After leading a much-publicized investigation into organized crime in the early 1950s, he twice sought his party's nomination for President of the United States. In 1956, he was selected by the Democratic National Convention to be the running mate of presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson. Still holding his U.S. Senate seat after the Stevenson–Kefauver ticket lost to the Eisenhower–Nixon ticket in 1956, Kefauver was named chair of the U.S. Senate Antitrust and Monopoly Subcommittee in 1957 and served as its chairman until his death.
Kefauver was born in Madisonville, Tennessee, the son of Phredonia Bradford (born Estes) and Robert Cooke Kefauver, a hardware manager.
Estes attended the University of Tennessee from 1922 to 1924, receiving a Bachelor of Arts degree and being initiated into the Kappa Sigma Fraternity.
After a year of teaching mathematics and coaching football at a Hot Springs, Arkansas, high school, he attended Yale Law School, from which he received an LL.B. cum laude in 1927.
For the next dozen years Kefauver practiced law in Chattanooga, first with the firm of Cooke, Swaney & Cooke, as a partner in Sizer, Chambliss & Kefauver, and later in the firm of Duggan, McDonald, & Kefauver.
In 1935 he married Nancy Pigott of Glasgow, Scotland, eight years his junior, whom he had met during her visit to relatives in Chattanooga.
They raised four children, one of them adopted. Mrs. Kefauver died in 1967.
Aroused by his role as attorney for the Chattanooga News, Kefauver became interested in local politics and sought election to the Tennessee Senate in 1938. He lost but in 1939 spent two months as Finance and Taxation Commissioner under the newly elected governor Prentice Cooper. When Congressman Sam D. McReynolds of Tennessee's 3rd district, which included Chattanooga, died in 1939, Kefauver was elected to succeed him in the House.
Kefauver was elected to five terms in the House of Representatives as a Democrat.
As a member of the House during President Franklin D. Roosevelt's time in office, Kefauver distinguished himself from the other Democrats in Tennessee's congressional delegation, most of whom were conservatives, by becoming a staunch supporter of the President's New Deal legislation.
In particular, he backed the controversial Tennessee Valley Authority and was best known for his successful bid to rebuff the efforts of Tennessee Senator Kenneth McKellar to gain political control over the agency.
As a member of the House, "Kefauver began to manifest his concern over the growing concentration of economic power in the United States," concentrating much of his legislative efforts on congressional reform and anti-monopoly measures.
Amongst the committees Kefauver chaired, was the House Select Committee on Small Business, which investigated economic concentration in the U.S. business world in 1946. That same year, Kefauver also introduced legislation to plug loopholes in the Clayton Antitrust Act.
In a May 1948 article, which appeared in the American Economic Review, Kefauver also proposed that more staff and money be allocated to the Antitrust Division of the Justice Department, and to the Federal Trade Commission; that new legislation to make it easier to prosecute big corporations be enacted; and recommended the danger of monopolies, should be publicized more.
The Kefauver investigation into television and juvenile delinquency in the mid-1950s led to an even more intensive investigation in the early 1960s.
The new probe came about after people became increasingly concerned over juvenile violence, and the possibility of this behavior being related to violent television programs.
His progressive stances on the issues put Kefauver in direct competition with E. H. Crump, the former U.S. congressman, mayor of Memphis and boss of the state's Democratic Party, when he chose to seek the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in 1948. During the primary, Crump and his allies accused Kefauver of being a "fellow traveler," and of working for the "pinkos and communists," with the stealth of a raccoon. In a televised speech given in Memphis, in which he responded to such charges, Kefauver put on a coonskin cap and proudly proclaimed, "I may be a pet coon, but I'm not Boss Crump's pet coon."
To win election to the Senate, Kefauver defeated the incumbent Tom Stewart in the 1948 Democratic primary. Kefauver was backed by the influential editor Edward J. Meeman of the Memphis Press-Scimitar, who had long fought the Crump machine for its corruption and stranglehold over Memphis politics.
After he went on to win both the primary and the election, he adopted the cap as his trademark and wore it in every successive campaign. He received the cap from journalist Drue Smith.
Kefauver was unique in Tennessee politics in his outspoken liberal views, a stand which established a permanent bloc of opposition to him in the state.
Kefauver's success—despite his liberal views—was predicated largely on his support by the Nashville Tennessean, a consistently liberal newspaper that served as a focus for anti-Crump sentiment in the state. His constituency included many prominent citizens, whose views were considerably less liberal than his, but who admired him for his integrity.
Despite opposition from the Crump machine, Kefauver won the Democratic nomination, which in those days was tantamount to election in Tennessee. His victory is widely seen as the beginning of the end for the Crump machine's influence in statewide politics.
