tv Happy Chandler Earle Clements and Thruston Morton CSPAN December 23, 2015 12:30am-1:17am EST
later, congress and the 1965 heart seller immigration and nationality act. next on american history tv, senate majority leader mitch mcconnell gives a lecture on the rivalry between two kentucky politicians who served as governors and the senate. senator mcconnell argues that the competition between happy chandler and earle clements led to the election of thruston morton.
>> well, thank you very much, robert. it's a real pleasure to be here today at transylvania. want to thank president kerry and transylvania for hosting me here today. happy to be veterans day here as well. i also want to acknowledge my good friend ben chandler. he and his family of course are descendants of one of the people i'm going to be talking about today. kentucky has been extremely well served with ben as the executive director of the kentucky humanities council and i want to thank him for sharing some of the anecdotes i'm going to use today. finally, i want to thank chris
mosher, all of whom have contributed in one way or another not only to the remarks today, but speeches i've been giving to prominent kentucky senators over the past few years. two of these three men helped define kentucky politics for much of the 20th century. both served as governor and as senator. both were intensely ambitious men. both rose from modest origins. both were democrats born in western kentucky. both were accomplished athletes in their youth and fine coaches thereafter. both had a gift for remembering names and faces.
and in true kentucky style, these two men carried on a feud that literally lasted f eed for decades. those two men are albert benjamin happy chandler and earle clements. despite their similarities, the two men in other ways could not have been more different. happy was colorful and extrov t extroverted. literally larger than life. he was elected in large part due to his charisma and absolute zest for campaigning. clements was the opposite. reserved, methodical, leaving nothing to chance. happy was a great speaker. clements was not. by and large, chandler was conservative and clements was
liberal. the third man i'm going to talk about was a direct beneficiary of the chandler-clements feud, republican thruston morton. the chandler-clements divide was significant because for most of the 20th century kentucky has twice as many registered democrats as republicans. i might say parenthetically happily that's changing. what that meant of course is it was exceedingly hard for republicans to win elections. this occurred in the 1956 kentucky u.s. senate race when
the chandler and clements factions were literally at each other's throats. this resulted in morton being elected to the senate in 1956, launching his notable senate career. but let's begin our story with the man known far and wide as happy. he was born into poverty in 1898 in henderson county. chandler's mother left his family when he was a young boy. one of his earliest memories was following her, sobbing as she walked to the carriage that would take her away from the family for the rest of his childhood. her departure meant chandler's father, a hard scrabble farmer, had to raise happy and his brother literally by himself. the boys soon had to go to work to help make ends meet. chandler worked diligently on the farm and in school.
his hard work paid off academically when he was admitted to a well-regarded college of you may be familiar with, transylvania. as chandler looked back, he said legend has it, i arrived in transylvania with no resources other than a red sweater, a $5 bill, and a smile. his fame nickname originated right here. the senior dubbed him happy. the nickname stuck. as chandler recognized, it could have been a lot worse. at least the senior didn't call him stinky. [ laughter ] >> chandler was a natural athlete. at one point playing semi-pro
baseball. his lifelong interest and involvement in sports flowed naturally from that early activity. after having graduated from transylvania and completed law school, he went to coach football at the local high school. his move allowed him to meet his future wife, mildred watkins. mildred was southern to the core. as happy recalled, she still thought the word damn yankee was one word. [ laughter ] >> after they wed in 1925, happy nicknamed her mama. happy and mama would be married for more than 65 years. he quipped that the durability of their relationship was a great tribute to my patience. he once recalled telling a friend of a two-week period in which he had not spoken a word
to mildred. his friend, concerned by this news, asked what the trouble was. happy responded, there was no trouble. he just hadn't wanted to interrupt her. [ laughter ] >> with his winning personality, happy soon entered politics. in no time he became a state senator and then in 1931 he was elected lieutenant governor where he served along side a fellow democrat governor. the two differed on a number of issues, however, including implementation of a sales tax, which chandler believed harmed the poor. they also differed on the need for primaries as opposed to conventions, of course, which would typically be controlled by the party bosses. not surprisingly chandler
favored primaries. what happened next displays one of chandler's signature traits, audaci audacity. audacity. under kentucky constitution at the time, if the governor left the state, the lieutenant governor became acting governor. in 1935 governor lathune made a big mistake. he departed kentucky to go to washington, leaving happy temporarily in charge. happy seized the moment, called a special session of the legislature, and subsequently enacted a measure allowing candidates to be elected through primaries. this of course enraged lathune and while the governor was later able to block some of the impact of happy's legislation, he could do nothing to dim the political stardom that happy had gained from this bold maneuver.
