The big truth: we just needed 20k votes

Topeka Capital Journal
Aug. 4, 1986

Election Day is at hand again, and what better time to recall, painfully, my only venture into the world of politics: the 1964 campaign by Bud Wilkinson to become a US senator from Oklahoma. It was the first time for both of us and, thank God, the last.

Bud was a football coach running for high public office, but he was some kind of coach. In his 17 seasons, he had brought the Oklahoma Sooners what was then undreamed-of success. He was a tall, handsome, highly articulate man, a genuine local and national hero.

In terms of national prominence, he was what Knute Rockne had been and what Paul “Bear” Bryant later became. Because of his charm and intelligence, he was the guy you’d pick over all the rest as the football coach most likely to succeed in public life.

I had known Bud many years and was working for him in President Kennedy’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports when he decided to run. His friends in Oklahoma told him that because of his strong ties to the University of Oklahoma, he needed to name a key campaign worker from rival Oklahoma State.

“I know just the man,” Bud told them, referring to yours truly.

They asked, “is he famous, or even well known”?

“Not for anything we’d want to publicize,” Bud said, “but he will have to do.”

So it was that I joined the campaign by popular demand, long before Bud even announced. And he may have lost the election a month or more before he officially entered the race.

It was at a small meeting in the old Willard Hotel in Washington, and the question was whether Bud should change his registration from Democrat to Republican. Like most Oklahomans, Bud was a registered Democrat so he could vote in primaries. The Republicans in those days didn’t have enough candidates to have primary contests.

There was strong argument against the change. The more moderate Democrats would understand it, but a lot of “dirty dog” Democrats would resent it. But Bud, by philosophy and instinct a conservative Republican, made the decision.

Soon after, he made the switch, and it got tremendous publicity. He also went into court and officially changed his name from Charles Burnham to Bud. Then he announced. The ball was teed up, and the game was on.

When it was announced that I was joining the campaign, one small newspaper from the “Little Dixie” section of Oklahoma made a gem of it. Ignoring the fact I was a native, and an Oklahoma State grad, it pointed out I had attended St. Gregory’s High School and was coming out from Washington. Its headline read: “Eastern Catholic to help Bud.”

We hired Ed Turner, a local TV ace, to be our publicity man. Tony Calvert, a prominent oil man, was our finance man, and he raised more money than we could spend. We got top people to organize every county, and we had legions of volunteers. We had a good team and a hell of a candidate.

But we had problems. In the presidential race, Barry Goldwater was running against Lyndon Johnson, and in Oklahoma, as elsewhere, there were Republicans and Goldwater Republicans. Most of the Republicans didn’t like Goldwater, and the Goldwater Republicans didn’t like Bud because he had intruded into their parade.

We kept telling them privately we loved Barry, and they kept replying, Yeah, but you don’t love him enough. Finally, Bud publicly endorsed him, and an awful lot of Republicans took the trouble to write us and say, Count me out.

Still, we thought Bud would win. He flattened a primary opponent, a Goldwater man. Then, a late summer poll rattled our bones.

It showed Bud’s opponent, Fred Harris, leading statewide, 51 percent to 31, with 18 percent undecided. Harris led in every congressional district, and had 20 percent of the registered Republicans, probably those defectors. Harris’ campaign theme was simple: me and LBJ.

He was tough. Told he wasn’t as well-known as Bud, he replied, “After I beat him, I will be.” He debated Bud head-to-head and did well.

In the weeks that followed, Bud worked tirelessly seven days a week. In our final poll, he had cut the lead to two percentage points, but that was it. With close to a million voting, LBJ carried the state by about 120,000. And Bud lost to Harris by about 20,000. Close, but no cigar.

Bud and I made it to Washington after all, going there in 1965 to run a well-heeled operation called the Lifetime Sports Foundation. Bud went on to become an insurance executive, with a brief time out to coach the pro Saint Louis Cardinals. He lives in Saint Louis and spends most of his time traveling in Europe and playing golf.

Ed Turner, our publicity man, went back to television and today is vice president in charge of news for Ted Turner’s (no relation) Cable News Network. He once said of the campaign, “We took a household name and drove it into oblivion in six months.”

Fred Harris went to the Senate and immediately became involved with Bobby Kennedy and various liberal causes that alienated Oklahomans. In 1972, he resigned from the Senate and made a token run for President. He hasn’t been heard from politically since.

Tony Calvert, the finance man, still is in the oil business. He says people occasionally ask him, whatever became of what’s-his-name, the Easterner who came out to help Bud?

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