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The 1938 Senate Primary in Tennessee,II

From the author’s personal collection.
Governor Gordon Browning (left) and Senator George L. Berry (right).

By Ray Hill

The unexpected death of Senator Nathan L. Bachman had plunged Tennessee politics into turmoil. The responsibility for filling the vacancy caused by Senator Bachman’s death fell to Governor Gordon Browning. The pressure on Browning very quickly became intense and the governor found himself besieged by prospective candidates and their supporters. Browning was even summoned to the White House by the most important Democrat of them all, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR was profoundly interested in the senatorial appointment for two reasons; first, he wanted to be sure Browning would appoint someone who would support his plan to enlarge the United States Supreme Court. Second, Roosevelt did not want to see Secretary of State Cordell Hull leave the Cabinet.

The substance of the conference between President Roosevelt and Governor Browning has never been revealed, but FDR later confessed he did not tell Browning whom to appoint, but rather whom not to appoint. Browning also had a meeting with Secretary of State Cordell Hull on April 28, 1937 and once again the normally talkative governor had nothing to say to waiting reporters.

Browning, feeling harassed, cancelled his schedule in Washington, D. C. and hurried back to Tennessee. Governor Browning stopped in Knoxville for a speaking engagement and found himself held hostage by the supporters of yet another prospective senator, A. Mitchell Long. Originally from Giles County, Long was a prominent Knoxville attorney and Chairman of the Democratic State Committee. Long had been a strong supporter of Browning’s 1936 gubernatorial campaign and his admirers pressed the weary governor to appoint their favorite to the Senate. By the time Browning escaped Long and his friends and returned to Nashville, he discovered former Governor A. H. Roberts had made formal application for the senatorial appointment. TIME magazine concluded, “Senator Bachman’s sudden taking off was mourned by no one more than Governor Gordon Browning.”

For days after Nathan Bachman’s death, speculation continued to swirl about the possible candidates for the appointment. Governor Browning finally simply refused to publicly discuss the appointment further. Candidates continued to come and go, ranging from the potentially strong to utterly delusional. Third District Congressman Sam D. McReynolds, Fourth District Congressman John Ridley Mitchell, former Governor Roberts, George L. Berry, and Lewis S. Pope all received constant attention from the newspapers as candidates for the appointment.

Both McReynolds and Mitchell were highly popular inside their respective districts and could draw on considerable political skills and a strong base from which to launch a bid to hold the seat in the next election. A. H. Roberts had only served one two-year term before being defeated for reelection in 1920 by Republican Alf A. Taylor. Lewis Pope had run three times for governor and had made an especially strong showing in 1932 when he had won 72 of Tennessee’s 95 counties and carried 7 out of 9 Congressional districts, only to narrowly lose the nomination to Hill McAlister. Pope still carried the stigma of having bolted the Democratic Party not once, but twice and had allied himself with the Republicans in 1934. Pope was loathed by E. H. Crump, leader of the Shelby County political organization, and Crump had strongly supported Browning in 1936.

George L. Berry had been quite prominent in Tennessee politics for decades, but had never been elected to any office. Berry had held a few minor posts in the Roosevelt administration and was the long-time President of the International Printing and Pressmen’s Union, based near Rogersville, Tennessee. Berry, along with several other labor leaders, had raised significant amounts of cash for Franklin Roosevelt’s smashing 1936 reelection campaign. Aside from being a labor leader, which was not a particular political asset in Tennessee, Berry also had the handicap of coming from predominantly Republican East Tennessee.

Still, George L. Berry was a very ambitious man and he desperately wanted the senatorial appointment. Throughout the thirteen days following Senator Nathan Bachman’s death and prior to Governor Browning making a formal appointment, Berry tried hard to convey the impression he had the personal support of President Roosevelt.

Berry went so far as to issue a public statement shortly before Gordon Browning made an appointment to the Senate, denying President Roosevelt was opposed to his being appointed to Bachman’s seat. Berry said any report that FDR was opposed to his appointment to the United States Senate was “unfounded and absolutely untrue.”

Claiming that the rumor of Roosevelt being opposed to him had received wide circulation, Berry intimated it had originated in Knox County and he blamed the supporters of other candidates for spreading it. Berry said he had spoken to President Roosevelt’s secretary over “the long distance telephone” and had been assured of having FDR’s support for the senatorial appointment. Berry was careful to say he had not spoken to Roosevelt personally, as the president was vacationing, fishing off the coast of Galveston, Texas. Berry claimed, “President Roosevelt recommended my appointment during a recent conference with Governor Browning in Washington and the President has assured me repeatedly that he is supporting me for the appointment.”

