Senator McKellar’s Homecoming, 1946

Photo from the author’s personal collection.  Senators K. D. McKellar and Alben Barkley (right) leaving the White House, 1946.
Photo from the author’s personal collection.
Senators K. D. McKellar and Alben Barkley (right) leaving the White House, 1946.

By Ray Hill

Senator Kenneth D. McKellar turned seventy-seven years old in January of 1946.  He had been in Congress since 1911 and in the Senate since 1917.  It was clear McKellar was aging and there had been some thought the old Tennessean would retire.  President Franklin D. Roosevelt had summoned E. H. Crump, leader of the Shelby County political machine, to the White House for a conference in March of 1945.  The topic of conversation was the retirement of Senator K. D. McKellar.  While McKellar had been loyal to Roosevelt and the New Deal, Roosevelt believed framing the peace following the conclusion of World War II would be much easier without McKellar in the United States Senate.  McKellar was the most senior member of the U. S. Senate and chaired the relatively minor Post Office and Post Roads Committee, but he was also in effect the Chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee due to the incapacitation of Virginia Senator Carter Glass.  McKellar’s ascension as President Pro Tempore of the Senate and one of the Senate’s most powerful members did not escape Roosevelt’s notice.

President Roosevelt sensed McKellar was more conservative than he had been previously and perhaps also knew that the Tennessean didn’t especially like him personally.  Crump, a very shrewd observer of human nature, knew FDR could be quite deceitful and did not trust him any more than McKellar did.

President Roosevelt urged Crump to persuade McKellar to retire in 1946 or at least refuse to support his reelection bid.  Roosevelt told Crump McKellar could not be reelected.  The Memphis Boss flatly told the President to his face he was wrong.  Crump said Senator McKellar would indeed run again and that he would in fact be reelected.  A few weeks later, Franklin Roosevelt was dead and K. D. McKellar remained in the United States Senate.  Senator McKellar made the trek to Hyde Park and watched as Franklin Roosevelt’s body was lowered into the earth.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was hardly the only person who wanted to see Kenneth McKellar retire.  Walter Chandler, a former Congressman and the Mayor of Memphis, very much wanted to serve in the United States Senate.  Chandler approached Crump about running for the Senate in 1946 and the Memphis Boss refused to support him against McKellar.  When it became clear McKellar would not retire and intended to be a candidate for reelection, Chandler was so distraught he resigned as Mayor of Memphis.

Crump and McKellar had been the dominant force in Tennessee politics since 1932 and they were not only personal friends, but also political partners.

McKellar’s health was a concern; the press avidly followed any illness suffered by the senator and there had been a few public fainting spells, including one occasion when McKellar had toppled out of the presiding officer’s chair in the Senate Chamber.  There is some reason to believe McKellar had suffered a few mini-strokes during 1945 according to Robert Dean Pope, McKellar’s biographer.  Yet the old senator showed no signs of slowing down, much less retiring.

McKellar still retained the personal loyalty of thousands of Tennesseans for whom he had done favors in the decades he had been in office.  Senator McKellar was highly respected in his home state and many Tennesseans viewed him with a combination of affection and awe.  McKellar also still possessed the fealty of a statewide organization that stretched from Mountain City to Memphis.  Virtually every federal employee in the State of Tennessee owed his or her job to McKellar.

There were many Tennesseans who chaffed under the McKellar – Crump rule of Tennessee politics and the opposition to the McKellar – Crump combine made a strong effort to win the 1942 elections.  Governor Prentice Cooper was seeking a third two-year term that year while U. S. Senator Tom Stewart was running for reelection.  Both Cooper and Stewart were strongly supported by McKellar and Crump.  Privately, Mr. Crump was not overly enthusiastic about either Cooper or Stewart, but McKellar was very strongly for both of them and the Memphis Boss followed Senator McKellar’s lead.

J. Ridley Mitchell, a former Congressman from Tennessee’s Fourth District, had given up his seat in 1938 when he made a quixotic bid to run for the United States Senate in 1938.  Mitchell had run very strongly in his native Middle Tennessee, but had lost to Tom Stewart who had carried East and West Tennessee heavily.  Mitchell had sought the support of both McKellar and Crump and had disliked the idea of running a coalition campaign.  Still bitter at having lost the Senate race, Mitchell decided to challenge Cooper for the gubernatorial nomination in the Democratic primary.

Senator Stewart was challenged for renomination by Edward Ward Carmack, Jr.  “Ned” Carmack was the son of the late E. W. Carmack, a former senator and martyr to the cause of prohibition.  Many Tennesseans still remembered the senior Carmack having been shot dead in the streets of Nashville.

Both Mitchell and Carmack ran strong races and Senator Stewart would have in fact lost the Democratic primary had it not been for the returns in Shelby County, which utterly appalled E. H. Crump.

Chattanooga Congressman Estes Kefauver was quietly assessing his chances of defeating Senator McKellar in 1946.  Kefauver did not receive much encouragement and a trip to Nashville brought him slight encouragement from Silliman Evans, publisher of the Nashville Tennessean, perhaps McKellar’s most strident critic in Tennessee.

