After 50 years, congressman is an anachronism

December 30, 1991|By Bob Dart | Bob Dart,Cox News Service

WASHINGTON -- Representative J. J. "Jake" Pickle, a down-home Texas Democrat, was describing how Jamie L. Whitten, his longtime colleague from Mississippi, had become "very exasperated" at one of the 10 presidents Mr. Whitten has worked with or against in the past half-century.

"He said, 'Mr. Speaker, I do declare, let me say, I do declare that I believe President So-and-So is the worst president I have served under since U.S. Grant,' " recalled Mr. Pickle.

Of course, not even Jamie Whitten -- who will soon set a record for longevity in the House of Representatives -- remembers Reconstruction. But the 81-year-old Democrat from Cascilla, Miss., has seen an astonishing sweep of U.S. history -- having served in Congress for about a fourth of the country's existence.

Come Jan. 6, Mr. Whitten will surpass the record held by the late Representative Carl Vinson, D-Ga., who served from Nov. 3, 1914, through Jan. 3, 1965, a total of 50 years, two months and 13 days.

In this era of term-limit referendums and sound-bite campaigns, Mr. Whitten is among the last of Dixie's congressional dinosaurs -- harking back to a time when Southerners used a loyal electorate and the seniority system to develop disproportionate power on Capitol Hill.

The Senate was once ruled by drawling old Democrats like John Stennis and James Eastland of Mississippi, Russell Long and Allen Ellender of Louisiana, Richard Russell of Georgia and Ellison Smith of South Carolina. Now only Strom Thurmond, the 89-year-old Republican from South Carolina, remains of this fraternity of Southern senators who served more than 35 years.

The House, meanwhile, was long managed by Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas, who served more than 48 years, while Vinson chaired the powerful Armed Services Committee. Mr. Whitten follows in this political lineage.

But it is unlikely that the heritage will carry forth to another generation of congressional Southerners.

Both Congress and the South have changed. Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta, said seniority, especially in the House, doesn't count nearly as much as it once did.

In the post-Watergate reform of the mid-1970s, the House Caucuses began electing all committee and subcommittee chairmen and ranking minority members by secret ballot every two years, with the positions not necessarily going to the most senior members. Among the first chairmen ousted under the new system were Southerners.

Professor Black said the era of the veteran Southern Democrats also has been curtailed by the establishment of a two-party system below the Mason-Dixon Line. In Mr. Whitten's own Mississippi, when the old Democratic lions Eastland and Stennis finally left the Senate, they were replaced by Republicans Thad Cochran and Trent Lott.

Certainly, the GOP was but a bitter memory in the yellow-dog ("I'd vote for a yellow dog before I'd vote for a Republican," the saying went) Democratic 1st Congressional District of Mississippi when Mr. Whitten won a special election to finish the term of his predecessor, Walt Doxey, who had moved to the Senate. Moving to Washington with his wife, Rebecca, Mr. Whitten was sworn into office Nov. 14, 1941 -- less than a month before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

In a recent speech on the House floor, Mr. Whitten recalled his early days in Washington and meeting with President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

"He briefed you at the White House and took charge of the conversation," said Mr. Whitten. "If he did not want to bother with your matter, he just entertained you until your time was up."

The son of a Tallahatchie County farmer, the new congressman from Mississippi was a lawyer and former grammar school principal. He was quickly embraced by the voters of his rural district, which stretches from the edge of the Delta to the hill country. It includes Oxford, home of University of Mississippi and William Faulkner, and Tupelo, birthplace of Elvis Presley.

Mr. Whitten said he never intended to make a career in politics.

"I came here to stay three years, but I got on the Committee on Appropriations and I haven't gotten the job done yet," he explained. "But we keep trying."

Indeed, it is through the Appropriations Committee that Mr. Whitten has left his mark.

In 1949, he became chairman of the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, from where he wielded such power over farm policies that he was dubbed "the permanent secretary of agriculture."

Three decades later, he earned another nickname -- King Jamie -- after taking over as chairman of the full Appropriations Committee, with considerable power over the purse strings of the federal government.

Others marveled as Mr. Whitten mumbled controversial appropriations bills into law -- often laden with political pork for the Mississippi folks.

Mr. Whitten is hardly apologetic about his reputation.

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