By Ray Hill
Few Tennesseans today remember Ross Bass who served the Volunteer State in Congress for a decade, as well as a brief term in the United States Senate. Bass was a participant in some of Tennessee’s fiercest political wars and served in Congress during a time when Tennessee was undergoing a profound change in its politics.
Ross Bass was born March 17, 1918 in Giles County, Tennessee. Bass attended the public schools and after graduating from Martin Methodist Junior College, enlisted in the Army Air Corp when the United States entered World War II. Bass became a bombardier and emerged from the war with the rank of Captain. Returning to Pulaski, Bass opened a flower shop which was successful, but it wasn’t long before he became interested in politics. Ross Bass was appointed Postmaster of Pulaski in 1946 by Congressman Joe L. Evins, with the consent of Tennessee’s senior United States Senator, Kenneth D. McKellar.
Giles County was shuffled in redistricting and in 1954, the Congressman from the Sixth District was James “Pat’ Sutton. Sutton, too, had come home from the war with a distinguished record and was only thirty-three when he had challenged incumbent Congressman Wirth Courtney in 1948. Sutton had a flamboyant personality and proved to be a compelling speaker. Although a Democrat, he was much more conservative than Congressman Courtney, who was an old-time New Deal Democrat. The primary contest was one of the closest in Tennessee history; Sutton defeated Congressman Courtney by only fifty-eight votes.
Pat Sutton was highly ambitious and he challenged Senator Estes Kefauver in 1954. Sutton’s campaign was well financed, receiving considerable funds from oil rich Texans who loathed Kefauver’s liberalism. Sutton campaigned all across Tennessee via helicopter, which was quite a novelty at the time.
Sutton’s retirement from Congress gave Ross Bass the opportunity to become a candidate to succeed him. Facing two serious opponents in the Democratic primary, Bass ultimately beat his nearest competitor by just over three thousand votes. Bass worked hard at being a Congressman, which paid off as he was immediately challenged for reelection by his predecessor, Pat Sutton in the 1956 primary. Sutton had been beaten badly by Senator Kefauver in 1954 and Pat Sutton wanted to return to Congress.
Ross Bass proved not to be as vulnerable as former Congressman Sutton had hoped; Sutton carried only his home county of Lawrence and that only very narrowly. Bass beat Sutton and one other challenger, rolling up almost 70% of the vote. Ross Bass was never again to be seriously challenged for his seat in Congress. Pat Sutton would not give up politics for quite some time, winning election as Sheriff of Lawrence County, a politically potent position. Sutton’s flamboyance and controversial nature finally caught up with him when he was arrested by the FBI and charged as part of a counterfeiting ring.
During the summer of 1963, Senator Estes Kefauver became ill on the Senate floor and was rushed to the hospital. Kefauver was to have heart surgery, an operation he insisted upon delaying as his wife Nancy was flying back to Washington. D. C. It was a fatal delay as Senator Kefauver’s aorta burst and he died. Kefauver’s sudden death left the choice of a successor solely in the hands of yet another veteran of Tennessee’s political wars: Frank Clement.
Clement had first been elected governor in 1952 as a fresh-faced thirty-two year old with a beautiful wife and an impressive talent for oratory. Clement had been the first man ever elected to a four-year term as governor in 1954. Barred from seeking a second four-year term in 1958, Clement briefly toyed with the idea of running against Senator Albert Gore before deciding to go into forced political exile. Frank Clement had returned to Tennessee’s political wars in 1962 when he had been reelected to a third term as governor. Clement was only a few months into a new four-year term when Estes Kefauver died. There were numerous Tennesseans who wanted the interim appointment to the United States Senate. Many Kefauver loyalists urged Clement to appoint Kefauver’s widow, Nancy. More than a few thought Clement was anxious to go to the Senate himself and speculated the governor would appoint himself. Governor Clement finally announced his choice; Clement appointed Herbert S. “Hub” Walters of Morristown. Walters was then seventy-one years old and had recently survived surgery for throat cancer. A millionaire contractor who had been especially close to the late U. S. Senator K. D. McKellar, Walters had been Tennessee’s long-time Democratic National Committeeman. “Mr. Hub” had strongly supported Clement throughout his career and he was not only a perfectly respectable choice, but a logical choice in many respects. Yet, Clement’s appointment of “Hub” Walters to the United States Senate sent a subtle signal, as it was highly unlikely Senator Walters would be a candidate to succeed himself in 1964 when Tennesseans would themselves select someone to fill out the remaining two years of the late Estes Kefauver’s term.
