The 1970s saw three barn burning campaigns for the U.S. Senate, all of them waged and won in Democratic primaries. There was the epic '72 battle between the late Sen. John McClellan, challenged for a sixth term by then-U.S. Rep. David Pryor.

The 1970s saw three barn burning campaigns for the U.S. Senate, all of them waged and won in Democratic primaries. There was the epic ‘72 battle between the late Sen. John McClellan, challenged for a sixth term by then-U.S. Rep. David Pryor.

Two years later J. William Fulbright’s effort for a sixth term was contested, successfully, by then-Gov. Dale Bumpers. With McClellan choosing retirement, Pryor tried again in ‘78, and bested Reps. Jim Guy Tucker and Ray Thornton. Rex Nelson, president of the central Arkansas chapter of the Political Animals Club, glanced at the calendar and noticed that 40 years had passed since the McClellan-Pryor gunfight, and that some reminiscing would make a heck of a luncheon program. He was correct, even if it turned out a bit one-sided: Pryor had a long-standing engagement at Fayetteville and couldn’t make the Tuesday event. (For those who were around in ‘72, he had a Pryor Commitment).

As it was, the four aides to McClellan who shared campaign insights — legislative assistant Emon Mahony, staffers Bob Snider and Paul Berry and Berry’s wife, Mary — were in every way gracious toward Pryor, who came very close to defeating their late boss (McClellan died in 1977, days after announcing he would not seek re-election).

No real surprise there, for all are pros, with an innate understanding that the game, especially in Arkansas, sometimes compels the politically active to choose a candidate from among longtime friends or, short of that, aspirants of near-identical ideology. Paul Berry, for example, would work in a subsequent Pryor campaign.

Pryor, upon McClellan’s death, would appoint to succeed him an old friend, Newport’s Kaneaster Hodges, who had felt a greater obligation in ‘72 to support the incumbent. Pryor’s deceased father had been a McClellan man.

Because Arkansas is so small, however, and because it had traditionally valued congressional seniority, and because so many of its political establishment had long-standing ties to its major officeholders — because of those factors and others, not everybody could reconcile themselves to the reality that ambition does not always respect incumbency. So, as would the looming Fulbright-Bumpers contest (the latter swamped the former in the primary; I call it a barn burner mostly because of the sums spent and because it completed the generational change in Arkansas’s Senate representation) McClellan vs. Pryor tested some friendships, strained some households. To the extent there was a Democratic Party in a one-party state, the ‘72 Senate primary cleaved it.

Pryor, a New South figure like Bumpers, had been running, hard, for two years before formally announcing his campaign. Improbable though it seems, the crusty, conservative McClellan was unprepared for a serious opponent. Mahony acknowledged as much. The campaign staff was young and inexperienced. Busy in Washington, McClellan had grown “out of touch” with many Arkansans. And after 30 years in the Senate there was no McClellan organization back home to speak of. “We got our last county coordinator in March, two months before the primary,” Mahony said. Paul Berry credited McClellan’s campaign manager, the late John Elrod of Rison, with invigorating the effort and keeping the candidate focused. All the panelists agreed that the now legendary televised debate between McClellan and Pryor, short days before the run-off primary, was pivotal. As even Pryor later conceded, McClellan ate him for dinner and left the scraps for breakfast, feasting especially on his opponent’s claims of “cookie jar” campaign financing.

“This is no cookie jar campaign,” the older man (twice Pryor’s 38 years) snorted, flashing a poster detailing scores of thousands of dollars in contributions from organized labor. The momentum became McClellan’s. A 48-43 Pryor lead (in McClellan’s own polls) dissolved when undecided voters swung en masse to the incumbent. Pryor would spend two years healing and repairing fences before serving two two-year terms as governor, reaching the Senate after the ‘78 primary. McClellan, returned to Washington, became chair of the Appropriations Committee upon the death of his friend Allen Ellender of Louisiana.

Already among the most senior members of the Senate (and, it was sometime said, the most feared), McClellan had only to puzzle aloud why a certain federal agency’s budget seemed to have been misplaced and, within minutes, a Cabinet secretary would be calling to assure the Chairman that it was all a misunderstanding, that the department actually saw things his way.

The luncheon ended, Snider and I were recalling an afternoon late in McClellan’s life when our bull session was interrupted by another assistant; the undersecretary of the Navy was returning the senator’s call. I don’t remember what matter the call involved. I remember McClellan roaring into the phone until (a) it was smoking and (b) he got what he wanted.

Snider remembered the episode. After a moment he said: “We don’t have anyone any longer who could make that kind of call.”

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Steve Barnes is host of Arkansas Week on AETN.