Historic Tidbit: When Ron Dellums, an African-American and Pat Schroeder,a female,were appointed to the Armed Services Committee in 1973, Chairman Ed Hebert only provided one chair. Rather than make a fuss, they decided to share it. They joked they sat “cheek-to-cheek.” Barney Frank said it was”the only half-assed thing Ron&Pat ever did.” The anecdote goes hand in hand with my below piece.
One of the most famous lines in American politics is Everett Dirksen’s, “a billion here, a billion thee, and pretty soon we’re talking about real money.” No evidence exists to him having uttered the remark (though he said something similar). Dirksen himself, asked about it later said, “it sounded good so I didn’t deny it.”
By Scott Crass
On Capitol Hill, there are six office buildings. Three are for the members of the House, and three for Senators. Each are named for members who, in their times, were viewed as larger than life on the Hill by members of both parties, and whose contributions were profound. But that often implies positive contributions with and one of these men, Senator Richard Russell, no such flattery is warranted. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Russell was an ardent segregationist, and in his America, it would be law of the land today. And in Russell’s day, they were detrimental to the dreams of many Americans of whole generations. Therefore, I have long felt that the name of the Russell Senate Office Building should be changed, and out of respect for those who fought to the death for Civil Rights, it can’t happen soon enough.
The Senate office building that bears Russell’s name was constructed in 1903, and was renamed for the long serving Georgian in 1972, a year after his death. But, if the full scars of the Civil Rights movement were impervious to some at that time, it should not have been in the 40 years since. Some African-American politicians have raised the issue of stripping the building of Russell’s name but no concerted effort has been made. That must change.
First, let’s look at what Richard Russell was, shall we? Yes, he was an immensely venerable Georgian, Speaker of the Georgia House at 30, Governor at 34, and Senator two years later for the ensuing 38 years before his death in office in 1971, at which time he was President Pro-Tem of the body.
By all accounts, Russell was revered by his colleagues. The term, “Senator’s Senator” apparently came into existence for him. Whether that was reverence was for his long-service and high position, who knows? He was a dogged advocate for Georgia. The “New Georgia Encyclopedia says Russell “favored his role as advocate for the small farmer and for soil and water conservation.”
Beyond that, Russell fought for hydroelectric energy and shepherded the opening of no less than 15 military installations in his state, undoubtedly contributing to the heft Georgia enjoys in the defense industry today. Russell’s longtime Chairmanship of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and for a brief time before his death, Appropriations, meant anyone who wanted something done had to be on his good side.
And he knew his state like the back of his hand. JFK once called him in his Capitol office on Christmas Eve (the Capital receptionist questioned him as to whether he’d be there) to ask him where a Civil War battle that he and Teddy were discussing had been fought. Russell knew the answer.
Russell’s style also rubbed off on his fellow Georgians. Many to this day proudly use his Russell Sweet Potato recipe.
That’s all well and good but, that was only half the story. Russell was also a segregationist. a staunch one who, from the earliest days of the Civil Rights movement to the time his longtime friend, Lyndon Johnson, championed it into law, resisted. In fact, when President Kennedy was killed and many members of Congress went to greet the new President at Andrews Air Force upon his return from Dallas, Johnson knew he wasn’t there. Russell was already expressing glumness about prospects for Civil Rights legislation, saying that Johnson would push it through. And Russell did not campaign for Johnson in 1964, a tact that many believe caused the President to lose Georgia 54-46% to Barry Goldwater, who opposed the Civil Rights Act. Lady Bird was reportedly furious.
Russell fought for “States Rights,” signed the Southern Manifesto, and was a founder of the infamous “Southern Bloc” of Senators who tried, unsuccessfully long-term to block progress. Many believed that had it not been for the segregation issue, Russell would have won the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1952. Quite a few northern and western members of the party had asked him to renounce it but he refused.
Now, let’s look at the five men for whom the other office buildings are named. I’ll start with the House side.
Sam Rayburn fit the stereotype of an old-time politician in every way. A bald, cigar-chomping, and back-slapping irreverent man, but one whose honesty was unquestioned and his agenda forward looking. “Mr. Sam” was one of a long line of Texans who would lead their respective chambers in the 20th century. Rayburn was a protege of John Nance Garner (who would outlive him by 6 years), and LBJ in turn was a protege of Rayburn. Rayburn held either the Speakership or Majority Leader’s post for a quarter of a century (filling that role in the minority when the Democrats weren’t in control).
