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 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 last 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 as 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?

Moses, fan mail, and the long con of the NRA

Topeka Capital Journal
June 7, 2000

On the subject of gun control, here is a sampling of the responses your humble servant receives from unruly readers:

“Your statement in today’s paper about government at any level in this country taking away our guns shows what a misguided imbecile you are. You morons of the media went to court to protect urinating on a statue of Jesus as free speech.”

And, “I am not an NRA member. However, I do feel the organization has value in much the same way that our esteemed Reverend Phelps has value to the case against homosexuality…. You and others of your ilk would have laws against urinating in the woods, while allowing a homosexual to adopt a child…. thanks for reminding me to skip your column.”

And, “There was no peace treaty signed in Korea. Technically, the war isn’t over…. Sorry, but you’re as off base here as you are on gun control. Thought grows less painful with practice. Try it.”

And, “You are a moron. Read the Second Amendment, which guarantees our right to own guns.”

Is this any way to treat a man of peace? Continue reading

No Contest: Phelps gets his way with Topeka authorities

Topeka Capital Journal
December 20, 1995

You might say the Rev. Fred Phelps is exactly where he wants to be. He is on the front page and the editorial page with some regularity, and also at times on other pages, this one included. He and his followers are free to picket anything and anybody, whenever and wherever they choose. He has the city divided. This newspaper and some concerned citizens have laid the “Phelps problem” on Mayor Butch Felker’s doorstep, but he has responded defiantly, saying it’s not his fault the picketing outrage goes on unchecked. Continue reading

Lunch with Sen. Kassebaum (Gambling Pays Off)

Topeka Capital-Journal
Oct. 16, 1989

Let it be said that the lady kept her word. Senator Nancy Kassebaum, true to her promise, bought my lunch last Thursday in Washington to make up for the five bucks she cost me when I bet a lawyer, of all people, that she wouldn’t run for office again next year. Continue reading

Bud Wilkinson: To a Very Rare Man

Topeka Capital-Journal
February 14, 1994

Last Wednesday night Jay Wilkinson called to say his dad, Bud, who made history as football coach at Oklahoma, was dying and probably wouldn’t make it through the night. He didn’t. Next morning we heard on the radio he had died.

Later in the morning I tried to call Charlie Hoag to tell him about Bud, but I couldn’t reach him. It wasn’t until the five o’clock TV news that we heard there had been a wreck on the Turnpike and that Charlie’s wife, Salli, was killed and he was seriously injured. The day had provided a double dose of bad news.

Wilkinson and Hoag had closer ties than you might think. In the early 1950s, Bud was one of the best coaches in the country and Charlie was a superb running back at KU , as well as being a key member of a national championship basketball squad. Continue reading

A Friend Recalls Alf Landon

Topeka Capital-Journal
October 16, 1987

In 1935, Gerry Barker was a junior at Ottawa University and Alf Landon was governor. On a night when Baker University played at Ottawa for the league basketball championship, Landon was in the stands. Ottawa won in the final seconds, and Barker was the star.

Later, Barker was just coming out of the shower when E. C. “Ernie” Quigley, who had refereed the game, came into the Ottawa dressing room and asked, “Where is that young man Barker?” Gerry stepped forward and Quigley said, “Hurry and get dressed. The governor wants to meet you.”

When they met, Landon congratulated him on the victory and on his efforts. Barker says today it was a high point of his career, and then some. It was the start of a long and enduring relationship.

In 1947, Barker went to work for radio station WREN, which had just been moved over from Lawrence. In 1952, Landon bought the station, and when he met the staff he looked at Gerry and asked, “Are you the Barker who played at Ottawa?”

Continue reading

JFK Tops for Intentional White House Humor

Topeka Capital Journal
Aug. 12, 1991

In this country we like to say that anybody can grow up to be president, but that’s like saying anybody can win the lottery. The odds are against anyone who has the White House in mind. That goes even for a vice president, particularly if his name is Dan Quayle.

All most of us can do about the presidency is hope we vote for the winner, and then hope he does a decent job. We also can hope he has a sense of humor, because when you consider the shape the country is in, it is clear the head man needs to be able to laugh and make others laugh with him.

jfkIf you were to rate presidents by their sense of humor, you would have to admit that, despite all his weaknesses, John Kennedy was the best ever. Throughout his career, his wit stands out like no president before or since.

Asked how he became a war hero, he said, “It was easy. They sank my boat.” During his presidential campaign he said his wealthy father would finance a victory, “but he flatly refuses to pay for a landslide.” Continue reading

On Assignment from the President

Topeka Capital-Journal
June 1, 1992

I ended the month of May with a blooper, and probably I’m starting June with another one, but some of us never learn. Last week I wrote that State Senator Frank Gaines of Augusta, who has announced his retirement, was a good man. It turns out he was a better man than I gave him credit for being. I should have known .

He was in the Legislature 24 years, and I noted that if he signed up for the plush pension plan legislators voted for themselves, he would qualify for about $25,000 per year. I added there was no reason to believe he hadn’t signed.

Since then I have been informed by a good friend of his, who would know, that Gaines didn’t take advantage of the souped-up pension. He deserves this apology and the respect of all of us.

I also have sentenced myself to do severe penance for this mistake, but not before I start June on the wrong foot by giving in to the irresistible urge to drop big names. It comes over me occasionally, and I am a pushover.

Maybe this one was caused by the recent new evidence from the two doctors that president John F. Kennedy was killed by two shots, fired by one man. Maybe it started me thinking about him and about my days as a dedicated public servant in Washington.

The story goes back 30 years, to the days when all public servants were dedicated and all Kansas State football fans were long-suffering. The story doesn’t have anything to do with K-State, but it does have a little to do with football. Continue reading

Another Look at the Second Amendment

Topeka Capital-Journal
Dec. 16, 1992

The Second Amendment to the US Constitution, one of the original 10 known as the Bill of Rights, says: “Right to keep and bear arms. A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

That’s all it says. It became law toward the end of 1791, when an armed and ready militia was necessary, because the security of the newly-created country was shaky. There was a real need for every able-bodied man to be armed and prepared to defend the nation against the British, French, the Indians or whomever.

But that was then, and this is now. The amendment qualifies the right of the people to keep and bear arms by saying armed citizens are needed to make up the militia that protects our security from the possible threats of outsiders.

Now, we don’t need militia, or a citizen Army, and it’s a good thing, because we are exactly 180 degrees away from having well-regulated armed citizens protecting our security.

In terms of physical security, what this country needs more than anything else is protection from the people who have the guns. Continue reading

Handguns Have Gotten out of Hand

Topeka Capital-Journal
Dec. 2, 1992

It would be great if everyone in the country decided the handgun homicides coast to coast last week, like the double slaying in Lawrence, were the last straw. There would be such a demand for gun control that Congress would get the message and do something about it.

Our representatives in Washington would be hammered so hard by constituents they would become more afraid of them than they are of the National Rifle Association now. They would do what they know to be the morally right thing, and they would pass laws making it very difficult to legally buy a handgun.

True, this would work a hardship on a lot of people, from schoolchildren to career criminals. The young thugs would have to settle grudges and impress peers with mere knives or baseball bats, or something like that. But there would be fewer of them killed.

Dedicated gun-carrying criminals might decide to get out of the business if they one day found themselves without a gun and no easy way to get one. Continue reading