The Merry Mortician: Kenneth S. Wherry of Nebraska

By Ray Hill
Kenneth Spicer Wherry is completely unknown to most readers today, but the Nebraskan was one of the better-known members of the United States Senate during his time. A superlative salesman, Wherry had taken the family furniture store and built it into an even larger store. Wherry also added an automobile dealership, a mortuary, a law office and a real estate firm, as well as the raising of livestock to his businesses. Wherry liked to describe himself as a “political fundamentalist” and he brought the same energy and passion to Republican politics as he did to his many businesses. That same zeal won him a rare distinction from his fellow GOP senators when he became the party whip as a freshman senator. In 1949, Ken Wherry became the Republican leader in the United States Senate.

One country editor recalled seeing Kenneth Wherry in his prime. Wherry was easy to spot, the writer recalled, as the senator was a frequent subject of photographers. “The graying thatch of hair, the flashing eyes and the big dark circles under them were distinctive features” of the senator. “He was not a huge man but he had a powerful-looking pair of shoulders and a barrel chest,” the country editor remembered. “He wore expensively tailored clothes but there was a slouch about them that made him appear informal and very approachable.”

As Senator Wherry rose to speak, he cried, “Open those windows… wide! Let me breathe the wholesome purity of those nice clean barnyard odors,” the senator told his audience. “They’re such a welcome contrast to what we have in Washington these days.” The audience laughed in appreciation and the senator flashed a big grin as his listeners rewarded him with “near deafening applause.”

The country editor noted Wherry’s booming voice and wondered, “Were his lungs made of anything less durable than leather?”

The editor also recalled he developed an immediate and “intense dislike” for Wherry due to his having run against George W. Norris. In a weekly newspaper column, the writer confessed he had to be “won over” by Wherry. Invited to attend a luncheon in Omaha, the writer said his dislike of Kenneth Wherry was so deep his first instinct was to refuse the invitation. The country editor confessed the dislike dissipated and was replaced by something akin to grudging respect. Say what you might about Kenneth S. Wherry, he could never be ignored.

Wherry was a delight to much of the press with his frequent malapropisms, such as “opple amportunity.” One profile of Ken Wherry by TIME magazine said the Nebraskan’s “words came so fast that he frequently lost control of them.” TIME remembered when Wherry addressed Wayne Morse of Oregon as “the distinguished Senator from Junior.” The senator’s misstatements became known in the press as “Wherryisms.”

Ken Wherry was the penultimate party man in the Senate. When Ohio’s Senator Robert Taft introduced a public housing bill, Wherry darkly wondered if the Ohioan was drifting toward socialism. Yet Wherry was a constant and oftentimes effective critic of the New Deal and Harry Truman’s Fair Deal. Aside from farm subsidies, Wherry was almost always in opposition to policies from Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman’s White House. Senator Wherry denounced the Greek-Turkish Loan as a “military adventure.”

Kenneth S. Wherry’s political career was brief but also successful. At the time of his death, some saw the Nebraskan as a potential running mate for whomever the GOP nominated for president in 1952. Wherry himself said he much preferred serving as the majority leader of the U.S. Senate in a Republican administration.

Wherry came from the heartland of America and Midwesterners, Democrats and Republicans, were suspicious of foreign entanglements. The Midwest, politically speaking, was also the heartland of isolationism in the country. Like most every other congressman or U.S. senator representing a midwestern state, Kenneth S. Wherry had the same outlook. In 1951, Wherry sponsored a resolution that required the approval of Congress before the president could send troops to Europe. The Wherry Resolution was debated in the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee. There the two wings of the Republican Party snapped and snarled at one another. Perhaps the most effective witness to come before the Foreign Relations Committee during consideration of the Wherry Resolution was Governor Thomas E. Dewey of New York, twice the GOP presidential nominee. Dewey oratorically blasted the Wherry Resolution as the last “little toehold of isolationism… the last gasp of… a school of thought which basically would like to withdraw from all the world to our own shores.”

“Adoption of the [Wherry] resolution would be a simple, direct notice to Stalin that we do not intend to back up our men in Europe and that they and Europe are his for the asking,” Dewey told the Foreign Relations Committee. Governor Dewey said the United States had served such notice “America would not intervene” twice before with disastrous consequences; once to Kaiser Wilhelm and again to Adolf Hitler. The New York governor flatly stated, “fortress America is an illusion.”

Once when Senator Tom Connally of Texas let fly a heartfelt “damn” on the floor of the Senate, Wherry took umbrage, saying the word was “beneath the dignity of the Senate.” The colorful Texan apologized as only he could, withdrawing his use of the word and bellowing, “I know my colleagues are delicate.”

A native of Pawnee City, Nebraska, Wherry began his political career as a member of the city council and later served as mayor. Wherry served a term as a member of Nebraska’s state Senate where he was viewed as something of a radical. Kenneth Wherry sought the GOP nomination for governor in 1932 and lost. Two years later, Wherry ran for the Republican nomination for the United States Senate, but he was beaten by Congressman Robert Simmons. Wherry was once again elected mayor of Pawnee City and served as chairman of Nebraska’s Republican Party and as director of the Western Region of the National Republican Party. During Wherry’s time as chairman of the Nebraska Republican Party, the GOP saw a revival of its political fortunes in the Cornhusker State. The GOP recaptured the governorship and won a seat in the United States Senate from the Democrats under Wherry’s leadership in 1940.

