When Washington Pols Learned to Fear the NRA

By Jack Limpert

Screen Shot 2015-12-05 at 1.03.19 AMThe cover of the Washingtonian magazine in February 1970 had a picture of Maryland Senator Joseph Tydings with a target on him and the headline:

Will the Gun Lobby Get Joe Tydings?

The story, by Ernest B. Furgurson, Washington bureau chief of the Baltimore Sun, looked ahead to the November 1970 election. Democratic incumbent Joseph Tydings had been elected to the U.S. Senate in 1964 with a 63-37 percent margin over J. Glenn Beall, the Republican incumbent. In 1970 Tydings’ opponent turned out to be J. Glenn Beall Jr.

The inside head on the Tydings story was: “Can a Kennedy Liberal, Unloved by the Political Pros, Hated by the Gun Lobby, With Only Good Looks and a Famous Name, Guts, and $2,581,520, Win Reelection to the United States Senate and Grow Up to be Vice President?”

The opening of Furgurson’s story:

The bumper stickers say, “Playboy Joe Has Got to Go.”

Playboy Joe is not Joe Willie Namath. He is instead blond, six-two, a former end and lacrosse player. He seldom drinks in public, and holds it to a couple of scotch-and-waters before dinner when at home with his wife and four children….

A playboy Joe Tydings is not. When he was 26 and a freshman legislator in Annapolis, his colleagues considered him a square, a bachelor who cramped their style in the bumptious after-session night life. That was 15 years ago. Now he is 41, the senior Senator from Maryland, chairman of the District of Columbia Committee, chairman of the judicial improvements subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee, subject of occasional gossip about great things to come—and still as square as any man with a beautiful wife, a stable of hunters, and $2,581,520 can be.

The bumper stickers refer to the magazine. Last March, Playboy sold five-million-plus copies which had, sandwiched in between the bosom of Playmate Kathy MacDonald (a suburban Baltimore girl) and the screen doings of Mercy Humppe, Senator Joseph D. Tydings’ outspoken article on “Americans and the Gun.” Thus sandwiched, it got a lot of readership. As a result, Tydings, habitually a political maverick, is in more trouble than usual as he comes up for reelection this year.

His article was a strongly stated argument for gun control, which did not elaborate enough on the fact that Tydings himself is a regular huntsman and has been since he used to greet the morning sun in the blinds with his step-father, the late Senator Millard E. Tydings….

Tydings bemoaned the defeat of stronger gun control legislation in 1968, when the public dismay following the assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy did not last long enough to overcome the organized lobbying of the National Rifle Association. He took on the NRA’s “extremist bureaucracy,” claiming the NRA had an economic stake in the fight against gun controls, and “is only the most visible part of a hobby that includes some gun manufacturers, large surplus-gun importers, and some wildlife organizations.” He outlined the NRA’s phony exemption from lobbying regulations, declared that “the radical right’s philosophy, fears and militant racism pervade the gun lobby,” and swore to come back and try again for strong gun laws despite such opposition.

Merely voting for gun controls is enough to put a state or national legislator on the NRA’s black list. Tydings’ head-on attack put him in the bull’s-eye of the organizations’s efforts to retire any politician who differs with it. Within a month after Playboy hit the stands, the bumper stickers starting showing up.
Later in the Washingtonian article, Furgurson looks at Tydings’s successes as a first-term Senator, his tough law enforcement policies, and his future:

“He heads into his reelection effort as a young but experienced Kennedyite liberal, wearing a sheriff’s badge. In this particular year it would seem the precise way for a Democrat to be….

“Assuming he makes it into a second term, Tydings is eminently available for a place on the national ticket in 1972. Not that he says so out loud. But he doesn’t modest out of it, either. He is back on polite terms with Ted Kennedy, by virtue of his own diligence in Bob Kennedy’s behalf two springs ago. With Ted out of the running, the clan would like somebody to carry its colors next time. George McGovern? How about McGovern-Tydings? Assuming the Humphrey wing still controls things, how about  Humphrey-Tydings?”
In November 1970, Joe Tydings, after winning his Senate seat in 1964 with a 63-37 margin, lost to Republican J. Glenn Beall Jr. by a 51-48 percent margin.

Any politician, looking at what happened to Tydings, likely would conclude that taking on the NRA and the gun lobby can cost you an election.
In 1976, Democrat Paul Sarbanes defeated Senator Beall by a 57-39 margin and was re-elected four times.

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