Rayburn was a Founding Father of Route 66, and shephered many Democratic ideals into law. He was a what you see is what you get type person, and his Rayburnism’s (stories/quotes, etc), could encompass entire books. What’s remarkable is that he was cut from the same cloth as Russell (actually born in Tennessee),but was committed to rights of all people.Rayburn was just a little over a year shy of his “Golden Anniversary” in the House when he died in 1961.
Joe Cannon was an example of, “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” He tried four times to win the Speakership before succeeding. That may be why his goal was to never to let it slip away. Cannon ruled with an iron fist, as not only did the Speaker controlled the Rules Committee and committee appointments down to the member. Today, there would be backlash but in the days of limited communication, many voters were impervious. But not his colleagues. A few fellow Republicans tried to join with the Democrats to dislodge him but Cannon held on.
Cannon may well have been the modern day Tom DeLay (“the Hammer”), not to mention, Tom Craddick, a former Republican Speaker of the Texas House who employed similar tactics, particularly in the redistricting struggle. But his Illinois constituency loved him. They sent him to Washington for 46 years of 50 years, though sending him packing only for a single term in 1890 and 1912.
If there is a book in existence on how to stay on your wife’s good side, Nick Longworth surely dd not right it. The same with father-in-law. Longworth, then a sophomore Ohio Congressman, married Teddy Roosevelt’s eldest daughter Alice at the White House in 1906, but veered away from him politically soon after. He also became disenchanted with Cannon, by that time Speaker.
In 1912, Longworth actually backed William Howard Taft over his father-in-laws Progressive candidacy, and Alice returned the favor by campaigning against her husband for re-election (and folks wonder how Bill and Hillary stay married). With a Progressive on the ballot, Longworth lost his seat (the same year as Cannon), but did manage to regain it two years later. He’d rise to Majority Leader and eventually, Speaker.
The ironic thing about Longworth’s second stint is that he began employing many of Cannon’s tactics, punishing Republicans who backed Bob LaFollette over Calvin Coolidge. But he also cultivated Democratic friendships and as such, was well respected.
Beyond the Russell building, there are 2 on the Senate side.
One is named for Ev Dirksen, the longtime Minority Leader who delivered crucial votes to Majority leader Mike Mansfied on issues of Civil Rights and the “Great Society.” In other words, Dirksen and many in his party provided crucial votes for Civil Rights because Democrats, despite controlling 2/3 of the chamber in the mid 60′s, were hampered by the opposition of men like Russell.
Dirksen’s ability to deliver GOP votes for a Democratic agenda was so wide reaching that, in 1962, when Dirksen was seeking re-election against Sidney Yates, a respected liberal Congressman from Chicago who would eventually become Illinois’ longest serving Congressman, President Kennedy refused to campaign against him. It was said that Kennedy felt that if Dirksen lost, he wouldn’t have such a congenial leader of the opposite party. And LBJ himself responded to NAACP head Roy Wilkins’ request for help on Civil Rights legislation, LBJ said, “you’re gonna have to persuade Dirksen why this is in the interests of the Republican party….I’m a Democrat, but if a fella will stand up and fight with you, you can cross party lines.”
Dirksen was born near Peoria in 1896. He dropped out of the University of Minesota Law School to join the army. Dirksen was called “The Wizard of Ooze.” He rarely gave a prepared speechm instead relying or notes. But despite a lackluster delivery, he could be biting with foes. When Tom Dewey wanted to endorse Eisenhower, Dirksen, presiding at the GOP convention and backing Taft said, “”We followed you before, and you took us down the path to defeat!”
Dirksen’s talents were evidenced by the fact that his first Congressional victory came countercyclical to the national climate. He won it in 1932 (having lost a race in 1930). He supported many New Deal programs. He was forced to retire in 1948 due to a bad eye but displayed his political acumen again by making a comeback in 1950. This time, it was for the Senate and he would unseat a big fish: Senate Majority leader Scott Lucas. He was an ardent backer of Vietnam but also several Great Society programs. Conservatives liked him for an arduous promotion of prayer in the schools, which fell far short in 1966.
