The Richmond Register

September 29, 2012

We can learn from colorful politicians of yesterday

By Ronnie Ellis
CNHI News Service

FRANKFORT — FRANKFORT – Any frequent reader of this column knows how I love the history and the colorful characters and stories of Kentucky politics.

I’ve been fortunate to meet and know many who share that love.

Al Smith can regale you with stories of Doc Beauchamp and A.B. “Happy” Chandler. Greg Stumbo, David Williams and Bobby Richardson, former Speaker of the House, tell humorous and enlightening stories of colorful politicians and politicos past.

I was blessed to know former Gov. Louie Nunn, former governor and Sen. Wendell Ford and his political ally, J.R. Miller, who was for a time my father-in-law.

Miller’s children pleaded with him to write his memoirs, but “The Man from Mississippi” declined with a colorful and salty explanation. He might if he knew he would outlive all the characters (not the description he used) in his story – but that wasn’t likely to happen and didn’t.

Miller and Ford were soldiers in, and later heirs to, the Thomas Rhea-Earle Clements wing of the Kentucky Democratic Party.

Rhea, “The Sage of Russellville,” was an ally of Gov. Ruby Laffoon whose lieutenant governor was a young Happy Chandler. In 1935, while Laffoon and Rhea were in Washington meeting with President Franklin Roosevelt, Chandler called a special session of the General Assembly which passed a bill establishing a run-off in the gubernatorial primary.

In the 1935 primary, Rhea named Clements his campaign manager and finished ahead of Chandler, but couldn’t avoid a run-off, which Chandler won by running against “Ruby, Rhea and Ruin.”

The two became bitter enemies, and the party split into factions. Another character in my life – my high school history teacher, scout master and a devoutly conservative, Republican James Simmons of Glasgow – once told me Kentucky was always a two-party state: the Republican Party was just called the Chandler wing of the Democratic Party.

Clements went on to become governor in 1947, defeating Harry Lee Waterfield who was Chandler’s man, and later served as U.S. Senator. He recruited Miller to his cause and faction and sponsored Bert Combs for governor in 1955 against Chandler who was seeking another term, 20 years after being elected to his first. Again, Chandler defeated the Clements man.

But the Clements faction won in 1959 as Combs came back to defeat Waterfield.

Miller and Ford worked for Combs and Ford joined the Combs administration before subsequently running successfully for the state Senate. With Miller’s help, Ford won successive elections as lieutenant governor, governor and U.S. Senator as Chandler’s political influence waned.

Chandler helped Nunn become governor in 1967 when Ford – with help from Doc Beauchamp, Rhea’s successor in Logan County – won election as lieutenant governor. Beauchamp started out supporting Ford’s primary opponent, Attorney General Robert Matthews, but Miller persuaded Beauchamp to switch sides – on Election Day! – and Ford very narrowly won.

Thursday Ford campaigned for Ben Chandler, Happy Chandler’s grandson. He delivered a typically colorful criticism of Chandler’s opponent: “This fella running against Ben is a slick talker. He’s like a preacher with a tent, a hundred chairs and a guitar.” (You needn’t be a Democrat or Chandler supporter to enjoy that line.)

I asked Ford why the last icon of the Rhea-Clements wing would campaign for a Chandler.

“Well, I just like Ben. And besides, podnah, even Happy was right some of the time,” said Ford with a mischievous smile.

Nunn, Happy, Clements, Combs, Miller – they’re all gone and with them so much wisdom and so many colorful stories. Ford, 88, fortunately remains spry for his age. Forget the politics. Kentucky should honor and enjoy Ford and learn from him while it can.

Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at