riding a wave of popular acclaim, happy ran for governor in 1935. lathune limited to one term hand picked a candidate he hoped would defeat chandler in the democratic primary. that candidate was tom ray. and ray's campaign manager was a young man named earle clements. this pitting of chandler versus clements in the 1935 case started a political feud that would have a profound impact on kentucky politics for more than a quarter of a century. it did so by crystallizing factionalism within the state democratic party. the end result of the 1935 governor's race was that the 37-year-old chandler was elected to the state's highest office. historians generally agree that chandler's first term as governor was among the most
significant in state history. during the great depression, chandler helped get the state back on firm financial footing. he enhanced schools. he constructed hospitals and roads. he reorganized state government and of course he repeated the hated sales tax. the problem for happy was that kentucky governors at this time could not run for re-election. happy was young. he was ambitious. so he had to look beyond the governor's mansion if he wanted to continue his public career. as a result in 1938, chandler showed his audacity once again. this time he challenged an incumbent democrat in the u.s. senate primary. now this was not just any ole garden variety incumbent mind
you. it was the majority leader of the senate, alvin barkley. it proved to be shall i say a spirited contest. it's not in my text, but i remember the photograph that's been in kentucky history books for sometime. president roosevelt came down to make a speech for barkley, and happy jumped in the car with him. literally jumped in the car with him, so the picture was taken. it had them all in there. you couldn't tell who roosevelt was for. [ laughter ] >> to give you a sense of how toxic shall i say the environment was, chandler at one point charged at barkley's
allies had poisoned him. chandler was a sight to behold. as one historian observed, chandler had few peers and no superiors. he had a prodigious memory and would call out spontaneously to friends in the crowd asking them for help or that of a relative. he would sing at a moment's notice, particularly my old kentucky home. and he was a superb orator. chandler used to say about his campaign speeches, i had a strong feeling that nobody is saved at 20 minutes. i made short speeches and i never told a dirty joke. in the end with the help of president roosevelt and the rival state democratic faction, which included earle clements, barkley defeated chandler in the
primary. the other kentucky seat unexpectedly opened up. chandler maneuvered himself to get appointed. he won a full term in 1942 to the u.s. senate. his tenure in the senate was eventful for several reasons. he, for example, was an outspoken critic of america's strategic priorities in world war ii. in the aftermath of pearl harbor, he publicly expressed his belief that the u.s. should pursue a japan first policy as opposed to focusing on the european theater of the war. as you recall, churchill was intent on the u.s. fighting in europe first. in 1943 as a member of the military affairs committee chandler and several lawmakers went off on a 63-day inspection of american forces overseas. during the delegation's voyage, chandler met winston churchill and he was able to smuggle his
friend, comedian bob hope, in to meet the prime minister. but at the end of the day chandler's career on capitol hill demonstrates that the senate is not everyone's cup of tea. it is a collegial, not an executive body. chandler didn't like the senate because he wasn't the boss. and he probably doubly didn't like the senate because barkley was the majority leader. given his dissatisfaction in the senate, when the offer came to become baseball commissioner in 1945, chandler jumped at the chance. he not only loved baseball, but being commission brought with it a pretty nice pay raise. he is probably best known for his role in the integration of major league baseball. he could have done as his
