By Ray Hill
With less than a week left before Tennesseans went to the polls to cast their ballots to elect a president, as well as fill both of the Volunteer State’s seats in the United States Senate, the candidates campaign frenetically. Senator Albert Gore hammered home his populist message, while Congressman Ross Bass, running to fill the remaining two years of the late Estes Kefauver’s term, talked in broad generalities about the good things government could do for the people. Howard Baker and Dan Kuykendall, the Republican nominees, were the first credible GOP candidates for the U.S. Senate in Tennessee since the nomination of former governor Ben W. Hooper in 1916. No Republican had ever been popularly elected by Tennesseans to serve in the United States Senate.
Albert Gore had been in Congress since 1939 when he had won his first term to serve Tennessee’s Fourth Congressional District; basically the same district that had once been represented in Congress by Cordell Hull. Hull, a congressman and U.S. senator from Tennessee, later became the longest serving Secretary of State in America’s history, a record still unbroken to this day. Gore, a poor boy from Smith County, revered the old Tennessee statesman and had unseated the man who had been the first popularly elected candidate ever to serve the Volunteer State in the United States Senate, Kenneth D. McKellar. To win reelection, Gore had to stave off a determined challenge from Prentice Cooper, a former three term governor, who ran a lavishly financed segregationist campaign in 1958. Gore won handily and faced thirty-nine year old Memphis businessman Dan Kuykendall in the 1964 general election. The candidates represented a clear contrast in philosophies; the white-haired Gore was the epitome of an old mountain populist who deeply believed in the political remedies offered by the Democratic Party. Dan Kuykendall was conservative, friendly to business and thought the federal government was usurping the role of local and state governments.
Ross Bass from Pulaski, Tennessee, had served in Congress for a decade before defeating Governor Frank Clement in a brutal Democratic primary to run for the remainder of the late Senator Kefauver’s term. Bass had managed to cobble together a coalition of African-Americans, organized labor, and much of the old Kefauver campaign organization to win the Democratic senatorial nomination by 100,000 votes. It was the first political defeat of Frank Clement’s career, which began in 1952 when he had beaten Gordon Browning, a veteran of Tennessee’s political wars, in a heated primary. Clement had been the first governor elected to serve a four year term and had been reelected in 1962 for a second four-year term of office after a hiatus for his former Commissioner of Agriculture, Buford Ellington, to be Tennessee’s chief executive. Oddly, the senatorial primary between Frank Clement and Ross Bass had been waged not on national issues, but largely upon state issues. Clement had presided over a tax increase, an act always fraught with political danger in Tennessee. Governor Jim Nance McCord had convinced the state legislature to institute a state sales tax and was immediately defeated in his 1948 reelection bid. Bass had effectively used Clement’s tax increases against him while still retaining the image as the more liberal candidate in the Democratic primary.
Howard Baker Jr. was the Republican candidate running against Ross Bass in the general election. Baker’s father had been the enormously popular congressman from Tennessee’s staunchly Republican Second District from 1951 until his sudden death from a heart attack in January of 1964. Baker had spurned the opportunity to seek election to his father’s old congressional seat, instead nudging his stepmother Irene to become a candidate in the special election, as the younger Baker believed it would ensure harmony inside the GOP while he ran for the Senate. Baker proved to be adept as a candidate, especially on the relatively new medium of television. Frank Clement had been a perfect example of those candidates who could orate for a couple of hours and hold a crowd numbering into the thousands spellbound the entire time on the courthouse square. The thirty second television commercial was replacing speech-making and Howard Baker’s well-modulated tones and demeanor would later make him something of a TV star with the Watergate hearings.
The Nashville Tennessean ran a profile of Albert Gore as the general election approached, proclaiming the senator served his state and country in the same tradition “of Cordell Hull,” still a revered figure in the Volunteer State. Written by Wayne Whitt, the article said Gore bore more than a passing resemblance to the profile of a “classical Roman senator” and praised the “Old Gray Fox” for his authorship of the bill creating the interstate highway system. It had been Gore’s predecessor in the U.S. Senate, K. D. McKellar, who had helped to birth the federal highway system. According to Whitt, Gore, like Hull before him, insisted upon a yardstick of one’s ability to pay in matters of taxation. It was Cordell Hull who was the author of the income tax. Whitt wrote Gore’s GOP opponent, Dan Kuykendall, could find little fault with Gore’s record of twelve years in the Senate and 14 years in the House of Representatives, so instead “jumped” Gore for the senator’s national reputation. Whitt wrote Albert Gore’s colleagues viewed him “as a hard-working, dedicated individual who ranks high in ability”, which was largely true. It was also true Gore, like Estes Kefauver, had never been a member of the “inner club” that gave certain senators great influence and power, such as that once wielded by McKellar. Unlike Kefauver who was actively disliked and disdained by many of his colleagues, the aloof Albert Gore was respected, but the Tennessee senator was not an especially warm person if one did not know him well. Wayne Whitt closed the article, claiming Gore paid close attention to his mail and pointed to a letter received by the senator from a Knoxville resident. The Knoxvillian wrote he was going to vote for Gore because of the senator’s stand on “taxation, aid to education, and health care for the aged”, although not without noting he and his family usually “voted for the Republican ticket.” The author said his vote for Gore was “placing the welfare of my country above party considerations.” The message was likely not lost on Republican readers, which were admittedly scarce in Middle Tennessee.