Once in the Senate, Kefauver began to make a name for himself as a crusader for consumer protection laws, antitrust legislation, and civil rights for African Americans. On civil rights, he was ambivalent: he admitted later that he had difficulty adjusting to the idea of racial integration, and in 1960 he held out to the last in favor of permitting cross-examination of black complainants in voting rights cases.
Kefauver did support the civil rights program generally, and was a consistent supporter of organized labor and other movements considered liberal in the South at that time.
After being elected to the U.S. Senate in 1948, Kefauver guided the Celler–Kefauver Act of 1950, which amended the Clayton Act by plugging loopholes allowing a corporation to purchase a competing firm's assets, through the U.S. Senate. Between 1957 and 1963, his U.S. Senate Antitrust and Monopoly Subcommittee investigated concentration in the U.S. economy, industry by industry, and it issued a report exposing monopoly prices in the steel, automotive, bread and pharmaceutical industries. In May 1963, Kefauver's subcommittee concluded that within monopolized U.S. industries no real price competition existed anymore and also recommended that General Motors be broken up into competing firms.
Kefauver's Antitrust and Monopoly Subcommittee also held hearings on the pharmaceutical industry between 1959 and 1963 that led to enactment of his most famous legislative achievement, the Kefauver-Harris Drug Act of 1962, after Kefauver expressed shock about the excess profits that U.S. drug companies were taking in at the expense of U.S. consumers. Some of what Kefauver's hearings on the U.S. pharmaceutical industry revealed includes the following:
"Witnesses told of conflicts of interest for the AMA (whose journal, for example, received millions of dollars in drug advertising and was, therefore, reluctant to challenge claims made by drug company ads)…The drug companies themselves were shown to be engaged in frenzied advertising campaigns designed to sell trade name versions of drugs that could otherwise be prescribed under generic names at a fraction of the cost; this competition, in turn, had led to the marketing of new drugs that were no improvements on drugs already on the market but, nevertheless, heralded as dramatic breakthroughs without proper concern for either effectiveness or safety."
At that time, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had limited authority to require efficacy standards or disclose risks. Kefauver was accused of expanding the power of government excessively, interfering with the freedom of doctors and patients, and threatening the viability of the pharmaceutical industry. His legislation seemed likely to fail. However, at the end of 1961, European and Australian doctors reported that an epidemic of children born with deformities of their arms and legs was caused by their use of thalidomide, which was heavily marketed to pregnant women.
These positions made him even more unpopular with his state party's machine than ever before, especially after he, fellow Tennessee Senator Albert Gore, Sr., and Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas became the only three southern Senators to not sign the so-called Southern Manifesto in 1956. In fact, these unpopular positions, combined with his reputation as a maverick with a penchant for sanctimony, earned him so much enmity even from other Senators that one Democratic insider felt compelled to dub him "the most hated man in Congress."
Kefauver also led hearings that targeted indecent publications and pornography. Among his targets were pin-ups, including Bettie Page, and the magazines that featured them.
In 1950, Kefauver headed a U.S. Senate committee investigating organized crime.
The committee, officially known as the Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce, was popularly known as the Kefauver Committee or the Kefauver hearings. The Committee held hearings in fourteen cities and heard testimony from over 600 witnesses. Many of the witnesses were high-profile crime bosses, including such well-known names as Willie Moretti, Joe Adonis, and Frank Costello, the latter making himself famous by refusing to allow his face to be filmed during his questioning and then staging a much-publicized walkout. A number of politicians also appeared before the committee and saw their careers ruined. Among them were former Governor Harold G. Hoffman of New Jersey and Mayor William O'Dwyer of New York City.
The committee's hearings, which were televised live, just as many Americans were first buying televisions, made Kefauver nationally famous and introduced many Americans to the concept of a criminal organization known as the Mafia for the first time officially. In fact, in 1951, Kefauver appeared as a celebrity guest on the new game show What's My Line? discussing the hearings briefly with the panel, showing how popular these hearings were with early television viewers.
Although the hearings boosted Kefauver's political prospects, they helped to end the twelve-year Senate career of Democratic Majority Leader Scott Lucas. In a tight 1950 reelection race against former Illinois Representative Everett Dirksen, Lucas urged Kefauver to keep his investigation away from an emerging Chicago police scandal until after election day, but Kefauver refused. Election-eve publication of stolen secret committee documents hurt the Democratic Party in Cook County, cost Lucas the election, and gave Dirksen national prominence as the man who defeated the Senate majority leader.
In the 1952 presidential election, Kefauver ran for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. Campaigning in his coonskin cap, often by dogsled, Kefauver won in an electrifying victory in the New Hampshire primary, defeating President Harry S. Truman, the sitting President of the United States. Truman then withdrew his bid for re-election.
