Richard Russell died almost 50 years ago. But in the days immediately following Sen. John McCain’s death over the weekend, the senator from Georgia became rapidly relevant again – as Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) proposed taking Russell’s name off of one of the Senate office buildings and replacing it with McCain’s.
I reached out to Charles Bullock, the Richard B. Russell professor of political science at the University of Georgia, to get some historical perspective on Russell – and how the way he’s perceived has changed in the decades since his death.
Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.
Cillizza: Unless you’ve read the Robert Caro LBJ books, most people – even those who follow politics – may not know who Richard Russell was. Give us a brief refresher.
Bullock: At the time of his death in 1971, Richard Russell was one of the first individuals to have spent most of his life in the Senate (38 of 73 years).
During the last decades of his tenure, he was, if not the most powerful member of the Senate, certainly in the top five. He was singled out as the role model of what a senator should be by both John F. Kennedy, when advising his brother Ted, and Richard Nixon.
Among those whom he mentored was Lyndon Johnson. And although they diverged by 180 degrees on the 1964 Civil Rights Act, LBJ continued to seek out Russell’s advice on other policy areas. Russell’s area of greatest expertise was military policy and he chaired the Armed Services Committee for many years. He advised LBJ against getting involved in Vietnam.
He was also a power on the Appropriations Committee which he chaired at the time of his death. At the beginning of his career he learned the rules of the Senate and his use of those rules contributed to his force on the floor of the chamber. He was a New Deal Democrat who, in the one formidable electoral challenge he encountered, defeated the race-baiting former governor of Georgia Gene Talmadge.
Beginning in the late 1940s he became acknowledged as the leader of the bloc of southern senators which, while usually a minority in the Democratic Caucus, could coalesce with conservative Republican senators to block liberal legislation.
Cillizza: Russell was regarded as a legislative giant in his time. Does that still hold up through the lens of history?
Bullock: I doubt that there is a senator today who has the influence that Russell exercised in his prime. His colleagues on both sides of the aisle and presidents turned to him for advice, both substantive and strategic. He came down on the wrong side of history on civil rights, which was arguably the most important issue of the latter half of the 20th Century, but his ability to prevail in the Senate is legendary.
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For much of his career he was playing conservative defense, so there is not much legislation that carries his name – naming rights go to those who promote innovative policies. Now, almost half a century after his death, many disagree with stands that he took, but his ability to pursue his choices by blocking proposals or modifying them while representing an increasingly minority position is impressive. He is most widely remembered today for leading the unsuccessful filibuster against the 1964 Civil Right Act, which continues to hold the record for the longest filibuster.
Cillizza: Explain your view of Russell’s take on race.
Bullock: When it came to issues of race and civil rights, Russell’s views were shaped by the environment in which he grew up. As a man born in the 1890s in the South, he did not believe in racial equality. Some who were slightly younger, like Lyndon Johnson, overcame their socialization, but Russell did not.
President Harry Truman is reported to have observed that Russell would have become president had he come from any part of the nation but the South so that he might have taken a more moderate approach to changing race relations. While Russell did not support civil rights legislation, his approach was less extreme than many southern politicians of the era. He did not engage in race-baiting. Although he did all that he could to block the 1964 Civil Rights Law, once it passed, he, unlike many southern politicians at the time, urged compliance with the law and not defiance.
Cillizza: How would Richard Russell have gotten along with John McCain?
Bullock: Russell and John McCain, had they served together, would have been allies in promoting military preparedness. I think that McCain conducted himself along the lines of the norms that guided Russell’s career. I believe each would have appreciated the willingness of the other to speak the truth as they saw it even when the stand was unpopular. They would have valued the fact that they could rely upon commitments made by the other and not have to worry that a stand might change even in the face of pressure from fellow partisans or the White House.