Wayne Morse, the three-term Oregon senator whose long-shot quest for the Democratic presidential nomination baffled party leaders and pundits alike, came up short in the Maryland primary on this day in 1960, losing to front-runner John F. Kennedy by a lopsided margin of 201,789 to 49,420.
Morse’s campaign for the presidency that year was something of a mystery. Nobody knew for sure why he was running.
“One of the real puzzlers in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination,” wrote a Washington correspondent, “is what Oregon’s Sen. Wayne Morse thinks he’s doing in it.”
Everybody had a theory. Some believed that he was running to punish his youthful Massachusetts rival for sponsoring the Kennedy-Landrum-Griffin labor legislation, which Morse had voted against.
Some believed he was a stalking horse for Adlai Stevenson — an argument Morse never went out of his way to deny. “If I wasn’t a candidate,” he said, “I would still be for Stevenson.”
A few observers were convinced that the unpredictable Oregon senator really wanted to occupy the White House and was hoping for a deadlocked convention, a not entirely unimaginable possibility given the crowded Democratic field that included not only Kennedy, but Senators Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota, Stuart Symington of Missouri and Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas, with the twice-defeated Stevenson — everybody’s favorite Democrat — hovering somewhere in the background, hoping the third time might be a charm.
There were yet others who thought the 59-year-old Oregon lawmaker really had his eye on his party’s vice-presidential nomination. Morse himself apparently fell in the latter category.
“I’m the guy who says “Yes,” replied Morse when pressed on the vice presidency. “I think it’s a position of great influence.”
Regardless of his motives, the fearless and highly individualistic Oregonian — a guy who had represented his state in the U.S. Senate as both a Republican and a Democrat — surprised almost everybody when he modestly consented to run for president as a “favorite-son” candidate a few days before Christmas 1959.
“Although I would have preferred not to have been entered in the Oregon race,” he declared, “I shall not run away from a good political fight if it is inevitable.”
Anybody who had been following the professorial politician’s career wouldn’t have expected anything less. The prickly Republican-turned-Democrat — a man whose outspoken manner won him enemies in both parties — was born in Wisconsin at the turn of the century. As a young man, Morse became a disciple of Sen. Robert M. La Follette, a fiery progressive who spent a lifetime crusading for social and economic justice.
A former University of Oregon law professor, in the 1930s Morse was the nation’s youngest law school dean and also earned a well-deserved reputation as a skilled labor arbitrator.
Although sympathetic to the New Deal, Morse was originally elected to the U.S. Senate in 1944 as a Republican and was re-elected in 1950, trouncing his hapless Democratic opponent by more than fifty percentage points.
During the Eisenhower years, Morse — a lean man with a clipped mustache and sharp nose — proved to be a liberal thorn in the side of the Republican administration and later abandoned the party altogether, briefly serving in the U.S. Senate as a man without a party.
When the Eighty-third Congress convened in January 1953, Morse famously caused a ruckus in the Senate chamber by carrying a folding chair, which he intended to place in the center aisle. “Since I haven’t been given any seat in the new Senate,” he said determinedly, “I decided to bring my own.”
Senate Majority Leader Robert Taft of Ohio immediately stripped the blunt-spoken lawmaker of his choice committee assignments — including his cherished seat on the Labor Committee. He was seated, instead, on Taft’s “garbage can” committees — Public Works and the District of Columbia. Morse strongly denounced Taft’s heavy-handed actions.
A few months later, Morse made Senate history by shattering the late “Fighting Bob” La Follette’s eighteen-hour filibuster record by speaking against the Tidelands Oil legislation for twenty-two hours and twenty-six minutes.
Morse changed his party allegiance to the Democrats in 1955, thereby giving the Senate Democrats a one-vote majority. Lyndon B. Johnson, the new Senate Majority Leader, immediately rewarded the Oregon senator by giving him his choice of committee assignments.
Morse was re-elected to a third Senate term as a Democrat in 1956, defeating his Republican rival by more than 61,000 votes.
The “Tiger of the Senate,” as he was affectionately dubbed, later became an early and consistent critic of the Vietnam War and — along with Alaska’s Ernest Gruening — was one of only two members of the Senate to vote against the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964.
Morse’s unexpected candidacy for the Oval Office in 1960 was viewed by many as possible impediment to Senators Kennedy and Humphrey, both of whom were battling for the party’s liberal mantle. Liberal Democrats feared that the Oregonian’s candidacy would prevent either man from winning the party’s nomination.
Morse was the quintessential poor-man’s candidate, running his campaign for the nation’s highest office on something less than a shoestring. He spent only $10,000-12,000 in the District of Columbia primary a few weeks earlier, his first foray into the 1960 Democratic primaries. “I haven’t got anything like the $100,000 that Humphrey spent in Wisconsin or the much-more-than-that Kennedy spent,” he lamented shortly after that state’s April 5 primary.
Making the second of three primary appearances that spring — he lost to Humphrey by a couple of thousand votes in the D.C. primary two weeks earlier — the cantankerous senior senator from Oregon considered himself something of a favorite “step son” in Maryland since he owned and operated a farm there.
He had also hoped to run in his birthplace of Wisconsin, but couldn’t afford to mount a campaign there.
“The press has done quite a job to downgrade me, but I’m used to that,” Morse told a nationally-syndicated columnist shortly before the Maryland primary. “Liberals get it all the time.”
The professor-turned-politician nevertheless actively campaigned for the state’s 24 delegates, urging Maryland Democrats to nominate a true liberal and return to the kind of liberalism which Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman stood for. Kennedy, he asserted, “has a voting record that doesn’t deserve the support of labor, farmers or the little man.”
He also didn’t care for Kennedy’s method of campaigning. “I’m not a shopping center campaigner or one who walks up and down the street,” sighed Morse. “I happen to think you should discuss the issues. You can’t do it as well out on a baby-kissing contest.”
Morse, who clearly lacked JFK’s grace, wit and style, was a heavy underdog in Maryland. Virtually every leading Democrat in the state was supporting Kennedy.
Despite polling only 17.2 percent of the vote — far below expectations — the renowned maverick wasn’t impressed by the size of Kennedy’s victory and calmly predicted that the winner-loser roles would be reversed in his native Oregon three days later.
He was sorely disappointed. Out-hustled by his young and energetic rival on his home turf, Morse lost to Kennedy again — this time by a staggering 55,000 votes — thus ending his little-remembered quest for the Democratic presidential nomination.