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Persons of Interest: Estes Kefauver

Estes Kefauver was a Tennessee Democrat who made his name leading a famous investigation into organized crime in the early 1950s. He hoped it would give him the profile to become president and he twice sought his party's nomination for the job. The closest he came was in 1956, when he was selected by the Democratic National Convention to be the running mate of the presidential nominee. That was as close as he came to any sort of brass ring. Still, he was an interesting player in his day.

He was born Cary Estes Kefauver on July 26, 1903 in Madisonville, Tennessee. His mother was the former Phredonia Estes Bradford (I wonder if the Marx Brothers knew this when they used "Fredonia" as the name of a fictitious country in their movie Duck Soup?) His father was Robert Cooke Kefauver, a hardware manager. Estes Kefauver attended the University of Tennessee from 1922 to 1924. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree. After a year of teaching mathematics and coaching football at a Hot Springs, Arkansas high school, he attended Yale Law School, and graduated with an LL.B. in 1927. He practiced law for 12 years in Chattanooga, Tennessee, first with the firm of Cooke, Swaney & Cooke, and then as a partner in Sizer, Chambliss & Kefauver, and later in the firm of Duggan, McDonald, & Kefauver. In 1935 he married the former Nancy Pigott of Glasgow, Scotland. The couple met when she was visiting her relatives in Chattanooga. The couple had four children, one of them adopted.

Kefauver became interested in local politics and ran unsuccessfully for the Tennessee Senate in 1938. He spent two months as Finance and Taxation Commissioner under the newly elected governor Prentice Cooper. His home district Congressman, Sam D. McReynolds of Tennessee's 3rd district, died in 1939, and Kefauver was elected to succeed him in the House. This was the first of five terms in the House of Representatives that Kefauver served as a Democrat. Kefauver was a strong supporter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and especially of the President's New Deal legislation. He supported the controversial Tennessee Valley Authority and was one of the leading opponents of the efforts of Tennessee Senator Kenneth McKellar to gain political control over the agency.

Other causes that Kefauver championed while in Congress was that of congressional reform and anti-monopoly measures. He chaired the House Select Committee on Small Business, which investigated economic concentration in the U.S. business world in 1946. He also introduced amendments to the Clayton Antitrust Act designed to strengthen the act. In May 1948 Kefauver also proposed that more staff and money be allocated to the Antitrust Division of the Justice Department and to the Federal Trade Commission to make it easier to prosecute large corporations. He also chaired a committee investigating television and juvenile delinquency in the mid-1950s. This was in response to concerns from some members of the public about the increase in juvenile violence, and the possibility of this behavior being related to violent television programs.

Kefauver clashed with E. H. Crump, the former U.S. congressman, mayor of Memphis and boss of the state's Democratic Party, over control of the state's Democratic Party machinery. When he decided to seek the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in 1948, he fought with Crump who was much more conservative. Crump accused Kefauver of being a "fellow traveler," and of working for the "pinkos and communists," allusions that the liberal Kefauver was himself a member of the Communist Party at a time when the Cold War was heating up. Crump said that Kefauver was working for the communists "with the stealth of a raccoon". In a televised speech given in Memphis, Kefauver responded to such charges by putting on a coonskin cap and telling his audience "I may be a pet coon, but I'm not Boss Crump's pet coon."

Kefauver defeated the incumbent Tom Stewart in the 1948 Democratic primary. He had the backing of influential editor Edward J. Meeman of the Memphis Press-Scimitar, who had long fought the Crump machine for its corruption. He won both the primary and the election, and he would go on to use the coonskin cap as his trademark it in every successive campaign. He also had the support of the Nashville Tennessean, a consistently liberal newspaper that served as a focus for anti-Crump sentiment in the state. His victory was the beginning of the end for the Crump machine's influence in statewide politics.

In the Senate, Kefauver became a crusader for consumer protection laws, antitrust legislation, and civil rights for African Americans, though he was less enthusiastic on the latter cause. He later admitted that he had difficulty adjusting to the concept of racial integration.

From 1957 and 1963, Kefauver's Senate Antitrust and Monopoly Subcommittee investigated concentration in the U.S. economy, on an industry by industry basis. It issued a report exposing monopoly pricing in the steel, automotive, bread and pharmaceutical industries. In May 1963, Kefauver's subcommittee concluded that within monopolized U.S. industries no real price competition existed anymore and also recommended that General Motors be broken up into competing firms. This committee also held hearings on the pharmaceutical industry between 1959 and 1963 that led to enactment of the Kefauver-Harris Drug Act of 1962. Kefauver was appalled by the excess profits that U.S. drug companies were making at the expense of consumers. At that time, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had limited authority to require efficacy standards or disclose risks. Kefauver was accused by his critics of expanding the power of government unnecessarily, of interfering with the freedom of doctors and patients, and of threatening the viability of the pharmaceutical industry. It looked for a time as if his legislation was likely to fail. But in 1961, European and Australian doctors reported that an epidemic of children born with deformities of their arms and legs was caused by their use of thalidomide, which was heavily marketed to pregnant women. This revelation underscored the need for greater regulation of the pharmaceutical industry.

