OPINION — I am writing a series on the fabled “Curse of Karl,” or the legend that no South Dakota senator can serve four full terms. Only Sen. Karl Mundt was elected four times, and a devastating stroke left him incapable of serving the second half of his final term.
So how does Sen. Francis Case belong in this series?
Case didn’t seek a fourth term. In fact, he died in 1962 before his second term was up, as he prepared to run for a third one.
Like six other South Dakota senators, voters didn’t reject him; illness or death ended his career.
Sens. James H. Kyle, a Populist, and Republicans Peter Norbeck, Harlan J. Bushfield and Case died in office. Mundt, a Republican, and Sen. Tim Johnson, a Democrat, were unable to run again after serious health issues arose.
Case was 65 when he suffered a heart attack in his Washington, D.C. , office on June 21, 1962. He died the next day at the Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.
President John F. Kennedy sent a note to his widow, saying he had come to admire Case during their years of service together in the Senate.
Case’s death ended a 26-year career in Congress. He had served seven terms in the U.S. House of Representatives from the state’s 2nd Congressional District, the West River district.
In 1950, he moved up to the Senate, defeating Republican incumbent John Chandler Gurney in the Republican primary and then defeating Democrat John A. Engel in a landslide.
He was barely re-elected in 1956, a tough year for Republican congressional candidates in South Dakota, as Rep. Harold Lovre was unseated by a young former DWU professor named George McGovern.
McGovern and Case would have tangled six years later but for fate.
Case’s political career came after he studied and commented on politicians as a newspaperman. He was an assistant editor at the Epworth Herald in Chicago and later the telegraph writer and editorial writer for the Daily Journal in Rapid City before becoming editor and publisher of the Hot Springs Star and finally the Custer Chronicle before he went bad and turned to politics.
His roots were in West River. An Iowa native, his family moved to Sturgis when he was 13. He earned a degree from Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, which later named him a trustee. He attended graduate school at Northwestern University.
Case served in the Marines during World War I, and although he started out as a private, he would eventually be an officer in both the Marine Corps and Army Reserves.
Case was a highly educated man, a military veteran and a former newspaper editor. Contrast that with the politicians in office today; it helps explain so many things.
Case was a moderate Republican. He was devoted to Native American issues, since Indians made up a significant part of his constituency when he was the West River congressman.
As a congressman, Case was the chief sponsor of a proposed labor law, dubbed “The Case Bill,” which sought to reduce worker rights in the tempestuous post-war climate.
It passed the House 230-106 and the Senate 49-29 in 1946, but President Harry S. Truman vetoed it.
Case was known for his interest in public improvement projects, including nudging Interstate 29 west so it passed through South Dakota, not Minnesota.
“A self-described ‘road and water Senator,’ Case’s papers reflect his role in the development of the Missouri River for irrigation and power generation,” according to an online biography from Dakota Wesleyan University. His papers are stored at the DWU Library.
“He had much to do with bringing over six hundred fifty miles of interstate highway to South Dakota, and was instrumental in arranging the extension of I-29 north from Sioux Falls,” the bio states.
Case also was respected for his honesty. When the Senate considered censoring Wisconsin Republican Sen. Joe McCarthy for his deplorable tactics and unfounded allegations, Case was among the six senators named to review the matter.
There were three Democrats on the panel — Sen. Sam Ervin of North Carolina, who would rise to fame two decades later as the folksy chairman of the committee that investigated Watergate, Sen. Edwin Johnson of Colorado and Sen. Frank John Stennis of Mississippi.
The other two Republicans were the chairman, Sen. Arthur V. Watkins of Utah, and Sen. Frank Carlson of Kansas.
Watkins, Stennis and Ervin had served as judges, while Johnson and Carlson had been governors. Case, it was reported, offered another perspective as a former newspaper publisher and editor.
McCarthy was a demagogue and a rogue who labeled people as communist supporters and tossed around insults and attacks that caused many politicians to quake in fear. His protege and top aide was a corrupt and venomous New York lawyer named Roy Cohn, who later became a mentor and role model to Donald Trump.
Trump studied Cohn’s tactics, learned from the gutter style of McCarthyism, and used them to seize control of the Republican Party.
But seven decades ago, Sen. Francis Case of South Dakota stood up to McCarthy and withstood the personal attacks leveled on him. The Senate censored McCarthy, causing him to loosen his poisonous hold on power.
We could use politicians like Sen. Case today.
He also was an early advocate of self-rule for the District of Columbia and supported it having some representation in Congress.
Case, a modest man not given to self-promotion, drew national attention in early 1956 when he denounced an attempted $2,500 “campaign contribution” from natural gas interests to assure his vote on a bill.
He reported the attempted bribe, which led to a pair of lawyers and an oil company executive being indicted following an FBI investigation and the scrutiny of a special Senate panel. The gas bill was defeated.
Despite that publicity, Case’s final campaign was a close one, as he barely edged Democrat Kenneth Holum in the 1956 election. Farmers, upset with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ezra Taft Benton, supported Democrats in South Dakota, launching McGovern’s long career.
Case’s death may have kept McGovern in politics. McGovern, after two terms representing the 1st Congressional District, challenged Mundt for his Senate seat in 1960.
It was a bitter, hard-fought campaign. McGovern later wrote that he came to “hate” Mundt during their fight, although they later served together in the Senate for a decade, and when I asked him about Mundt in 2008, he spoke highly of him.
Mundt defeated McGovern, who was suddenly adrift. President John F. Kennedy named him director of the new Food for Peace program, allowing him to maintain a public profile.
He used that to mount a campaign for Case’s Senate seat in 1962. It would be a tough contest against an entrenched incumbent, but Case had barely won a second term in 1956, while McGovern was a young, ambitious man.
Their political battle never came to be, however, as Case’s death disrupted the campaign. If he had lived, and defeated McGovern, perhaps the Democrat would have returned to academia and worked as a professor and author.
Instead, McGovern took on Republican Joe Bottum, who had been appointed to fill the vacant Senate seat. Despite the fact that McGovern was hospitalized with hepatitis, he won, earning the first of his three terms in the Senate.
He went on to become a national, even international figure, running for president three times, making it as far as being the Democratic presidential nominee in 1972. Case slipped into obscurity.
Sen. Case is likely best known now for the 102,000-acre reservoir behind the Fort Randall Dam on the Missouri River named in his honor.
But he was a dedicated public servant who deserves to be remembered. That’s another good reason to include him in this series.
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