The Feudist & the Liberal: Senators McKellar & Kefauver

The Feudist & the Liberal: Senators McKellar & Kefauver

By Ray Hill

Many people are under the misapprehension colleagues of the same party representing the same state in the United States Senate are close friends, or at least friendly. Oftentimes that is not the case. There is frequently a rivalry between colleagues representing the same state, especially amongst those colleagues of the same party. According to the Senate Historian’s office, there are numerous examples of Senate colleagues from the same state that positively loathed one another. Senator Styles Bridges and Senator Charles W. Tobey represented New Hampshire and neither would speak to the other. Bridges was deeply conservative, while Tobey was a fire-breathing Baptist who also happened to be a liberal Republican. More recently, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins represented Maine in the United States Senate. Referred to as “the sisters” by many of their colleagues, the two were both Republicans and apparently detested one another.

Estes Kefauver and Albert Gore both represented Tennessee in the United States Senate and both were liberal Democrats, yet there was a bit of a rivalry between the two. Personal ambitions sometimes caused a clash and both were candidates for the Democratic vice presidential nomination in 1956 along with another young senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy. The rivalry between Kefauver and his senior colleague Kenneth D. McKellar was anything but friendly.

Estes Kefauver had come to the Senate in 1949, after having been elected over incumbent Tom Stewart in 1948. Senators Stewart and McKellar had gotten along quite well. In fact, McKellar had handpicked Stewart to run in 1938. Unfortunately, E. H. Crump, leader of the Shelby County political machine, had decided not to support Stewart again in 1948. Crump had been mortified in 1942 when Stewart had required a healthy majority from Shelby County to win renomination. Some of Crump’s underlings had been whispering into the Memphis Boss’s ear and Crump announced in December of 1947 that he would not back Senator Stewart. McKellar had tried to change Crump’s mind, without success. Crump opted to support an obscure judge from Cookeville, John A. Mitchell, for the senatorial nomination. The Memphis Boss had not even met Judge Mitchell before deciding to support him. McKellar cautioned Crump that he did not think Mitchell could win and the judge’s candidacy might lead to the election of Estes Kefauver, a prospect that horrified him. Evidently, Crump expected Senator Stewart to meekly withdraw once it become obvious the Memphis machine would not support him. Stewart defiantly announced he would run again, with or without Crump’s support. McKellar’s prediction proved to be accurate; Estes Kefauver was able to win the Democratic nomination in a three-way race. Had Crump stuck with Stewart, the senator would have surely won.

McKellar had come to the United States Senate in 1917, the first person ever to be elected by the people. Prior to McKellar’s election in 1916, senators had been elected by the state legislature. McKellar was the longest serving senator in Tennessee’s history, a record that remains unbroken to this day. Senator McKellar occupied the chairmanship of the powerful Appropriations Committee and was a member of the Democratic Steering Committee, which parceled out committee assignments for Democratic senators. McKellar was also President Pro Tempore of the Senate, a largely ceremonial post usually held by the Senate’s most senior member. K. D. McKellar was one of the Senate’s ruling baron’s when Estes Kefauver arrived as a mere freshman.

Kefauver had begun his political career affiliated with the political organization headed by Senator McKellar when he had served in the Cabinet of Governor Prentice Cooper. McKellar had campaigned for Kefauver when he ran for Congress in a 1939 special election following the death of Congressman Sam D. McReynolds. Over time, driven by his own ambition for advancement, as well as a strongly liberal bent, Kefauver drifted away from his political moorings. Kefauver had seriously considered running against McKellar in 1946 and spent months planning a campaign. After it became clear that the old senator remained a highly popular figure and a formidable political force in Tennessee, Kefauver opted to seek reelection to his seat in the House instead. McKellar jealously guarded his prerogatives and as a bachelor, his entire life centered around his service in the United States Senate. The old senator’s dislike for Estes Kefauver turned to loathing.

Kefauver had opposed McKellar when the senator had been feuding with Tennessee Valley Authority Chairman David Lilienthal. At the beginning, Kefauver had supported Senator McKellar against Lilienthal over constructing dams in Tennessee. When Lilienthal appeared before the Senate Appropriations Committee, Estes Kefauver was standing beside him, a fact that caused Senator McKellar’s face to turn dark crimson.

