Flaws kept Arkansas Sen. J. William Fulbright...

TWO TRAGIC

February 16, 1995|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

TWO TRAGIC flaws kept Arkansas Sen. J. William Fulbright from becoming a great American. One, he was too Southern. Two, he was too British.

Too Southern.

In 1956, 19 senators (and 77 representatives) signed "the Southern Manifesto," denouncing the 1954 and 1955 Supreme Court school desegregation decisions as unconstitutional. South Carolina's Strom Thurmond dreamed up the idea and Georgia's Richard Russell drafted it.

No senators from the Border states of Oklahoma, Kentucky, West Virginia, Maryland and Delaware signed it. Nor did the two Tennesseans and one Texan. But Fulbright and his Arkansas colleague Sen. John McClellan cast their lot with the Deep South.

Fulbright stayed with the Rebels. In 1957 he voted against a mild civil rights bill supported by all Border State senators (and Barry Goldwater and almost all Republicans). Same thing in 1960.

Fulbright filibustered against the landmark Civil Right Act of 1964 and voted against it. He opposed the 1965 Voting Rights Act. In 1968 he voted against the Open Housing Act. In all three cases he was part of a lonely little rear guard action. Border State senators and even an occasional senator from the Deep South voted "yea" on those bills.

Now, Fulbright's supporters (and Fulbright himself) argued with some vehemence that not to have so voted would have ended his career in elected politics. So he voted against all civil rights proposals in the 1950s and 1960s. That included even statehood for Hawaii, which has a majority non-white population.

It is a fact of political life in America that you can't be a statesman unless you get and keep that certificate of election. So a senator has to display his courage and pick his enemies with some discrimination.

Fulbright was the only senator to vote against a $214,000 appropriation for the demagogic Sen. Joe McCarthy's witch-hunting committee in the mid-1950s. He was praised for his courage. Then he refused to openly criticize Gov. Orval Faubus for trying to prevent by force the implementation of a Little Rock school desegregation court order.

Faubus' racism was very popular in Arkansas, and McCarthy's witch hunting was not particularly popular. "The rule seems to be," Richard Rovere observed dryly in his book on McCarthy, "that there is a demagogue for every man to fear."

Fulbright's anti-civil rights votes kept on coming -- even after the voters in Arkansas stopped caring much about the issue. As late as 1974, his last year in the Senate, Fulbright voted against civil rights legislation.

That was his last year in the Senate because he lost his bid for re-nomination in the Democratic primary that year. The man who beat him was Gov. Dale Bumpers. Bumpers was a pro-civil rights liberal. He had defeated Orval Faubus to win the governorship in 1970, and in 1974 he swamped Fulbright.

Monday: Too British.

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