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"The Uncrowned King of the Senate"

January 1, 1963


On January 1, 1963, illness unexpectedly claimed the life of the 66-year-old senator known as "The Uncrowned King of the Senate."

Born in a log cabin in Oklahoma's Indian territory, Robert S. Kerr attended a two-year teacher-training program, followed by a year of legal studies. Capitalizing on his region's burgeoning petroleum production, he leveraged his legal services for shares in oil-drilling ventures. Teaming up with a geologist, he established Kerr-McGee Oil Industries in the 1930s and proceeded to amass a personal fortune. A prodigious Democratic Party fundraiser, he moved through a succession of state offices to become Oklahoma's governor in 1942. Two years later, he keynoted the Democratic National Convention and helped shape the strategy that gave Senator Harry Truman the party's 1944 vice-presidential nomination.

Robert Kerr moved to the U.S. Senate in 1949. Among the 17 members of his freshman class were Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Russell Long, Margaret Chase Smith, Paul Douglas, Clinton Anderson, and Estes Kefauver. The 6-foot, 4-inch, 240-pound senator was described as "robust in mind, body, and spirit." Never bashful about his considerable talents, Kerr brought to the Senate a caustic wit, a capacity for hard work, and a resolute belief in the unity of his personal goals and those of his constituents.

Early in his first term, his legislation to exempt independent oil and gas producers from Federal Power Commission regulation—vetoed by Truman—marked him as a parochial, special-interest politician and destroyed his hopes for a presidential bid in 1952. Thereafter, he made the Senate Committees on Public Works and Finance his power base.

Kerr reached the apex of his political influence in the Kennedy administration. President Kennedy recognized that the Oklahoma senator could be his administration's best friend, and its worst enemy. Kerr proved this by twice defeating floor action on the administration's Medicare proposal, but he also provided vital support for tax, trade, and space exploration initiatives.

Keeping in mind the Senate cloakroom adage, "What Kerr wants, Kennedy gets," the president traveled to Oklahoma in the fall of 1961 to dedicate an obscure state road, which a journalist reported "starts nowhere and gets to a suburb of the same place." The visit's underlying purpose was to allow the president to meet with Kerr at his 50,000-acre ranch for some political horse trading.

In politics, business, or gin rummy, the fiercely determined Oklahoman hated to lose. House Speaker Sam Rayburn provided a suitable epitaph when he explained, "Bob Kerr is the kind of man who would charge hell with a bucket of water and believe he could put it out."