In the history of southern statehouses, there have been numerous incandescent governors whose rhetorical skills and platform theatrics mesmerized voters, but none was more skillfully trained or more spectacular than Frank Clement, Tennessee’s governor from 1953 to 1959 and again from 1963 to 1967. Clement was the last Tennessee governor to use the evangelical style of oration before the television era transformed methods of voter appeal. Seemingly destined for national greatness, Clement enthralled audiences in Tennessee and across the country with his speeches. He became an unofficial contender for the 1956 Democratic presidential nomination on the national stage, while at home he initiated humanitarian changes that continue to benefit Tennessee citizens.
The product of a political family, Clement often remarked that he launched his campaign for the governor’s office at age ten when he told his Dickson classmates that someday he would run the state. At about that time, he began speech training with a favorite aunt, often practicing at night and on weekends. Historians agree with Clement’s assessment that his youthful training laid the foundation for his later success.
After graduation from Cumberland Law School and a brief stint with the FBI, Clement gained notoriety as a money-saving, taxpayer-friendly young attorney with the state Railroad and Public Utilities Commission. After he was taken under the wing of powerful Nashville Banner publisher James Stahlman, many state Democrats viewed Clement as the political antidote to the statewide influence of the Memphis-based Crump machine. An early expedient alliance with E. H. “Boss” Crump, however, earned Clement the eternal, bitter opposition of the Democratic Nashville Tennessean.
Clement won his first gubernatorial election in 1952 after prevailing in a bitter primary against veteran Democrat Gordon Browning, a strong and popular governor who called the thirty-two-year-old Clement a “pipsqueak” and a “demagogue.” Clement repeated his victory over Browning in 1954 at a time when Republicans in East Tennessee offered little effective opposition in the general election.
Clement quickly consolidated his local constituencies with visits to every county. Appearing on the courthouse square, he shook hands and made speeches, ingratiating himself with rural voters, who felt isolated from the political process. Clement’s folksy style and his road-paving program gained him the rural vote.
Constitutional changes also enhanced Clement’s public appeal. Early in his first term, Tennesseans approved the first changes to the state constitution since 1870. The eight new amendments included one that lengthened the governor’s term from two to four years, a political windfall for Clement.
In 1954, as the state’s first chief executive elected to a four-year term, Clement simultaneously sponsored social service legislation and accelerated his campaign for national recognition. He created the state Mental Health Department, which one publication described as the state’s greatest step forward in a century. Clement also promoted the first free textbook program for all public school grades. He presided over the state’s transformation from an agricultural- to an industrial-based economy, as well as the expansion of employment opportunities that accompanied the change.
Meanwhile, Clement crisscrossed the country, building his reputation among voters and party officials. Democrats increasingly viewed him as a potentially formidable candidate. His political credentials were bolstered by his pleasing personal standing as a young, dynamic, untainted family man with a strong sense of patriotism and charming good looks. A moderate on civil rights, he was the first southern governor to veto a segregation bill. From the perspective of many, his most valuable asset was his God-given talent to arouse people with his words. With so many attributes, Clement soon gained a national forum.
In 1956 the Democratic Party desperately needed a strong candidate to offset the popularity of the heroic yet avuncular Dwight Eisenhower. Impressed with Clement’s qualities, party officials chose the Tennessee governor to give the keynote address at the convention in Chicago. In effect, this was the moment for which Clement had prepared all his life. Determined to succeed, Clement prepared rigorously, reviewing films and scripts of previous keynotes and pushing his staff to produce numerous revisions of his speech.
Appearing before the delegates and a national television audience, Clement delivered a rousing, old-fashioned Tennessee stump speech attacking the Republicans as the “party of privilege and pillage” that would soon pass over the Potomac River in the “greatest water crossing since the children of Israel crossed the Red Sea.” President Eisenhower, Clement claimed, peered down the “green fairways of indifference,” a reference to the president’s love of golf. Clement referred to Vice-President Richard Nixon as the “vice hatchet man.” His repeated use of the phrase, “How long, America, O how long,” remains a hallmark of his address. (1)
While the speech impressed some people, many were repulsed by Clement’s attacks, his stump speech style, and his emphatic mannerisms. The speech was a failure. In a mere forty-three minutes, Clement had ended his national political hopes.
With his national prospects in shambles, Clement resumed his work in Tennessee. He delivered an impassioned plea to end capital punishment and almost succeeded in abolishing the state’s death penalty. Clement never succumbed to the politically popular attitude of hard-core segregation adopted by other southern governors but carefully cultivated his image as a civil rights moderate, treading a fine line between the demands of blacks and whites.
In the 1960s Clement played political leap frog with his former aide Buford Ellington, as the two men rotated their gubernatorial terms. Clement’s final term, marked by health problems and a public battle with alcohol, was not as distinguished as his earlier years in office. He also lost two races for the U.S. Senate.
Clement thrived on politics. He was a God-fearing, hard-working, Bible-quoting man whose flaws cost him votes, friends, credibility, and self-esteem. Yet he aroused and inspired the lowly, cajoled and convinced the powerful, and lifted the cause of the needy to new heights of public awareness.
Frank Clement died November 4, 1969, at age forty-nine in an automobile accident near Nashville amid speculation that he would undertake a fourth campaign for governor.
Lee S. Greene, Lead Me On: Frank Goad Clement and Tennessee Politics (1982)