Fulbright's biography: Finally, a rational man

July 16, 1995|By Ray Jenkins | Ray Jenkins,Special to The Sun

"Fulbright: A Biography," by Randall Woods. Illustrated. 722 pages. New York: Cambridge University Press. $29.95

By the time J. William Fulbright began his fateful tenure as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1959, he had already attained eminence as a remarkably creative public man. He had written the resolution that committed America to the United Nations; he had established the international study program that today seeds a grateful world with 160,000 Fulbright Scholars; he had written the act that would build the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

This fine new biography tells us that Fulbright assumed his new Senate role skeptical of the simplistic mantra that "politics stops at the water's edge," but still believing that presidents should be given great deference in foreign policy.

As late as 1964, at the behest of his old friend Lyndon Johnson, he sponsored the Tonkin Gulf resolution, which became the de facto declaration of war in Vietnam. But within a year, Fulbright concluded that the resolution was a tragic mistake that thrust America into the civil war of a small, distant nation, and he became the most adamant critic of LBJ's Vietnam policy.

It was a struggle that would end with the forced departure of the two titans from public life. The clash reverberates to this day in the War Powers Act of 1973 - Fulbright's parting shot - which limits the power of presidents to commit troops to conflict.

Through chance meeting, I came to know Bill Fulbright well in the last 12 years of his life. Thus I was mildly bemused at the author's proclivity for referring to him on almost every page as "the Arkansan." An accurate description, to be sure, but still, a little like calling Isaac Stern "a fiddler."

And yet the term is appropriate, because it encapsulates the great paradox of Fulbright's life: On the one hand, he was a man of sinewy intellect, capable of articulating a vast vision of a world without war or want, in which all peoples could live by their own immemorial customs, in secure peace; on the other, he was an elected senator from a benighted state whose ugly politics obliged him to take his place alongside such Dixie dinosaurs as Theodore Bilbo and Strom Thurmond to filibuster even the most modest efforts to improve the piteous lot of black citizens.

By Woods' account, Fulbright was never a true-believer in "the Southern Way of Life." No redneck, he sprang from genteel, educated privilege. But he labored under the racial curse of his time, and as Woods poignantly relates, he simply outlived his time.

His defeat in 1974 was brought about not just by his bitterest foes, the Vietnam hawks, but by an odd coalition: Blacks who saw him as a racist; Zionists who saw him as an Arab-appeaser; labor-unionists who saw him as an ally of big business; ultra-rightists who saw him as an inveterate "one-worlder." Add to this his own weariness from three decades of unremitting battle for his passionate convictions, and it's no wonder that Arkansans at last rejected their most famous son.

When he died at 89 last February, an adoring throng, made up mostly of Fulbright scholars who never even met their benefactor, gathered at the National Cathedral to hear him eulogized by his devoted apprentice, Bill Clinton. Most there, no doubt, would concur in Randall Woods' succinct epitaph:

"Whatever his errors and misperceptions, America was well served by J. William Fulbright, this rational man combating an irrational and immoral world."

* Ray Jenkins, who retired in 1992 as editorial page editor of The Evening Sun, has written on Southern politics for 45 years. He is a lawyer, was a Nieman Fellow in 1964 and won a Pulitzer Prize for exposing corruption in 1955.

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