In the same interview, Berry seemed to contradict himself when he said, “But I am quite certain the President has not indicated who he wishes to be appointed.” Yet the headline of the story read, “President Backs Berry”.

Newspapers all across the state issued editorials opining upon the appointment and the various candidates. The Knoxville News-Sentinel came out against the appointment of local favorite son Mitchell Long, noting Long had no experience in national affairs as well as being the attorney for a private power company unfriendly to the Tennessee Valley Authority. In the same editorial, the Sentinel had kind things to say about George L. Berry, contrasting Berry’s experience in national affairs and support for President Roosevelt and the New Deal with that of Mitchell Long.

On May 6, 1937, Governor Gordon Browning assured reporters he was “quite sure” he would make an appointment to the vacant Senate seat “sometime this week”. Despite indicating an appointment was imminent, Browning claimed he could not say whether he knew just whom he would appoint. Governor Browning ended the speculation by announcing from the Executive Mansion that same night his appointment of George L. Berry to the United States Senate.

The fifty-three year old Berry was in Louisville attending the Kentucky Derby when his appointment was announced. Berry’s hotel suite was soon overrun with friends and admirers congratulating him on his appointment to the Senate. Reporters had no trouble locating the delighted Berry who said he had accepted the senatorial appointment “solely on the grounds of my ambition to help the president in all his efforts to rehabilitate and stabilize our economic structure and too, in order that I may be helpful to Governor Browning in his great fight to readjust the administrative and financial situation in Tennessee.”

Berry was naturally quizzed about his attitude towards President Roosevelt’s attempt to enlarge the U. S. Supreme Court. Berry replied, “Weeks ago I committed myself to the president’s program and I propose to help in all other matters, the outgrowth of his leadership.”

George L. Berry’s first act as Tennessee’s new United States senator was hiring F. L. Browning as his Secretary or Chief of Staff. F. L. Browning was Governor Gordon Browning’s older brother as well as his closest personal political advisor. Berry entrained for Washington with F. L. Browning to take the oath office. For better or worse, Gordon Browning was closely and irrevocably politically tied to his appointee.

The United States Senate was the culmination of George L. Berry’s political dreams and aspirations and it was admittedly the crowning achievement of a busy and productive life that had started under the most grim and trying of circumstances. The son of a Deputy U. S. Marshal who had been killed in in the line of duty, the orphaned George Berry had been sent to live with an aunt in Iowa. The eight-year old Berry found that he did not like living with his aunt and ran away. He barely managed to scrape out a living and endured severe hunger and want until he began working as a “printer’s devil” assistant. Having been unable to read or write until the age of sixteen, Berry became exceptionally proficient in the use of both the written and spoken word. By 1907 Berry was President of the International Printing and Pressmen’s Union, despite the fact he was only twenty-five years of age.

George L. Berry did not surrender his office as head of the Pressmen’s Union when appointed top the U. S. Senate and would in fact remain president until his death in 1948. Berry saw nothing wrong with occupying a job that had taken up virtually all of his time while serving as a member of the United States Senate.

Berry’s appointment proved not to be especially good politics for his patron, Gordon Browning. Throughout much of 1937 Berry was engaged in a heated dispute with the Tennessee Valley Authority over his ownership of mineral rights and leases he owned, which had been inundated with water from the creation of Norris Dam. Senator Berry and his associates claimed the mineral rights, leases and marble deposits flooded by TVA waters might be worth as much as $3 billion, a truly astronomical sum at the time.

TVA not only rejected Berry’s claim of financial harm, but the Chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority Board thought Berry’s claim so preposterous as to warrant criminal prosecution. Senator Berry’s feud with the Tennessee Valley Authority lingered in headlines for most of the year and the only thing more popular than the TVA with Tennessee Democrats was perhaps Franklin D. Roosevelt.

During one hearing in Knoxville, a TVA attorney snapped the leases owned by George L. Berry “are not worth the paper they were written on.” Berry apparently lost his temper during the same hearing and stated he had been robbed by the Tennessee Valley Authority. Berry said he was “not accustomed” to people coming into his home to rob him and the TVA had “confiscated my property.”

Berry’s rise from the depths of hunger and poverty was complete by the time he was appointed to the U. S. Senate. He owned the largest farm in the southeast, comprising some 30,000 acres of prime farmland. Berry was the largest stockholder in one bank and the director of another and owned a newspaper in Rogersville. Berry also owned a company, which specialized in printing multi-color labels for cigarettes and other products, as well as playing cards. George L. Berry had accumulated a small fortune since becoming the President of the Pressmen’s Union and it was Berry’s pursuit of wealth that would hamper his ability to remain in the United States Senate.

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