, philosopher Eric Hoffer, economist John Kenneth Galbraith, and the actors or directors Gregory Peck and Otto Preminger. There were numerous musicians, including Arthur Rubinstein, Byron Janis, Rudolf Serkin, Alexander Schneider, Leonard Rose, Joseph Fuchs, Robert Merrill, Sherrill Milnes, Shirley Verrett and Grace Bumbry. Frank Sinatra had also declared his support, but there had been many defections. Bernstein had turned a deaf ear to Istomin’s requests; walled in by his own utopian demands, he had come to believe that Nixon’s election would cauterize the American people and steer them back on the path to the ideal. Stravinsky politely replied that he preferred to support McCarthy, who was more clearly opposed to the continuation of the war. The Committee raised $200,000, a modest sum that nevertheless made it possible to broadcast 2,500 one-minute spots across the country, in which the most prominent artists presented their reasons for supporting Humphrey.

The National Democratic Convention designates Humphrey

At the end of August, knowing that peace negotiations were progressing in Paris, Humphrey continued to claim his solidarity with Johnson and declared, on August 25, in NBC’s show Meet the Press, that Johnson’s policy in Vietnam was fundamentally good. The National Democratic Convention met the next day in Chicago. It appointed Hubert Humphrey as a candidate in the presidential elections by an overwhelming majority. The positive impact of this renewed unity was wiped out by the anti-war demonstration which took place in the streets of Chicago on August 28 and which was repressed with extreme violence by the police, in full view of the television cameras. Humphrey could not be officially blamed for this violence because it had been ordered by Richard Daley, the Democratic mayor of Chicago, with Johnson’s agreement.

The key issue of Vietnam


Hubert Humphrey and Lyndon Johnson at the White House

With ten weeks to go before the election, the battle seemed very precarious for Humphrey, who was significantly outpaced by Nixon in the polls. Istomin, who was at the Edinburgh Festival at that time, immediately wrote to Humphrey. His letter, sent on August 31, begins with some friendly words and then gets to the heart of the matter: “Clearly, Johnson must make the sacrifice of letting you express your own strategy to end the war.” Istomin suggested that Humphrey seek out the support of Fortas, one of Johnson’s most influential advisors, and assured him that Johnson would certainly accept: “Johnson’s posterity depends on you and his abnegation. Now. If Johnson fails to understand that, the people and the future will not forgive him.” He then ended with some considerations about the state of mind of the American people. For him, it was obvious that Nixon’s good poll results were due to Johnson’s rejection and the feeling that Humphrey was not taking a strong enough stand against the outgoing president on the issue of the Vietnam War.

The end of the campaign and the betrayal of the Nixon-Kissinger tandem

Humphrey-compassionHumphrey pursued a very intense campaign, developing the themes that were dear to him, including the extension of civil rights and the fight against poverty, in line with Roosevelt’s ideals. On October 1, five weeks before the election, he considered that he could now take the liberty of making his personal position on Vietnam known, stating: “As President, I would be willing to stop the bombing of the North as an acceptable risk for peace.” The gap in the surveys narrowed considerably. On October 31, Johnson announced the complete cessation of bombing.

A few days earlier, the North Vietnamese had finally accepted the presence of a South Vietnamese delegation in the negotiations held in Paris since May 10. The prospects of reaching a peace agreement soon seemed to guarantee a victory for Humphrey and the Democrats victory, but Nixon’s betrayal completely changed the situation.

Nixon and Thiêu in June 1969

Nixon succeeded in sabotaging the peace process by persuading the South Vietnamese President, General Thiêu, not to participate in the negotiations. Nixon had told Thiêu that it was in his own interest to wait until he had been elected President of the United States, because he would be much better defended than by the Democratic administration, which was ready to sacrifice him in order to achieve peace. Johnson was informed of this by telephone taps. Although entrenched in his authoritarianism and reluctant to support Humphrey, Johnson still warned him. Humphrey refrained from publicly revealing Nixon’s betrayal. Perhaps he doubted the reality of this betrayal or thought it was too late, just a few days before the vote, to alert public opinion. Most likely, he considered that the revelation of this case might cause great damage to his country’s image and discredit the entire political circle.

