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McClellan vs. Pryor: June 1972

In her biography of the late Sen. John L. McClellan, titled “Fearless,” Sherry Laymon begins a chapter with something Paul Greenberg wrote in the Pine Bluff Commercial following McClellan’s death in late 1977.

“Not even the Angel of Death would have dared creep up on John L. McClellan in broad daylight,” Greenberg wrote.

Norma McClellan was unable to wake the senator for breakfast on Nov. 28, 1977. She ran to get her neighbor at the Riviera Apartments at the foot of Cantrell Hill in Little Rock, U.S. District Judge Elsijane T. Roy.

Judge Roy called the authorities. The senator was pronounced dead at about 6:30 a.m.

Laymon writes: “Norma McClellan then called several of McClellan’s staff members, who came up to their apartment to visit with her. After Emon A. Mahony Jr. and Paul Berry arrived at the McClellan apartment and greeted Norma, she told them, ‘I want you to go look in the top drawer there — his underwear drawer.’ She showed them the Valentine boxers that they had purchased for him during the 1972 campaign. Norma told them that McClellan brought the boxers with him to Little Rock to ‘model for my boys.’

“In the days following McClellan’s death, state and national newspapers, members of Congress, former opponents, state leaders and others who had made McClellan’s acquaintance over the years lauded him for his tireless devotion to Arkansas and for his important accomplishments in the Senate, including a record number of Senate investigations (2,808 hours, 831 days and 2,183 witnesses).

“They referenced how the multitude of personal tragedies he had endured turned him into a man of steel and a man of faith, and they mentioned that he performed his duties as a public servant by consistently voting his convictions and doing what he believed to be right.”

Mahony and Berry will join another former McClellan staff member, Bob Snider, for the June meeting of the Political Animals Club in Little Rock as we mark the 40th anniversary of one of the great political races in Arkansas history — the Democratic primary runoff between McClellan and then U.S. Rep. David Pryor in June 1972.

Laymon also will be a member of that panel, which I will moderate. She will autograph copies of “Fearless” before and after the event.

What’s always a good lunch will be included for the $20 cost, which you can pay in cash or by check at the door. We’ll begin at 11:30 a.m. on Tuesday, June 19, in the Grand Hall of the Governor’s Mansion and conclude by 1 p.m.

You can make reservations by emailing Susan Edwards at and giving her the names of those who will be attending.

Advance reservations are required.

Laymon describes the David Pryor of 1972 as “a young and attractive congressman who hungered for higher office.”

On Oct. 19, 1967, Pryor had attended the John L. McClellan Day festivities in Camden as a first-term congressman.

McClellan told Pryor that day: “I want you to know that when I do leave the Senate, you’re the type of young man that I’d like to see succeed me.”

Laymon writes of similarities between the early careers of Pryor and McClellan.

“In 1934, McClellan quietly drove over the district to learn the intentions of possible candidates and to assess his chances of winning the congressional race. … In 1972, Pryor traveled outside his congressional district, talking to people and steadily building support. Many of Pryor’s friends told him they would support him for re-election, but not in a race against Sen. McClellan; however, he toyed with the idea of challenging McClellan and pursuing his longtime dream of becoming a senator.”

Pryor had to think about the political timing.

“A McClellan win in 1972 would handicap Pryor’s chances of challenging J. William Fulbright in 1974 with the rest of the state since McClellan and Pryor both called south Arkansas home,” Laymon writes. “If Pryor stayed in the House until 1978, his seniority in that chamber might not make the change worthwhile. Also, by 1978 he could lose some of the national momentum he had gained in the early 1970s when he crusaded for nursing home reforms.”

McClellan announced in a Little Rock news conference on Feb. 11, 1972, that he would run for re-election even though he had reached age 76. He emphasized the benefits of seniority with the campaign slogan “Strong Voice for Arkansas.”

Two days later, Bryant attorney Ted Boswell announced his intention to run against McClellan in the Democratic primary.

Pryor’s announcement came on Feb. 19 during a speech in his hometown of Camden.

“McClellan felt betrayed, disappointed and astonished when he learned that Pryor opted to challenge him,” Laymon writes. “McClellan thought highly of David Pryor and considered Pryor a protege. Some of McClellan’s staff believed that had Pryor first advised McClellan of his intentions, the senator would have stepped aside and endorsed Pryor for the office because of his friendship with Pryor’s family. Also, by Pryor not first informing McClellan of his plans, McClellan felt that Pryor did not acknowledge McClellan’s prominence and status in Arkansas politics, which offended McClellan.

“Regardless, McClellan never backed down when challenged, so he campaigned just as hard against Pryor in 1972 as he had against D.D. Glover in 1934, Hattie Caraway in 1938, Jack Holt Sr. in 1942 and Sid McMath in 1954.”

It had been 18 years since someone had seriously challenged McClellan. Rison native John Elrod was named the campaign manager. Berry was selected to drive McClellan to campaign stops across the state.