Wherry announced his candidacy for the U.S. Senate in 1942, seeking the GOP nomination to challenge incumbent Senator George W. Norris. Norris was a favorite of the national media, a progressive Republican who had bolted his party to support Alfred E. Smith, a Democrat, over GOP presidential nominee Herbert Hoover in the 1928 election. Norris, knowing he would likely lose if he sought reelection as a Republican, opted to run as an Independent. Norris won the 1930 election and was reelected in 1936. Senator Norris was a favorite of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and had supported most of the New Deal. In 1942, Norris was challenged by both a Republican and a Democrat in the general election. Ken Wherry charged, “Norris has lent respectability to the New Deal.”

Wherry won the GOP nomination with better than 66% of the vote and waged a hard-hitting campaign against the incumbent. While Wherry did not win a majority of the vote in the contest, he won easily, beating Norris by more than 77,000 ballots. By defeating George W. Norris, Ken Wherry had killed off a political giant and entered the United States Senate better known than most of his freshman colleagues.

Once a member of the world’s greatest deliberative body, Kenneth Wherry was noticed immediately. In early 1943, Wherry was sitting at his seat in the very back of the Senate Chamber when another senator began a speech in a low monotone. “What’s going on down there?” Wherry roared from the rear. “I can’t hear you!” The speaker duly raised his voice and the Senate became acquainted with the new senator from the Cornhusker State who almost always said what he thought.

Only a year later, Ken Wherry’s enthusiasm, energy and ability caused his Republican colleagues to name him the GOP Whip. Nor was Ken Wherry easily swayed. It did not bother him to register his own view irrespective of what the rest of the Senate might do. Senator Wherry cast the lone vote against the confirmation of Dean Acheson to serve as under secretary of state. Wherry’s opinion of Acheson never deviated from his original opposition and the Nebraskan became the most vocal critic of the urbane secretary of state inside the U.S. Senate.

Senator Wherry was also a firm political opponent of President Harry Truman and his administration. Wherry was a critic of what he believed to be excessive spending by the government, as well as price controls. Wherry charged the Truman Administration was nothing less than “creeping socialism.” Senator Wherry was an advocate of the Air Force, believing mastery of the air gave any military power a huge advantage in any skirmish or war.

As an irritant to the Democrats in the U.S. Senate, Kenneth S. Wherry was never to be underestimated. One newspaper remembered the Nebraskan as “the Senate’s hair shirt, the burr under the majority’s saddle, the tack in Scott Lucas’ (the majority leader) seat.” Paul Douglas, a former professor of economics and a very liberal senator from Illinois complained Wherry engaged in “psychological warfare” against Democrats, comparing Wherry’s tactics to those of the marauding Comanche Indians who surrounded whites and proceeded to “shout and indulge in their war whoops, and strike terror in the hearts of the poor travelers.” If so, Ken Wherry relentlessly continued his hunt for political scalps and pressed his political raids on unsuspecting Democrats in the Senate and nationally. Wherry once baited majority leader Alben Barkley into near incoherence on the Senate floor and then honey-dripping off his words, wondered if Barkley were too mad to yield the floor for just one more question. “I’m not mad! I’m not mad! I’m not mad!” a crimson-faced and livid Barkley screamed.

As Ken Wherry rose in the ranks of his party in the Senate, the real power inside the Republican caucus was Robert Taft. Wherry grew increasingly sensitive, especially with the members of the press. The Nebraskan was constantly reminding reporters he was the minority leader. “Taft!” Wherry screamed at the press gathered to inquire about the Republican position on the legislation. “All I hear is Taft! What will Taft do?

“I don’t know what Taft will do,” Wherry snarled angrily. “I’m telling you what Ken Wherry will do.”

Kenneth Wherry was ailing. Suffering from cancer, the senator underwent an operation to “remove a growth in his intestines.” Wherry left the hospital to recover, but returned in November of 1959 after suffering from a fever, chills and “respiratory problems.” Unfortunately, Wherry caught pneumonia and died in George Washington Hospital at 59.

The editor of the Hastings, Nebraska, Daily Tribune lamented Wherry’s death, saying the senator’s friends and enemies alike agreed Wherry was a man of conviction. There was nothing artificial about Ken Wherry. The Nebraskan never pretended to be a student of government nor did it bother him that he was not exalted by the national news media as were Walter George of Georgia or Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan. Ken Wherry had been content to fight for his people, who shared his convictions. One Democratic member of the U.S. Senate said Wherry “causes the Democrats more trouble than any five other Republicans.” Yet the senator also acknowledged, “But how can you get angry at him and stay angry when he’s such a good guy?”

Kenneth Wherry was a small-town American who made good in business and exemplified the “super-salesman” who was a thorough extrovert and never met a stranger. As one newspaper editorialized following his death, Ken Wherry “had been a sprinter at the University of Nebraska, and he never stopped running.”

Nor did Ken Wherry ever hold differing opinions against others while remaining a man of strong opinions himself. Wherry remained friends with those of differing points of views or beliefs. Today that seems almost unimaginable.