In Memoriam: John Tunney '59, U.S. Senator and Inspiration for 'The Candidate'

Boxing Great's Son Improved Public Speaking Chops at UVA Law
John Tunney

John Tunney ’59 won the William Minor Lile Moot Court Competition along with his roommate, Edward “Ted” Kennedy '59, another future U.S. senator. Inset courtesy Arthur J. Morris Law Library Special Collections.

January 18, 2018

John Varick Tunney ’59, the former U.S. senator and House member who was the inspiration for a major motion picture, died of prostate cancer on Friday. He was 83.

Tunney served one term as a Democratic U.S. senator from California for six years, beginning in 1971. Immediately prior, he served as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from California’s 38th District for three two-year terms.

His 1970 Senate rise was loosely sketched in the Robert Redford movie “The Candidate.”

As a freshman senator, still in his 30s when elected, Tunney wrote 38 bills that made it into the books. He helped enact antitrust, civil rights and environmental protection laws.

He was known among his colleagues for his “cordial manner and strong negotiating skills,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

At UVA Law, Tunney earned a reputation as a presenter who could think on his feet. He won the William Minor Lile Moot Court Competition along with his roommate, Edward “Ted” Kennedy ’59, another future U.S. senator.

"And of course, Teddy just loved the fact that he had won and Bobby [Kennedy ‘51, his brother] had not," Tunney once told a Boston Globe reporter.

In another interview, Tunney said he revised his public speaking style after receiving initial moot competition feedback that he didn’t “exert” himself. He decided he could take a cue from his roommate’s more “forceful” approach. He even practiced for hours alone in the woods.

“I felt that I had to go out into the forest sometimes, the woods around our house, and just speak to the trees, like Demosthenes,” he told an interviewer with the Edward M. Kennedy Institute.

Tunney and Kennedy were Senate colleagues and remained close after law school.

Tunney also attended Yale University, earning a degree in anthropology, and The Hague Academy of International Law in the Netherlands. His college years were when he first gained an awareness of his privilege, according to a report.

“I suddenly became aware of the fact that this world was cold and cruel, and that people were indeed very, very hungry,” NPR quoted him as saying.

Before politics, he was a practicing attorney in California who taught business law at night; a judge advocate general in the U.S. Air Force; and, briefly, an associate at Cahill Gordon in New York City.

Tunney’s Senate win paralleled that of fictional protagonist Bill McCay of “The Candidate,” a long-shot idealist who challenges a Senate incumbent. The film contains a theme about speaking openly about political views versus moderating a message.

The Associated Press reported that Tunney felt he had to “quiet” his message in order to win.   

After a tide of conservatism resulted in his defeat for re-election to the Senate in 1976, he returned to law as a partner with Manatt, Phelps, Rothenberg & Tunney.

In addition, he served on several corporate boards and participated in civic and cultural affairs in his later years.

Tunney was the son of famous parents: the prizefighter Gene Tunney and Connecticut socialite Polly Lauder Tunney.

Gene Tunney was insistent that his sons pursue professions other than boxing, the late senator’s brother Jay told AP.

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