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Looking Presidential
Everybody thinks they know how to run the country. These local guys are actually trying to get the job.

  Knoxville's Presidential Candidates Past

Even pre-Lamar, Knoxville has fielded three prominent presidential candidates who actually had reason to believe they might someday live in the White House. All of their careers were, in one way or another, peculiar. None were elected president, but some changed the way we think about presidential-election politics. Amazingly, none of them was Republican.

by Jack Neely

Hugh Lawson White (1773-1840)

A teenager when his father James founded Knoxville, Hugh Lawson White is still the only longtime Knoxvillian who appears in indexes of most U.S. political histories. Founder of Knoxville's first bank, a judge in Tennessee's highest court, and longtime state senator, White was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1825 to succeed his friend Andrew Jackson when Jackson resigned. The tall, emaciated White, known in Washington as "the Skeleton," enjoyed the respect of his colleagues, who elected him president pro tem. of the senate in 1833; for a couple of months, Sen. White was the equivalent of vice-president of the United States.

By then, President Jackson had alienated many of his former supporters, including White himself, who twice declined seats on Jackson's cabinet. In late 1834, a committee of disgruntled former Democrats, including Rep. Davy Crockett (D, Tenn.), nominated White to run for president against Jackson's hand-picked prince/puppet, Martin Van Buren. Jokingly, these mutineers called themselves Whigs; the Whigs were the British party that opposed the crown, and they'd reviled Jackson as "King Andrew." The Whigs would dominate American politics for much of the next quarter century. Sen. White of Knoxville, though nominally still a Democrat, was arguably the party's first presidential candidate. Ironically, Davy Crockett, who had nominated White and written pro-White campaign stories, died at the Alamo before he could have voted.

White drew support in the South and Midwest, but wasn't expected to do well in the Northeast. In an extraordinary ploy historians have criticized for its sheer cynicism, the newly founded Whigs nominated two more candidates for the same election: Daniel Webster and William Henry Harrison. The idea was to chew up so many votes that Van Buren couldn't earn a majority of electoral votes. That would scuttle the election and throw it into the pro-Whig House, which would pick its own president—which might or might not have been one of the above.

That was weird enough, but 1836 saw another phenomenon not likely to be repeated: a Tennessee president vigorously campaigning against a Tennessee presidential candidate technically of the same party. In spite of Old Hickory's anti-White philippics, White earned almost half the votes in the South that November. He carried Tennessee, plus Georgia—but that was it. Harrison had captured much of White's western support.

In spite of the three-opponent plot, Van Buren prevailed. White came in third in the national popular vote, ahead of Webster. Some historians recall the chaotic election of 1836 as the rough birth of our modern two-party system.

Two years later, the 65-year-old senator came down with Knoxville's deadly plague of 1838, and never fully recovered. He resigned from the senate and moved back home, where he died in 1840—late in the presidential term for which he campaigned.

White is buried in the graveyard of the First Presbyterian Church; he never got the huge monument originally planned for him.

William Gibbs McAdoo, Jr. (1863-1941)

Born in Georgia, William Gibbs McAdoo moved to Knoxville, his parents' original home, in 1877, when Junior was not quite 14. The McAdoos lived for years in a house on the corner of State and Hill. His parents were both intellectuals, his father a UT professor, his mother a romance novelist. The young McAdoo was of a more practical bent.

Junior attended UT, did some clerical work for the U.S. Circuit Court, studied law on his own, and passed the bar. McAdoo's greatest contribution to Knoxville, however, was as a businessman/engineer. The 26-year-old introduced electric streetcars to town in 1889, relatively early in the history of this developing technology. Though his trouble-prone experiment was an economic failure, another entrepreneur gained control of McAdoo's rails and made them work. Jealous, McAdoo returned to compete with his original network of tracks with a new line and an improved design in 1897. His illegal construction crews sparked the bizarre Depot Street streetcar riot, which left a McAdoo worker dead. Hundreds were arrested, including McAdoo himself.

