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Kefauver

Kefauver: A Political Biography by Joseph Bruce Gorman, Oxford Univ. Press 374 pp., $10

By Leo F. J. wilking

"Estes Kefauver was the most authentic--and most successful--maverick in American political history." So begins Joseph Bruce Gorman's biography of the Tennessee Senator who sought the Presidency twice in that forgotten decade of the 1950s. Yet Gorman's lengthy record of Kefauver's political life belies his opening statement. Kefauver was an authentic maverick only in comparison to other Southern politicians and his success was largely confined to winning elections in his home state of Tennessee.

Because Kefauver represented Tennessee and shared the predominating views of that state on segregation, he was not a Progressive Democrat on civil rights legislation; he spent his greatest energy defending the Tennessee Valley Authority from the clutches of private interest, much as other Southern senators would champion tobacco, cotton or whiskey. He lost many of his important legislative battles in Washington, and was even less successful on the national political scene. In 1952 and 1956 he campaigned for the Democratic nomination for President; his only reward was the vice-presidential spot in 1956, from which he and Adlai Stevenson slid to a second landslide defeat at the hands of Eisenhower.

So one might ask why Gorman has bothered to write this common story of a politican's hopes and eventual disappointments. If there is an answer it lies in Kefauver's unusual decency and honesty, which appealed to large segments of the American population in two national campaigns, and in his valuable investigative work during his 15 years in the U.S. Senate.

In spite of his inexperience and an amateur campaign staff, Kefauver won his Senate seat in 1948 by defeating the corrupt and powerful Crump machine. After two years as chairman of a special Senate committee investigating organized crime had given Kefauver a national reputation as a soft-spoken crusader for clean government, he decided to challenge President Truman for the nomination in 1952.

It was in New Hampshire that year that Kefauver proved the effectiveness of the exhausting, person-to-person campaign technique he developed in Tennessee. He attended tea parties, church breakfasts and club luncheons, all day and into the night. Gorman writes that Kefauver "would go to the top floor of factories and shake every hand on every floor, introducing himself by saying, 'I'm Estes Kefauver, and I'm running for President. I'd appreciate your vote."

However, Kefauver was not so exciting to the party bosses. They had resented his crime investigation probes into Washington, Miami, New York, Chicago, Detroit and other cities whose political machines were principally Democratic. His stunning upset victory over Truman in New Hampshire only increased their hostility, and they demonstrated that rank and file support was not a guarantee of political success: in-Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Oregon, for example, Kefauver received 990,877 of the 1,142,528 votes cast, but only 11 1/2 of the 128 unbound delegates at the convention.

Although Kefauver entered virtually every primary he could--and won most of them--the party bosses doubted their significance. Governor Stevenson of Illinois was a reluctant candidate, and it was hard to separate the anti-Truman vote from the pro-Kefauver support. After a divisive fight over the seating of the Virginia delegation at the convention, which cost Kefauver much of his Southern support, he lost the nomination to Stevenson on the third ballot.

The 1956 campaign was an unexciting rerun of 1952 since most Democrats correctly believed that Eisenhower was unbeatable. After a June defeat in the California primary. Kefauver realized that he could not overtake Stevenson, and withdrew from the race. He won a personal victory by beating back John F. Kennedy's challenge for the vice-presidential nomination, but despite travelling 60,000 miles through 38 states and shaking an estimated 100,000 hands, Kefauver could not aid himself and Stevenson against Ike's tremendous popularity.

It was in the Senate that his most important work was done, and it was there that he first became a national figure. In 1950 and 1951 his televised crime committee hearings in 14 major cities drew attention to the growing menace of organized crime. The Special Rackets Squad of the Bureau of Internal Revenue made over 40,000 investigations involving persons cited by the Kefauver Committee (as the special committee became known). More importantly, others were inspired to carry on the fight.

Even more significant were Kefauver's efforts as chairman of the Senate Antitrust and Monopoly Subcommittee. He was a determined foe of economic concentration in American business, and small businessmen facing cutthroat competition from large corporations saw Kefauver as a savior. He exposed industry's concept of "administered prices" which ignored price competition in favor of increased profit. Kefauver also led the fight to reform the drug industry and drafted stiff legislation just before the tragic dimensions of the thalidomide disaster became known.

Estes Kefauver was a good man but he did not have Adlai Stevenson's qualifications for the Presidency. He made a fatal mistake in ignoring the power brokers and convention delegates in favor of the people, but his impressive victories in Tennessee were evidence enough of political vitality, Gorman's account of his career is well researched but not well written; bland in style and only minimally concerned with the depth of Kefauver's personality. Albert Gore will have time to read this book (in Tennessee, not Washington) but not many others will make the effort.

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