By Larry C. Floyd
As one of the reddest of the Republican states, Oklahoma will play a minimal role in the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. But back in the state’s once staunchly Democratic history, Oklahoma Gov. Robert S. Kerr’s stirring keynote address launched the Sooner State squarely into the national limelight at the 1944 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Stealing the show for Oklahoma at this partisan gathering, Kerr’s ringing endorsement of Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal policies drove hordes of party faithful into a frenzied half-hour celebration on the convention floor. Coverage by the media and comments from party grandees on this Democratic oratory kept the state basking in the spotlight for months afterward.
The favorable publicity received by Oklahoma from Kerr’s performance couldn’t have come at a better time. The Dust Bowl and John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” had badly tarnished the state’s image in the 1930s. As if these weren’t enough, some of Oklahoma’s unfavorable publicity had been self-inflicted. Gov. “Alfalfa Bill” Murray’s rants in the national media and Gov. Leon “Red” Miller’s counter-productive battles against Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs had left many Americans shaking their heads in puzzlement at “those Okies.” A July 1938 Newsweek magazine article reported that Murray had publicly called a political opponent a “beerbellied, red-whiskered, bloated-faced, whiskey-nosed, poker-playing liar.”
Kerr replaced the irascible “Red” Miller as governor early in 1943 and immediately began mending fences with the Roosevelt administration. As Oklahoma’s Democratic national committeeman since 1940, the wealthy oilman was already on favorable terms with many Washington powerbrokers. The affable Kerr favored cooperation over confrontation with the FDR administration and soon began meeting regularly with the president in the White House.
Kerr’s dynamic oratorical skills and everyman persona made him a popular banquet speaker on the national political circuit, and his preaching of the Democratic gospel endeared him to party faithful across the country. In April 1944, former Oklahoma Gov. William J. Holloway nominated Kerr to national party officials for keynote speaker at the upcoming Democratic National Convention in Chicago. While staying at the Hotel Washington in the nation’s capital, Holloway sent a telegram to Kerr on April 22 informing the governor of his intention to secure for him this influential speaking honor.
“Unless you stop me, I am going to try to do something about it,” Holloway wired. Kerr didn’t stop him.
Unsurprisingly, Roosevelt approved the Oklahoman’s selection for this prestigious address. No doubt Kerr’s warm relationship with the president and his reputation as a gifted orator had an influence, but the governor’s open support of an unprecedented fourth term for Roosevelt also weighed heavily in his choosing. Reporting on Kerr’s selection in mid-June, the New York Times stated that the FDR administration may also have favored the Oklahoman to help keep in line anti-New Deal Democrats from the South.
Rejecting the 40-page speech that Democratic Party officials offered him, Kerr and his close friend Henry G. Bennett, president of Oklahoma A&M College, retreated to the oilman’s Minnesota lake house to draft a new address. The governor may have been trying to impress Democratic Party officials by preparing his own speech. With the astute Dr. Bennett’s assistance, the keynote address was crafted to fit both Kerr’s Democrat Party convictions and his fluid speaking style.
Kerr arrived in Chicago in mid-July to practice this speech, amid speculation that he was being considered to replace Vice President Henry Wallace. Oklahoma’s 22 delegates soon arrived in Chicago in anticipation of the governor’s keynote address, which was to be delivered the evening of July 19, the opening day of the convention. In addition to the electoral delegates, Oklahoma had been allotted an additional 600 tickets for the evening session featuring Kerr’s oration. The Sooner State delegation hoped that a ringing speech by their governor might push him to the forefront as a vice-presidential candidate. Kerr probably had similar ideas.
A partisan crowd of 25,000 packed into old Chicago Stadium for the convention’s keynote speech that warm July evening. This same indoor arena had witnessed the nomination of Thomas E. Dewey for president just three weeks earlier at the Republican National Convention. Thousands of banners, streamers and flags bobbed in the excited, sweaty cross-section of America. Dozens of blazing lights were focused on the speaker’s stand. Veteran orator Kerr felt a stab of stage fright as DNC Chairman Robert Hannegan introduced him.
“I was never as nervous or any more scared than when I stepped up to face the crowd,” the governor later recalled. As he warmed to his speech, he became aware of the media’s intense scrutiny. “I soon realized that if I raised my arm, there would be a picture taken, and then another one when I lowered the arm.”
With America into its third year of conflict with Germany and Japan, Kerr’s address briefly put aside partisanship to recognize the sobering wartime reality. “The keynote of this convention and of America’s heart and mind and soul is in reality not being sounded here tonight,” the governor intoned. “It is rather being thundered by our fighting men around the world.”
Then the speech tossed out the red-meat partisanship it was meant to offer, and Kerr flawlessly delivered this harangue: “Do you remember the 12 long years from 1920 through 1932 when America hardened under Harding, cooled under Coolidge and hungered under Hoover?” the Oklahoman rhetorically asked as the throng howled in approval.
Kerr’s speech climaxed with his call for another term for Democratic icon Franklin Roosevelt. This in turn set off the wild, half-hour celebration on the stadium floor. Delegates poured down to the speaker’s stand, surrounding Kerr in a sea of state banners. Donning a Western-style hat, the keynote speaker joined in the celebration, grinning broadly and chatting amiably with the delegates. In the midst of the various signs swirling around Kerr, an Oklahoma state banner was suddenly thrust at him. He lifted it high above his head as the crowd roared in approval.
“The reception that it received is something I will always remember,” he recalled.
During this long interlude in the speech, the convention band played various songs from the popular Broadway musical “Oklahoma!” This production had opened in March 1943 at the St. James Theater on Broadway, and had begun a national tour in October. The show and its stirring title song had done much to erase the negative image generated by Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath.” At the convention, songs from the musical combined with Kerr’s showmanship to create a magical moment in history for the Sooner State.
“It was truly an Oklahoma night!” the governor recalled.
Two days later, an editorial about Kerr’s speech in The Daily Oklahoman, entitled “Oklahoma Night,” spoke of the “glorious night for Governor Kerr” and the “glorious night for the people of Oklahoma.” Continuing this praise, the article added: “Not for a long, long time has Oklahoma received so much favorable publicity, if indeed it ever did.”
Despite Kerr’s rousing performance the first night of the convention, his chances for vice president never gained traction. Roosevelt had damned Vice President Wallace with faint praise before the convention, and Missouri Sen. Harry Truman emerged as a strong second choice as the party gathering began. Kerr had previously formed a friendship with Truman when the senator visited Oklahoma as chairman of the Senate war investigating committee.
Kerr’s biographer Anne Hodges Morgan later wrote that the governor probably realized he had little chance to win the vice-presidential nomination, so he joined other Democratic leaders to ensure Truman’s victory. Despite Kerr’s cooperation with the party, his brother Aubrey later contradicted Morgan’s version of events. In an interview following the wealthy oilman’s death in 1963, Aubrey Kerr said the governor “expected to be nominated” by Democratic officials and was “quite disappointed” that he was not. Democratic Party Chairman Robert Hannegan, a close friend of Kerr’s, apparently had supported the Oklahoman’s nomination, but explained to him at the convention that Roosevelt only had eyes for Truman as his running mate.
Still, Kerr’s speech and the half-hour of Oklahoma-centered celebration on the convention floor greatly burnished the sullied image of the Sooner State in the mid-1940s. The governor and state residents basked in the afterglow long afterward.
“The vice presidential lightning didn’t strike,” Kerr summed up a in a letter to a friend shortly after the convention, “but we Oklahomans put on a pretty good show, at that.”