United States Senator Carey Estes Kefauver (1903-1963) was an influential Tennessee Democrat who often broke ranks with his more conservative Southern colleagues to support economic and political reform. He became the first candidate of his region to develop a national political following during his two campaigns for the presidency.
Estes Kefauver was born in Madisonville, Tennessee, on July 26, 1903, to Robert Cooke Kefauver and Phredonia (Estes) Kefauver. The Kefauvers were a politically distinguished family: Estes' paternal great-grandfather was a successful banker who was elected to the Tennessee State Senate in 1847, while his maternal great-grandfather ran for Congress unsuccessfully against David Crockett in 1828.
Kefauver graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1924 and three years later received a law degree cum laude from Yale University. He returned to Tennessee, established a practice in Chattanooga, and during the next 12 years became one of the city's most successful corporate attorneys. Despite extensive family and professional connections with wealthy, conservative Chattanoogans, Kefauver's political and philosophical sympathies gravitated toward reform and liberalism. He became the attorney for the Chattanooga News, the city's daily newspaper which championed publicly owned utilities, revision of Tennessee's constitution, reforms in local government, and improved labor conditions. Kefauver embraced most of these causes, and in 1936 he became president of the Volunteers, a coalition of young business and professional men and labor union leaders who wanted to reform county government. Kefauver's work with the Volunteers introduced him to the low wages and poor working conditions in Chattanooga's textile mills, and his sympathy for workers won him union support throughout his political career.
Election to Congress
That career began in 1939 when Kefauver won a special election to fill the seat of Third District congressman Sam D. McReynolds, who died in office. During the campaign Kefauver supported President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal program and advocated federal aid to education and support of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), two positions he would maintain for the remainder of his legislative career. During nine years in the House of Representatives Kefauver successfully defended TVA from its critics, including powerful Tennessee senator Kenneth D. McKellar; advocated anti-monopoly legislation to protect small business from corporate takeover; and urged the elimination of the poll tax as a voting requirement.
In 1948 Kefauver, in his first campaign for the U.S. Senate, won an upset victory over Judge John A. Mitchell, the candidate of the Memphis-based political machine of Democratic boss Edward H. Crump. Kefauver assembled a coalition of labor, women's, African American, and professional groups as his chief supporters and adopted the coonskin cap as his trademark after Crump attacked him as a "pet coon."
Although Kefauver's surprising victory briefly attracted national attention, his early Senate years afforded prolonged nationwide exposure. In 1950 he coauthored the Kefauver-Cellar Act, which regulated corporate purchases of competitor's assets, and in 1950 and 1951 he chaired a special Senate committee appointed to investigate organized crime. The nationally televised "Kefauver Committee" hearings, held in a dozen major cities, generated little new information on the crime syndicate but gave the Tennessee senator important national publicity and influenced his decision to run for president in 1952. After entering the New Hampshire presidential primary and handily defeating President Harry S. Truman, who later withdrew from the race, Kefauver won 13 of the 15 remaining primaries, losing only in Florida and the District of Columbia. Although he seemed assured of the nomination, Kefauver's opponents— including President Truman, big city political bosses, and conservative Southern Democrats—combined to block his selection and eventually swung the convention to Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson. Stevenson and vice-presidential candidate John Sparkman of Alabama were in turn defeated by the Republican ticket of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower and California Congressman Richard Nixon.
Kefauver ran for the Democratic presidential nomination a second time in 1956, but the party again chose Adlai Stevenson. The Tennessee senator, however, did score a dramatic second ballot victory over Massachusetts senator John F. Kennedy for the vice-presidential nomination. Kefauver vigorously campaigned for the ticket, particularly in the Midwest and West, hoping to capitalize on farm belt resentment over President Eisenhower's agricultural policies, but the Democratic ticket was again defeated by President Eisenhower and Vice-President Nixon.
Successful Fight for Re-election
Many supporters urged Kefauver to make one last campaign for the presidency in 1960, but he decided instead to concentrate his efforts on his upcoming re-election campaign to the U.S. Senate. Kefauver's nearly decade long focus on national affairs and his liberal voting record had eroded his support among many Tennessee voters. His votes for both the 1957 and 1960 civil rights acts were cited by opponents as examples of his incompatibility with Tennessee and Southern politics; his 1958 Senate committee hearings on the pharmaceutical industry prompted out-of-state drug manufacturing companies to contribute substantial campaign funds to his opponent, Judge Andrew T. Taylor; and his bitter rivalry with former Tennessee governor Frank Clement and his successor, Buford Ellington, further hampered the senator's re-election efforts. Nevertheless, Kefauver waged an intense campaign which took him to each of the state's 95 counties. He pulled together the coalition that first propelled him to the Senate in 1948, and, after receiving timely endorsements from Democratic vice-presidential nominee Lyndon Johnson and other Southern senators, he was reelected to a third term by a 2 to 1 margin in what the Nashville Banner called "one of the most surprising votes in Tennessee's political history."
No longer engaged in national politics nor restricted by its demands and compromises, Estes Kefauver devoted his full attention to legislative matters. In 1962 he supported the 24th amendment to the Constitution, which abolished the poll tax, and coauthored the Kefauver-Harris Drug Control Act, which reduced the price and raised the safety requirements for prescription drugs. In 1963 he led the fight against American Telephone and Telegraph's efforts to dominate the telecommunications satellite program. As part of that campaign he introduced on August 8 an amendment to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration appropriation act to require A. T. & T. to reimburse NASA for research that would specifically benefit that corporation. During the debate over the appropriations bill amendment Kefauver suffered a heart attack, was hospitalized, and died the next day, August 10, 1963.
Further Reading on Carey Estes Kefauver
The best biographies of Kefauver are Charles L. Fontenay, Estes Kefauver: A Biography (1980); Harvey Swados, Standing Up for The People: The Life and Work of Estes Kefauver (1972); and Bruce Gorman, Kefauver: A Political Biography (1971). The Kefauver Senate Hearings on Organized Crime are discussed in William Howard Moore, The Kefauver Committee and the Politics of Crime 1950-1952. Kefauver wrote three books outlining his political views: Crime in America (1951), In a Few Hands: Monopoly Power in America (1965), and A 20th Century Congress (1947). See Robert Sobel, editor, U.S. Congress, Senate, Biographical Directory of the American Congress, 1774-1971 (1971) for a discussion of Kefauver's legislative contributions.