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OPINION | REX NELSON: Young turks of 1972

by Rex Nelson | June 8, 2022 at 3:23 a.m.


In her biography of Sen. John L. McClellan, "Fearless," Sherry Laymon begins a chapter with something Paul Greenberg wrote on the editorial page of the Pine Bluff Commercial following McClellan's death in late 1977.

"Not even the Angel of Death would have dared creep up on John L. McClellan in broad daylight," Greenberg wrote.

Norma McClellan was unable to wake her husband for breakfast on Nov. 28, 1977. She ran to get her neighbor at the Riviera Apartments at the foot of Cantrell Hill in Little Rock, U.S. District Judge Elsijane T. Roy. The judge called the authorities. The senator was pronounced dead at about 6:30 a.m.

Laymon writes: "Norma then called several of McClellan's staff members, who came up to their apartment to visit with her. After Emon A. Mahony Jr. and Paul Berry arrived at the McClellan apartment, she told them: 'I want you to go look in the top drawer there--his underwear drawer.' She showed them the Valentine boxers they had purchased for him during the 1972 campaign. Norma told them McClellan brought the boxers with him to Little Rock to 'model for my boys.'"

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the historic runoff campaign for the U.S. Senate between McClellan and then-Congressman David Pryor. That two-week runoff campaign was the subject of Sunday's column. It turned out to be McClellan's last race.

"In the days following McClellan's death, state and national newspapers, members of Congress, former opponents, state leaders and others who had made McClellan's acquaintance over the years lauded him for his tireless devotion to Arkansas and for his important accomplishments in the Senate, including a record number of Senate investigations (2,808 hours, 831 days and 2,183 witnesses)," Laymon writes.

McClellan had two rules for staff members. The first: "Don't ever lie to me." The second: "Don't ever be late."

As for that underwear, Laymon writes: "Often staff invited local men to visit McClellan in his motel suite when campaigning, which was the case when the McClellan party stopped in Newport in February 1972. While McClellan showered, a group assembled to meet the senator, but McClellan stayed an extra long time in the bathroom. Finally, he attracted Berry's attention and told Berry, 'I don't have any fresh underwear.'

"Berry and Mahony walked to a store across the street and purchased the necessary items, which Berry handed to McClellan enclosed in the store sack so as not to reveal the contents to the roomful of guests. Soon afterward, a blushing McClellan emerged to meet his visitors for the first time wearing loud boxer shorts covered with big hearts, cupids and arrows. McClellan credited his mischievous staff for his predicament as he circled the room, extending his hand and greeting the amused individuals."

When the 37-year-old Pryor forced the 76-year-old McClellan into a runoff, political observers assumed Pryor would win. The turning point came on the Sunday night before the election during a debate televised by KATV, Channel 7, in Little Rock.

"McClellan approached the debate as he did everything he attempted--by working hard, doing his homework and relying upon his years of experience and political savvy," Laymon writes. "As an effective debater, McClellan habitually opted to speak last when he argued his position on the Senate floor, which allowed him to respond to points raised by his opponents."

Pryor later said, "They wanted to see blood, and it was my blood that they saw, not his."

McClellan won the runoff with 52 percent of the vote and then defeated his Republican opponent in November with 61 percent. In his 2008 book "A Pryor Commitment," Pryor discusses the debate.

"McClellan came out swinging," he writes. "I called him Senator McClellan. He called me David. I appeared naïve and inexperienced, he appeared the seasoned veteran. Despite long hours preparing, I seemed disorganized and rushed."

Pryor says that when it came time to give a concession speech the following Tuesday, "I really wanted to just crawl under the sofa, or just lie alone in a dark room. ... Never before had I felt the deep ache that stabbed the pit of my stomach. I was a loser. How could I face my family, especially my three sons? Their faith in me must be shattered. I had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Election Day had turned literally to a night in hell."

Pryor was elected governor two years later. After a pair of two-year terms, he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1978. He served until January 1997, becoming perhaps the most beloved politician in Arkansas history. Pryor learned the lessons of that 1972 defeat well.

In reading Roy Reed's New York Times story about the preferential primary in May 1972, it's interesting to find other then-young politicians who went on to success.

"Attorney General Ray Thornton, a political moderate who is a member of one of the state's most powerful financial families, won the nomination to fill the 4th Congressional District seat being vacated by Mr. Pryor," Reed wrote.

Thornton also went on to serve as president of Arkansas State University, the University of Arkansas System and 2nd District congressman.

Reed wrote: "Another promising young man won the nomination to succeed Mr. Thornton as attorney general. He is Jim Guy Tucker, 28, a handsome bachelor who made a statewide reputation during the last two years as an anti-establishment prosecuting attorney for the district that includes Little Rock."

Tucker went on to serve as 2nd District congressman, lieutenant governor and governor.


Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.


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