Former U.S. Senator Dick Clark has no real ties to New Jersey, but the path he took to win a Senate seat in 1972 is a permanent inspiration to staffers and political operatives everywhere.
Clark traded in his job as a professor at Upper Iowa University in the 1960s to become administrative assistant (the post is now known as chief of staff) to Democratic rising star John Culver, who ousted a two-term Republican congressman in 1964, at age 32, after playing football with Ted Kennedy at Harvard and later working on his Senate staff.
Together, Clark spent most of 1971 crisscrossing Iowa setting up Culver’s challenge to Republican Jack Miller, the state’s 56-year-old two-term U.S. Senator.
But when Culver decided not to run for Senate in early 1972, the 43-year-old Clark figured since he’d laid the groundwork for the campaign against Miller, he might as well just run himself.
Few believed Clark could win. The Iowa Poll gave Miller a 57%-20% lead in May, with the GOP Senator’s approval ratings at 54%-12%. By August, Miller’s lead was 54%-34%,
Among other things, Clark embarked on a 1,300 mile walk across the state to talk about Miller’s record, and a mysterious $200,000 campaign contribution that came in just before the nation’s first campaign finance law became effective.
While Miller, a tax attorney, often had trouble connecting with voters, Clark seemed to do well on the campaign trail.
Clark was also hoping for a boost from young voters in the first election since the voting age went from 21 to 18. There were about 55,000 college students in Iowa during that time who suddenly became pivotal voters. A poll gave Clark a 16-point lead among students.
Still, the Iowa Poll had Miller ahead 58%-35% on October 1. But by November 5, two days before the election, Miller’s lead was down to seven points.
President Richard Nixon carried Iowa by 17 points, and GOP Gov. Robert Ray was re-elected by 18 points, but the Senate race went in a different direction.
Clark defeated Miller by 132,112 votes, 55%-44%.
In an election night phone call, Nixon explained the results of the Iowa Senate race to his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger.
“We lost Jack Miller because he’s a jackass,” Nixon said.
In January, when Clark took his seat in the United States Senate, his former boss, Culver, was still in the House.
Culver ran for an open Senate seat in 1974 – Democratic incumbent Harold Hughes was retiring – and won. That made Clark the senior senator.
Clark lost in 1978.
In 1980, Culver lost his seat to Republican Chuck Grassley.
Clark, no relation to the American Bandstand legend of the same name, turned 93 today. He is the sixth oldest-living former Senator, behind James Buckley (98), Bob Dole (98), Daniel Evans (95), James Broyhill (94), and Lauch Faircloth (93). Seventh on the list is Nicholas Brady (91), a former Treasury Secretary under Ronald Reagan and George Bush who represented New Jersey in the U.S. Senate for eight months in 1982.
Click PLAY to listen to Nixon’s election night phone call with Kissinger.