Tennessee’s Modern Republican Party: Dan Kuykendall, Part V

By Ray Hill

Texas native Dan Kuykendall had settled in Memphis, Tennessee.  Like many others, Kuykendall came to Tennessee because of a job.  Kuykendall had been a regional manager for Proctor & Gamble.  Yet Kuykendall’s family had originally come from the Volunteer State when they ventured off with Sam Houston to settle in Texas.  Kuykendall, along with Howard Baker, had run one of the best GOP campaigns for the United States Senate in Tennessee since U.S. senators had been popularly elected.  By 1966, the people of Tennessee had never voted to elect a Republican to the United States Senate.  In 1964, both of Tennessee’s seats in the U.S. Senate had been on the ballot due to the sudden death of Senator Estes Kefauver in August of 1963.  Dan Kuykendall had been the Republican candidate against two-term Senator Albert Gore and had won more than 46% of the votes cast.  Both Baker and Kuykendall had won slightly better percentages in running for the Senate than had GOP presidential nominee Barry Goldwater.  Indeed, Lyndon Johnson was the first Democrat to have carried the Volunteer State since Harry Truman in 1948.

Times were changing.  Edward Hull Crump, once the undisputed political boss of Shelby County and Memphis, died in October of 1954.  Without Crump, the machine he had so carefully constructed over the years had rapidly disintegrated.  The last vestige of the old Crump machine, Congressman Clifford Davis, had been defeated in the 1964 Democratic primary by George Grider, a veteran of the U.S. Navy and a member of the Shelby County Quarterly Court (the forerunner of the county commission).

Republicans were making inroads even in Shelby County.  Bob James, who had been the GOP nominee for Congress from Shelby County in 1962 and 1964, had quite nearly upset Congressman Davis, having come with 1,200 votes of the veteran representative.  George Grider managed to win by a slightly larger majority.  It had been Dan Kuykendall who had managed Bob James’ first congressional campaign in 1962 before becoming the GOP nominee to oppose Senator Albert Gore in 1964.

Tennessee’s Ninth Congressional District, composed entirely of Shelby County, had more than 600,000 residents, while the neighboring districts had only a couple hundred thousand people.  Following the landmark case of Baker v. Carr heard by the U. S. Supreme Court, reapportionment had come to Tennessee.  As a result of the “one man, one vote” principle, the Tennessee General Assembly created individual legislative districts for the legislature and the rural domination of the state government had largely come to an end.  Urban and suburban counties were finally getting seats in the legislature due to their population.

Along with seats in the General Assembly, the state legislature redistricted the congressional districts in Tennessee.  Shelby County had been divided into three portions with parts of the county going into the Seventh and Eighth Congressional Districts.  The last portion of Shelby County made up Tennessee’s Ninth Congressional District.  The changes in the congressional district made freshman Congressman George W. Grider an even more inviting political target.  For the past year, the loquacious Dan Kuykendall had been an all-but-announced candidate for Congress.

On May 25, 1966, Dan Kuykendall made the official announcement of what had been obviously coming for quite some time.  Kuykendall confirmed he would be a candidate for Congress against freshman Representative George W. Grider.  Hosting a luncheon press conference at the Memphis Sheraton-Peabody Hotel before a crowd of 150 people, Dan Kuykendall launched a “blistering attack” on the Johnson administration.  Kuykendall stated Congressman Grider was attempting to “force all the working people to join labor unions and wipe out Tennessee’s right to work laws by voting to repeal 14-B of the Taft-Hartley law.”  Kuykendall told his friends Tennessee desperately needed a vibrant Republican Party.  “To preserve freedom in this land,” Kuykendall said, “we have got to have a two-party system that is strong and vital and fiercely competitive.”  Kuykendall said the people of Shelby County needed “a representative who will unhesitatingly fight for what the people want instead of rubberstamping what the federal extremists in Washington want because it is politically expedient.”  The GOP candidate called for a return of a portion of federal taxes to the states to specifically address the increasing needs of education.  Kuykendall wondered why the United States did not use the full force of its military might, especially its airpower in the “vicious war in Viet Nam.”  Kuykendall wondered why the “people in Washington” persisted in “backing into war after war and then, after they get us in a mess, argue it is too dangerous to go all out and win.”  Dan Kuykendall asked why the powers that be didn’t do their second thinking first?

Congressman Grider’s support for the Johnson administration caused Kuykendall to caustically say that one issue in the campaign was “whether to have LBJ just send the word down and not have a congressman at all.”  Kuykendall battered the Johnson administration for the rising inflation that was of prime concern to many housewives and working people of the time.  It is interesting to note of the 102 members of the Kuykendall for Congress campaign committee, the single largest group was composed of housewives.

The Tennessean handicapped the primary and general elections early on and initially noted redistricting might well have made the Seventh District Republican.  The Tennessean, a strongly Democratic paper, gave the edge in the Ninth Congressional District race to incumbent George Grider, pointing out that much of the district was centered inside Memphis which had a large Black and organized labor vote.  The Tennessean also thought there might be some hard feelings against Kuykendall for “his role in kicking the old guard out of the GOP organization in 1964.”

Dan Kuykendall’s announcement he would be a candidate for Congress was followed by that of Congressman George Grider.  The congressman accepted the challenge posed by Kuykendall and said he was “simply and proudly” running on the record he had compiled in Congress.

“You aren’t surprised,” Grider told the gathered newsmen, “because you have seen how much I relish the job.  As a congressman, I have found everything a man could hope for.”

