Dick Clark Not Just An Entertainer: A Senator Too

Historic Tidbit: “A good story is like fine Kentucky bourbon, it improves with age and, if you don’t use it too much, it will never hurt anyone.” Proud Kentuckian and Vice-President Alben Barkley.

Dick Clark the entertainer (photo by Wikimedia Commons)

By Scott Crass

When folks think of Dick Clark, the thing that comes to mind is iconic DJ, vibrant New Year’s Eve presence, game-show host, and celebrity recruiter. Thoughts of Dick Clark also may generate thoughts of a man who remained a teen forever. Someone with personality, flair, and a knack for the cameras with whom folks could identify. Most people would not put the words Dick Clark and United States Senator in the same sentence. But there was such an individual.

It’s not the same Dick Clark of course. But there was a man by that name who for six years in the 1970′s, represented Iowa in the U.S. Senate. The Democrat naturally lacked the star power of the DJ. In fact, about he only thing he had in common was their thick head of hair and their era (Clark the Senator was born in 1928, a year before the on-air personality). But he did share his sincerity, youthful image and charm which, in 1972, mattered far more than seniority and polish.

In a year when a “29 year old kid” named Joe Biden’s defeat of a two-term Senator and former Delaware Governor would seem to be an upset that could not be surpassed, there was actually another that did come pretty close. What made Clark’s win even more improbable was that unlike the guy with the more famous name, this Dick Clark was the man who until the campaign had been the person behind the scenes. The one who does all the leg work, one whose name may pop up from time to time, but one whom for the most part, would never be seen.

Dick Clark the Senator (Photo by Wiki)

Clark’s boss, John Culver, was another story. At the time, Culver was a four term Congressman from Dubuque (Ted Kennedy’s Harvard roommate) who was widely considered the leader of the next generation of Democrats who would revitalize the party in Iowa and the nation (while Harold Hughes was enjoying a successful stint as Senator following his Governorship, the “Hawkeye State” was otherwise in the GOP column.) There was a saying, “Iowa will go Democratic when Hell goes Methodist.” Arguably, Clark’s victory changed that.

Clark knew how to hustle which, incumbent Republican
Jack Miller did not. Miller was a typical farm belt Republican. Not particularly moderate but mainstream enough to back civil rights legislation and some parts of the “Great Society.” By the end of his second term had become the top Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee. But he wasn’t a world-class campaigner and, after 12 years, didn’t think he needed to be. Pre Election Day, few would’ve argued with him. Especially the one who thought he mattered most: Culver.

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Culver was the Democrats dream recruit. But he came to the conclusion, like nearly every other prominent Democrat in Iowa, that Miller could not be beaten, and passed. So with the blessing of party leaders, Clark decided to take on the seemingly uphill task and he used his experience as Culver’s longtime campaign manager, and administrative assistant to put all he had into it. Phone banks were organized, a novelty for that time.

Clark also had novel ways to capture voters attention. Emulating Lawton Chiles, Clark walked 1,300 miles across the state. But Miller gave him some of the ammunition. Clark attacked him for trying to exempt the Bahamas from a tax. His enthusiasm won him the backing of the influential Des Moines Register, a paper whose view many Iowans weigh seriously even today before making their decisions. But even late indications were that their decision as it came to Miller would not be any different from previous campaigns. A poll in October found Miller 20% up, down from 23% the prior month.

On a night when Nixon was capturing 59% in Iowa, Clark stunned Miller, and nearly everyone else, by scoring an 11% win. Late that night, Nixon was commiserating on the phone with Henry Kissinger about Senate losses and remarked that Miller lost because “he was an a–hole.”

Culver would get his opportunity. Two years later, Hughes decided to retire and Culver took his seat.

In the Senate, Clark gained a reputation for assiduous service and working the state hard. He replaced Miller on the Agriculture Committee, where he could look out for Iowa farmers. On Foreign Affairs, he took a particular interest in South Africa. He forged a close alliance with Ted Kennedy and together, the two modeled the system similar to the House in having Senate committee chairs chosen via secret ballot by the full caucus.

