BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Gilbert C. Fite, author of "Richard B. Russell, Jr., Senator From Georgia." What's the man all about?
Mr. GILBERT C. FITE, AUTHOR, "RICHARD B. RUSSELL, JR.": Well, Senator Russell was a very, I think, distinguished politician for his day. And later, we may talk about some of his problems. But I think, generally, he was in the mainstream of American history from the time he was in the Senate in 1933, when he came to Washington in January of '33, and stayed there until he died in 1971. So he was here for 38 years and in a very important period of American history. And he had much to do with many of the issues that were involved--or that the country was involved in during those years.
LAMB:What was he like? And did you know him?
Mr. FITE: I never knew him personally, but I went through all of his
personal papers and I think I got a pretty good understanding of the kind of
man he was. In the first place, he was a very intelligent person. He didn't
show this in his early years in school because he liked to play rather than
study. But once he got through law school and--with a little better than
average grades--and started practicing law, and went into politics in 1921
when he went to the Georgia Legislature, from that time on, I think his
intelligence showed in about everything that he was involved with.
In addition to that, he was a man that was greatly concerned about having
information on the issues that he dealt with. He had no respect for some of
his colleagues who he thought really weren't prepared for the issues that they
were dealing with in the United States Senate. He studied a great deal. The
story is that when he first came to Washington that he read the congressional
record in its entirety every day. So he wanted to be informed. He was a man
who believed that knowledge was power, and that if you knew more than the
people you were, perhaps, arguing against or working against on a, say, a
particular political issue, then you're--you were more likely to win the
battle if you had more information.
He was a humble individual, although he held high office and was chairman
of the Appropriations Committee during his last years, and was on the
Appropriation Committee all the 38 years that he was in the Senate. He was
the kind of person who would always be prepared on an issue when he went
to--whatever that issue might be. So he was informed on issues and he
worked hard to know more than other people on it.
LAMB:Let me ask you about some of the little things, because when you read
your book, you take away a lot of the personal stuff that you may not have
known if you watched the senator as he did his job over here in the Senate.
Was he married?
Mr. FITE: No, he was--he never married. As a young man, he did a lot of
courting, as they called it in those days. In the--when he was a teen-ager,
he was literally pursued by young ladies. And they thought that he was a
catch, so to speak, if they could get a date with Richard Russell.
And I found in his files many of the letters that these girls wrote to him
when he was 16, 17 and 18 years old. But whenever any one of them would get
serious, then he would drop them. But he almost got married in 1938.
He met a young lady here in Washington, who was a professional person, and
they came just within an ace of getting married, but they didn't get
married because of religious differences. It seems--well, not very
important today, perhaps, but in the 1930s, a mixed marriage, which was, at
that time a Protestant and a Catholic, didn't go over. And the young lady was
a Catholic and she wanted to have a Catholic wedding, the Catholic rites, and
he didn't. He wanted his brother, who was a Presbyterian minister, to marry
LAMB:How big a family was he from?
Mr. FITE: Well, he came from a family of 13 children. He was the fourth
--the first son and the fourth child of a family of 13.
LAMB:What was his father like?
Mr. FITE: His father was a very ambitious man--a lawyer and a judge--and a
man who pushed his son very hard. And Judge Richard Russell, his father, was
very concerned about his son’s succeeding.
Mr. FITE: His father had run for...
LAMB:Is this a picture right here of the judge?
Mr. FITE: Yeah, that's a picture of the judge. He swore his son in as
governor of Georgia. He was then chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court.
And he was very happy because he had run for governor on at least two
occasions earlier and had not made it, and was now sort of leaving it up to
his son to carry on the family record, so to speak.
LAMB:Where was he born? What kind of a town was it? And how did he
live when he came to Washington?
Mr. FITE: Richard Russell was born in Winder, Georgia, which is not far from
Atlanta, a small town; probably had about 1,000 people at that time, and it
was an area where they raised cotton--it was a rural town. And he went to a
private school, Gordon Military Institute, for his secondary education, and
then he went to the University of Georgia for his law degree, which, at that
time, was a two-year degree. And so he was from a big family with an
ambitious father, who pushed him and he lived in this rural community,
which--although I should say that he did travel a good deal as a youth. He
came to Washington. He was here, in fact, for Woodrow Wilson's inauguration
with his father in 1913. And so--but he was raised in a rural community and
he never got over that feeling that--of agrarianism. He was a great
Now when he came to Washington in 1933, he lived alone, either in a hotel room
or in a small apartment. He also had a sister in Washington at that time and
he visited her frequently. But generally, he lived alone; spent his evenings
reading, getting ready for the Senate business the next day or reading
history. He had a great love of history and he probably knew more about the
Civil War than most professional historians.