The defeat

Letter to Arthur Rubinstein

Nixon won by a narrow margin, with 512,000 votes ahead, out of 64 million voters. Some of the black electorate, outraged by the assassination of Martin Luther King, and other disenchanted left-wing activists refused to vote. Their votes were sorely missing. In defeat, Humphrey showed the same magnanimity and sense of statehood that he had displayed throughout his tenure as Vice-President. He told Istomin that if he had been elected, he would have asked him to become his Cultural Advisor.

For Istomin, the defeat was bitter. He felt a sense of injustice and misunderstanding. How could Americans have preferred Nixon to Humphrey? How could some of his close friends, like Bernstein, each with their own bad reasons, let such a thing happen? He himself had engaged in this fight with great enthusiasm, but he became aware of his naivety. It is one thing to imagine the violence of the political world from outside, but quite another to be confronted with its reality, in the unprecedented dramatic context of this election. One of the most difficult moments for Istomin was the series of concerts he gave between October 10 and 14 with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Bernstein. Humphrey had just reiterated his willingness to stop the bombings and negotiate peace. Once again, Istomin tried to convince Bernstein to support him, but he refused. When Istomin walked onstage at the Lincoln Center to play Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto, he was whistled at. Nixon sympathizers and peace activists had forgotten the pianist and only saw him as a supporter of Humphrey.

Epilogue of Humphrey’s political career

After his failure, Humphrey thanked those who had supported him. Istomin arranged a dinner at the Hotel Pierre in New York. Humphrey expressed his gratitude to the 150 musicians, writers and artists in attendance. The dinner was very friendly, and Humphrey implied that it was not impossible that he run again in 1972. However, he first took the time to travel to Europe and heal his wounds: “After four years as Vice President… I had lost some of my identity and personal forcefulness. (…) I ought not to have let a man (Johnson), who was going to be a former President dictate my future.” In fact, Humphrey thought that his political career was over. Two events soon revived it. The first was Ted Kennedy’s accident, which compromised his possible candidacy for president. Eugene McCarthy then quarreled with the Democratic Party and, aware that he would lose the elections, gave up defending his position as a Minnesota senator. Humphrey ran in the 1970 election and won.

McGovern and Humphrey after a debate in 1972.

In 1972, he entered the Democratic primary race again, but the memory of his association with Johnson’s disastrous policy in Vietnam continued to harm him, especially as the war was ongoing. Istomin lent his support but in a more modest way, as memories of the difficult experience of 1968 were still vivid. The Democrats preferred George McGovern. Humphrey nevertheless continued to sit in the Senate and fight for his ideas. Many Democrats suggested that he run for President again in 1976. The war in Vietnam was finally over, and his prospects of success were high. He refused because he already knew he was very ill.

In August 1977, he announced that he had terminal cancer. Faced with illness, he showed the same greatness of soul as in his political battles. He died on January 13, 1978. There were two major official ceremonies, first at the Capitol in Washington and then in Minnesota. In the first one, Istomin played at the request of Humphrey, who had been a great music lover, the Andante from Schubert’s Trio in B flat with Stern and Rose. In the second, he played the Brahms First Violin Sonata with Isaac Stern.

Istomin’s loyalty and commitment

Improvised piano lesson!

Istomin generously offered his support, time, ideas and talent on many occasions, whenever Humphrey needed to raise funds for a school or for some noble cause. When Muriel Humphrey, who had stood by her husband in all his battles, succeeded him as senator for a while, she could still count on him. In October 1978, he supported her idea to create a new Music School and concert hall in the property that the Humphreys had bought in 1956 and which she wished to bequeath. The project was to make a “Midwestern version of Marlboro”.                                                                                                                                                         .

For Istomin, Hubert Humphrey was “the personification of everything we used to think as best in liberalism” (in the American sense of the word, which means a commitment to freedom of expression, separation of church and state, equal rights and social progress). Istomin asserted that he would not have become involved in politics for anyone else! A few months before Humphrey’s death, Istomin wrote to him: “It was so wonderful to talk to you and Muriel the other day. You continue to be an inspiration to me – if only you knew in how many ways!”


Brahms, Violin Sonata No. 1 in G major Op. 78, first movement. Isaac Stern, Eugene Istomin. 1973