Written by Dick Pryor on Tuesday April 13, 2010
I've long believed that Fred Harris was misunderstood. Harris seemed to be more popular nationally than he was in his home state of Oklahoma. In the later stages of his political career he was portrayed as a radical by many in Oklahoma and his two presidential campaigns never caught fire. But, he came from a hardscrabble, depression-era background and seemed to exemplify revered Oklahoma traits of independence, perseverance and ingenuity while rising close to the top of American politics.
So, when I talked to Senator Harris for the new program, A Conversation With...Fred Harris, there was a lot to explore. His outstanding memoir, Does People Do It?, served as a guide for our nearly two-hour discussion, but other writings, newspaper articles and personal memory helped me craft the questions. Harris is a great storyteller, with a lifetime's worth of remarkable stories to tell, so it was hard to decide which questions to ask and which ones to leave out.
If you watch the program and didn't have your questions answered, just know that we did as much as we could do in the time allotted. Producer Mickie Smith and Assistant Producer Jessi Crino did a terrific job editing the material down to less than hour. Their goal, as always, was to condense the conversation as best they could to tell a coherent story without throwing away key elements of history and meaningful personal anecdotes. I expect that much of what got left out of this one-hour program will be available in "web extras."
As I researched Fred Harris, it seemed to me that he lived more than one life. Like so many youngsters who grew up during the Great Depression, he learned the value, and necessity, of hard work. He was born far from privilege (he admits his family was poor) and earned money by bailing hay, harvesting wheat, washing windows, cleaning rest rooms, delivering newspapers, shining shoes, cleaning motors and running a printer.
He worked his way through the University of Oklahoma running a printing press and he hosted a political radio show on WNAD in Norman. Phi Beta Kappa, then first in his class in law school, Harris practiced law in Lawton for eight years. He ran for state House of Representatives at the age of 21 and lost by 35 votes, but four years later he won a seat in the state Senate. At the age of 25, he was the youngest member of the Senate, and he was still the youngest member of the Senate when he left 8 years later to run for the U.S. Senate.
Harris was chosen the Outstanding Young Man in Oklahoma in 1959 by the Oklahoma Junior Chamber of Commerce, and was clearly a rising star in Oklahoma politics. He ran for governor in 1962 and finished 5th in his party's primary. Like so many other young politicians, his later success could be traced to previous electoral failure. The lessons learned from his unsuccessful House race helped him win the seat in the state Senate, and the experience he gained from running for governor helped him capture the U.S. Senate seat two years later. It was during that 1962 gubernatorial campaign that he became friends with Oklahoma's powerful U.S. Senator, Robert S. Kerr.
After Kerr's death, Harris gained the backing of the Kerr family in the race to fill the remainder of the senator's term. The support of the Kerrs proved crucial as he defeated sitting Senator and former Oklahoma governor, J. Howard Edmondson, and former governor Raymond Gary to earn the Democratic nomination. Harris narrowly defeated OU football icon Bud Wilkinson in the general election, winning by just 21,000 votes.
One story that is not in the finished program, but will likely be in the "web extras," is how Strom Thurmond and Lyndon Johnson influenced that election. Johnson, of course, won election in a landslide over Republican Barry Goldwater and took Oklahoma in the process (Johnson was the last Democratic presidential candidate to win the state of Oklahoma in the general election). The landslide victory for Johnson undoubtedly helped Harris (as did a photo of the two together at the Oklahoma state fair), and Strom Thurmond's endorsement of Wilkinson helped turn black voters against the revered Sooner coach. It may be hard to imagine black voters turning out against the coach that had integrated the OU football team, but Thurmond's reputation as an opponent of civil rights and his fiery rhetoric did Wilkinson no favors.
Once in Washington, race would play a huge role in Harris's eight years as senator. During our conversation he discussed how his support for civil rights and work as co-chair of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (the Kerner Commission) helped define his career. It also helped voters back home define him politically. Harris toured urban areas and saw the impact of "institutionalized racism," which he called "the greatest domestic crisis since the Civil War." The Kerner Commission report opened eyes and sores. It wasn't long before Harris was being called a "liberal" and "radical."
What I found interesting from our discussion was how being his own man did not play well for Harris in Oklahoma. He told me he never tried to portray himself as a conservative in the mold of Senator Kerr (although he supported many of Kerr's projects, including developing water and infrastructure and encouraging economic development); nor does he consider himself a traditional liberal. Harris said he is more of a populist, which is rather common in Oklahoma, especially in rural parts of the state. This philosophy is consistent with his farming roots, but it put him at odds with powerful business interests (he opposed tax breaks for big oil companies and called for "taking the rich off welfare."). Owing to his work in favor of "Great Society" social policies he was seen as a "Johnson man," and his friendship with the Kennedy family was not an asset in much of Oklahoma.
Harris told me he "grew" in Washington, by having regular study sessions to learn about issues and policy. It was during these study sessions that he heard from experts on the war in Vietnam, and he began to oppose it. After the Kerner Commission report he had abandoned any pretext of being a conservative. Once he came out against what he believed was an "awful" war in Vietnam, political opposition to Harris began to jell. Rather than run for re-election in 1972, he chose to run for president, instead.
Harris told me he thought he could make more of a difference on the national level, as president. His "progressive" social and economic philosophy was novel and courageous, but his campaign generated more interest than votes. As Harris said in Does People Do It?: "I had grossly under-estimated the difficulty raising money to finance a campaign focused on the goal of more fairly distributing wealth, income and power in America."
Harris ran for president again in 1976, traveling the nation in a camper. Again he railed against the concentration of power in government and business, but he dropped out of the race for the Democratic nomination four months before the convention. Harris's "camper campaign" was inspired by a desire to campaign "as people lived." That was the first national campaign for Time magazine columnist Joe Klein. Klein spent time with Harris on the road, and wrote in his book Politics Lost, that after his defeat in the New Hampshire primary Harris said: "I guess the little people weren't tall enough to reach the voting levers. Maybe next time we should provide stools."
That quote says a lot about the Fred Harris's wit and political philosophy. He fought for the little guy even when it was unpopular and stood up for what he thought was right. After leaving politics, Harris became an author and political science professor at the University of New Mexico. He urges elected officials to be leaders. He thinks "a person ought to make enemies, ought to have some opposition."
Harris wrote a book called Potomoc Fever about what goes on inside the Washington, D.C. beltway and how once inside, public officials develop an overriding desire to get re-elected. Fred Harris stood firm on his principles, knowing it might not get him re-elected. Regardless of whether you agree with him on the issues, looking back forty years through the prism of history it's clear that Harris had the courage to vote his conscience, and there's something to be said for that.
A Conversation With...Fred Harris debuts on April 13, 2010 at 9:00 p.m. on OETA.
Until next time,
Fred Harris and Dick Pryor on the set, Oct. 22, 2009
NOTE: Fred Harris married LaDonna Crawford when he was 19, and they had three children: Kathryn, Byron and Laura. LaDonna Harris became well-known in her own right as an activist for American Indian causes. She established Oklahomans for Indian Opportunity and also was involved in issues such as housing, health and urban affairs. President Lyndon Johnson appointed her to the National Women's Advisory Council on the War on Poverty in 1967. She founded Americans for Indian Opportunity (AIO) in 1970 and continued to lead that organization for more than two decades. Fred and LaDonna Harris divorced following the 1976 election. After the divorce, Fred Harris married Margaret Elliston. They live in Corrales, New Mexico.