McClellan had two rules for staff members.

The first: “Don’t ever lie to me.”

The second: “Don’t ever be late.”

Given McClellan’s age, his staff would leave time in the campaign schedule for the senator’s afternoon nap followed by time to prepare for evening appearances.

Back to those underwear.

Laymon writes: “Often staff invited local young men to visit McClellan in his motel suite during those periods, which was the case when the McClellan party stopped in Newport in February 1972. While McClellan showered, a group assembled to meet the senator, but McClellan stayed an extra long time in the bathroom.

“Finally, he attracted Paul Berry’s attention and told Berry, ‘I don’t have any fresh underwear.’

“Berry and Mahony walked to a store across the street and purchased the necessary items, which Berry handed to McClellan enclosed in the store sack so as not to reveal the contents to the roomful of guests. Soon afterward, a blushing Sen. McClellan emerged to meet his visitors for the first time wearing loud boxer shorts covered with big hearts, cupids and arrows. McClellan credited his mischievous staff for his predicament as he circled the room, extending his hand and greeting the amused individuals.”

Television ads and a 30-minute paid television program that showed McClellan fishing were intended to convey the message that the senator’s age and health weren’t issues.

“Critics became less vocal about McClellan’s age after he took the stage and performed a quick, lively dance at Mountain View as musicians played their instruments,” Laymon writes.

She says McClellan would hold the attention of audiences across the state by interjecting stories from “his former campaigns or his experiences as a lawyer and prosecutor. … He said the barbs from his 1972 opponents reminded him of advice that he was given as a young lawyer — when the law is on your side, argue the law; when the facts are on your side, argue the facts; when neither is on your side, find fault with the other lawyers.”

Bill Wilson, now a federal judge, recalls being asked to speak on behalf of an opposing candidate during a rally attended by McClellan at Antioch in White County.

Wilson won a coin toss and could have gone last.

McClellan said, “Aw, you go ahead and go first.”

Wilson did, and it was a mistake.

“That taught me a lesson,” he later said. “I never did that again. After I got through, he wore me out.”

At one joint event, McClellan grabbed Pryor by the arm and said, “Pour it on me, son.”

“His grueling weekly schedule that began early Monday morning and extended until late Saturday night exhausted him physically, emotionally and mentally,” Laymon writes. “He rested on Sundays before repeating the cycle.”

McClellan received 44.7 percent of the vote in the primary. Pryor was second with 41.4 percent, and Boswell was third with 12.6 percent. Foster Johnson received the remainder of the primary votes.

The two-week runoff was on. Those were the “tantamount to” days of Arkansas politics when winning the Democratic primary was tantamount to election. Whoever won the Democratic runoff would have little problem dispatching Republican Wayne Babbitt in the fall.

Conventional wisdom was that an incumbent was finished if forced into a runoff.

“While the Pryor camp exploded with enthusiasm, the people in McClellan’s headquarters became disheartened and dejected as though all the air had been let out of the campaign tires,” Laymon writes. “Patrick Hays, who worked in McClellan’s campaign, compared the senator’s headquarters to a ship without a rudder. After a couple of days, the old steam engine began to sputter and then get a little traction, and as that traction increased, the wheels started rolling a little faster.”

McClellan informed his staff that he could not continue at the current pace for another two weeks. More than 150 key supporters from across the state arrived for a meeting in Little Rock. They committed an additional $280,000 and promised to all hit the trail on the senator’s behalf, covering far more ground than he could alone.

Every favor imaginable was called in as McClellan worked the phones from early in the morning until late at night. Boswell, meanwhile, endorsed Pryor, and Pryor challenged McClellan to a debate.

KATV-TV, Channel 7, in Little Rock agreed to air the debate in prime time the Sunday night before the Tuesday election. McClellan accepted the debate challenge on June 6 under the condition that McClellan would speak last.

“McClellan approached the debate as he did everything he attempted — by working hard, doing his homework and relying upon his years of experience and political savvy,” Laymon writes. “As an effective debater, McClellan habitually opted to speak last when he argued his position on the Senate floor, which allowed him to respond to points raised by his opponents.”

Mahony prepared McClellan a chart of Pryor’s numerous contributions from organized labor. McClellan hit hard in what would be remembered as the cookie jar debate.

“We talk about 50-cent donations out of overall pockets and out of cookie jars — I believe he said cookie jars,” McClellan said, looking at Pryor. “Listen, this is no overall pocket money. This is no cookie jar nickels and dimes. Take a look at this. Big, out-of-state contributions to Pryor. They total $79,877.16. … Yes, that’s a cookie jar — quite a cookie jar indeed.”

Pryor later said, “They wanted to see blood, and it was my blood that they saw, not his.”

McClellan won the runoff with 52 percent of the vote, carrying 52 of the state’s 75 counties.

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