The country singer who died last week, onc was...


November 30, 1992|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

ROY ACUFF, the country singer who died last week, onc was a candidate for governor in one of the most colorful campaigns in Tennessee's history.

The year was 1948. Acuff had become one of the best known and most popular figures in his state. In years past, friends tried to get him to run for office, but he wouldn't.

He decided to run in 1948 as a Republican because, one story goes, E. H. "Boss" Crump, the demagogic and powerful Democratic machine leader in Memphis, detested "hillbilly music" and said so in a disparaging comment about Acuff.

Ironically, Acuff was nominated to run against a Crump foe, Gordon Browning, who defeated the machine candidate in the Democratic primary. How much did Crump dislike Browning? I can't count the ways. But here's what he said of him in a paid campaign ad in newspapers: "I have said before and I repeat now, that in the art galleries of Paris there are 27 pictures of Judas Iscariot -- none look alike but all resemble Gordon Browning." The Boss had a way with words, eh?

Roy Acuff had a way with words, too. He and his Smoky Mountain Boys would sing the songs he had written at campaign stops across the state for Acuff and his running mate, the candidate for the U.S. Senate, B. Carroll Reese, chairman of the Republican National Committee.

The Democratic candidate for the Senate was also an anti-Crump candidate. That was Estes Kefauver. In another ad Crump compared Estes to a "pet coon that puts its foot in an open drawer in your room, but invariably turns its head while its foot is feeling around in the drawer. The coon hopes, through its cunning by turning its head, he will deceive any onlookers as to where his foot is and what it is into." He said Estes was a Commie sympathizer.

Estes started wearing a coonskin cap, saying, "I may be a pet coon, but I am not Boss Crump's pet coon." He got a lot of free and favorable publicity from the cap gag (and four years later used the cap again when he almost won the Democratic presidential nomination).

Reese ran a traditional campaign. But Roy Acuff stuck to singing "Wabash Cannonball" and "The Great Speckled Bird" and a stump speech in which he said, "I'm not a politician. I'm just a country boy trying to run things as honest and square as possible. I'll do my very best, my mellow best, to serve the people."

The voters were not in a mellow mood. They elected Judas Iscariot and the pet coon by 2-1 margins.

A last word on having a way with words, Tennessee-style: Rep. Albert Gore Sr., the veep-elect's father, was an anti-Crump man who campaigned with Kefauver that year. In one riposte to Crump's name-calling, Gore resorted to Shakespeare. "He who steals my good name steals trash," he began. His horrified wife in the front row at the rally whispered loudly, "Oh, no, Albert! That's not it, Albert!" To no avail. Gore thundered on, "But he who steals my purse steals that which enriches him not but makes me poor indeed."

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