predecessor had, which was to firmly oppose integration, but chandler did no such thing. he prevented ricky to go forward with bringing jackie robinson to the major leagues. he also expressed public support for robinson in the press and made clear to opposing teams that race baiting of robinson would not be tolerated. i would note that another famed kentuckian also helped robinson through this trying time. my childhood hero pee wee reese of louisville. over time, however, chandler's independence cost him support among the baseball owners. he was not reappointed and left after six years in office. after leaving the commissioner's office, happy again felt the tug of politics. he decided to run for governor 20 years after his first governor's race. in the primary he was challenged
by a little known judge from eastern kentucky named burt combs, who had the exclusive backing of the democratic faction led by a named you guessed it, earle clements. it was a bitterly fought race, but chandler prevailed behind the slogan be like your pappy and vote for happy. those were the good ole days. while chandler's second term as governor is not as well regarded as his first, it is notable that today bears his name. he was a supporter of racial integration. in 1956 he called out the national guard during the tense 18-day standoff to help integrate schools in western kentucky. chandler would offer himself up three more times for the governor's mansion but without
success. despite these setbacks in later life it was undeniable that chandler had become a living symbol of the commonwealth. in 1986 state journalists elected chandler of the kentuckian of the century, and chandler regularly appeared at senior night at uk basketball games to sing my ole kentucky home before the tipoff. he became only one of a handful of kentuckians to be elected to the baseball hall of fame. he lived until he was just short of 93 years old, passing away in 1991. fittingly his last word was mama. mama herself passed away four years later. earle clements was born two years before chandler in 1896
down in morganfield in western kentucky. he was one of six children. his father was a farmer, a lawyer, and a local political leader. clements attended uk where he was a football standout . he would later become a accomplished high school coach as well. attending seminars held by none other than rockney. he served in the u.s. army in world war i. while he never served overseas, he rose to the rank of captain. personality wise, clements was inscrutab inscrutable. he had a temper. he was not a great public speaker. one journalist describes his speeches as masterpieces of
mediocrity. but he was an extremely hard worker and he was a tremendous political organizer and strategist. one long-time observer of the kentucky political scene said of clements, he may well have been the greatest political intellect of the 20th century in kentucky. those who watch clements commented frequently his ability not only to see the result of each action, but the results of that results. clement's approach was subtle. he himself once remarked that he always preferred the quiet style of doing things. one gop rival said of clements, i think he solved the riddle of politics. most of us stand in front of the curtain so we can take the bows. earle stands in back of the curtain so he never gets the
blame. unlike chandler's meteoric rise in kentucky politics, clement's assent was steady and gradual. he followed his father into public life and in the 20-year period beginning in 1922 clements served as sheriff, county clerk, and then county judge of union county. of his time as county judge, clement observed there was no better practical schooling in government than in that office. as a former county judge myself, i certainly wouldn't disagree. in 1927 clements married the daughter of a prominent union county official, sarah blue. the two would have a daughter named elizabeth who would share her father's love of public service. she would later work as an aide to first lady lady bird johnson and to second lady john mondale.