K. D. McKellar made an unexpected trip to Nashville in early January of 1946, which received wide coverage by the state press.  West Tennessee had been flooded that year, slowing down Senator McKellar and his party.  By the time McKellar reached the State Capitol, the senator was greeted by most of Tennessee’s political elite.

Waiting for Senator McKellar were Governor Jim McCord, State Democratic Party Chairman J. Frank Hobbs of Lawrenceburg, and Herbert “Hub” Walters, Tennessee’s Democratic National Committeeman.  Just before McKellar’s arrival, his junior colleague in the United States Senate, Tom Stewart, had issued an endorsement of McKellar’s reelection bid.  McKellar had only announced he would run again a few days earlier and Senator Stewart had declared his senior colleague as “one of the grandest and greatest men Tennessee ever produced”.  Stewart said McKellar’s “record of service in the United States Congress is one that equals any record ever made by any member of that body since the beginning of this government”.

The celebration of McKellar’s homecoming to the State Capitol was contrasted with that of Congressman Kefauver who arrived and left Nashville with no fanfare.  Senator McKellar, traveling with his secretary Dorothy McDaniel Walsh, W. R. Davidson, who would soon take the place of McKellar’s late brother Don as his Chief of Staff, and M. T. McArthur, a wealthy hotel magnate from Johnson City, entered the lobby of Nashville’s Hermitage Hotel to be greeted by a large crowd.  Among those gathered to greet the senator were Congressman Wirt Courtney of Franklin, Tennessee, State Senator Edgar Evins and his son Joe, who was running for Congress in a nearby district.  Lipe Henslee, the Collector of Internal Revenue for the State of Tennessee and a McKellar appointee was on hand, as was P. D. Houston, President of the American National Bank.  James D. Hoskins, President of the University of Tennessee, was also there to clasp the hand of Senator McKellar warmly.

Senator McKellar was besieged with questions as he moved slowly through the throng of people, shaking hands with his friends.  McKellar noticed the poor condition of Broad Street in downtown Nashville and commented there would be federal assistance coming to fix the road.  McKellar also wondered what folks thought about the $5,500,000 that had been appropriated by Congress for construction of a new Federal office building.  Told that the money and building were much appreciated by local residents, McKellar beamed.

Many of those gathered offered their sorrow on the passing of Don McKellar, the senator’s younger brother and Chief of Staff who had died unexpectedly a few weeks earlier of complications from lung cancer.  Don McKellar had himself been popular with thousands of Tennesseans who knew him well.  Unlike his more reserved older brother, Don had an excellent sense of fun and thoroughly enjoyed a drink at the end of the day.  It took some time for McKellar to wade through the crowd before making his way upstairs to his suite in the Hermitage Hotel.  Even then the old senator did not rest, but received a delegation of thirty-five persons who wanted to express their opposition to the Stewart’s Ferry Dam.  They told McKellar the proposed dam, which would cost $10,000,000, would inundate almost 300,000 acres of extremely fertile land, as well as a goodly portion of the Smyrna Airfield, more than two-dozen cemeteries, and some small communities.

After receiving the delegation opposed to the Stewart’s Ferry Dam, McKellar conferred with political leaders about his forthcoming campaign for renomination to the Senate.  Congressman Estes Kefauver had opted to seek reelection to the House of Representatives, rather than risk a race against the venerable McKellar.  Kefauver’s decision not to run for the United States Senate left the field open to Ned Carmack, who had not given up on his dream of holding elective office.  Having nearly defeated Senator Tom Stewart four years previously, Carmack was thought to be a strong candidate.

Carmack waged an energetic campaign, but Senator McKellar’s homecoming to Nashville proved to be his only appearance throughout the long campaign in 1946.  McKellar would periodically announce plans to return to Tennessee to campaign, but those plans never seemed to materialize.  With the death of President Roosevelt and the ascension of Harry Truman to the presidency, McKellar, as President Pro Tempore of the Senate, had become for all practical purposes acting Vice President of the United States.  President Truman, himself a former senator, understood McKellar’s standing in the Senate and promptly issued an invitation to the old Tennessean to attend meetings of his Cabinet.  McKellar also regularly attended White House conferences as part of the “big four” Congressional leaders which included Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, Majority Leader of the House John McCormack, and Senate Majority Leader Alben Barkley of Kentucky.  That national prominence and prestige did not escape the notice of Tennesseans.  It only helped increase McKellar’s power and prestige at home.

Although he campaigned hard, charging McKellar with being no friend to the Tennessee Valley Authority, Ned Carmack found the old senator was not as easy a target as Tom Stewart.  The Tennessee State Society of Washington honored McKellar in April of 1946 and Harry Truman made a surprise visit to the banquet and photos of Senator McKellar shaking hands with the President appeared in every newspaper in Tennessee.

As summer approached, the heat in Tennessee was intense and Senator McKellar occasionally mentioned he was coming home to campaign, a notion his friends discouraged.  McKellar’s homecoming to Nashville proved to be his one and only appearance during his entire campaign for renomination to the Senate in 1946.  McKellar defeated Ned Carmack easily, crushing his opponent with impressive margins, especially in East and West Tennessee.

Never again would Ned Carmack be a viable candidate for any public office.  McKellar would serve as Tennessee’s senior United States Senator for another six years and remains to this day Tennessee’s longest serving senator.

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