From his announcement until the November general election, Grider acknowledged, “I’ll play the double role of congressman and candidate” but promised the campaign would not infringe upon his responsibilities as a representative.  Congressman Grider boasted his record included “some of the most constructive and far-sighted legislation ever enacted by any Congress.”  More specifically, he referenced “adequate medical care without sacrificing” the savings of millions of elderly Americans.  Grider pointed to the prosperity of the country, which he boasted was “unequaled in its history.”  The congressman shied away from invoking inflation directly, but rather warned the nation’s economy must be “prevented from booming to the point where the pensioner and wage earner are hurt by rising prices.”  Congressman Grider reluctantly admitted, “there is a risk of inflation.”  Quizzed about possible solutions, all Grider could offer was “moderate and sensible measures that are now at hand.”

Neither Kuykendall nor Congressman Grider faced opposition in their respective primaries.  Kuykendall’s campaign was well organized.  The GOP congressional candidate opened his campaign headquarters at the end of June and appeared confident.  “This is a Republican year,” Kuykendall told a reporter.  Kuykendall lifted a large rubber stamp from a desk and quipped, “That’s my opponent right there.”  Noting there was no legend on the stamp, Kuykendall invented one on the spot.  “That’s right, LBJ.  Anything you say.”

Kuykendall reminded a writer for the Memphis Commercial Appeal that Congressman Grider had “committed himself to debate me publicly and I’m very pleased about that.”  “I’m looking forward to this after the primary,” Kuykendall added.

Several hundred people visited the open house for the Kuykendall for Congress campaign headquarters, including Ken Roberts, who was running for the GOP nomination for the United States Senate.  Roberts had been the statewide campaign manager for Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign for Tennessee in 1964.

Dan Kuykendall visited Washington over the summer where he participated in a Republican leadership Conference.  Former Vice President and 1960 GOP presidential nominee Richard Nixon also attended the conference and was back on the campaign trail.  Nixon tirelessly traveled the country in 1966 speaking for Republican candidates all across the nation.  Nixon and Kuykendall had their picture taken together which appeared in the daily Memphis newspapers.  Kuykendall and Richard Nixon would become close during the time the Memphian served in Congress.  The congressman’s son, Jack, recalls attending church services frequently at the White House while Nixon was President.

George Grider had retired from the U.S. Navy and had commanded a submarine.  A thoughtful man who was rarely seen without his ever-present pipe was also a dog lover who campaigned with his bird dog, Sam.  A photo of Sam standing on his hind legs and greeting Dan Kuykendall appeared in the Commercial Appeal.  Apparently, one thing both Kuykendall and Congressman Grider could agree on was Sam.

Both Republican and Democratic candidates attended a massive barbecue of 4,500 telephone company employees at the air-conditioned Memphis Coliseum.  There Dan Kuykendall got a wave of “long and loud” applause when he stated, “irresponsible spending by the people we have sent to Washington caused the inflation” plaguing the country at the time.  The GOP congressional candidate also drew more applause when he said “the bombings in North Viet Nam came a year late.”

George Grider’s presentation apparently was not as well received as that of Dan Kuykendall.  The reporter covering the event for the Memphis Press-Scimitar summarized Congressman Grider’s speech as merely promising “to keep working in Washington and reviewed his record.”

Congressman George Grider had good reason to be increasingly confident about his chances in November with the results of the August primary election. Dan Kuykendall polled 6,556 votes in the fledgling GOP primary while Grider received 42,170 votes.

Unlike the best Republican candidates of the time – – – Howard Baker, Bill Brock, Winfield Dunn – – – or even congressmen like John Duncan and Jimmy Quillen  – – – Dan Kuykendall had a flair for attracting attention.  Kuykendall was remarkably energetic and also a good speaker.  A friendly fellow, Kuykendall was eventually dubbed “Tennessee’s Talking Horse” by some wag.  Throughout the primary election, since he had no opposition for the GOP nomination, Kuykendall concentrated on building up a functioning organization.  Kuykendall’s campaign was managed by Lewis Donelson, the brilliant attorney from Memphis who would later win notoriety while serving under Governor Lamar Alexander, as well as bring a suit that forced the State of Tennessee to redistribute education funding.

At the end of August, Dan Kuykendall announced his platform at the Admiral Benbow Inn on Union in Memphis.  Kuykendall also issued a challenge to Congressman Grider.  “I am formally challenging Mr. Grider to debate me on any platform that will have a fair hearing,” Kuykendall told the assembled reporters.  “This is going to be a very clear-cut campaign of issues.  I can’t imagine two men running for office who have more clear-cut issues.”

Kuykendall once again was critical of President Johnson’s conduct in the Vietnam War, saying the delay in ordering the bombing of North Vietnamese “cost thousands of priceless lives and billions of dollars… We must win.  To pull out is unthinkable.”

Dan Kuykendall said he “strongly supports the working man” but again expressed his adamant opposition to repealing the right-to-work laws.  “I do not believe Congress, because labor union bosses put pressure on this Administration, should take this right (to work) away from Tennesseans.”  Kuykendall charged the Johnson administration and its supporters in Congress were squarely to blame for lacking any “intelligent restraint” in spending policies, which resulted in the spiraling cost of living and rampant inflation.  Kuykendall warned the poverty programs championed by LBJ and the Democratic Congress were becoming cottage industries with its executives being overpaid.  Job training, Kuykendall insisted, was the way to end poverty.

The race for Congress from Tennessee’s Ninth Congressional District had begun in earnest.