Robert David Johnson in his book, Congress and the Cold War said Clark had a reputation for being one of the most “intellectually astute members” who had “maintained his beliefs passionately.”But being a solid liberal closely and philosophically aligned with Ted Kennedy was what Republicans felt gave them an opening for making Clark a one-termer. Still, the feeling approaching 1978 was that Clark would not be beaten, a viewpoint backed by a peter Hart survey that showed him 30 points ahead. Clark himself noted that he led by 16 points three weeks out, which led him to believe he’d survive.

Much of the Democrats optimism also had to do with the Republican nominee. Roger Jepsen had been a one-time Lieutenant Governor under moderate Robert Ray, but was neither impressive nor personable. Yet he’d have the good fortune of sharing the ticket with someone who was: Ray. Having had a stormy relationship, the Governor’s campaign operation provided little support to Jepsen. But the pro-life community did. A drive they undertook just before Election Day to put leaflets on cars in church parking lots would highlight Clark’s pro-choice positions, including votes for Kennedy legislation and against the Hyde Amendment that barred federal funding of abortions.

Foreign policy was another headache for Clark. He supported the Panama Canal Treaty, which as the Almanac of American Politics 1980 observed, may not have gone over well among “older and nostalgic voters.”

Culturally, the Iowa of 1978 was quite different from the Iowa of today, a state that is one of just nine to recognize marriage equality. Kennedy, on the edge of a White House bid, campaigned for Clark, and Clark returned the favor by backing him two years later. But in a year when the “New Right” was piloting it’s attacks on liberals via ideology, that the Kennedy connection couldn’t have helped.

Jepsen on the other hand, while not lacking a political pedigree, had enough baggage that, to put in today’s perspective, could have paved the way for Christine O’Donnell. The Almanac called him “contentious and appears to some to at least be devious.”
He also lacked an astute understanding of the issues.

Longtime Iowa Journalist Gilbert Cranberg, then of the Register, recalled how Jepsen brought his wife to the editorial board interview. Cranberg noted he “had earlier faced many of the questions we put to him. Even so, he seemed stumped much of the time and turned frequently to Dee for rescue; she answered many of the questions.”

Cranberg, now a George H. Gallup Professor of Journalism would later write that Jepsen “showed neither judgment nor smarts when he allowed himself to patronize, before the election, a Des Moines massage parlor known for offering “nude modeling, nude encounters, and nude rap sessions. Jepsen compounded the misstep when he paid with a credit card that produced a record police found when they raided the place and subsequently shut it for prostitution.”

But Clark was not into slash and burn politics and didn’t make an issue of Jepsen’s transgressions. Some saw that as costly. And perhaps fatal. For the election was close.

Jepsen unseated Clark by 26,000 votes out of 1.42 million case. Clark only ran slightly ahead in Dubuque (abortion apparently made it’s mark) and without a Presidential race, turnout was way down. Clark’s defeat, combined with New Hampshire’s Tom McIntyre, who had also been 20 points up before losing to a little known conservative pilot named Gordon Humphrey, energized the National Conservative Political Action Committee, who made him their first target. The defeats were seen as turning points for the “New Right,” which vowed to use their operations to seize a majority in 1980. Among the victims: Culver, who fell to Chuck Grassley, who still serves today.

The day after the election, the Register ran an editorial proclaiming, the “Best Man Lost.” Voters evidently came to that conclusion as well. Jepsen’s tenure was marked by mediocrity and poor judgement, which may have extended to being a sore winner. When President Carter nominated Clark to be a United States Coordinator for Refugee Affairs, Jepsen tried blocking it. Clark eventually got the post.

Cranberg’s opinion was that Clark “made a name for himself in Washington as one of the least-bright members of Congress, a reputation not enhanced when he was arrested driving alone in a lane marked for car pools and then claimed senatorial immunity entitled him to ignore the law and avoid the $35 fine.”

This publicity, even in a Republican year, could aide Jepsen little and Tom Harkin ousted him by the same 11% margin by which Clark had beaten Miller a dozen years earlier. Jepsen was never heard from again. Clark taught at the Aspen Institute before retiring in 2011 and remains in Washington D.C. He is 84 years old.

In closing, Dick Clark the Senator was not nearly as known nor as durable as Dick Clark the entertainer. But in just a short time, his accomplishments were significant, his talents were many. And the nation and world are far better for having both.