Kefauver's excess liberalism made him unpopular with his state party's machine. One Democratic insider called him "the most hated man in Congress." Kefauver also led hearings that targeted indecent publications and pornography.

His most famous cause was the U.S. Senate committee investigating organized crime. The committee, officially known as the Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce, was popularly known as the Kefauver Committee. In 1950 the Committee held hearings in fourteen cities and heard testimony from over 600 witnesses. Many of the witnesses were high-profile crime bosses, including such well-known names as Willie Moretti, Joe Adonis, and Frank Costello. A number of politicians also appeared before the committee and saw their careers ruined. Among them were former Governor Harold G. Hoffman of New Jersey and Mayor William O'Dwyer of New York City. The committee's hearings were televised live, just as many Americans were buying their first televisions. This made Kefauver nationally famous. Through the hearings many Americans learned about a criminal organization known as the Mafia for the first time.

The hearings ended the twelve-year Senate career of Democratic Majority Leader Scott Lucas. In a close 1950 reelection race against former Illinois Representative Everett Dirksen, Lucas asked Kefauver to keep his investigation away from an Chicago police scandal until after election day, but Kefauver refused. Reports of the investigation hurt the Democratic Party in Cook County, cost Lucas the election, and gave Dirksen national prominence as the man who defeated the Senate majority leader.

In the 1952 presidential election, Kefauver decided to run for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. Campaigning in his coonskin cap, Kefauver won in a stunning election victory in the New Hampshire primary, defeating President Harry S. Truman, the sitting President of the United States. Truman saw the writing on the wall and withdrew his bid for re-election. Kefauver won 12 of the 15 primaries in 1952, losing three to "favorite son" candidates. He received 3.1 million votes. The eventual 1952 Democratic presidential nominee, Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson, received only about 78,000 votes in the primaries. But at the time, the primaries were not the main method of delegate selection for the national convention. Kefauver entered the convention short of the number of votes still needed for a majority of the delegates. He lacked support among party bosses who controlled many of their states' delegations.

Although he began the balloting far ahead of the other declared candidates, Kefauver eventually lost the nomination to Adlai Stevenson, the one-term Governor of Illinois and the choice of the Democratic Party political bosses. Stevenson had resisted calls to enter the race, but he was nominated in a "Draft Stevenson" movement, assisted by his eloquent keynote speech on the opening night of the convention. John Sparkman was selected as the Democratic candidate for Vice President. Stevenson lost the general election in November to General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Republican nominee, in a landslide.

Kefauver tried again for the presidency in 1956. In the March 13 New Hampshire primary, he defeated Adlai Stevenson 21,701 to 3,806. A week later, Kefauver again defeated Stevenson in the Minnesota primary, winning 245,885 votes to Stevenson's 186,723 votes. Kefauver was also victorious in the Wisconsin primary. Kefauver faced other competition, not only from Stevenson, but also from Governor W. Averell Harriman of New York, who was endorsed by former President Truman. Stevenson was able to secure more endorsements and raise more funds than Kefauver. He defeated Kefauver in the Oregon, Florida, and California primaries and, overall, won more primary votes than Kefauver. After his devastating loss in the California primary, Kefauver suspended his campaign. At the Democratic National Convention, Stevenson was again nominated for president.

Stevenson then decided to let the delegates themselves pick his vice-presidential nominee, instead of making that choice himself. Although Stevenson preferred Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts as his running mate, he did not attempt to influence the balloting in any way, and the convention delegates selected Kefauver as the nominaee for Vice President. In the end however, the Stevenson-Kefauver ticket lost the November election to Eisenhower, by an even bigger margin than in 1952.

After his 1956 defeat, Kefauver was considered the front-runner for the 1960 Democratic nomination. In the intervening years in the senate, Kefauver introduced legislation in 1957 to ban the sale or possession of switchblade knives. He timed his hearings on the legislation to coincide with a series of articles in the Saturday Evening Post and other periodicals of the day on the use of switchblades by juvenile delinquents and gangs. But Kefauver's switchblade bill failed. Underlying the bill's failure was residual bad feelings between Kefauver and other senators. In 1959, Kefauver announced that he was not going to campaign a third time for the presidential nomination. He continued to represent Tennessee in the U.S. Senate.

When he ran for reelection to a third term in 1960, he faced staunch opposition for renomination from his party's still-thriving pro-segregation wing. Despite this, he won the primary decisively with 64% of the vote. During the general election itself, polls predicted a Kefauver defeat, but on election day he won nearly 72% of the vote.

In 1962, Kefauver, who introduced legislation that would eventually become the Kefauver-Harris Drug Control Act. This bill imposed controls on the pharmaceutical industry that required that drug companies disclose to doctors the side-effects of their products, allow their products to be sold as generic drugs after having held the patent on them for a certain period of time, and be able to prove on demand that their products were, in fact, effective and safe.

Kefauver's career was cut short due to his untimely death. He had been a heavy smoker and drinker. On August 8, 1963 he suffered what was reported as a mild heart attack on the floor of the Senate while attempting to place an antitrust amendment into a NASA appropriations bill. Two days later, on August 10, 1963, Kefauver died in his sleep in Bethesda, Maryland, of a ruptured aortic aneurysm. He was interred in the family cemetery in Madisonville.


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