Son of Champ Clark
1890 – 1954
Champ Clark’s son learned politics at the foot of his father, and by virtue of a lifetime spent in and about the halls of Congress. Bennett went on to become a powerful force in Missouri and Washington public affairs, and was mentioned prominently as a Presidential candidate in advance of the 1940 election.
He was born in Bowling Green, and given the name Joel Bennett Clark, after his maternal grandmother. He later changed his name to Bennett Champ Clark, and was always known as "Bennett." Champ Clark took his son everywhere he went. When young Bennett became drowsy during one of his father’s speeches, Champ would cradle him while continuing to speak at length. For years, Bennett had the run of the House floor and cloakrooms, and attended debates on historic issues.
At age 14, Bennett was a Bowling Green precinct captain in his father’s reelection campaign, and filled in for his father in several debates against the veteran Republican foe, Judge Reuben Roy. Years later, the Saturday Evening Post described his speaking style this way:
[Champ Clark’s] son, who disdains to wear even so vestigial a symbol as a big black hat, is virtually tied to the microphone every time he speaks….Champ orated. Bennett talks.... He is perfectly at home at a boiling-hot, country political rally….He drinks a great deal of ice water and sweats like a plow horse…His delivery is rapid-fire, with no pauses inviting applause. His nostrils thrill to the smell of the barbecued beef….Occasionally a bug gets inside his ear. He skillfully plucks it out and flips it away without slowing up.
A speech of two and a half or three hours is the rule when Senator Clark is campaigning outstate…. They like to hear him talk about bird dogs – and Clark can do that, too – but when it is over he must deliver himself on the heavier topics….An elderly listener to a speech Clark made in rural Sedalia epitomized rural Missouri’s feeling toward the senator thus: ‘Bennett makes a long speech, but he’s logical.’
Or, as stated by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: "There is no such word as evasion in this candidate’s vocabulary. The soft-pedal is an art which he does not practice at all. He states clearly and unequivocally just where he stands."
Bennett shared his father’s love for history, and authored a prize-winning biography entitled John Quincy Adams: Old Man Eloquent, published by Little, Brown & Company in 1932.
He quickly became an expert in parliamentary procedure. In 1913, at the insistence of two-thirds of the House members – and over the objection of his father, who feared charges of nepotism – Bennett (then 23) was selected to serve as House Parliamentarian. The manual he wrote while in that office serves as a reference source to this day. Later, as U.S. Senator, he was recognized as the leading parliamentarian of that body, and used that skill to tie FDR’s "New Deal" legislation into procedural knots.
Bennett attended the University of Missouri, then George Washington University School of Law, ultimately entering the military service in 1917. He was elected to the rank of lieutenant-colonel by his fellow officers, and later became a full colonel – the youngest person to achieve that rank in the entire American Expeditionary Force during World War One.
Still, he missed life at home. As he wrote to his parents following furlough in Nice, "like all the rest of France it is way below its press notices. I wouldn’t give one corner of Pike County for all that I’ve seen since I left home."
Bennett’s great concern for the fate of returning soldiers led to his creation, along with other officers (including Col. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., son of the former President), of the American Legion. Col. Clark vehemently fought the sentiment of other founders that the Legion should be limited to officers, and prevailed. The famous Paris Caucus marked the first meeting of the Legion, with Bennett serving as presiding officer. Later, back in the States, he was elected National Commander of the Legion. He also served as President of the National Guard Association, and Commander of the 35th Division Veterans Association.
Following the war, Bennett entered the practice of law, first with his father’s law office, and then with a St. Louis law firm. In October, 1922 he was married to Miriam Marsh of Waterloo, Iowa, daughter of a well-to-do manufacturer who had risen high in Democratic politics (becoming the National Party Treasurer), and who maintained, as a hobby, the world’s finest herd of Guernsey cattle. Of particular note was Glencoe’s BoPeep, a grand champion of the National Dairy Show in 1910 and 1911, that in one year produced a record 622.61 pounds of butter fat and 726.71 pounds of butter. (Tragically, BoPeep met an early end upon consuming a rusty nail a few years later.)
Miriam Marsh was a remarkable person in her own right, having been the first student in the history of Vassar College to be admitted to Phi Beta Kappa in her junior year. After graduating from Vassar, she went on to become an honors student at Columbia University in New York City. Miriam was also a tremendous pianist and talented violinist, with a phenomenal musical memory.
The couple first met at Woodrow Wilson’s second inauguration in 1916, and renewed the friendship at the Democratic National Convention of 1920. They parented three boys, the oldest, Champ, and twins Marsh and Kim. After her husband’s election to the U.S. Senate, Miriam read up extensively on politics, became immersed in Washington’s social whirl, and involved herself in various political causes, including the America First Committee that opposed American entry into the Second World War.
Her illness throughout 1943 and death in December of that year occasioned the close, loving attention of her husband, whose diminished attention to his elective duties during that time contributed to his primary defeat in 1944, when he sought a third Senate term.
Bennett Clark's initial Senate campaign was launched in Bowling Green at the base of his father's statue
Bennett’s initial Senate campaign in 1932 began on a wing and a prayer. Lacking both money and a political organization, the campaign relied on the incredibly intensive speaking schedule of the candidate – who spoke two or three times per day, at a length of 2 to 3 hours per speech – and the exhaustive organizational efforts of his younger sister Genevieve. The campaign opened with a speech in Bowling Green, delivered by Bennett at the base of his father’s statue. He departed the scene in his old Ford, which valiantly covered 114 sovereign counties, in the end rolling into the family driveway covered with dust and mud. There, the car gave a terrible gasp and settled down, never to move again.
