By Ray Hill
The 1964 election in Tennessee centered around the presidential contest between incumbent Lyndon Johnson and Arizona senator Barry Goldwater. It also featured hard fought contests for both of Tennessee’s seats in the United States Senate. Senator Albert Gore, Tennessee’s “Old Gray Fox”, was seeking a third term in the U. S. Senate, while Congressman Ross Bass of Pulaski, Tennessee, had won a hard fought contest with Governor Frank Clement for the Democratic nomination to serve the remaining two years of the term of the late Senator Estes Kefauver. Thirty years previously, both of Tennessee’s seats in the U. S. Senate had been up for election, just as they would be thirty years later in 1994. Unlike 1934 when Tennessee was a solidly Democratic state, Republicans had fielded credible candidates for both seats. In fact, there was reason to believe the GOP candidates could win the general election.
Howard H. Baker, Jr. was the son of the late congressman of the same name, who had represented Tennessee’s Second Congressional District since 1951 until his sudden death in January of 1964. The young senatorial candidate’s step-mother Irene won the special election to succeed the elder Baker. While Howard Baker, Jr. had never before sought elective office, he was no political novice. Baker had run his father’s successful 1950 congressional campaign when Howard, Sr. had defeated an incumbent in the GOP primary. Howard Baker, Jr. was also married to the daughter and only child of veteran Illinois U. S. senator Everett Dirksen, the Minority Leader of the Senate. Baker was a reasonably good speaker on the stump, met people well, had a good mind for politics and excelled at the intimate setting and relatively new medium of television which had transformed campaigning in the United States.
Frank Clement was a master of the stump speech, regaling audiences numbering in the thousands, but the governor did not come across as well on television. While personal campaigning was not yet a thing of the past, television and commercials revolutionized how candidates campaigned and how people responded to candidates for the future.
Dan Kuykendall, a thirty-nine year old businessman from Memphis, was the GOP nominee for the U. S. Senate seat held by Albert Gore. Like Howard Baker, Dan Kuykendall had never run for public office before, but he also had run the campaign of Republican Bob James, who had quite nearly defeated Congressman Clifford Davis, the last vestige of the old Crump machine in Shelby County two years earlier. Kuykendall was perceived to be more conservative than Baker who cultivated a moderate image. Few thought Kuykendall could defeat Albert Gore, who was a shrewd practitioner of politics. Gore was also something of a political giant killer. It had been Albert Gore who had defeated Kenneth McKellar to get to the United States Senate in 1952. McKellar was the first United States senator to ever be popularly elected by the voters in Tennessee; K. D. McKellar was also Tennessee’s longest serving U. S. senator, a record unbroken to this day. McKellar had been a deeply entrenched incumbent who achieved remarkable power in Washington, D. C. and enjoyed a well-deserved reputation for taking care of the folks back home. To be reelected to the United States Senate in 1958, Gore had to defeat former governor Prentice Cooper who was the first man in 100 years to be reelected to three consecutive two-year terms, which was allowed under Tennessee law at that time. Cooper was also personally wealthy and enjoyed a seemingly endless flow of campaign cash. As the Cooper campaign got under way, Albert Gore found himself looking at some 450 billboards promoting the former governor across Tennessee. Gore soundly defeated Prentice Cooper in 1958 to win a second term.
Still, Republicans in Tennessee were enthused about the presidential candidacy of Barry Goldwater, and the senatorial campaigns of Howard Baker and Dan Kuykendall. Ross Bass was less certain of his own election to the Senate and campaigned hard. Bass enjoyed the all-out support of African-Americans, organized labor and the Nashville Tennessean. Campaigning in Chattanooga, Congressman Bass characterized Republicans as “destroyers” rather than “builders.” Bass charged Republicans would destroy labor’s right to collective bargaining, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the minimum wage, and Social Security. “I don’t believe any one who understands the needs of his people could say ‘wipe out these things’,” Bass said.
Avanell Bass had worked in her husband’s congressional office for ten years, the entire time Bass had served in the House of Representatives. Mrs. Bass was an exceptionally lovely woman who understood politics. Avanell Bass was present, representing her husband, as Senator Albert Gore peeled the hide off the Republicans before a crowd of appreciative Democrats. The gray haired senior senator from Tennessee derided GOP presidential nominee Barry Goldwater for running a campaign “too low for a race for constable.” “Imagine calling President Johnson a liar,” Gore cried. “If I had no more respect for the office than that, I would never seek it.”
“And imagine Senator Goldwater wanting to sell TVA for $1! Wouldn’t that be a buy; last year it made a profit of $55,000,000,” Gore told his audience. The senator chortled at the discomfort of Tennessee Republicans. “They (GOP backers) thought he would come to Tennessee and set the record straight, but he didn’t. He is serious about selling it.”
Albert Gore went down a check list for his fellow Democrats, pointing out where Barry Goldwater stood on the issues. “And how does he stand on social security?” Gore wondered. “He wants it to be voluntary. How about medical care for the aged? He would do nothing. What about the federal regulatory agencies? He would abolish them.”
