In a Few Hands: Monopoly Power in America

by Estes Kefauver and Irene Till
Pantheon, 239 pp., $4.95

The late Senator Kefauver (1903-63) repeatedly went searching for organized crime with a television camera. The wisdom he learned from his first large experience of this search (1950-51) was then expressed in his dedication of a book* “…to the people of America, who, I hope, will be sufficiently aroused to help us, through public opinion and legislative action, to strangle crime in America…” He seems never to have entirely outgrown the faith of those who go out righteously to strangle what is criminal, and will be done with the task before the setting of the sun.

Until coming to public notice as a crime-buster, Kefauver had spent a decade (1939-48) in the House of Representatives. There he had earned a modest reputation as a Southern Populist or Tennessee liberal—a defender of the Tennessee Valley Authority and of Small Business, an enemy of the poll tax but an enemy also (like Lyndon Johnson, at the same time) of legal protection of the Negro’s right of equal access to employment. In 1948, when he was running for the Senate, Kefauver set great store on refuting the charge of his political opponents that he was unsympathetic to the House Un-American Activities Committee. And, in 1950-51, he vied with Senator Joseph McCarthy for the national television audience.

It was on February 9, 1950, that McCarthy opened his long, demeaning charade with Act One, “The Communists in the State Department.” And it was on May 10, 1950, that Kefauver opened his competing attraction, a performance designed to show, in the impresario’s own words, “How the National Crime Syndicate Can Be Smashed.” Initially it was Kefauver, not McCarthy, who scored the greater public success. Kefauver was the popular Democratic candidate for the Presidential nomination in 1952. He probably would have been nominated but for the determined opposition of Harry Truman. McCarthy never got that high. And Kefauver was nominated in 1956, if only for the Vice-Presidency.

McCarthy surely never discovered a Communist; Kefauver may not have identified one undetected criminal. Nevertheless, both Senators became national figures at about the same time, in public appreciation of their reputed services in putting down evil-doers. Both exploited the resources of the Congressional process of Hearing and Investigation. But Kefauver was made of better stuff. Unlike McCarthy, he was capable of appreciating that Leviathan can be shaped to such grossness that there is no decent living with him. He did not engage in wild accusations of individual guilt. He was far less hectoring in interrogation than many other Senators. He knew—and was troubled by the knowledge—that even a Congressional investigation sincerely directed to the discovery of abuses can result in punishment by pillory. And he does not seem to have tried to entrap reluctant witnesses into perjuries (as others, I believe, did successfully in the case of William Remington and unsuccessfully in the case of Owen Lattimore). After McCarthy’s downfall, he even advanced several proposals of legislation designed to improve the procedures of Congressional investigation.

Senator Kefauver was surely…

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