In 1943, at the age of 46, John L. McClellan became the newest Senator to represent Arkansas. Over the space of 35 years, McClellan would leave an influential legacy on Arkansas and the nation.
McClellan’s concerns covered many topics. He was known for his attention for detail and desire to find the facts, no matter what. In his years chairing various Senate committees, he conducted more in-depth investigations than anyone else in the Senate.
As a congressman in the 1930s, McClellan was interested in flood control legislation. He continued to pursue this legislation and river development in the Senate. In the 1950s, he teamed up with Sen. Robert Kerr of Oklahoma to improve the Arkansas River to make the river navigable for barge traffic and create a new system of lakes and flood control systems for both states. As a result, the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System was dedicated in 1971.
His training as a lawyer and fascination with the law helped him in committee hearings. He became disgusted with Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s red-baiting tactics in the 1950s while he chaired the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. McCarthy became notorious for accusing witnesses of communist ties without any evidence to back up the charges. The Wisconsin Republican would routinely berate and browbeat witnesses, never giving them a chance to react or defend themselves. In the fear-charged atmosphere, an accusation of communism was as good as a conviction. By 1954, McCarthy attacked the army, baselessly accusing it of harboring communists, enraging McClellan, a World War I army pilot. McClellan organized a walkout of Democratic senators from committee hearings, and McCarthy was soon censured for his behavior by the Senate.
Though unopposed for re-election in 1948, he faced a strong challenge in 1954 from former Gov. Sid McMath. In the fierce contest, McClellan managed to recapture the Democratic nomination with 57% of the vote and was unopposed in the general election.
When Democrats regained control of the Senate in the 1954 mid-term elections, McClellan came to chair the investigations committee. He hired the younger brother of Sen. John F. Kennedy, future attorney general and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy to be the chief lawyer for the committee. Under McClellan’s leadership, the committee investigated allegations of improper spending by federal agencies. By 1957, he began investigating charges of corruption and Mafia influence in labor unions, most notably the Teamsters Union. Teamsters leaders Jimmy Hoffa and Dave Beck clashed repeatedly with Robert F. Kennedy and other members of the committee in hearings televised nationwide.
By the early 1960s, he began investigating organized crime in earnest. His experiences and interest in crime led him to write a book on the subject, Crime Without Punishment, in 1962. He authored several important new crime control measures, including the Omnibus Crime Control Act of 1968, in an attempt to modernize the criminal code and to give police the powers to combat crime. In 1970, he sponsored the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Practices Act (also known as RICO). This legislation became a powerful tool in breaking up organized crime in the 1970s and into the 1980s, effectively shattering the Mafia.
In 1972, at the age of 76, he ran for his sixth term. He faced stiff competition in the primary from Rep. David Pryor of Camden. The veteran senator defeated the future governor with 52% of the vote, McClellan’s closest race ever. As he entered his sixth term, McClellan continued to be an active sponsor of landmark legislation. In 1976, he sponsored a new revision of copyright laws.
In November 1977, he returned to Arkansas for Thanksgiving. On November 28, he died of a sudden heart attack at the age of 81. With his death, a 57-year political career came to an end, and an era in Arkansas politics came to a close with it. He had introduced more than one thousand bills in his Senate career, with 140 becoming law. A man of immense respect, the McClellan Veterans Hospital in Little Rock was named for him. McClellan High School, also in Little Rock, was named for him.