Congressman Ross Bass announced he would be a candidate for the Senate and Governor Frank Clement indicated he, too, would run for the United States Senate. A third entrant into the 1964 Democratic primary for the United States Senate was Milton M. Bullard, a wealthy contractor from Newport, Tennessee, Although wealthy, Bullard attracted very little real support across the state. He did receive endorsements from an odd assortment of ghostly figures from Tennessee’s political history. Lewis Pope, the old foe of “Boss” Crump, was for Bullard, as was former Governor Gordon Browning and former Knoxville Mayor George Dempster. Edward Ward “Ned” Carmack, yet another foe of the Crump machine, added his own endorsement of Bullard before the primary election. Bullard would not be a factor in the campaign, which was a contest between Congressman Ross Bass and Governor Frank Clement.
There were few real issues between Congressman Bass and Governor Clement. Bass was perceived by some as the more liberal of the two, but in reality there was little difference in their ideology. Bass was strongly supported by organized labor and had been one of three Congressmen from the South who had supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964, another being Nashville Congressman Richard Fulton. The conservative Nashville Banner warned its readers that Bass was known as “Labor’s Little Darling”.
Bass opened his first campaign for the United States Senate in Shelbyville on June 6; Governor Clement returned to Gallatin, Tennessee, a town he favored for officially opening his own political campaigns, later that same month. Bass naturally tried to identify himself with the late Estes Kefauver, but spent much of his time criticizing the record of Frank Clement. Congressman Bass gave Clement hell for a sales tax on utilities. Bass was highly supportive of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” and the goal to end poverty in the United States.
Governor Clement braved temperatures rising to almost one hundred degrees while addressing an audience of several thousand people while opening his first campaign for the U. S. Senate. Clement deftly launched his own attack on his opponents. He swatted M. M. Bullard to the political gutter with the comment “Colonel” Bullard’s record was confined solely to having done business with the State of Tennessee before Clement’s own election as governor. As for Congressman Bass, Clement carefully noted Bass had introduced fifty-five bills since his election to Congress a decade previously, only three of which had been passed by the House. Clement defended the notion of a governor seeking election to the United States Senate as at that time, no governor had ever been popularly elected to the U. S. Senate from Tennessee.
Congressman Bass received strong backing from some Federal employees, the remnants of the Kefauver organization, and enemies of Frank Clement. Governor Clement of course had the backing of many state employees and had little trouble raising considerable funds for his campaign in 1964. While no real campaign finance reporting existed at the time, many believe the Clement campaign outspent Ross Bass by as much as two-to-one. Money was raised from state employees and the road builders, who had always supported Frank Clement, gave freely.
The two daily newspapers in Nashville, the conservative Banner and the liberal Tennessean, fought bitterly throughout the primary campaign. The Tennessean was avidly for Ross Bass while the Banner was equally strong for Frank Clement. The Tennessean had long been opposed to Frank Clement and regularly battered and bruised the governor in news stories, editorials and cartoons. The cartoons were especially unkind, if not vicious, featuring Clement attired in a suit covered in dollar signs. In one cartoon from the 1964 campaign entitled “Grasping”, Tom Little, the cartoonist for the Tennessean, drew an enormous hand reaching for the Capitol dome, the sleeve covered with the usual dollar signs.
As the campaign for the Democratic senatorial nomination intensified, Governor Clement chastised Congressman Bass’s vote for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Neither Senator Gore nor Senator Walters had voted for the bill and the only other member of the Tennessee delegation who had supported it was Congressman Dick Fulton of Nashville. There was fierce opposition in Tennessee to the passage of the bill and Bass himself did not strongly advertise his own position during the campaign, yet the black vote in the primary would prove crucial to the outcome of the race.