Wiki would say “Dirksen’s canny political skill, rumpled appearance, and convincing, if sometimes flowery, overblown oratory (he was hence dubbed by his critics “the Wizard of Ooze”) gave him a prominent national reputation.” Byron Hulsey, Assistant Director, Jefferson Scholars Foundation, would write, “at the most superficial level, Everett Dirksen never escaped the caricature of a purposeless ham, well-meaning and good-natured but nevertheless a puppetlike buffoon who used the nation’s political stage more to entertain and amuse than to lead and inspire.”
Hulsey said “trust was at the center of Dirksen’s treatment of his colleagues. His word was his bond.
He said Dirksen possessed five traits (oratorical prowess, herculean work habits, knowledge of the rules, a deliberate flexibility, and an unparalleled command of human relationships) that helped him become a master legislator. He was noted for his “Twilight Lodge.” Dirksen showed his heft with the rules over a labor bill, when he forced —.
Dirksen won a fairly tough re-election bid in 1968, then was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died of complication s in September of ’69 at 73.
Michigan’s Phil Hart was the one member who wasn’t a leader or who didn’t chair a major committee, but not a single person, colleague or man on the street who encountered him, could question naming a building for him. He was wondrous representative of the people and would stand out in any era about what’s right about Congress even when little is.
Hart was referred to as, “The Conscience of the Senate.” Ronald Kessler, in his book, “Inside Congress,” quoted one colleague as saying that they’d vote a certain way, then gather around Hart to see “the right way to vote.” As Chairman of the Anti-Trust Subcommittee of Judiciary, Hart would take on special interests of all stripe, which as Kessler writes, his own state wouldn’t be immune to (he often summoned the auto industry). A parallel with Russell is that he fiercely advocated Civil Rights and when Russell died, Hart was the only Senator to oppose making Mississippi Senator Jim Eastland President Pro-Tem, for Eastland clearly expressed animosity toward blacks.
A historic tidbit on Hart is that he won his third term in 1970 by beating Mitt Romney’s mother, Lenore. This was remarkable considering Romney had, until recently, been, Michigan’s First Lady. Her husband George was hugely popular.
Okay, so a few of these men were not my cup of tea politically, or procedurally speaking, but in one way or another, they shaped the Capitol. The politics of Russell shaped a whole era. Or more appropriately, error. Next to slavery itself, “State’s Rights” was the ugliest, most heinous chapters in humanity for which scars remain, literally and figuratively. One of the greatest heroes of the Civil Rights movement and Russell’s fellow Georgian, John Lewis was beaten savagely. Countless others lost their lives. It’s unclear whether Russell himself was racist (a few Senate colleagues, notably Mississippian James Eastland were), but it’s not really relevant. His ardent defense of that way of life is.
Imagine what Lincoln would think. Jerry Ford had a malapropism on another matter, “if Lincoln were alive today he’d turn over in his grave,” but the sentiment fits. Senators Michael Cowan and Tim Scott, two native African-American sons of the Carolina’s occupy offices in the Russell Building (Cowan since moved to Massachusetts). How do they feel literally walking in the shadow (there is a bust of Russell) of a man who tried to hold their people back? And why should they be made too? The Sherriff of Birmingham apologized to Lewis this week for his beating. Were it not for men like Russell, that apology wouldn’t have been necessary.
There was a biography of Thurgood Marshall, “Dream Makers, Dream Breakers.” For many people, Russell was the latter. And to reward him with a building. I don’t think so!
And it’s irrelevent to the issue at hand but ridding the building of Russell’s name wouldn’t even offend his family, because, as far as direct descendants, he’s got none (Russell was a bachelor).
So who should bear the name of the hopefully former Russell Building. Well, since Civil Rights is at the heart of the matter,John Lewis would be a stirring choice, though I recognize he is a member of the House (not Senate) and one who is still serving.
What about Hiram Rhodes Revels, the first African-American Senator. He would’ve served longer had it not been for Reconstruction. Or perhaps, “Scoop” Jackson, who served in Congress just as long as Russell, who advocated for his state just as hard (was called the “Senator from Boeing”),and who advocated a muscular approach to defense and communism. Maybe even Hubert Humphrey, who from his impassioned 1948 keynote speech (“get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights”), to becoming Vice-President was, next to LBJ himself, Russell’s chief nemesis on the Civil Rights issue.
Whatever the case, to give healing and peace to future generations and the blood of the past, this must change.