The campaign issued two versions of the "Bennett Champ Clark Times" – initial and victory editions – and circulated half a million copies. Also, borrowing from Genevieve’s experiences with Governor Huey Long in Louisiana, a sound truck was purchased and equipped with a small portable platform and loudspeaker with phonograph, to entertain the crowds until the candidate arrived in his Ford. The truck was, of course, named the "Bennett Champ Clark Band Wagon."
Clark easily defeated two primary candidates (including that of the Pendergast machine, a prelude to his relationship with Harry Truman), to conclude what the New York Times hailed as "the most turbulent, precedent-upsetting, unguessable primary ever held in Missouri." Bennett outpaced his general election opponent Henry Kiel, with the aid of Presidential candidate Franklin Roosevelt, who paraded with Clark in an open convertible through the streets of St. Louis.
Senator Clark became an immediate force upon arriving in Washington. He knew many of the Senate’s leaders from past days in the nation’s capital. As an example, Vice President John "Cactus Jack" Garner was asked about Clark’s competencies shortly following the latter’s arrival. Garner’s admiring reply: If I were going to rob a train, and I had to choose an accomplice from the United States Senate, I would pick Bennett Clark.
Senator Clark was, as his son recalls it, "the most loyal of friends, the worst of enemies…and a man who stuck by his principles come hell or high water." He was "utterly without tact and, like the animal that Missouri made famous, he was as stubborn as anyone who ever lived." However, as noted by the Saturday Evening Post, "his mulishness springs from a scholarly background in American history and a lifelong saturation in the ways of politics."
As a legislator, Bennett led an investigation into suspected profiteering by war merchants (dubbed "The Merchants of Death"), including J.P. Morgan Jr. and other tycoons, in connection with World War One; co-authored the withholding tax law; and became an immediate, strenuous opponent of the sweeping powers sought and secured by FDR during his first 100 days in office. As Clark said on the Senate floor in opposing the New Deal’s key Economy Bill: This bill makes a definite, far-reaching and fundamental change in our theory and organization of government. It is no less than an open proposal that Congress shall abdicate the duties and powers imposed upon it by the Constitution…
After forcefully coming out against at least a half-dozen New Deal measures during his first term, Bennett was opposed in the 1938 primary by Joseph T. Davies, who proclaimed his loyalty to the New Deal and denounced Senator Clark as a traitor to the Democratic cause. The result: Bennett carried every county in the state, while crushing Davies by a vote of 574,526 to 92,946. He went on to win the general election handily.
By 1936, he was already identified as a future Presidential candidate. Despite being advised that it could help elect him someday, Clark passionately led the fight to abolish the infamous "two-thirds" Democratic Convention nominating rule, which had doomed his father’s 1912 candidacy. In response to the advice of a seasoned political advisor that "What beat your father may some day nominate you," Bennett replied: "I don’t give a d*mn. It’s an unfair rule."
Following his dominant 1938 election victory, Bennett moved to the forefront of Democratic presidential prospects. The outbreak of the Second World War, and Roosevelt’s decision to seek an unprecedented third term, effectively ended that possibility.
As a personal witness to the horrors of war, Senator Clark opposed precipitous American entry into the second great European conflict, arguing that Eastern industrialists, bankers, and press lords were the driving force behind the Roosevelt Administration’s growing fervor to become involved. It is largely forgotten now that the majority of Americans shared this view, until the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, when American intervention became unavoidable.
Senator Clark, his wife, and oldest son were dining with Beer Baron Gussie Busch at the Busch hunting lodge, when news of the Pearl Harbor attack arrived. His views on American involvement, and those of many other U.S. citizens, changed at that moment. Senator and Mrs. Clark were driven in a Busch Cadillac to St. Louis, and immediately flew to Washington, where he plunged into the work of a war-time Senator.
During the war years, as his proudest achievement, Bennett became the principal Senate author and sponsor of the G.I. Bill of Rights, which has since enhanced the lives of many thousands of young Americans.
Following his defeat in 1944, Bennett briefly practiced law, then was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, where he served until the end of his life. He earned a reputation for writing clear, crisp, succinct opinions,often (as a conservative) in dissent to a liberal majority. His appointment to the bench was made by President Harry Truman, a long-time colleague who had been junior Missouri Senator to Bennett’s senior status.
Following the Trumans’ arrival in Washington, and in recognition of their initial loneliness, the Clarks regularly hosted them for mid-Sunday dinner, which Harry Truman labeled a "God-send." Bennett introduced Truman to the ways of Washington, and greatly assisted the vulnerable junior Senator in achieving reelection to the Senate in 1940 against formidable opponent Governor Lloyd Stark. Bennett later gave the nominating speech on Truman’s behalf at the Democratic National Convention of 1948.
In 1945, Clark married Violet Heming, a well-known English-born actress whose career in American theater and movies began in 1908 and extended through half a century. President Truman served as best man, the first time a sitting U.S. President had ever served that role. In Berryville, Virginia – his sister Genevieve’s by-then place of residence – they still talk of Secret Service Agents sitting in the trees as the wedding party passed.
On July 13, 1954, Bennett Champ Clark died of a cerebral hemorrhage while vacationing in Gloucester, Massachusetts. As his son later wrote aptly, "[A] lifelong warrior, he now rests among other warriors in Arlington National Cemetery." Bennett’s beloved wife Miriam is buried in the family plot in Bowling Green’s City Cemetery, alongside Speaker and Mrs. Champ Clark.