By Ray Hill
This column is written for my friend Alexander Waters and his family. I knew Alexander’s grandfather, John B. Waters, Jr. Mr. Waters was one of those young Republicans, like Jim Haslam, who helped elect Howard Baker, Tennessee’s first popularly elected Republican U. S. senator. John Waters, Jr. was Baker’s campaign manager.
It was not John Waters’ first foray into politics. While Jimmy Quillen is better remembered as the most enduring of Tennessee’s First Congressional District’s representatives, the most personally popular was likely B. Carroll Reece. Certainly, Reece’s political career in high office was even longer than that of Quillen. In 1958 Carroll Reece had been in Congress since first winning election in 1920 with three exceptions; Reece had lost unexpectedly in 1930 and had not run for reelection in 1946 when he had been elected as Chairman of the Republican National Committee. Carroll Reece ran for the United States Senate in 1948 as virtually everyone thought it would be a banner year for the GOP, especially as the Tennessean had presided over a Republican tidal wave that won both Houses of Congress for his party. Defeated in his Senate bid, Reece demonstrated his political power and personal popularity by ousting his successor in Congress, Dayton Phillips, in a bitter and hard-fought Republican primary. It was the second of Carroll Reece’s remarkable political comebacks, the first being in 1932 when he had defeated O. B. Lovette in 1932, twice. Lovette had upset Reece in the 1930 election and the former congressman ran again in 1932. Carroll Reece beat Lovette in the Republican primary and again in the general election when the incumbent ran as an Independent. Oscar Byrd Lovette’s initial victory is all the more astonishing when considering he beat Carroll Reece after a campaign of only sixteen days and had run as an Independent in the general election. O.B. Lovette was the only person ever to defeat Carroll Reece inside the First Congressional District.
Dayton Phillips had been popular in his own right and Carroll Reece was likely the only person who could have defeated him. Following his defeat of his successor in Congress, Reece had easily fended off a challenge by Hassel Evans (whom I later served with on the Knox County Commission) who had been the superintendent of schools in Unicoi County and the campaign manager for Congressman Phillips. Otherwise, nobody much wanted to take on Carroll Reece.
Like the most successful of Tennessee’s longest-serving officeholders, Reece excelled in providing services for his constituents. A genuine hero from his service during the First World War, Reece combined a pleasing personality with strong constituent service to deeply entrench himself inside his district. Reece’s wife Louise was a wealthy heiress and the congressman was himself a shrewd businessman with national ties and had no trouble financing his campaigns. It is difficult for modern day readers to understand when Reece first went to Congress, veterans did not automatically receive pensions or benefits. For a veteran, or his widow and children to receive a pension, it required a special act sponsored by his congressman. It was said during the decade of the 1920s that no individual congressman had sponsored more special acts on behalf of veterans or their families than had Carroll Reece. Naturally, the veterans and their families were grateful and supported Congressman Reece at the ballot box. Moreover, Carroll Reece had almost universal name recognition inside Tennessee’s First Congressional District. Congressman B. Carroll Reece filed his qualifying papers on April 17, 1958, to be renominated in the Republican primary.
The congressman was unopposed in the Republican primary when Mayne Miller, a thirty-four-year-old Democratic attorney filed to seek the nomination to oppose Carroll Reece in the general election. Reece was constantly appearing in the newspapers across the First District, his photo with Vice President Nixon, at the site of the memorial for the late “Mr. Republican,” Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio, placing a wreath at the grave of the unknown soldier in East Tennessee, and acceptance of the statue honoring the late Senator Kenneth McKellar. Reece was also boosted by the appearance of Vice President Richard Nixon coming to Carter County for the annual Rhododendron Festival.
Yet ambition burns in the hearts of young men and women for political advancement and John B. Waters, Jr. was a twenty-eight-year-old real estate agent from the “lower end” of the First District, living in Sevierville. Waters did the unthinkable and announced he would challenge the champion vote-getter and veteran congressman Carroll Reece inside the 1958 Republican primary. The Knoxville Journal noted John B. Waters, Jr. had graduated from the University of Tennessee with a degree in finance and had entered the U. S. Navy in 1952. At the time Waters declared he was running for Congress, he was teaching at the Navy Reserves’ Officers’ School in Knoxville. Young Waters and his wife Patsy had two small children. Waters was clearly one of those young men used to succeeding. He had been president of the Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity at the University of Tennessee, as well as the entire student body. Waters had been listed in the Who’s Who in Colleges and Universities and his naval service as a gunnery officer on the US Conway certainly added to his maturity. John B. Waters, Jr. was also a joiner, as he was a member of the First Baptist Church of Sevierville, the Masons, the Jaycees, the Elks and the American Legion.
Whether it was inexperience or the optimism of youth, Waters had waited until the end of June to announce his candidacy for Congress against a champion vote-getter and incumbent congressman. That left just over a month for John Waters to organize a campaign throughout the First District; Carroll Reece’s own organization was the same as that of the Republican Party in his district. Yet when Carroll Reece had first been elected to Congress in 1920, he had upset an incumbent who had controlled most of the party machinery and was only a few years older than Waters.