Frustrated, the 34-year-old McAdoo left his hometown forever and became a politician and transportation leader in New York, where he ran a railroad and directed the construction of the first rail tunnels beneath the Hudson River. After serving as chairman of the Democratic National Convention which nominated Woodrow Wilson, he served as Secretary of Treasury on Wilson's cabinet. McAdoo's legacy may been presiding over the founding of the Federal Reserve Board. Some declared him "the greatest Secretary of the Treasury since Hamilton." When the widowed McAdoo married the president's daughter Eleanor, he drew gibes: "A man of high intrinsic worth," as one wag rhymed, "The Greatest Son-In-Law on Earth."

McAdoo ran for president in 1920 and 1924; at both Democratic conventions, he was the leader in the early balloting, earning a majority but not the necessary two-thirds; he later lost in frustrating compromises. He was a strong prohibitionist, an old "progressive" point of view that was losing credibility in the '20s. A political enemy of fellow New Yorker Al Smith, the first major Catholic candidate, McAdoo inadvertently drew support from anti-Catholic groups like the KKK, which also favored his prohibitionism. It may have been the kiss of death.

McAdoo moved to California, and the aging boy wonder became a leader of the progressive wing of the Democratic party there. Discussed as a presidential candidate again in 1932, McAdoo was elected senator that year and also represented California's big delegation to the 1932 Democratic convention. Once an enemy of Roosevelt, the 69-year-old statesman assured FDR's first nomination at the Democratic convention by throwing his support behind the young governor from New York. McAdoo remained senator from California until his final defeat at age 75.

Anticipating his final return to politics, McAdoo published his memoirs in 1931, appropriately titled Crowded Years. The readable book is often irreverently funny and self-effacing, but contains no mention of his part in the Knoxville streetcar riot of 1897.

Estes Kefauver (1903-1963)

Actually, Knoxville may have fumbled its rights to claim Estes Kefauver. When he got off the train at the L&N station in 1920, Kefauver was a country boy from Monroe County, and we made sure he was painfully aware of the fact. UT sophisticadoes ridiculed his green-and-red mail-order suits. However, he quickly earned their respect as an athlete: a UT football guard known in the sports pages as "Old Ironsides," and also a champion in discus and shot put on the track team. He lived in the Kappa Sig house in Maplehurst.

After graduating from Yale Law School in 1927, Kefauver returned, intending to settle into a career as Knoxville lawyer. However, trying to get his foot in the door of local firms, Kefauver was dismayed to find himself shunned; as one biographer put it, he'd become "something less than a legend at the University." He went home to Madisonville, and eventually found work in Chattanooga, where he built a career in state politics as a leading opponent of the powerful, Memphis-based "Boss" Crump machine.

Elected a Democratic representative from the Third District in 1939—the same year the movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was released, a coincidence hard to overlook, since Kefauver and Jimmy Stewart's character resembled each other—Kefauver would be a member of Congress for 25 years. During his 14 years in the Senate, he became known for his unusual independence and for his aggressive investigations into organized crime. When Boss Crump, whose candidate lost to Kefauver in 1948, compared the upstart to a thieving raccoon, Kefauver began wearing coonskin caps in public appearances; it became his trademark.

At the height of his fame after the televised Kefauver hearings in 1951, a Roper poll called Kefauver one of the 10 Most Admired Men in America. The following year, the senator from Monroe County ran for the Democratic nomination first in 1952. It would be a defining moment for the country. Presidential historian Theodore White calls Kefauver "the godfather of the American presidential primary system...the first to see primaries as a corridor to power."

Kefauver ran alone without seeking endorsements from Democratic machines and national leaders—and won most of the nation's primaries. However, after President Truman opposed Kefauver, Adlai Stevenson got the nomination.

After throwing in the towel after a second bid in 1956, Kefauver was selected to be nominee Adlai Stevenson's running mate. They lost to the I Like Ike freight train, of course, but Kefauver kept his seat in the Senate.

White calls Kefauver, along with unsuccessful postwar candidates Rockefeller, Humphrey, and Stevenson, the "most qualified for the leadership denied him."

UTK has attempted to make up for overlooking Kefauver in 1927 by welcoming his leftovers. Today, Kefauver's souvenir-cluttered Washington office furniture is a permanent exhibit in the old Hoskins Library, maintained to appear exactly as he left it when he collapsed on the Senate floor in 1963, at age 60. It may be the city's most peculiar shrine.