Russell Senate Building Should Be Renamed For Clair Engle
In a recent piece, I made my case that the Russell Senate Office Building on Capital Hill should be stripped of it’s name. It is borne for Richard Russell, a legendary Georgia Senator but one who was avowed segregationist. Russell more than anyone else held up passage of a Civil Rights law. I won’t reiterate my reasoning but I will make my case for who I think it should be named for: Clair Engle.
The late California Democrat was not a Congressional leader. Five of the sixth buildings are. But the sixth, the Hart Senate Office Building, was named for Phillip Hart, a Senator whose personal integrity garnered him the wide respect of both parties. Engle deserves to be ranked with Hart. His service was not as long, but he had a dramatic impact on passage of the Civil Rights in the face of his own personal adversity.
By June of 1964, Engle was dying of brain cancer, a revelation that had only come recently. He knew it, and so did everyone around him. But cutting off a filibuster was expected to be close. Engle was hospitalized. He was wheled in and when the clerk called his name, he couldn’t speak. Therefore, uttering “aye” was impossible. he couldn’t speak. So Engle simply affirmed his support for the bill by pointing to his eye. Three weeks later, Engle was dead.
Hailing from the town of Red Bluff, Engle, who as one of Congresses few pilots, often campaigned by plane, won a Northern California Congressional seat in a 1943 special election. Democrats were buoyed by the result. The seat Engle won was that of House Minority Whip Henry Englebright, who had died and Engle’s victory was attributed to a split between his widow and aState Senator. Still, Democrats, who prior to the election held a slim 221-207 edge over the GOP, were happy. Indeed, In the heart of World War II, the head of the Democratic Campaign Committee eluded to having captured “an enemy stronghold.”
The Times said Engle had a reputation as the “Congressional Fireball and “the only volcano in the House.” But that didn’t mean he wasn’t affective. He chaired the Committee on War Claims and later, the Interior and Insular Affairs, which in the days of California’s rapid growth, was important. And issues promoting the quality of life of his people (electricity, flood control, etc) was the hallmark of his agenda.
Engle sponsored the expansion of the California Central Valley Reclamation Project and pushed construction of what is now known as the Trinity Dam, which is one of the largest in California. He sought a Senate seat in 1958 and faced outgoing Governor Goodwin Knight, who had switched to the race to avoid the likelihood of a brutal contest with Senator Bill Knowland. He won.
Engle had a “Marlboro Man” mentality. The New York Times reported him preparing a witness that he had to leave the committee rom for ten minutes, but that “when I come back in 10 minutes, I’m sure going to throw a skunk in your henhouse.” “I’m as happy as a fox with two tails.” And he said the way to get action from bureaucrats was to “harass ‘em, burn ‘em, sweat ‘em, and give ‘em hell.’
In many ways, Engle epitomized the comparison of making laws to sausages, as he preferred the cloakroom/committee rooms to getting things done. But the cigar-chomping man was a “Senator’s Senator.”
By 1964, rumors of Engle’s health were plaguing California politics. It was visible on the Senate floor. As he offered a resolution that April, he could not get a word out, and his Michigan colleague, Pat McNamara had to to do it for him. The New York Times notes he “was virtually carried out of the chamber by his aides.” As such, he was forced to abandon his re-election campaign. Eventually, the true nature of Engle’s condition was revealed. He underwent a craniotomy. All knew the Civil Rights bill would be close. He might not have been expected to but doing so in such a dramatic fashion was a true profile in courage.
I can think of nothing more appropriate than replacing the name of a man who shouldn’t have a comforting place in history much less memorialized on a building, with someone who is clearly among the unheralded giants of the Civil Rights era. I urge it to be considered. And Clair Engle is a true American hero.