Congressman Reece issued a statement concerning the primary. “I have devoted my life to the service of my constituents and the natural inclination to relinquish my responsibilities is over-ridden by the conviction that, in these troubled days for the nation and the world, I am in a position to be of greater service to my people than ever before.” Of course while every incumbent may have the occasional thought of retirement, few people who knew Carroll Reece well truly believed he would voluntarily leave the House of Representatives alive. Reece’s statement alluded to a serious illness suffered by his wife Louise in 1952 and the congressman assured his constituents that Mrs. Reece was fully recovered. Reece said he had the “full assent” of his wife to run yet again.
“As every voter in the district knows, Congress is now in session and perhaps will be until the early part of August,” Reece said. “My vote is required by both my obligation to the office with which you have honored me and by the Republican leadership of the House.” Reece said he would be “remiss” should he leave Washington to come home to make “an extended campaign” inside the First District.
“By this time the people of the First Congressional District should require no renewed pledge from me as to my continued devotion to their interests, both in the district and on matters of general legislation,” Carroll Reece said. The congressman thanked the people of his district for their continued support over the years and closed his statement by saying, “” My proudest achievement is the attempt from day to day to be worthy of it.”
John B. Waters, Jr. came out of the gate assailing the leadership of Tennessee’s Republican Party of “bossism and collusion with a faction of the opposition party.” “There is no longer any semblance of 2 party government,” Waters declared. Carroll Reece was Tennessee’s Republican National Committeeman and had been since 1939, so it was a thinly veiled charge against the congressman. Then came the announcement no less than three performing elephants would accompany young John Waters on his tour of the First District seeking votes for Congress. Waters had visited each of the fourteen counties comprising Tennessee’s First Congressional District and in his official announcement said, “I assure the good citizens who have so faithfully encouraged me and pledged their support that I will conduct a hard, aggressive, clean and honest campaign into every county, town and crossroad of the district.” Waters accused Reece of being an absentee congressman, saying Carroll Reece was “absent from his seat as much as 50 percent of the time.” Waters promised to help “promote and develop” tourism inside the First District as well as seek “more sound unemployment insurance and old age and social security benefits and work for a better veterans’ benefits program.”
Waters said he had talked to hundreds of voters personally who told him they were “distressed” by the “deteriorations of the once-great Republican Party.” Waters’ notion of using the three performing elephants for his campaign was clever and certainly brought him attention from the public and publicity from the press. Photographs of John Waters, Jr. and his three elephants were featured in just about every newspaper inside the First Congressional District. A headline in the Knoxville News-Sentinel read, “Waters Opens Race With Elephants’ Aid.” Speaking in Dandridge, Waters hammered home his charge Carroll Reece was “absent from voting as much as 57 percent of the time.” “Reece spent his time at his mansion in Florida,” Waters cried, “at his hotel in West Virginia, in Europe, and in fact everywhere except where he was supposed to be – – – at his desk in Washington or in his district.” In Dandridge, the elephants did not perform as it was raining, but as the Waters for Congress campaign moved on to Rutledge, the weather was more cooperative. Waters was introduced to the crowd on the steps of the Jefferson County Courthouse by veteran District Attorney General Joe Wolfenbarger, an old political foe of Congressman Carroll Reece. Apparently, according to the Knoxville News-Sentinel, the three elephants were residents of Pigeon Forge and traveled in the back of a truck along with the Waters campaign. Their trainer put them in the truck when heavy rain drenched the campaign opener. A station wagon equipped with loudspeakers had blared out, “Come to the courthouse and see the elephants perform and then hear John B. Waters, Jr. speak for his nomination for congress.” Waters referred to Congressman Reece in three speeches as “Mr. Absenteeism Himself.” While saying he was certainly not going to “get personal” in his campaign, the young candidate said the sixty-eight-year-old Carroll Reece was “too old” and “not well enough” to be a good congressman.
A photograph of an exuberant John Waters sitting astride one of the three elephants waving cheerily in front of a large banner advertising his congressional campaign adorned the front page of the Johnson City Press. The young candidate acknowledged Reece lived in Johnson City and brashly said, “And I’ve found any number of your citizens interested in keeping him here and not in Washington.” “I have found a general feeling that the people have elected Reece too many times,” Waters added. “He’s not doing the job. He’s an absentee congressman.”
Carroll Reece had weathered many a political storm before. One sign of his personal popularity inside his own congressional district was the large number of young men named for him. Election Day saw Carroll Reece sweep the GOP primary with 73% of the ballots cast, although John Waters won his own Sevier County handsomely. In fact, young Waters won almost 69% of the vote in his native Sevier County, quite an achievement considering he was running against perhaps the most personally popular man ever to represent Tennessee’s First Congressional District.
John Waters went on to become a highly successful and influential attorney and was appointed by President Ronald Reagan to the TVA Board of Directors.