after his long tenure in county governor, clements was elected to the state senate. following a brief stint as a congressman during which he served with a promising lawmaker from louisville, clements declared for governor in 1947. it would look as if his republican opponent would in fact be morton, but morton decided against a run. clements was overwhelmingly elected the commonwealth's 50th governor. as governor, clements had many achievements. he succeeded in part because he worked closely with his former colleagues in the legislature and clements played hardball. as governor he would go to the house or senate chamber and if a legislator voted against him, clements would point his pencil
at the dissident and make a mental note. the results, though, were undeniable. he created the modern state police and the state park system, and he took steps to integrate uk. like chandler, clements left the governor's mansion prior to the end of his term to pursue a senate seat. he was elected to fill the vacancy left by albin barkley when he became vice president. unlike chandler, clements thrived in the senate. he quickly became an ally of rising star and soon to be senate democrat leader lyndon johnson. after only three years in the senate, johnson promoted clements to the democratic whip. he had good relations with both conservative and liberal
democrats. an important attribute in a closely divided senate. when the democrats would regain the majority in 1955, clements became majority whip. clements served as party whip from 1953 to 1957. one of only three kentuckians to serve in that position. the others are wendell ford and myself. the whip is responsible for counting votes and trying to persuade senators to support legislation promoted by the majority party. i can assure you it's a pretty hard job. clements job got even harder however in july 1955 when majority leader lyndon johnson had a heart attack. this left senate democrats without a true majority leader for the last few weeks of the senate session. so for the next 29 days clements
stepped into the breech and served as acting majority leader. all of this remember is in his first term. clements had to try to lead the senate without appearing to be a usurper in lbj's absence, a difficult balance to strike. he also had to perform to the satisfaction of johnson. can you imagine that? who remained a demanding test master even from his hospital bed. after visiting with the bedridden johnson, clements reported back to fellow democrats on the majority leader's views regarding a particular piece of legislation. he would like the bill to be taken up yesterday and passed the day before yesterday. that was lbj. nonetheless, clements succeeded in holding together the fragile democratic majority and his efforts garnered favorable
reviews. the year 1955 was an important one for clements not only because of his work as acting majority leader. it was also important because happy chandler was running to recapture the governor's office. now clements remained a power broker in the state as head of one kentucky's democratic party's dualing factions and he vigorously opposed chandler's campaign. clements and his ally hand picked little known burt combs to oppose chandler. happy trained his fire on comb's ben fa benefactors. despite the best efforts of the
clements faction, chandler prevailed in the primary and was elected that fall, so you can imagine what's coming next. the next year the shoe is on the other foot. now as governor, chandler had control of state government and earle clements was up for re-election to the senate. to put it mildly, chandler was decidedly unhappy about the prospects of clements serving another term. he was looking for payback. he was looking, of course, to defeat clements. given that he was a prominent member of the senate leadership, many observers expected that clements would just sail to re-election, but they failed to account for a number of factors even aside from the hostility of the sitting governor. one was republican president dwight eisenhower who was popular in kentucky and who was
up for re-election. another challenge was clement's opponent, his former house colleague, thruston morton. to top it all off, clements also faced the bane of all legislators seeking re-election. a tough vote. johnson pressed the senate to expand the social security program to include benefits for the disabled. this was a difficult issue in kentucky given strong opposition from the state's doctors. clements had initially promised them he would oppose the legislation, but lbj found himself one vote short of securing passage and clements, ever the good soldier, reversed himself and cast a deciding vote in favor of the bill. so the combination of happy, ike, thruston, and the disability vote proved too much
for the clements' campaign. he lost in a very, very tight race. the only election he lost in his entire 36-year public career. he would never again hold elective office. but clements was not done with politics. when his term ended in 1957, johnson had him appointed executive director of the senate democratic campaign committee much to the irritation of governor chandler. and in 1959 clements got some measure of revenge when his favorite candidate for governor the now better known burt combs bested happy's proxy. the chandler-clements feud lived on. clements then returned to kentucky serving as the state highway commissioner under combs. clements later embarked on a successful lobbying career on behalf of one of kentucky most
important industries, tobacco. after a long period of ill health he passed away in his place of birth, morganfield, in 1985. thruston morton. to put it mildly, his upbringing was quite different than that of chandler or clements. he was the sign of a wealthy family. his dad was a doctor. his mother's family made a fortune through flour milling. morton born in 1907 was younger than chandler and clements and he was born in louisville, not western kentucky. morton was educated at a private prep school in virginia and graduated from yale whereas chandler was exuberant and folksy and clements was sphinx