As Gore campaigned in his native and heavily Democratic Middle Tennessee, Dan Kuykendall was in Republican East Tennessee. Kuykendall lambasted Lyndon Johnson, saying “either he or many of those in his administration lack the guts to win” the war in Vietnam. Kuykendall referred to “Absent Albert” whom he accused of “going right down the line with such a policy” which the Memphian thought amounted to little more than an attempt “to win a world popularity contest.” Kuykendall quoted Winston Churchill, reminding his listeners the United States could not possibly hope to lead the world and at the same time attempt to win a popularity contest. “The only way we will ever have peace,” Dan Kuykendall said, “is to stand up for it, and, if necessary, be willing to die for it.” Kuykendall was not an armchair warrior, having been a veteran of the Second World War.
“I believe if we cannot win, then we should get out,” Kuykendall thundered, “not continue to live in the twilight zone of yes and no where ‘Absent Albert’ has spent his political life.” It was a likely point where Dan Kuykendall and Albert Gore agreed; the Tennessee senator was increasingly skeptical of the Vietnam War and much to Lyndon Johnson’s chagrin, became a sharp critic of the war.
Pauline and Albert Gore’s eldest child, daughter Nancy, campaigned for her father at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City. Nancy Gore was teased about appearing in the wake of a visit to the area by GOP candidate Barry Goldwater. Reputedly quite politically shrewd, in fact, much more so than her younger brother, future vice president Albert Gore, Jr.; the lovely Nancy sweetly quipped, “I don’t mind coming in behind Sen. Goldwater. After all, I plan to return to Johnson City many times. But I feel sure this is Goldwater’s last visit to your area.”
There was certainly reason for Democrats to be nervous. Howard Baker, campaigning in Memphis, won a straw poll of students at Southwestern, winning with 270 votes to 196 for Congressman Ross Bass. Dan Kuykendall polled 271 votes to 190 for Senator Gore, while Barry Goldwater topped Lyndon Johnson 277 – 217. Baker continued to hit Bass for the congressman’s supposed absentee-ism, saying Bass was “seeking elevation to the Senate after turning in an 82% absentee in the last Congress.” Baker also kept reminding audiences Ross Bass failed to vote on the appropriations for the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Atomic Energy Commission, which was vital to Oak Ridge. Likewise, Kuykendall dinged Gore, saying the senator had attended only 13 of 132 meetings of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy in the last five years. Howard Baker, during his campaign swing through West Tennessee, charged Ross Bass “has paid so little attention to the Tennessee Valley Authority and knows so little of its operation that he has a complete lack of knowledge of TVA financing.” Baker warned audiences the $750 million self-financing authorization for TVA was about to expire. Baker’s continual pounding of Bass on the subject of TVA was likely due not only to his genuine support for the agency, but also a reminder to Tennesseans he differed with GOP presidential candidate Barry Goldwater on the subject of the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Democrats made a push across Tennessee to rally Tennesseans to their cause as well as their candidates before Election Day. Eighty of Tennessee’s ninety-five counties saw various personalities headlining rallies, including figures from the past like that old Democratic war-horse, former governor Gordon Browning who spoke in McNairy County.
The Knoxville Journal did its part for the GOP candidates, just as the Tennessean did for the Democratic candidates. Days before the election, the Journal published a Charlie Daniel cartoon of Ross Bass waving his fist and screaming “Punk!” at every car that drove by with Baker and/or Kuykendall bumper-stickers. For good measure, Bass’ caricature was labeled “Playboy Bass.”
The feud between the two Knoxville newspapers, the News-Sentinel and the Journal, erupted again on the editorial pages when Guy Smith, editor of the Knoxville Journal, published a piece entitled, “Gore Ripe for Retirement” along with another Charlie Daniel cartoon lampooning “Playboy Bass” in the House of Representative’s payroll office. Smith gleefully wrote the News-Sentinel, “party organ of the Democrats locally and nationally,” had cried the Journal had misrepresented the record of Senator Albert Gore. “We feel sorry for our more or less esteemed contemporary in its leaning tower of journalism,” Smith wrote. In a collective of mock sympathy heavily larded with sarcasm, Guy Smith predicted the candidacies of Lyndon Johnson, Albert Gore and Ross Bass would be rejected by a great majority of East Tennesseans. Smith said what the News-Sentinel really objected to was the Journal telling the truth about Senator Gore’s record. The rivalry between the Journal and the News-Sentinel would continue for years, just as did that of the two Nashville dailies, the Banner and the Tennessean.
As with every election, candidates, political operatives, and parties began forecasting sure victory for Election Day. In Chattanooga, Dan Kuykendall boasted he thought he would defeat Senator Albert Gore by 45,000 votes. Gore, in turn, accused Republicans of spreading the “usual rash of rumors” throughout the state.
There were only three days remaining before rumors and speculation would be washed away by a tide of actual votes.