Hardly a week goes by when I am not approached by someone with the invitation to speculate on what the late great Mississippi Sen. John C. Stennis would think about today’s political environment. It usually starts with a question like, “Wonder what Senator Stennis would do if he were still in Washington and witnessed the latest turn of political events?” Due to the many unique qualities of Mississippi’s larger than life political hero, such speculative observations often prompt extended conversations drawing on Sen. Stennis’ renowned penchant for making a solid decision when matters of grave importance were on the line.
Indeed, it should be said at the outset that there is no intent to make the case that Sen. Stennis’ joining with his other Southern colleagues to support then-existing laws mandating racial segregation in the states during the volatile 1950s and 1960s was acceptable then or by today’s interpretations.
However, Sen. Stennis’ decisions to change over the course of his career to the point that he clearly supported justice and equal treatment under the law for all races are indicative of his abiding affection for the Constitution and the proper role of government in solving the racial problems facing the nation. As Sen. Tom Daschle noted in a speech from the well of the Senate upon Sen. Stennis’ retirement, Sen. Stennis supported the 1982 reauthorization of the 1965 Voting Rights Act including all of the provisions that called for extra enforcement measures aimed at the Southern states with high concentrations of racial minorities. Sen. Stennis felt that the additional guarantees that all citizens regardless of race must be allowed access to the preeminent symbol of Democracy — the ballot box — overrode any inconveniences associated with added voting procedures.
It is virtually impossible to discover an article about the Senator and his career that doesn’t contain words like “courtly,” “dignified” or “gentlemanly.” Perhaps it is indeed these qualities that we long for when we wax nostalgic for more senators like John C. Stennis. Anyone who observes today’s political milieu needs no reminding that civility is a commodity in short supply. Certainly this is not to imply that sharp differences of opinion are new to the Washington political scene. From 1787 until today the “invitation to struggle” among competing ideas has been the hallmark of American government. Perhaps there was a time, however, when we fought fiercely for the triumph of our ideas rather than merely to make losers out of those who held beliefs different from our own.
Sen. Stennis was called upon to stand tall on numerous occasions as Senate Armed Services Committee chairman during the Viet Nam War. Stennis, the Democrat, was constantly consulted by Republican President Richard Nixon on weighty and confidential matters of military strategy, including the advisability of his ultimate decision to send troops into Cambodia. During the delicate negotiations for the peace agreement ending the fighting in Viet Nam, Sen. Stennis and his Republican colleague Barry Goldwater of Arizona joined together to prevail upon a reluctant South Vietnamese President Thieu to accept the settlement terms. It is quite clear that throughout these discussions on decisions of national defense the priority was always country first, our men in uniform second and never did advantage to the Democratic Party enter into the decision-making process.
It was this ability to steadfastly stand on principle that thrust Sen. Stennis into the heat of one of the most potentially grave constitutional crises ever to face the nation — the Watergate scandal that ultimately brought down Nixon’s presidency. Stennis will always be remembered for Republican Nixon’s proposal that the Mississippi Democrat be allowed to review and pass judgment on the controversial Watergate tapes. Refusal to accept the proposal by various members on the investigative team resulted in the “Saturday Night Massacre” firings that ultimately lead to the resignation of President Nixon himself.
Perhaps Sen. Stennis’ penchant for forthright honesty was in evidence early on when he was chosen as one of three Democrats on the Watkins committee investigating the infamous Sen. Joe McCarthy, Republican of Wisconsin. One observer stated, once McCarthy had been put in his place, that it never occurred to him that someone so gentle as Stennis would not only hold his own, but “mop the floor” with an Irish brawler like Joe McCarthy.
In 1965, the Senate created the Select Committee on Standards and Conduct in hopes of elevating the level of honesty and decorum in the Senate. Sen. Stennis was chosen overwhelmingly as the first Chair of this committee, which was later to become the Senate Ethics Committee, but more often it was simply known as the “Stennis Committee” after the man who would come to be called the “Conscience of the Senate.”
Sen. Stennis graduated from Mississippi State University in 1923 and from the University of Virginia Law School in 1928, and in that same year began a 61-year career in public service.
Dr. William Martin Wiseman is director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government and professor of political science at Mississippi State University. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.