As Senator McKellar spoke on the Senate floor on behalf of his amendment to require that TVA pay its proceeds into the national treasury rather than keep it in the Tennessee Valley Authority’s revolving fund, Estes Kefauver sat beside David Lilienthal in the Senate Gallery. According to Kefauver’s biographer, Charles Fontenay, a shaken Lilienthal looked at the Congressman and sighed, “”Well, Estes, he licked us,” when the Senate adopted the McKellar amendment.

“Not yet, he didn’t” Kefauver replied.

Kefauver spoke on the floor of the House against the McKellar amendment and to the old senator’s wrath, the full House defeated it.

Yet when the TVA coalition in the House could not fight off legislation that would have crippled the Tennessee Valley Authority, it was the vast power of McKellar in the United States Senate that saved the agency.

McKellar’s personal regard for Kefauver had never been especially high. McKellar wrote Crump following the 1944 Democratic National Convention, noting the Tennessee delegation had worked together well, except for Kefauver who the senator said “objected to everything”. McKellar chortled to the Memphis Boss that Kefauver “had caused some laughter when he claimed Thomas Jefferson as a Tennessee President.” Senator McKellar concluded, “he is about as stupid as they make them.”

  1. D. McKellar’s opinion of Estes Kefauver did not rise; if anything, it plummeted.

Once Kefauver won the senatorial nomination, McKellar, ever the loyal Democrat, endorsed the entire ticket, despite the fact the senator intensely disliked both Kefauver and gubernatorial nominee Gordon Browning. McKellar also backed Harry Truman, while E. H. Crump bolted the Democratic Party to support States’ Rights candidate Strom Thurmond.

Estes Kefauver had not even taken his seat in the United States Senate when the stuff hit the fan. A man closely associated with Kefauver approached McKellar while the senator was having his lunch at the Mayflower Hotel, where he lived while in Washington. The fellow sat down at McKellar’s table without an invitation and quickly wondered if the senator would object to he and Kefauver selecting the U. S. Attorney for Middle Tennessee. Evidently the gentleman had little or no knowledge of Kenneth D. McKellar and seemed surprised when the senator vehemently objected to the notion of anyone else making appointments in Tennessee. McKellar promptly roundly cursed out the hapless would-be politician and when he returned to his Senate office, he dictated a blistering seven-page letter to Kefauver. McKellar related the sequence of events, detailed the history of the 1948 campaign and pointed out Kefauver had done little or nothing to support President Truman’s own election campaign. Worse still, McKellar pointed to the fact Kefauver had already recommended a Republican for a post in Memphis, which was an indication Kefauver had believed Republican Thomas E. Dewey would be the next president. McKellar cited numerous instances of what he considered to be Kefauver’s perfidy and repeated that the Congressman had assured him Kefauver wanted to cooperate with him. McKellar snapped that apparently Kefauver’s idea of cooperation was to leave the “co” to him while the Congressman did all the “operating”.

As Senator McKellar dictated his vitriolic letter, Congressman Kefauver sent word he wished to see him. McKellar noted in his letter Kefauver’s request and assured the Congressman he was welcome to come, but thought Kefauver should “have the facts” before arriving. McKellar had his screed hand delivered by special messenger.

Evidently Kefauver was able to calm the famous McKellar temper, but only briefly. McKellar agreed to support Kefauver for a place on the Senate Judiciary Committee, but it was not long before the two were wrangling over political patronage in Tennessee. McKellar had dominated appointments and patronage in Tennessee for decades. His power was enormous and the senator and Cordell Hull had even managed to install a Tennessean as the territorial governor of Hawaii on one occasion. McKellar was enraged when President Truman refused to reappoint Reed Sharp as U. S. Marshall for the Middle Tennessee district. Truman appointed Larry Morphis, who had been recommended by Kefauver. It was a rare victory for Senator Kefauver. Kefauver had strongly objected to former senator Tom Stewart being appointed counsel for the Reconstruction Finance Corporation in Nashville, an appointment strongly recommended by Senator McKellar. Kefauver’s victories were far and few in between. McKellar won virtually every other squabble.

