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Earle C. Clements: A Featured Biography

Earle C. Clements (D-KY)

Earle C. Clements of Kentucky served only seven years in the Senate, from 1950 to 1957, but his tenure was marked by a quick rise to leadership and the ability to assume legislative responsibility during a time of crisis. Clements joined the Senate in 1950 after serving two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and three years as Kentucky’s governor. Elected as Democratic party whip in 1953, he became second-in-command to Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson when their party took control of the Senate in 1955. That year, as the Senate began its July 4th recess, Johnson suffered a major heart attack. When senators returned to work on July 5, Earle Clements became acting majority leader. Clements’s great challenge, noted one reporter, was to show “whether his generalship is equal to Mr. Johnson’s.” With Clements occupying the leader’s desk, Republican president Dwight Eisenhower hoped to take advantage of a leadership vacuum to gain some legislative ground, but Clements pushed back, making clear his intention to continue what Johnson had labeled “responsible opposition.” Throughout the final weeks of the session, Clements proved to be a tough task master who effectively maintained a unified coalition that kept the president in check. Clements’s moment of power came at a cost, however, as the duties of leadership kept him off the campaign trail. He lost his bid for reelection in 1956. Quiet but effective, Clements was a skilled political organizer. He’s as “plain as an old shoe,” noted a reporter, but as another commented, “He gets the job done.”

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