W.P. “Bill” Atkinson was a success by any definition as America entered a period of economic expansion and innovation in the 1950s. Already a successful homebuilder, developer and founder of Midwest City, Atkinson continued to expand his empire, buying property along SW 74. Other developers were gravitating toward SW 59, historian and veteran reporter Max Nichols once noted. After all, these developers reasoned, surely the state would need to create a “Southwest Expressway.” They were right – but the highway was built along SW 74, not SW 59.
Once again, Atkinson’s gut instinct added to his considerable wealth.
Atkinson set his sights next on the governor’s mansion and was quickly deemed the front-runner in the 1958 election. But first he would build a home more suitable for a governor of a state that was rapidly making the jump from "arrows to atoms."
Of course if he were to be governor, the existing mansion wouldn’t be good enough to host all the world’s dignitaries who would travel to Midwest City to learn about the latest innovations taking place in the Sooner state. The 8,000-square-foot mansion featured state-of-the-art innovations including televisions, a dishwasher and bathrooms in every bedroom. When he started construction in 1955, he decided he didn’t want to tear down any trees. So when one tree stood where a bathroom was to be built, he included it in the house’s design. To this day a shower head is mounted on the tree trunk, which was sealed to prevent chipping and rotting.
The 10-acre spread would also include a greenhouse, and of course, a pony barn for Atkinson’s popular Shetland ponies. In a state where the Democratic nominee was assured a straight shot to the governor’s office, Atkinson thought he had the deal done with the endorsement of popular incumbent Raymond Gary. Prohibition was still the law of the land in Oklahoma long after a federal ban on alcohol had been lifted. Atkinson vowed to keep the state dry, while a young upstart, James Howard Edmondson, 32, told voters as governor he would call a special election to repeal Prohibition.
Edmondson initially couldn’t match the machine behind Atkinson’s campaign. Smart money gave him no better than third place in an eleven-man primary. But Edmondson’s campaign had the youth movement behind him, and he quickly adopted the use of television. Gary’s endorsement of Atkinson became an albatross as Edmondson cited one example of corruption after another as a means to attack Atkinson’s own political ambitions.
Steve Dimick, a Midwest City resident and employee of Atkinson, would later note in online memiors that Atkinson made two fatal mistakes in the campaign against Edmondson. (Read Dimick's excellent account of his history of Atkinson and Midwest City here).
“First, an Atkinson staff member forged an Edmondson campaign flyer, completely misstating Edmondson’s stand on a number of hot-button issues,” Dimick wrote in his online book “Model City.”
“Atkinson was not only slow to distance himself from the charges, but instead of condemning the flyer and promising retribution on the overzealous staffer, he suggested that his opponent’s staff had cooked up the scheme to make him look bad," Dimick said. "The Daily Oklahoman had a field day, printing the forged handbill in its entirety, calling Atkinson’s tactics “a disgrace to the state of Oklahoma” and referring to the fake flyer as the “most dastardly act of the Atkinson campaign.”
Dimick noted the day before Gaylord’s scathing editorial was published, Atkinson made his second serious blunder: he went on the attack against Gaylord, and his diatribe appeared in the same issue of The Daily Oklahoman as Gaylord’s first real editorial attack against him. The former friends had continued their battles with the latest war provoked by Oklahoma City's annexation of land southeast of downtown.
Charging that Gaylord was opposed to his campaign because he had fought against Oklahoma City’s annexation plans the year before, Atkinson told a gathering that “you are going to read in the morning paper that Mr. Gaylord does not like me one bit,” and predicted that if Edmonson won the election, Midwest City would be annexed to Oklahoma City.
“This campaign against me is the result of my telling Mr. Gaylord ‘No.’ Had I followed his dictates, I could have had his support," Atkinson charged. "It wasn’t worth the price. I have never been one to knuckle under, not even to E.K. Gaylord.”
Atkinson went heavy on television advertising, but couldn’t match Edmondson’s charisma. Atkinson was stunned when Edmonson beat him in the primary, forcing a run-off with a lead of just 427 votes. Edmondson then won the run-off with 70 percent of the vote. Atkinson, undeterred, began planning for a second bid in 1962 when Edmondson resigned to take over the U.S. Senate seat vacated upon the death of Robert S. Kerr.
But former Gov. Raymond Gary wanted a second term in office. This time around Atkinson would survive the run-off, beating Gary by 954 votes. But with not just a bitter Gary continuing to oppose him after the run-off, but also the state’s biggest newspaper solidly backing the Republican nominee, Henry Bellmon, Atkinson was on track to became the first Democratic nominee to lose the governor’s mansion.
The bitter rivalry with Oklahoman publisher E.K. Gaylord, dating back to the creation of Midwest City, was played up as a recurring theme with Atkinson claiming the newspaper was skewing its coverage in favor of Bellmon. In later years Atkinson would frequently tell audiences how Gaylord refused to accept advertising for his campaign. But newspaper archives tell a different tale, with full page advertisements backing Atkinson appearing in The Oklahoman the weekend before the election.