like -- morton was a republican. morton returned to kentucky and rose quickly in the family business ultimately becoming chairman of the board. in 1931 he wed and the couple would have two children. soon after the u.s. became involved in world war ii morton enlisted in the navy. he served four years rising to lieutenant commander. upon returning from the war, morton was drawn to public life. after years of democratic control of the white house and congress and with the depression and world war behind them, the american people were in the mood for a change. as a result morton recognized that 1946 would be a good year for the gop and decided to run for a seat in the u.s. house of representatives. looking back, morton remarked
about that particular year, 1946. he said anybody that had run on a republican ticket without a jail record would have been elected. so morton, who had no jail record, was in fact elected. that said, his first race was not without its missteps. the year 1946 marked the early implementation of voting machines, which operated with hand pull levers. there was some concern that this new technology might confuse voters, so at one rally a morton supporter was explaining how to use the machines, these new voting machines. she informed the crowd just pull a lever. sending mr. morton to congress is just as easy as flushing your own toilet. [ laughter ] >> in 1952 morton decided he'd
had had enough of the house, yet he still made some important political moves. he was the only kentucky delegate to back general eisenhower at the 1952 convention. everybody else support eed taft. after supporting ike at the 1952 convention, morton was hand picked by the newly elected president to serve as assistant secretary of state for congressional affairs. he held his position from 1953 to 1956, advocating on capitol hill for eisenhower's foreign policy agenda. following his tenure at the state department, eisenhower again reached out to morton. this time he urged morton to run for the senate against clements in the hopes that republicans might retake the majority following the 1956 election.
i remember senator morton telling me he didn't think he had a snowball's chance in hell, but morton agreed to run against clements. morton is sophisticated, east coast educated, former state department official. if that wasn't bad enough, he was from louisville on top of it. he still had some things to learn about running for statewide office. however, he recalled as a member of the house, i had represented a district which was strictly metropolitan. i had, for example, no problems with agriculture. my greatest agricultural problem as a congressman was finding some flower seeds for the window boxes. the race against clements was really tight. so tight in fact that morton went to sleep at 2:30 a.m. on election night not knowing the outcome. the next morning the headline blare ed clements leads morton.
as we know, thanks to happy, ike, and the pesky vote on social security, morton narrowly defeated clements. once elected, morton was soon elevated to the senate republican leadership team. morton, like clements, transcended the conservative-liberal divide in his party. he was mentioned throughout the 1960s as a possible presidential or vice presidential candidate or a potential senate republican leader. by the way, not in my text, but you'd be interested to know the republican senator who ran against dirkson for senate republican leader in 1959 was john sherman cooper. obviously senator cooper did not win that race. in 1959 eisenhower approached
morton with yet another request. would he head the republican national committee? mr. president, you must be at the bottom of the barrel if you're asking me, morton replied. eisenhower did morton one better and responded, you're damn right i am. [ laughter ] >> but as it turned out, morton was a very good fit for the job. he headed the rnc from 1959 to 1961. a position interestingly enough that his younger brother rogers morton would hold exactly a decade later. as head of the rnc, morton was responsible for being the public face of the party and one of its chief fundraisers and organizers. he was hailed as the best rounded national chairman we've had in years. like clements, morton was a hard hitting partisan. he was known to say in the context of political campaigns
if as a candidate you don't say it strongly, you'll wind up in the want ads. that philosophy was on full display in 1962 when the democrats nominated the liberal former louisville mayor wilson wyatt to challenge morton for the senate. throughout the campaign, morton hammered wyatt on his liberal ties. the 1962 kentucky senate race drew national attention. president john f. kennedy came that october to speak in favor of wyatt at freedom hall over in louisville. a prominent republican senator also visited louisville that fall and made a few appearances, including one supporting morton. that republican was barry goldwater, who was the head of the national republican senatorial committee at the time. i remember this well because i
was president of the college republicans at u of l, and i invited goldwater to speak at the university. goldwater accepted my invitation and i had the honor of introducing him to u of l that day. as a 20-year-old college kid, as i said, i have naively assumed goldwater accepted this invitation because he wanted to come to u of l. looking back on it it is clear that goldwater may have wanted to visit u of l to give him something public to do while he was in town campaigning for thruston morton, but his speech sounded suspiciously, suspiciously, like someone who was laying the groundwork for a presidential run in 1964, which was of course exactly what he did. in that 1962 senate race morton's success stemmed from more than just the assistance of
goldwater. it also included a helping hand from none other than happy chandler. the old war horse was positioning himself for yet another run for the governor's mansion in 1963. his motto was, abc in 63. and chandler believed he could aid his own cause by helping morton in 1962. these races were back to back. i actually remember it. it was not subtle. in many counties chandler's campaign offices were right next to the morton offices. the irony is chandler helped morton get elected, but fell short in his election the next year. i can tell you from personal experience that chandler-clements factionalism had an impact at all level of kentucky politics.
