Political giants befriended ex-senator

If Fred Harris were as good a campaigner and fundraiser as he is a writer and storyteller, he might well have achieved his goal of winning the White House, or at least still be in the Senate, where he would rank fourth in seniority.

But the Oklahoma Democrat and self-styled “people’s politician,” who gave up his Senate seat in 1972 to seek the Democratic presidential nomination that year and ran again in 1976, failed in both attempts. In 1977, he left Washington and the political world to teach at the University of New Mexico, where he is professor emeritus of political science and writes books.

Indeed, this is the 18th nonfiction book the 78-year-old Harris has written, along with three novels. It takes its name from the response of a favorite uncle who, when asked if he could handle back-breaking manual labor during the Depression, answered, “Does people do it? If people does, I can do it.” Harris says he’s lived by that attitude ever since he was a boy.

Odd title aside, it’s a terrific read. Harris, who served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee and co-chairman of Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s 1968 presidential campaign and narrowly lost out to Sen. Ed Muskie (D-Maine) as Humphrey’s running mate, tells some wonderful inside stories, many based on his friendship with political giants like Humphrey, former President Lyndon Johnson, former Sen. Bobby Kennedy (D-N.Y.) and others.

Harris was well-positioned to gain the confidence of such powerful figures. He became the wonder boy of Oklahoma politics when he was elected to the Senate at the age of 33 in 1964 to fill the last two years of the legendary Robert Kerr’s term after Kerr’s death. First, he defeated former Gov. Howard Edmondson, who had resigned and had been appointed to Kerr’s seat, in the Democratic primary. Then he sacked the most popular man in Oklahoma, Republican Bud Wilkinson, who had led the University of Oklahoma Sooners to three national football titles, in the general election.

Harris spends the first third of his memoir recounting his hardscrabble upbringing in Dust Bowl-era Oklahoma and early political career. He also highlights his marriage to high school classmate LaDonna Crawford, a full-blooded Comanche Indian — they were divorced in 1977 after 33 years of marriage, and he remarried.

But the best part of the book is its rich lode of political stories. For example, when President Johnson came to Oklahoma City to campaign for himself and Senate hopeful Harris in 1964, he was ambushed at a private reception by Harris’s advertising man with a TV crew and asked to “say a few words” about Harris.

“Johnson was obviously seething, but he was also obviously conscious that the camera was already filing away,” Harris writes. “He handed his drink off to someone. ... He turned to me and shook my hand again, then squared back up toward the camera. ‘I need Fred Harris in Washington,’ he said. ‘Send me Fred Harris, and together, we’ll charge hell with a bucket of water. We’ll tack the coonskin on the barn door, and old Fred’ll bring home the bacon.’ ”

Harris used LBJ’s endorsement in campaign commercials, and helped by Johnson’s landslide defeat of Barry Goldwater, he won a narrow victory over Wilkinson — and quickly won access to Johnson’s inner circle. At the same time, Harris’s populist views won him access to and acceptance by Democratic liberal leaders, including the Kennedy family.

Time magazine once reported that I was the only person in Washington who could have breakfast with President Lyndon Johnson, lunch with Vice President Hubert Humphrey and dinner with Sen. Robert Kennedy,” Harris writes, even though there was bad blood between Johnson and Kennedy.

Harris remained close to Kennedy and Humphrey, but not with Johnson, who complained to powerful Oklahomans, like oilman Dean McGee of the Kerr-McGee Oil Co., about Harris’s friendship with Bobby Kennedy. Harris’s ties to LBJ were also strained by his opposition to the Vietnam War and his work on the president’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders — later called the Kerner Commission — which Harris helped create.

In fact, when Johnson announced the commission, he called Harris at home to tell him he was going to appoint him to it, and said, “[I] want you to remember that you’re a Johnson man,” which Harris promised he always would be. “If you don’t, Fred,” the president said, “I’ll take out my pocketknife and cut your peter off. You’re from Oklahoma; you understand that kind of talk, don’t you?”

Harris reveals new details about LBJ’s criticism of Humphrey during the 1968 campaign: “He complained that the vice president had ‘diarrhea of the mouth,’ ” Harris recalls. “Humphrey should say ‘no’ more to leftist ‘redhots,’ ” Johnson declared, adding, ‘If Hubert was a woman, he’d be pregnant all the time.’ ”

The book is replete with similar inside stories. It’s one of the better political books of the season, and reminds us that the human factor is the most important and interesting aspect of the political life.

Does People Do It? A Memoir By former Sen. Fred Harris (D-Okla.)
University of Oklahoma Press, 2008
226 pages, $24.95