OU Law Conversations: Fred Harris

September 30, 2020

University of Oklahoma Bachelor of Arts degree and College of Law, 1954

What led you to OU Law?

When I was a sophomore in high school in Walters, Oklahoma--a town of about 1500--I was bored in study hall and found a book on occupations and professions. I went through the book and almost by the process of elimination, I came to the profession of lawyer. I wasn’t quite sure what lawyers did, but I knew they didn’t work in the fields the way I grew up, picking cotton and bailing hay. I knew they wore suits, and maybe I had in my mind that the practice of law had some connection to public office. At any rate, from that time, I decided that I wanted to be a lawyer.

Tell us about your experience in law school.

It was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. The faculty was enormously impressive. I made close friends that have lasted for life. Without trying, I had wound up by the time I entered law school with exactly the kind of skills that lead to success in law school and in the practice of law. In those days, only about a third of the people who entered law school the first year ended up graduating.

I had become a journeyman printer in high school so that I could work my way through OU. That’s how I got through undergraduate school and most of law school. My last year of law school, I was a paid administrative assistant for the Dean. Aside from work and studies, I also started as a student volunteer to get involved in political campaigns. I was, for example, very much involved in the campaign of then U.S. Representative Mike Monroney when was elected to the U.S. Senate. (Interestingly, it was not to be too terribly long thereafter that I myself would become Monroney’s colleague in the Senate.)

Tell us about your unusual story that led you to pass the Oklahoma Bar.

My closest friend in the law school was a guy named John Smith. We were both married with a child by the time we got toward the end of law school. In those days, we would have been taking the bar in July and we wouldn’t have found out whether or not we’d passed until September. We both were thinking that we needed right away upon graduation to get to making a living practicing law because we had no other means of support. So, we applied to the Oklahoma Bar Association to take the bar at midterm, in February of our last semester in law school. The Bar consulted with the law school faculty, who thought we wouldn’t be serious students during our final semester if we had already passed the bar—and they said so. As a result, we were turned down by the Oklahoma Bar Association. But we found out that we could appeal their decision to the Supreme Court of Oklahoma. That’s what we did, and the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled in our favor, ordering that we could take the bar exam early. John Smith and I both passed, and we were sworn in and were licensed attorneys during our final semester of law school. I even tried a case. My client in that case was a guy who had been involved in a one-person, no-witness car wreck and was thereafter charged with reckless driving. The case was tried in the Metro Court in Norman, with a six-person jury. My whole law school class was in attendance at the trial, and they cheered the eventual jury verdict of acquittal. My criminal law professor called on me in every single class session thereafter—with a smile, asking me to give the “practicing lawyer’s viewpoint.”

Tell us about starting your career after law school.

I didn’t actually start practicing law, though, immediately upon graduation. Robert S Kerr was running for reelection to the U. S. Senate and his opponent was Roy Turner with whom I had a connection from the time I had been a high school member of the Future Farmers of America. Turner hired me to run his campaign’s youth operation. So, that’s what I did for a few months after I got out of law school. When he was defeated, I went on to Lawton, close to where I’d grown up, to begin the active practice of law—at first, as a $300-a month associate in a well-established local firm. It turned out that I was the first new lawyer who’d come to Lawton since WWII; there was a lot of opportunity there, and a lot of good law business came my way from the first.

How did you decide to go into politics?

I was introduced to politics very early at OU. As a freshman, I was recruited into the Congress Literary and Debating Society, as well as into the OU Young Democrats. Leaders and members of those organizations soon got me involved in political campaigns as a volunteer. I later became president of the Young Democrats and in that capacity and as a political science major, I got increasingly interested in national policy issues. But after law school graduation, when I interviewed with the law firm in Lawton, the managing partner, Charles Bledsoe, a great lawyer and a wonderful human being, asked me, “You’re not going to start our running for office, are you?” and I said “No, I’m not, I have a family to take care of.”

I was the new guy in Lawton, and I got recruited right away into civic and service work. I became an active member of the Rotary Club and the Junior Chamber of Commerce. I became the chair of the legislative committee for the local Parent-Teacher Association. I got involved in the program the integration of schools after Brown v. Board of Education. I went around to groups of parents in the Black community to reassure them about how their children would be accepted into integrated schools. I worked in support of a constitutional amendment to allow women to serve on juries, to remove a prohibition written in the the Oklahoma Constitution at statehood.

Then not quite a year and a half after I came to Lawton, sadly the local state senator died, which created a vacancy in the Oklahoma State Senate from that two-county district. A state representative announced as a candidate for that position, as did the mayor of Lawton. They weren’t enormously popular, and some people started talking to me about running. One night late, I was at Charles Bledsoe’s house preparing with him for a next-day trial. As we were winding up, he suddenly said to me, “Fred, people are telling me that you should become a candidate for the State Senate.” I told him that people had been talking to me about the same thing, but that I’d told them all that I would not do so because of the commitment I had made to him and his firm when they hired me. To my surprise, Bledsoe said, “I think you should run.” I did—and I was elected, in 1956 (and reelected four years later). I was the youngest member of the State Senate when I first took office, 25, and eight years later when I left the State Senate, I was still the youngest

What is your favorite memory of serving in the US Senate?

My relationship with Senator Robert Kennedy. I went to the U.S. Senate sure that I would not like him. For one thing, he had been on the staff of the Senate Permanent Investigating Subcommittee headed by the red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. Back when I was president of the OU Young Democrats, our group voted to go on record against McCarthy and his tactics, and this had earned me, incidentally, my first oppositional editorial from the Daily Oklahoman. Also, I didn’t think I could identify with Robert because he’d grown up rich and I, poor. My grandmother used to say that rich people are seldom good and never happy.

