The last time the Democratic Party Bosses thwarted the will of the people
“The city slickers took Estes Kefauver and a loyal band of Tennesseans into camp this week, tricked and tortured him and then sang ‘Happy Birthday to You’ within a half hour after they had cut his throat.”
- Charles Bartlett, 1952
Estes Kefauver was a populist Democratic senator from Tennessee. He was a New Deal enthusiast who made a career out of fighting the concentration of corporate power and exposing political corruption.
He led crusades against Big Pharma and the mafia. For his efforts he was accused of being a "fellow traveler" and of working for the "pinkos and communists" with the stealth of a raccoon.
Kefauver responded to this by campaigning in a coonskin cap and saying, "I may be a pet coon, but I'm not Boss Crump's pet coon."
Because of his honesty, integrity, and his refusal to sell out his principles, one Democratic insider called him "the most hated man in Congress."
Does any of this sound familiar?
Even before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 1948, he was known for being as a crusader for consumer protection laws, antitrust legislation, and a consistent supporter of organized labor and civil rights for African Americans.
In 1952 Kefauver decided to run for president against incumbent Harry Truman.
Truman had famously upset Republican Thomas Dewey in 1948, but his popularity had waned amid discontent about U.S. involvement in the Korean War.
Truman sniffed that the primaries were “eyewash” and that he didn’t need them to be nominated. But he reluctantly allowed his name to be put on the New Hampshire ballot. Then he went off to his winter home in Key West, Fla.
Kefauver, with his wife, Nancy, headed to snowy New Hampshire with his coonskin cap, a shoestring budget and an old sedan borrowed from a friend...
Truman was still favored by 3 to 1. But Kefauver scored a stunning upset, winning 54 percent of the vote...
Two weeks later, Truman announced that he wouldn’t seek reelection. He later claimed that he had made his decision long before the New Hampshire primary loss. But “Give ‘em Hell Harry” never forgave Kefauver.
Kefauver then went on to win in Nebraska and Wisconsin despite being smeared as a communist, and then proceeded to win five more states.
“I don’t like the idea of smearing, and I don’t like the idea of McCarthy.”
- Kefauver, 1952
Kefauver won 12 of the 15 primaries. He received 3.1 million votes, while Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson, got only 78,000 votes.
Kefauver absolutely crushed his opposition. It wasn't even close.
Kefauver still had two problems.
In those days, most states didn't have primaries. Their delegates were appointed by state party bosses. Even the delegates that Kefauver won were not obligated to vote for the primary winner.
He was still short of the 615½ delegates needed to win the nomination.
His other problem was a even more daunting.
“The big city machines detest him, and will do their best to stop him,” wrote the author John Gunther, who was covering the campaign. “This is partly because he is a lone wolf, an irregularity, a nonconformist, and partly because the crime investigation upset the Democratic apple cart in states like Illinois.”
Most important, Truman was out for revenge. He appealed to 52-year-old Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson to get into the race. Stevenson said he didn’t want the nomination but indicated that he wouldn’t refuse a draft.
In the first roll call Kefauver led with 340 votes to 273 for Stevenson. Kefauver led on the second roll call with 362½ votes to 324½.
Then the party insiders made their move.
When the roll call came to the New York delegation, the state’s party chairman read a statement from Harriman. “I withdraw as a candidate and urge my supporters to cast their votes for my old friend, Adlai E. Stevenson.” Other delegations began switching to the governor.
Kefauver knew it was over. He entered the arena and walked toward the podium to speak. But the convention chairman, Rep. Sam Rayburn (Tex.), refused to interrupt the roll call.
By 12:30 am it was all over. The Democratic voters had lost. The party insiders had won. Kefauver conceded.
With that, Kefauver walked out of the arena as a band played “Happy Birthday.” It was now the early morning of his 49th birthday.
Stevenson went on to get crushed in the general election by Eisenhower.
Largely because of the 1952 election, both parties began changing primary rules to bind delegates to the winners of their state contests.
Kefauver twice won reelection to the Senate. In 1963 he suffered a heart attack on the Senate floor while attempting to place an antitrust amendment into a NASA appropriations bill. He died two days later at age 60.