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National Affairs: Happy Days

3 minute read

In the Kentucky mountain town of Hazard one day last week, an old coal miner walked up to a minor commotion on the sidewalk and stuck out his hand. “I hear you’re running for governor,” he said to the grinning, greying man in the center of the crowd. Albert Benjamin Chandler, 56, clutched the miner’s hand and encircled his waist with a powerful left arm. “The rumor’s out, is it?” he said. “Well, I’m trying to spread it.”

Three-Year Warmup. Since February 1952, “Happy” Chandler, onetime governor of Kentucky (1935-39), Senator (1939-45) and high commissioner of baseball (1945-51), had been beating his drum and pinning on Happy buttons from the Cumberlands to the Purchase. “I’ve covered every town in this state,” he says, “some of them several times.” Already he has campaign managers lined up in 91 of Kentucky’s 120 counties, although the Democratic primary is not until Aug. 6, and the “official” pre-primary campaigns will not get under way until May, the week after the Derby.

Reason for Happy’s three-year warmup: he is bucking the Democratic machine of Governor Lawrence Wetherby. As of last week most Wetherby Democrats were privately admitting that Chandler had a big head start. But after the machine got warmed up, they promised, the campaign would be a real race. Last week in Louisville, Judge Bert Combs, the machine’s candidate, opened his headquarters and began to chase Chandler around the state. In Bloomfield he strolled into Virgin’s Restaurant and was greeted by the proprietress. “Well,” she said, “is this our next governor?” “Well,” twanged Combs, “I’m running, anyhow. I don’t agree that I’m not as good a campaigner as Chandler. I’m just not a noisy campaigner.”

Clutches & Kisses. Happy was certainly noisy enough. When a Hazard voter suggested some songs, Happy was agreeable. “You git us a git-tar,” he said, “and we’ll have a singing today.” A past master at gladhanding. Chandler greeted all constituents as “Brother,” or “Honey,” glibly filled in the proper names as his local frontmen supplied them: “Good to shake your hand, Mrs. Lewis. You know my daughter married a Lewis, honey. Say hello to Mr. Lewis for me.” Whenever possible, he applied the personal touch: a fervent handclasp, an embrace, a clutched arm, a kiss.

Unfortunately for Happy, there were a couple of ghosts plaguing his trail, along with Combs. Although he is endorsed by the state A.F.L. and the Louisville C.I.O. Council, Happy’s labor record does not look good to Washington C.I.O. headquarters, which has sent a man into Kentucky to try to get the labor leaders to rescind their endorsement. Then there is the Negro problem: in 1948 Happy’s newspaper, the Woodford Sun, endorsed Strom Thurmond for the presidency. Happy blames his editor for the endorsement and invokes the shade of Jackie Robinson (“I put him in business”) with every Negro he meets. But the Dixiecrat label sticks, and the Negro voters are far from Happy.

In spite of such ghosts Chandler is winning friends and weaning away machine politicians all over Kentucky. “You can rationalize being for somebody else,” said the Louisville Courier-Journal’s political columnist, Allan M. Trout, “but it’s an emotional thing, being for Happy.” A case in point was old T. O. Turner, a onetime state senator, who worked fervidly for his favorite candidate until February, when he died. At his own final request Turner was buried with his Happy button on his lapel.

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