not just in the u.s. senate races, but in other contexts. in the spring of 1966 i was over here at the law school. i wanted to be president of the student bar association. as a louisville republican, you could immediately understand my most obvious handicap. it was not an enviable position to be in. so i needed to have a good strategy, right, to overcome that handicap? what i decided to do was to emulate the approach taken by senator morton and form a coalition of republican and pro-democrat law students. like morton, i was able to win my election. you may be asking how in the world did i know who the chandler democrats were. how did i know that? it really wasn't hard. i just went to all of my
democratic classmates who didn't have a part-time job. [ laughter ] >> i'm not embellishing this at all. that is exactly what we did. and ben, you'll get a kick out of this. at the time the most prominent chandler democrat was bill. the year after his re-election in 1962 morton was tapped to secede goldwater. with this job, morton was in charge of recruiting republican senate candidates and helping them with their campaigns. i had the honor of following in morton's footsteps as the head of this committee from 1977 to
2001. he also played a prominent policy role, especially in foreign affairs. in 1967 he emerged as the key figure in getting the u.s. soviet consular treaty aproved by the senate. the johnson administration had been hesitant to pursue the agreement due to the vietnam conflict. the senate republican leader actually opposed the treaty, but morton took the initiative not only for his party, but also for the senate. first, he persuaded former president eisenhower to embrace the treaty, which removed a great deal of potential partisanship from the equation. then morton used his knowledge on the subject matter and his reputation as a former state department official to convince 2/3 of his fellow republican senators to favor the pact, forcing dirkson to change
his position. once morton had succeeded in securing strong republican support, he then prodded a hesitant president johnson to weigh in with democrats. lbj obliged and ultimately the senate approved the treaty. morton's success reflects how power in the senate often fl fluctuates depends on the circumstances. morton's stature within the republican party coupled with his foreign policy credentials made his next step a highly publicized one. in august of 1967, the previously hawkish morton publicly changed his position on the vietnam war.
his change of heart sent shock waves through official washington and further undermined support for president johnson's handling of the conflict. morton, like both chandler and clements, was also an advocate for civil rights. yet despite the high esteem in which he was held in early 1968, morton shocked his colleagues once again by announcing he would not run for re-election. here's how he explained it. he said to use an old kentucky expression. i suppose i'm just plain track sore. in retirement, like clements, morton continued to advocate for kentucky causes, serving, for example, as chairman of the board of churchill downs. morton passed away in 1982. so my friends, the interrelated careers of happy chandler, earle
clements, and thruston morton have left their impact on kentucky as well as on the nation as a whole. the rivalry between chandler and clements is significant for all of us as kentuckians because it defined state politics for nearly 30 years. the rivalry is important at a national level because it marked the turning point in the career of two men of national stature. it ended the senate career of clements and marked the beginnings of morton's. on yet another level the rivalry between chandler and clements is a vivid illustration of the principle that the personal and the political are often inextricably intertwined. and more broadly still, it suggests that the legacies that result from such rivalries can reverberate long after the combatants have left the scene. thank you so much. [ applause ]