ISSUE: Recalling Dee Huddleston and his career
OUR VIEW: Product of his era, Senator was a servant
Once upon a time, in a more uncomplicated America, elected officials were viewed as public servants.
In legislative circles, the art of compromise was appreciated and debates over issues were possible without angry rancor and name calling. The process of doing the people’s business had elements of collegiality.
Walter D. Huddleston came from that time. His recent death and tributes describing this hard-working, low-key and fair-minded man make us long for his era.
Circuit Judge Ken Howard tells a story, relayed from his father, about Huddleston’s decision to seek a position in the state Senate for the first time. Also contending for the seat was Judge Howard’s grandfather and they all were friends who attended church together.
Before filing, Huddleston personally made the Howard family aware of his intentions and insisted their friendship would outlast any campaign.
He started his political career by defeating a respected friend without ill will. The story illustrates the gentlemanly way in which friendships were valued by Huddleston, who had moved from Bowling Green to Elizabethtown to manage radio station WIEL in 1952.
Huddleston quickly gained respect in the state Senate. His skill as a negotiator and fair-minded approach were appreciated, said Joe Prather, who had a first-hand perspective. Prather was a state representative and would follow Huddleston into the state Senate seat in 1972 when Dee was elected to the U.S. Senate.
Relationships helped make Huddleston effective in Frankfort. His fellow Democrats named him majority floor leader.
He also benefited from a close association with Wendell Ford, which began as a friendship fostered through their membership in the Kentucky Jaycees. Ford had served as a lieutenant governor and after becoming governor in 1971, he helped Huddleston take a vacant U.S. Senate seat for Democrats the next year. Two years later, Ford unseated Marlow Cook to join his friend as a U.S. senator.
Huddleston served two terms and was favored to win again in 1984. A now famous series of television advertisements helped the Republican judge-executive from Jefferson County pull off a political upset.
Mitch McConnell’s TV spots depicted a Kentucky hunter searching for Huddleston, whose attendance record had been called into question. Before attack ads were common, these messages had an historic impact.
The commercial reflected a change from the civility and respectful exchange of ideas. More than three decades later, McConnell has ascended to leadership in a philosophically polarized Senate.
Huddleston, who never sought public office again, did not challenge those ads directly.
He made a decision to keep the conversation focused on issues. By choosing to take the high road, he shunned a win-at-all-costs attitude.
Huddleston’s upbringing and culture told him that tearing down his opponent in order to win, meant he never truly could be a winner.
In a public statement following Huddleston’s death, McConnell recalled the campaign and complimented his one-time opponent who defended the interests of Kentucky farmers and fought of behalf on civil rights.
“When we each had the opportunity to share our visions for Kentucky’s future in 1984, I experienced Dee’s tenacity, competitiveness and skill firsthand,” McConnell said. “He was a tough competitor and I always respected him for his service to our home state.”
The impact of Huddleston’s life extended well beyond his legislative accomplishments. The son of a Methodist minister, he served with the U.S. Army in World War II. A tank gunner and later as a Sherman tank commander, he served in the 3rd Army under Gen. George Patton and saw action in now legendary struggles including the Battle of the Bulge.
He married his high school sweetheart, started a family and a successful broadcasting career, which included some of the first University of Kentucky basketball broadcasts.
In his adopted hometown, Huddleston is remembered as a founder of the North Central Education Foundation, the forerunner of today’s Central Kentucky Community Foundation, and a key force in the establishment of what became Elizabethtown Community and Technical College. He devoted decades as a board member of First Federal Savings Bank, including 15 years as chairman during the institution’s most dramatic periods of growth. His name is immortalized on the Public Square where an outmoded hotel was remodeled for public housing and christened the Huddleston House in his honor.
When he died Oct. 16 at age 92, a new generation of voters were introduced to his legacy. Old stories were retold and memories shared.
Many find themselves longing for Dee Huddleston’s era and leaders with his maturity, nobility and sense of responsibility.
This editorial reflects a consensus of The News-Enterprise editorial board.