Western Kentucky Politics since the New Deal, Part 1

Uploaded by MCCeLearning on 11.05.2012

Hello, my name is Dr. Robin West, and I am a professor of History at Madisonville Community College.
I have here with me today, Dr. George Humphries, extended campus director at the College, and author of a forthcoming history
for the University Press of Kentucky on Western Kentucky politics since the new deal. Welcome Dr. Humphreys. [Humphreys] Well thank
you very much, it is a pleasure for me to be here today. [West] It seems like almost any history of Kentucky politics
must start with 19th century Kentucky poet James Mulligan's description of our politics.
[Humphreys] And what was that description? [laughs] That Kentucky politics are the damndest. Right?
Yes, I think it's always kind of interesting because he starts off by talking about the beatuies of Kentucky
all of its attributes and concludes about Kentucky politics that they are the damndest.
I'm not always sure that is the case. I wrote a history of Oklahoma politics and I saw some interesting facets of that state's politics as well.
But, that is what, how people usually start off talking about Kentucky politics.
[West] In your research, are there stories you found that corroborate Mulligan's description.
[Humphreys] Oh yes, many, and I could go on for hours I suppose. But I will pick out one.
That is the 1938 US Senate Democratic Primary race between incumbent US Senator Alben Barkley from Paducah
and boy-wonder governor Albin Benjamin Chandler, Happy Chandler, and I think it is usefull to go back a little bit
for a moment and mention that Barkley was a figure of major importance in New Deal politics.
Of course you are an American historian and might recall some of the ins-and-outs of the court packing
scheme that went on after the 1936 election. Probably Franklin Rosevelt's first major defeat.
When he attempted to pack the supreme court because the supreme court was knocking down New Deal law after New Deal law.
Anyway, in the middle, towards the end of that, Senator Joe Robinson, from Arkansas, who was the majority leader
weighed in, he had major reason to try to get a court reform, because he felt like he was promised a seat on the Supreme Court.
In the middle of July, this fight is going on in Washington D.C., which you may recall was not air conditioned at the time.
And after a very rough week of defending the court plan, he dies. Just goes home sick, and they find him dead in his hotel room
the next morning. Any case, Barkley, in a very tough race, becomes majority leader. He takes Robinson's place.
But only after FDR weighed in and used his influence, most notably in a letter, the Dear Albin letter
that was written to Barkley, because Rosevelt was desperate to have Barkley as majority floor leader
rather than a fellow named Pat Harrison, from Mississippi, who many people felt would be hostile to the New Deal.
Barkley was a warrior for the New Deal. Had been a strong progressive liberal sort of Senator.
Anyway, to carry that story foward a little bit, a somewhat diminished but not defated Rosevelt goes on in 1938
and attempts to purge the Democratic Party of some of his opponents. His opponents struck back somewhat, by encouraging Happy Chandler to run against Barkley.
Well, that would have been a huge defeat for Rosevelt had Happy Chandler won that election.
In any case, there was one classic part of that campaign. Chandler was the boy-governor, Barkley is the aging politico
and towards the end of the election, well Chandler ends up in the hospital.
Supposedly he is poisoned by the Barkley campaign drinking his ice-water.
He ends up in the hospital for a week, and Barkley of course denied any involvement with that.
And for weeks afterwards, as the campaign ran on, everytime Barkley would give a speech
he would pick up his glass of ice-water, hold it up, look at it, and shutter, and wonder weather to drink it.
So, anyway, that is an example of Kentucky politics in those days.
[West] And of course, Barkley won that election and went on to a long, distinguished political career in the
Senate and became vice president in the 1948 election upset when Harry S. Truman defeated Thomas Dewey.
[Humphreys] Yes, after 10 years basically as majority leader, he assisted Truman, looked like he was going to be defeated.
That election, the Thomas Dewey election, you remember classic thing of people holding up the Chicago Tribune
predicting that Dewey had defeated Truman. Barkley helped in that upset. Went on to four years as Vice President, and actually
made a run for President in 1952. Very short. But going into the national convention that year, Truman backed Barkley, and even though
he was I think about 71 years old at the time. But, labor felt he was too old and pulled the plug on him.
He wasn't done yet, in 1954 he was re-elected to the US Senate, goes back to Congress as the junior senator from Kentucky.
And, something that is always very interesting about him, he dies in 1956, giving a speech, to a college crowd at Washington Lee University.
He is up there, and he says something to the effect of "I would rather sit on the back row for
I'd rather be a servant in the house of the Lord, rather than sit among the seats of the mighty.
And collapsed and died. [West] Be careful what you wish for. [Humphreys] Yes.
[West] Now, what about Happy Chandler, what ever happened to him after his loss?
[Humphreys] Well, Chandler probably felt that losing to Barkley was going to kill his opportunities in Politics.
Fortune always seemed to smile on Happy Chandler, so in 1939, Senator Marvel Logan dies in October of that year.
And of course, Chandler is the Governor, Governor has the power to appoint to fill vacancies in the Senate, so he cuts a deal with his Lt. Governor
Johnson, steps down, Johnson fills the terms of the bargain and appoints Chandler to the US Senate.
He remained there through 1945, went on to be Commisioner of Baseball where he is now in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
He took great pride in having a role in integrating baseball, which made it possible for Jackie Robinson.
Then made another run and became Governor again in 1955 and continued to become a force in Kentucky politices well up into the 1960s.
[West] Let's talk about how you came to define what Western Kentucky is and why you thought a book on Western Kentucky politics is needed.
[Humphreys]That's a more difficult task than you would think. I started looking at this book, as many as 10 or 15 years ago when I was still out in Oklahoma.
I decided, determined that there had not been that much written about Western Kentucky. So I felt that there was a big gap there.
But I also found that there was very little in the way of agreement about what Western Kentucky is.
I've started talking to, people like in the General Assembly, believe that Western Kentucky is anything west of I-65.
However, I don't see much in the way of common interest from folks in Elizabethtown, and those in Paducah.
So, I felt that the line needed to be drawn much futher west. I found folks in Bowling Green who would object to be included in a history of Western Kentucky.
I was quick to point out to them, well you've got a University that sits up on the hill here, Western Kentucky University.
And I'll take you out. I ended up deciding that Western Kentucky more appropriately should be, I take a line
from the Eastern edge of Hancock county, down I include Ohio county, Butler county, Warren county, Simpson county.
So anything west of that lline, is in-fact, Western Kentucky.I think that works, for
a variety of reasons. It's a land rich in rivers, in contrast to Eastern Kentucky
it's basically lower than the uplands of Eastern Kentucky. It is essentially conservative, and fairly democratic.