Remember the great Democratic southern politicians like Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina and Senator William Fulbright of Arkansas? If you are a progressive and don’t remember them, it’s only because you are too young. These were giants of the 1960s and 1970s, and while their records were tainted by their lack of support for civil rights legislation, their principled and effective stands on other issues made them leaders of the nation and true partners with Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.
It’s hard to imagine one of today’s southern Republicans working to promote honesty, transparency, and reason. South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham tries to act as a person of reason, but ideas like boycotting the 2014 winter Olympics in Russia reveal how radical he really is.
Sam Ervin fit in that category of politicians who were “too nice to be Republican.” He opposed civil rights actions, particularly the Warren Court’s Brown v Board of Education decision opposing segregation in public schools. But he also minimized demagoguery, not feeling it appropriate for him to stir up race relations in his state or the country. He called himself a “simple country lawyer.”
Ervin made a deep impact on American history through his work on two separate committees that were critical in bringing down two powerful opponents: Senator Joe McCarthy in 1954 and President Richard M. Nixon in 1974. Ironically, then-Vice President Richard Nixon appointed Ervin in 1954 to a committee formed to investigate whether McCarthy should be censured by the Senate. Ervin’s second select committee assignment was investigating Watergate and related travesties during the Nixon Administration.
Ervin was an outstanding appointee to the special committees investigating the protection of civil liberties. In his own mind he was a “strict Constitutionalist,” and his vision of that meant protecting individuals from excessive transgressions on the part of government. For this reason, he was comfortable investigating both McCarthy and Nixon. Ervin had a very folksy demeanor, and even when he was being tough, he did so in a friendly, even syrupy way that often left his opponents speechless.
William Fulbright (after whom the Fulbright Scholarships are named) was best known for being an internationalist. It is difficult to imagine any of today’s southern Republican senators as strong supporters of the creation of the United Nations, as Fulbright was. Fulbright’s foreign affairs expertise led him to become chairperson of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In that position, he was a strong, consistent opponent of the U.S. War in Vietnam. In 1966, his committee held several series of investigations into the Vietnam War. He greatly widened the national and international audiences who were aware of the inconsistencies and fallacies in the U.S. policy towards Vietnam. Fulbright’s hearings were so widely anticipated that they were nationally televised in their entirety – this being in the pre-C-SPAN era. He held further hearings in 1971 that included the riveting testimony of Vietnam Veterans for Peace spokesman John Kerry, who later became a U.S. Senator and Secretary of State.
In the eyes of many northerners, representatives from the South were somewhat “tainted” because of the segregationist history of their region. When Senators Ervin and Fulbright came along, it had special meaning because it was somewhat unexpected. But both were intellectual giants and, with the exception of race, had strong ethical beliefs on how the United States should conduct itself. It’s possible to even forgive them for their views on race, for without them they would never have been elected or reelected.
It shouldn’t surprise us that our southern Republican representatives tend to collectively be known as “Dr. No.” When President Lyndon B. Johnson lost the South in 1964, it should not have been a surprise that a Republican dynasty would move us further back to the past. Regrettably, that also included the virtual elimination of any chance of having a true American statesman once again rise from the South.