“The Daily Oklahoman’s news pages were as fair to Atkinson as to all the other candidates, and provided him extensive space in which to tout his platforms,” Dimick writes in his history of Atkinson’s campaign. “And while Gary bought twice as many political ads in the paper, W.P.’s many full-page ads show that he was not barred from advertising this time around, either. Unfortunately, one of the ads was a reprint of an endorsement editorial from the Tulsa World, without the customary label that it was “A Political Advertisement” or was “Paid for by…” Instead, a large headline labeled it as “EDITORIAL.”
"Gaylord held his guns until the day before the primary before announcing, in a genuine editorial, that the Atkinson ad had been placed when all of the paper’s senior officials were at a convention in New York and apologizing for its misleading nature. He accused Atkinson of lying on his campaign expenditure filings of four years before and of exceeding by six times the legal expenditure limit in the current race. Asserting that ‘Atkinson’s campaigns are always based on deceit,’ the editorial concluded (in language that itself could have used a good editor) that ‘the citizens of Oklahoma need, above everything, an honorable man in the governor’s chair. A deceitful man is not morally honest.’ Gaylord’s positions were usually nothing if not predictable, but he was not one to allow consistency to stand in the way of retribution against his enemies. Where once he had been a formidable critic of Gary and of the scandals during his term of office, he was now practically effusive in his praise for the former governor."
Atkinson won the runoff with Gary by 900 votes. But he now had two bitter rivals, and Gaylord, who had been a staunch Democrat, was now going to back a Republican, Henry Bellmon. Dimick noted that where four years before Gaylord had editorialized in favor of a penny increase in the sales tax, he now referred to it continually as “a fifty percent increase,” and sliced up selected Atkinson statistics to demonstrate the faulty Atkinson math.
By Atkinson's own choosing, the campaign seemingly pitted him more against Gaylord than Bellmon.
Dimick noted news stories and opinion pieces were heavily laced with tales and speculation about voter revolt, legislative revolt, Democratic defection and the like. Bellmon’s speeches were printed in their entirety. The Sunday front-page editorials became daily occurrences as the election neared.
"Atkinson either couldn’t take the stress or couldn’t control his anger," Dimick wrote. "His speeches grew more shrill each day as he lashed out at Bellmon and Gaylord – and The Daily Oklahoman gave him plenty of space to injure himself. Starting with a telegram to Gaylord in which he stated, reasonably enough, that “your personal animosity toward my candidacy is well known,” he descended into charges that Gaylord was trying “to divide and destroy the Democratic Party,” that Gaylord had left the party “because he couldn’t control it,” and that Bellmon was “dominated” by Gaylord. “Do you want Gaylord to be governor of this state?” he asked in a campaign speech covered by United Press International, and printed by The Daily Oklahoman. “Do you want Gaylord to write your highway program for you? Do you want Gaylord to do your reapportioning…look after your welfare program…eliminate your county road money…do away with your homestead exemption?”
Did Atkinson forget that the press usually gets the last word?
On October 27, 1962, just a week before the election, The Oklahoman dutifully reported Atkinson's final attacks on the newspaper and publisher:
“W.P. Bill Atkinson, Democratic candidate for governor, continued his attack on Oklahoma City publisher E.K. Gaylord Friday during a campaign swing through Little Dixie. Atkinson said Gaylord is the ‘unofficial manager’ of his opponent – Republican nominee Henry Bellmon. The Democratic nominee declared that Wayne Mackey, former Oklahoman-Times newsman who left the newspaper last August to become Bellmon’s campaign manager, helped write the Republican platform last year while he was working for the newspaper. "
Three days later veteran Oklahoman-Times columnist Otis Sullivant fired back, noting Gaylord was accustomed to baseless attacks by politicians:
“Although he would have liked very, very much to have had the backing of the publisher and the newspaper in his unsuccessful primary campaign four years ago and earlier this year, Atkinson and his advisers apparently think denunciation of the publisher and the newspaper because of editorial opposition will make him thousands of votes.
Since the newspaper and its publisher will not have their names on the ballot, Atkinson is going to swamp them in the vote getting, but there is considerable debate about how well he is going to fare against Henry Bellmon, Republican nominee. Atkinson has devoted more of his time to running against the paper and the publisher, and less to the Republican nominee, than any other candidate for governor.”
The story by Sullivant then recounted battles of the past, noting that former Gov. ‘Alfalfa’ Bill Murray “could say more things in more ways about The Oklahoman and make more exciting and interesting front page news than a dozen Atkinsons.” Sullivant than hit hard at Atkinson, noting how often he needed to consult advisers before taking shots at Gaylord and The Oklahoman, whereas Murray hit directly and “without hesitation.”
Bellmon won and Atkinson’s political career was over. But having seen the raw power of the state’s largest newspaper publisher, Atkinson was about to make a power play of his own and challenge E.K. Gaylord’s editorial supremacy.