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 Oklahoma congressmen’s influence in rallying Southern Democratic support for President Franklin Roosevelt and his liberal New Deal.
The New Deal in many ways ran counter to the social and economic conservatism of most Oklahomans. Phillips decried Kerr’s approach, believing that short-term benefits for Oklahoma would pale in comparison to the negative long-term effects of unwise policies, federal government encroachment, and the citizenry’s resultant dependence on it, for both the state and the nation.
Kerr’s strategy was difficult to combat. He brought billions of dollars to the state, thousands of jobs, the mighty McClellan-Kerr Navigation Project, political influence far beyond the state’s proportionate population, and lasting fame, adoration, statues, and downtime street names for himself.
By contrast, Phillips, much like Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump in later generations, eventually left the Democratic Party, insisting it had actually left them first. But unlike Reagan and Trump, Phillips did it in a time and place where joining the Republicans as the Oklahoman did was political, and often social, suicide. After leaving the governor’s mansion, he was never elected to another office. In addition, he is not infrequently portrayed in Oklahoma histories as a rather curmudgeonly scrooge both as a person and a politician—with few if any statues or streets named for him.
Yet, Phillips ramrodded through the legislature a balanced budget amendment that still stands. Plus, just as he feared, the state of Oklahoma has languished economically for decades in some of the precise areas Kerr’s financial windfalls were most calculated to aid. In fact, some areas of the state most supportive of his programs yet languish the worst.
Indeed, modern-day Sooner conservatives who often revere the name and memory of Robert S. Kerr, might find scarcely a discouraging word to read in the writings and speeches of Red Phillips that opposed him—were there a biography written about Phillips, which there is not.
The above article is a bonus to the fascinating historical content found within our book
Oklahomans Vol 2 :
Statehood - 2020s
which can be purchased HERE.
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