I was first elected to an unexpired Senate seat, upon the death of Senator Kerr, so I took office immediately, taking the oath of office in Washington on the very next morning after I was elected. And I met Robert Kennedy that very first morning—and I soon came to like him inordinately. He had obviously been badly damaged, and greatly changed, by the assassination of his brother, President Kennedy. He was in the process of becoming when I met him. So was I, thirty-three years old when I was sworn in. We lived around the corner from each other in McLean, Virginia. We each hosted sort of learning, “skull practice” lunches in our separate Senate offices for ourselves and a couple or three other young senators, with a guest expert to talk about one or another important national issue. Robert and I became each other’s best friend in the Senate.

My first year in the U. S. Senate, Walter Mondale on my left, Robert Kenned on my right, I in the middle—the three of us were assigned Senate seats on a back row. Later, with growing seniority, we moved twice to increasingly more desirable locations, but we would never move unless the three of us could move together. Mondale and Kennedy were wonderful friends, who saw each other often, both inside and outside the Senate. Both were enormously well informed and dedicated. And both were really fun to be around.  

Through the years, Robert and I visited in each other’s homes and states a good deal. One time, he and I were flying somewhere on a private plane and I had to stop in Tulsa for a brief appearance at an American Jewish Committee meeting, and I took Robert in with me. He was a sensation when I introduced him. It’s a cliché, but he actually was a “rock star.” Afterwards, we rushed back to the Tulsa airport. Our driving route must have been mentioned on the radio because when we passed by a local grade school, we saw that the children had obviously been turned out of school so they could get a glimpse of Robert. The kids were pressed up again a cyclone fence next to the street. Robert told our driver to stop, and he and I walked around to the children, who were screaming with excitement. “What’s the name of your school?” Robert yelled. The kids yelled the name. “Do you know who I am?” Robert asked. “Yes!” they screamed. “What’s my name?” he asked. “Robert Kennedy!” Then, motioning toward me, right next to him, he asked, “Who is this here with me?” Total silence. The kids looked at each other in complete puzzlement. At that point, Robert turned to me in aside, and said, “Fred, how do you ever get elected here?”

Tell us about your run for President of the United States in 1976?

I had been national chair of the Democratic Party and a strong activist and advocate of what I believed in. There was talk that my friend Walter Mondale might be thinking of being a presidential candidate. I sat down and drafted a memo to him, urging him to run and setting out how I thought he could win—on populist issues and a populist way of campaigning. But before I could get the memo to Mondale, he announced that, after all, he was not going to run. Close friends of mine began to talk to me about running—people like Jim Hightower, for example, one of the best known progressive populist Democrats in the country, and west coast editor of the New Republic, Peter Barnes. Hightower told me that, if I’d run, he’d take out a year of his life to manage my campaign. So, in a sense, I changed the name Mondale at the top of the memo I’d written to my own. I became a candidate for President.

I was able to run because Congress had earlier adopted a public financing system under which if you raised enough money in small contributions from enough people in twenty different states, there would be matching funds from the federal government before the party convention. If you won the nomination, then, there would be full federal financing of the general election campaigns. This is what allowed me to run. I put together a huge and terrific campaign staff, nearly all unpaid or on low stipends. I ran in the top three out of the Iowa Caucuses—which gave my campaign good momentum which, unfortunately, could not be maintained. Earlier, a lawsuit stopped our federal matching funds for a time. This severely hampered my campaign, and in the long run, I simply did not have sufficient money to continue. Running for president was a great experience. And as a number of people later wrote in a lot of books and articles, our campaign positively influenced the campaigns and platform of the other candidates, including Jimmy Carter, the ultimate winner.

What is your best advice for current and recent graduates?

Law school ought to prepare people for a career that might include public service, either elected or appointed. In my day, that was very much discouraged. Dean Earl Sneed was fond of saying, “The law is a jealous mistress.” We were encouraged not to get involved in politics. I think that was bad advice. I think a law degree is a good credential and good preparation for a lot of different careers.

And I have been very fortunate in my life to have enjoyed a number of worthwhile and satisfying careers. Some of them overlapped, and each one sort of led to another: progressive activist, lawyer, state and national politician, writer, professor, progressive activist. I can say, with the great old western painter, Charlie Russell, “Anybody who can make a living doing what he likes is lucky. I’ve been that, and any time I cash in now, I’m ahead of the game.”

Biography

Former U.S. Senator, Fred Harris, is a widely published author, professor emeritus of political science at the University of New Mexico, and director emeritus of the UNM Fred Harris Congressional Internship Program, in which he continues to teach.

A native of Walters, Oklahoma, Harris is a junior Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Oklahoma (BA in political science, 1952), where he was president of the OU Young Democrats and was selected for Pe-Et as one of the ten OU outstanding seniors. After undergraduate school, he went on to the OU College of Law (JD “with distinction,” 1956), where he made the highest three-year grade point average in the previous history of the OU College of Law, received the Nathan Scarritt Award, was selected for the Order of the Coif and was president of the Student Bar Association, Article and Book Review Editor and Managing Editor of the Oklahoma Law Review, and administrative assistant to the Dean.

Harris practiced law for ten years in Lawton, Oklahoma, as the managing partner in the law firm of Harris, Newcombe, Redman, and Doolin. He served two terms (1956-1964) as a progressive and reform-minded member of the Oklahoma State Senate, then was twice elected to the United States Senate (1964-1973), where he chaired a Senate Democratic Reform Committee and was a strong advocate of civil rights, anti-poverty programs, and the interests of working Americans. As National Chair of the Democratic Party (1969-1970), he caused reform of the Party which made it truly democratic, as well as fully representative of women and minorities. He was thereafter an unsuccessful but influential 1976 Democratic candidate for President of the United States.

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