I have a number of favorite Christmas stories which I have told you over the years. This is one of my favorites; I related it to you long ago, but it is worth repeating as Christendom’s most holy day approaches.
It involves no carols, no gifts, and no tinsel-draped trees. But it does recall the sense of the season in all its compassion and splendor.
I don’t claim it as my own. It was first related by Paul Thatcher, a former aide to Hubert Horatio Humphrey, the longtime U.S. senator from Minnesota and vice president of the United States.
It involves Humphrey and former president Richard Nixon, two men who could scarcely have been more different both in political persuasion and personal values.
In the winter of 1977, Humphrey had returned to Lake Waverly, Minn., after a short but triumphant journey to the nation’s capital to address his Senate colleagues. Ravaged by cancer, Humphrey lay dying as the lake outside his home gradually turned to ice in the frigid Minnesota December.
As Christmas approached, the irrepressible Humphrey -- known during his long, unabashedly liberal political career as The Happy Warrior for his optimism and his penchant for uplifting conversation -- began to call old friends and associates around the world. Ostensibly, he was calling to give them season’s greetings, but everyone knew it was his own way of saying goodbye.
He reached his old adversary, Richard Nixon, on Christmas Eve, only to learn that Nixon and his wife, Pat, were depressed and alone for the holiday in San Clemente, Calf.
His conversation with Nixon deeply troubled Humphrey, and on Christmas morning he placed another call to the former president, who in 1968 had handed him his most bitter defeat, downing him by a tiny electoral margin in the race for president and thus denying the Minnesotan his long-held dream of the White House.
Humphrey told Nixon he knew he had only days to live and that he had made the arrangements for the events that would follow his death: his lying-in-state in the Capitol rotunda in Washington, and his funeral and interment in Minnesota. Humphrey told Nixon he was inviting him to attend the ceremony that would conclude the lying-in-state, and that he wanted him to stand in the place of honor of a former president.
Nixon, of course, had resigned in disgrace only three years before and had not returned to Washington since then. If you are too young to remember those years, it would be difficult for you to imagine the contempt many Americans felt for the flawed former president.
Sensing Nixon’s profound depression in exile, Humphrey spontaneously fashioned a credible excuse to enable his old rival to return to the capital. He told Nixon that if anyone questioned his presence, he should say he was there at the personal request of Hubert H. Humphrey.
He further told Nixon he was going to convey the details of their conversation to his aides and to tell them of his wish that Nixon be treated respectfully and with dignity for the occasion.
On Friday, Jan. 13, 1978 Humphrey died at Lake Waverly. President Carter at once dispatched Air Force One to transport his body to the capital for the weekend lying-in-state.
On Sunday, with President Carter, former President Ford, Vice President Mondale and many of the nation’s political leaders in attendance, a concluding ceremony was held in the rotunda. To the surprise of most and the gasps of many, Nixon was escorted to the place of honor with the others, near the flag-draped casket.
Hubert Humphrey’s Christmas gift to Richard Nixon had been delivered.
Years later, as the bitter memories of Watergate receded, Nixon would regain a measure of respect in this country. Even the most virulent Nixon haters would come to acknowledge his expertise in foreign affairs.
Yet in the frozen landscape of Christmas, 1977, Nixon was still a disgraced figure, a man in exile. Hubert Humphrey saw that, and it stirred the compassion within him, and he did something about it.
And that, my friends, is what the spirit of Christmas is all about.