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Kerr vs. Phillips – From Friend to Foe

Robert S. Kerr and Leon “Red” Phillips loomed as two of the most powerful men in mid-twentieth-century Oklahoma history. They began as fiscally and socially-conservative Southern Democratic political allies. Their acquaintance reached back to their early-1900s undergraduate days in Norman at the University of Oklahoma.

Kerr, founder of petroleum giant Kerr-McGee, aided fellow-oilman and former Oklahoma Sooner football player Phillips in his successful gubernatorial campaign in 1938. Phillips returned the favor four years later, helping Kerr get elected as his successor.

Soon after this, however, they parted ways politically and spectacularly. The occasion for their schism illustrates one of the enduring philosophical debates in Oklahoma government: should the state wed itself to federal government largesse, and if so, to what degree?

As historian Danney Goble wrote, Kerr chose to pursue:

“a steady nonideological determination to use federal spending in the state’s drive for economic maturity. The governor’s well-cultivated access to the White House and the state’s favorable climate and central location won Oklahoma a disproportionate share of Washington’s furiously spent defense dollars (during World War II). By the war’s end the federal government had pumped millions into the Sooner economy.”

Kerr parlayed this arrangement into immense federal revenues for Oklahoma, and unparalleled political power for himself. By his death, he had faced down Congressional leviathans and presidents alike, and gained the grudging admiration of senatorial opponents as the “Uncrowned King of the United States Senate.”

As Goble continued:

“Statesmen were pragmatists. After more than a decade of depression, Sooners wanted their share of prosperity. They voted for those ready to give it to them, turning deaf ears to the strident cries of ‘creeping socialism’ and ‘federal regimentation.’”

Phillips, meanwhile, saw much of that revenue as an unconstitutional redistribution of wealth, even if Oklahoma were the recipient. He also feared that it did not come without a steep price tag: Kerr and other Oklaho