Kenneth Spicer Wherry liked to call himself a "political fundamentalist." He could reduce the shadings of any political controversy into a black & white conflict between free enterprise and socialism, or economy and waste. With stubborn affability, he spent nine years in the Senate defending his own simplified brand of Midwestern Republicanism against Democrats and internationalist Republicans.
He trained for the Senate as a salesman and small businessman in Pawnee City, Neb. (pop. 1,595). There, "Lightning Ken" Wherry parlayed his family's furniture business into a bigger furniture store, an automobile agency, a law office, a real-estate firm and an undertaking parlor. (Washington reporters, to his intense irritation, later dubbed him "The Merry Mortician.") When he shifted to politics as a protégé of liberal Senator George Norris, Wherry hustled up votes for the Republican state committee with the same zeal and the same methods he had used to open new selling territories or to organize the Pawnee County Fair. In 1942 he easily beat the venerable and ailing Norris for his Senate seat.
"Opple Amportunity." In 1944, impressed by his sense of party solidarity and his noisy, often effective sniping at Administration policies, G.O.P. bosses made him party whip, a rare honor for a freshman Senator. In 1949 he became the Republican floor leader.
Wherry's words came so fast that he frequently lost control of them. A succession of "Wherryisms" made him the Sam Goldwyn of Capitol Hill. He once promised another Senator "opple amportunity" to make a speech, called Oregon's Junior Senator Wayne Morse "the distinguished Senator from Junior." Other Wherryisms: "Chief Joints of Staff," "bell door ringer."
As floor leader, he speedily established himself as the watchdog of party loyalty. When Taft sponsored a public-housing bill, Wherry accused him of a tendency towards socialism. With the exception of farm subsidies, which Nebraskan Wherry supported, he racked up as consistent a record of opposition to the New Deal and the Fair Deal as any Republican Senator. He called the Atlantic pact a "trap" and the Greek-Turkish program a "military adventure."
Some GOPsters thought that Wherry had hopes of becoming the vice presidential candidate in 1952. Actually, his ambition, stated last summer, was to become majority leader of the Senate in a Republican Administration.
"The Man With the Best Chance." In October, Wherry was operated on for cancer of the liver. Last week, in George Washington University Hospital, Kenneth Wherry, 59, died of pneumonia.
The Assistant Floor Leader often succeeds to the leadership, but the present minority whip is Massachusetts' Senator Leverett Saltonstall, a liberal Republican and an avowed Eisenhower backer. To keep Ken Wherry's old job in safe, conservative hands, Taft supporters may try to block Saltonstall's succession.