Gore said the 1964 presidential election was “one of the most important in our history” and urged the crowd to vote for Lyndon Johnson. The senator also urged his listeners to vote for Ross Bass. “Sen. Bass and I will work together for the state and the nation,” Gore promised.
Democrats certainly gave the appearance of unity as Lyndon Johnson came to Nashville to campaign. Congressman Joe L. Evins, the chairman of the Johnson campaign in Tennessee, was to greet the President when LBJ landed in Nashville. Twenty Tennesseans who had given $1,000 or more to the campaign were to have a moment to greet President Johnson in the Iris Room in Nashville’s Hermitage Hotel. A committee which included all the Democratic members of Congress from Tennessee would also attend, as well as former governors Gordon Browning, Prentice Cooper, Jim Nance McCord, Buford Ellington and their spouses. Governor and Mrs. Frank Clement would naturally be present. No less than thirty-seven high school bands awaited the President’s arrival in Nashville.
A smiling LBJ was escorted to the platform by Governor Frank Clement, who pointed the way with his Stetson hat, and a beaming Congressman Ross Bass. President Johnson stressed his theme of prosperity and peace while campaigning in Nashville. Johnson did not seem to overlook anyone, making mention of how grateful he was to have the support of former governors Browning, Cooper, and McCord. An extraordinary politician, LBJ gave a nod to Senator Gore, saying “the only one I know that fights harder and may have better judgment than Albert is his gracious wife, Pauline.” Johnson thanked the people of Tennessee “in advance for producing that fighting young man you’re going to send to the United States Senate, Congressman Ross Bass.”
Howard Baker, out of both conviction and necessity, had to differentiate himself from GOP president nominee Barry Goldwater on the issue of the Tennessee Valley Authority. Baker illustrated his differences with Goldwater on the question of TVA, as well as his disagreement with his father-in-law Everett Dirksen on the Civil Rights bill. “I am firmly dedicated to the proposition that every man is entitled to equal political, economic and civil rights and opportunity,” Baker said. “However, I am equally dedicated to the proposition that this aim cannot be realized through a single piece of inflexible federal legislation.” Baker noted LBJ’s Civil Rights Act had been amended by the Senate some 56 times. The Tennessean thought Baker’s political philosophy fell somewhere between that of Barry Goldwater and Baker’s father-in-law Everett Dirksen. Baker eagerly discussed his differences with the congressional record of Ross Bass on farm policy in mid-October. Baker was critical of the congressman for not discussing farm policy issues and the Tennessean was careful to point out Bass had yet to “formally” launch his general election campaign. Baker noted Bass had dropped off the House Agriculture Committee to serve on the Ways and Means Committee. “Had I served on the agriculture committee and helped to bring all this (parity drop and beef imports) on the Tennessee farmer, I’d want off, too,” Baker quipped. Increased beef imports from Australia caused Baker to refer to Ross Bass as “the Sixth District congressman from Australia.”
Speaking at the dedication of the new Gallatin Junior High School in Sumner County, Ross Bass cited the new construction as evidence America was a nation of people committed to education and expanding educational facilities in spite of “dire prophecies of gloom and doom.” Bass told the 400 people gathered, “Witnessing the dedication of Gallatin Junior High School provides me with an occasion to renew my faith in the ability of Americans to build and progress.” Completely air-conditioned with room for 750 students, the new facility cost $742,000 to build.
As Bass campaigned in Blountville, Tennessee, he urged voters to “listen to the voice of common sense” and vote for President Johnson. “On the one hand, we have a man who says government is bad, that it is wrong, and we should not have the sort of government that has built the strongest defense in the world, and the highest standard of living ever attained in the history of civilization,” Bass said.
As Congressman Ross Bass campaigned in East Tennessee, Senator Albert Gore stormed Middle Tennessee. Gore, like Bass, seemed to be taking no notice of his opponent. Dan Kuykendall lobbed a charge, demanding to know if the senator had received any campaign contributions from “The Council for a Liveable World”, which was described by the Memphis Republican as “a left wing sinister group” which reputedly favored disarmament by the United States, as well as granting admission of Communist China to the United Nations and allowing American citizens to travel freely back and forth between Cuba and Red China. The Gore campaign headquarters sniffed it would have no comment to Kuykendall’s query. Senator Gore, after opening his campaign for the general election, insisted “the over-riding issue today is the preservation of peace with freedom.” Gore swept through Fayetteville, Winchester, Manchester and Shelbyville during the second week of October.
Howard Baker, Ross Bass’ Republican opponent, continued to fume the congressman refused to discuss the issues. If the Nashville Tennessean was the campaign organ for Ross Bass, then the Knoxville Journal was the campaign mouthpiece for Howard Baker. According to the Journal, Baker was receiving an outpouring of support from farmers who had backed the candidacy of Governor Frank Clement in the Democratic primary as the young Republican candidate campaigned in Rhea, Marion, Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties. “I’ve been a life long Democrat but I’m a farmer,” one Pikeville resident told Baker. “Ross Bass told the Farm Bureau he didn’t need the farm vote to win and as far as I’m concerned he’s not going to get it. And he ain’t going to win either.”
There were just weeks to go before Tennesseans went to the polls to decide the outcome of elections for the United States Senate and the presidency.