Kefauver won 12 of the 15 primaries in 1952, losing three to "favorite son" candidates. He received 3.1 million votes, while the eventual 1952 Democratic presidential nominee, Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson, got only 78,000 votes. But primaries were not, at that time, the main method of delegate selection for the national convention. Kefauver entered the convention with a few hundred votes still needed for a majority of the delegates.
The Kefauver campaign became the classic example of how presidential primary victories do not automatically lead to the nomination itself. Although he began the balloting far ahead of the other declared candidates, Kefauver eventually lost the nomination to Stevenson, the choice of the Democratic Party political bosses. Stevenson, a one-term governor who was up for reelection in 1952, had resisted calls to enter the race, but he was nominated anyway by a "Draft Stevenson" movement that had been energized by his eloquent keynote speech on the opening night of the convention. John Sparkman was selected as the Democratic candidate for Vice President.
Stevenson lost the general election in November to General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Republican nominee, in a landslide.
In 1956, Kefauver again sought the Democratic presidential nomination. In the March 13 New Hampshire primary, he defeated Adlai Stevenson 21,701 to 3,806. A week later, Kefauver again defeated Stevenson in the Minnesota primary, winning 245,885 votes compared to Stevenson's 186,723 votes. Kefauver was also victorious in the Wisconsin primary.
By April 1956, it appeared that Kefauver would match his spectacular performance in the primaries of four years earlier. But this time, Kefauver had active competition not only from Stevenson, but also from Governor W. Averell Harriman of New York, who was endorsed by former President Truman.
Stevenson got significantly more endorsements and raised far more funds than Kefauver. He defeated Kefauver in the Oregon, Florida, and California primaries and, overall, won more primary votes than Kefauver. After his devastating loss in the California primary, Kefauver suspended his campaign. At the Democratic National Convention, Stevenson was again nominated for president.
Stevenson then decided to let the delegates themselves pick his vice-presidential nominee, instead of making that choice himself. Although Stevenson preferred Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts as his running mate, he did not attempt to influence the balloting in any way, and Kefauver eventually received the nomination for Vice President.
Stevenson lost the November election to Eisenhower, by an even bigger margin than in 1952.
After his 1956 defeat, Kefauver was considered the front-runner for the 1960 Democratic nomination. In an attempt to gain more public exposure, Kefauver capitalized on a nascent public campaign to restrict the sale of switchblade knives at the federal level by introducing legislation in 1957 to ban the sale or possession of such knives. The senator timed his hearings on the legislation to coincide with a series of lurid articles in the Saturday Evening Post and other periodicals of the day on the use of switchblades by juvenile delinquents and gangs. At each hearing the senator would display a bizarre array of confiscated bayonets, trench knives, daggers, and switchblades, all of which he described to the press as 'switchblade knives.' However, Kefauver's switchblade bill failed, in large part due to residual bad feelings between Kefauver and other senators. In 1959, the senator let it be known that he was not going to campaign a third time for the presidential nomination. He continued to represent Tennessee in the U.S. Senate; the abandonment of presidential ambitions led to his most productive years as a senator. While he largely faded from the public eye, he earned the respect of congressional colleagues from both parties for his independence and his sponsorship of a number of important foreign and domestic legislative measures.
When he ran for reelection to a third term in 1960, his first and, it would turn out, last attempt at running for office after refusing to sign the Southern Manifesto, he faced staunch opposition for renomination from his party's still-thriving pro-segregation wing, but he won the primary decisively, 64% vs. 34% for his opponent, Tip Taylor. In the general election itself, Kefauver swamped his opponent, winning nearly 72% of the vote.
In 1962, Kefauver, who had become known to the public at large as the chief enemy of crooked businessmen in the Senate, introduced legislation that would eventually pass into law as the Kefauver-Harris Drug Control Act. This bill, which Kefauver dubbed his "finest achievement" in consumer protection, imposed controls on the pharmaceutical industry that required that drug companies disclose to doctors the side-effects of their products, allow their products to be sold as generic drugs after having held the patent on them for a certain period of time, and be able to prove on demand that their products were, in fact, effective and safe.
On August 8, 1963, Kefauver, a heavy smoker and drinker, suffered what was reported as a 'mild' heart attack on the floor of the Senate while attempting to place an antitrust amendment into a NASA appropriations bill which would have required companies benefiting financially from the outcome of research subsidized by NASA, reimburse NASA for the cost of the research. Two days after the attack, Kefauver died in his sleep in Bethesda, Maryland, of a ruptured aortic aneurysm. He was interred in the family cemetery in Madisonville.
In November 1963, President Kennedy named Nancy Kefauver to be the first head of the new Art in Embassies Program—Kennedy's last presidential appointment.
The federal courthouse in Nashville, Tennessee was renamed the Estes Kefauver Federal Building and United States Courthouse in his honor.
1956 United States Presidential Election (Vice President's seat)