Kefauver was especially appalled when he sought an appointment with President Truman for boys visiting Washington, D. C. from the prestigious McCallie School from Kefauver’s home city of Chattanooga. The White House replied it would not be possible to arrange such an appointment for the youngsters. The headmaster wisely and quickly appealed to Senator McKellar, who personally telephoned the White House and an appointment was promptly arranged. The young men were able to shake the hand of the President of the United States and have their photograph taken with Harry Truman. It was a profound embarrassment to Estes Kefauver, as well as a demonstration of the power and prestige of McKellar.

The two Tennessee senators fought bitterly over a new judgeship for Tennessee. Kefauver preferred a “roving” judge, while McKellar supported another judgeship for East Tennessee. Although a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Kefauver’s own bill was rebuffed by his fellow committee members. Senator Pat McCarran of Nevada, Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, was a warm personal friend of McKellar, and he was clearly sympathetic to the senior senator from Tennessee. Kefauver had to sit by sheepishly as McKellar’s bill sailed through the Judiciary Committee. Senator Kefauver stubbornly fought McKellar’s bill on the Senate floor. The eighty-one year old senator responded by putting on a full show of the McKellar repertoire. The full Senate overwhelmingly backed McKellar.

Senator McKellar’s continued domination of patronage in Tennessee rankled Kefauver, who constantly complained to President Truman. Kefauver demanded the president use his patronage powers to help “build up a progressive real Democratic party in Tennessee.” Highly irritated, Truman snarled it was not his “job to straighten out factional fights in every State in the Union.”

Truman had served for ten years in the United States Senate with Kenneth D. McKellar. Truman knew of McKellar’s power in the Senate and when he had assumed the presidency following the death of Franklin Roosevelt, the little man from Missouri had invited Senator McKellar to sit in on Cabinet meetings. Truman did not especially like McKellar personally, which apparently the senator did not know. McKellar’s brother, Don, was his Chief of Staff and Don McKellar was a friend of Truman’s and admired him. Don died in December of 1945 and his widow, Janice, employed by Senator McKellar as one of his secretaries, remained very fond of the president. However much he may not have liked Kenneth McKellar personally, Harry Truman shared the Tennessean’s intense dislike of Kefauver, whom he privately derided as “Cowfever.”

Estes Kefauver was one of the first modern politicians to understand the effectiveness of television. When he headed a special crime investigating committee that traveled all across the United States, those hearings were televised, riveting millions of Americans to their television sets. Those same hearings produced some highly embarrassing revelations for well-placed Democrats. When the Kefauver Committee interviewed a fellow promptly labeled “the world’s richest cop” by the press, it had disastrous results for the Democratic ticket in Illinois. Senate Majority Leader Scott Lucas represented Illinois and had begged Kefauver to delay his hearing until after the 1950 elections. Lucas was hard pressed in his reelection bid by former Congressman Everett McKinley Dirksen. The “world’s richest cop” also just happened to be the Democratic nominee for Sheriff of Cook County. He was soundly defeated and Scott Lucas lost his Senate seat. Lucas hated Estes Kefauver for the rest of his life.

Harry Truman was dismayed by Kefauver’s refusal and thought the Tennessee senator was driven, not by a sense of duty, but by personal ambition and a love of publicity. Kefauver entered the 1952 New Hampshire presidential primary and beat Truman. The president later announced he was not seeking reelection, but Harry Truman was adamant to keep Estes Kefauver from being nominated. Adlai Stevenson emerged from the Democratic National Convention as the nominee.

That same year saw Senator Kenneth McKellar run for an unprecedented seventh term. Eighty-three years old, increasingly frail and ailing, McKellar lost to forty-four year old Congressman Albert Gore. McKellar retired to Memphis and died in 1957.

Estes Kefauver would remain in the United States Senate until his own death in 1963. Kefauver, unlike McKellar, would never be a Senate insider. Senator Kefauver was disliked by many of his colleagues and his service in the Senate had been colored by K. D. McKellar’s original hostility to his junior colleague.

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