LAMB:You've mentioned quite often in the book about what he would do at the
end of the day. He had a regular pattern. Would you tell us...
Mr. FITE: Well, his pattern at the end of the day was stay until about 7:00.
And the staff--some of the staff used to say they wish he would get married so
he'd have to go home for dinner. But he would stay until about 7, finish his
correspondence and then he'd at--in the early years before television, he'd
listen to the news on the radio while he was having a couple of drinks of Jack
Daniels, which he kept in his drawer--his desk drawer--and then he would go
out to the local--to a local restaurant to have dinner. And he kept up that
pattern during most of his years in Washington.
LAMB:You said that you could find him often at the O'Donnell's Seafood...
Mr. FITE: Right.
LAMB:...which is no longer there now, downtown.
Mr. FITE: Yeah.
LAMB:But he would sit at the bar by himself?
Mr. FITE: Sometimes that would be what he would do, right.
LAMB:You said he had emphysema.
Mr. FITE: Yes. He started smoking very early in life as a teen-ager, and
his mother used to chastise him for it and yet he never stopped. And he
smoked unfiltered cigarettes, of course, at that time, and he began to get
emphysema in the 1950s. He went to Rochester, Minnesota, for treatment
and to find out for sure what he had in about 1955. And the doctors there
tried to get him to stop smoking, but it was about three years later before he
did. And he said on one occasion he coughed just as much when he wasn't
smoking as when he was, so he said, `Why don't I continue to smoke?' But he
did quit about 1958, but by that time, the emphysema had become so serious
that he went downhill rather steadily after that.
LAMB:When he would have a couple of drinks of Jack Daniels in the evening,
did he invite his staff in to join him?
Mr. FITE: Not too often, according to what the staff members have told me.
They might be with him, but they might--he would frequently not offer them a
LAMB:How did he get along with people that worked for him and how often did
he see them?
Mr. FITE: Well, he was a very private person and his senior staff--he
saw them frequently, and, of course, the secretary who took his
correspondence, he saw her frequently. But the people who worked out
in the front offices, who took care of the daily routine, he didn't
see them very often. He always went in his private door, or almost always.
He was not a person that was--we might say hale and hardy and well met.
He was a very reserved Southern gentleman. He called the ladies
in his office `Miss So-and-So'--whatever their name was. Call them...
LAMB:Used their first name...
Mr. FITE: Used their first name.
LAMB:...like Miss Margaret.
Mr. FITE: Yeah, Miss Margaret, or whoever it might be, right.
LAMB:Those that watch this network and they--or travel this town will notice
the name Cannon and Longworth and Rayburn on the House side refer to former
speakers of the House. On the Senate side, there are three office buildings
where senators are--keep--have their offices; Phil Hart was a senator from
Michigan, and Everett Dirksen, the senator from Illinois, and then the one
that is the oldest one from up around here is the Russell Senate Office
Mr. FITE: Right.
LAMB:What did he do that got him--the Senate of the United States to name
that building after him?
Mr. FITE: Well, Richard Russell, I think, had as much or more respect by his
colleagues than most any senator during that period, at least on the
Democratic side. And he got along well with his colleagues on the Republican
side as well. And that was partly true because he was a master at doing
favors for people in a behind-the-scenes way. Richard Russell worked behind
the scenes. And people came to ad--that is, his colleagues came to admire him
for a variety of reasons.
One was that they could absolutely depend upon his integrity. I mean, if
Richard Russell gave you his word, you didn't have to worry about it. You
didn't have to have it written down. Not only did he have great integrity,
but he was fair, and people--his colleagues recognized that. And so he
built up a series of friendships and a high level of respect that I
think very few senators had to that degree. And I think that's the reason
that finally it was named. And, of course, Senator Byrd was and is a great
admirer of Richard Russell.
LAMB:You're talking about Senator Robert Byrd...
Mr. FITE: Robert Byrd, right.
LAMB:...who wrote a liner note on the back of your book here.
Mr. FITE: Right. Mm-hmm.
LAMB:`Richard Russell left a mark that will always be prominent in the
history of the United States Senate and in the memories of those, like myself,
who served with him.' On the front of this book, you have a picture, and
we'll show it here in just a second and try to identify some of these
folks--being Richard Russell right there; Alan J. Ellender, senator from
Louisiana; John Stennis, right here, from Mississippi; this is a gentleman
that--his name is A. Willis Robertson and is the father of Pat Robertson;
Harry Byrd Sr.; John McClellan from the state of Arkansas; and this man here
I--who I did not recognize, is?
Mr. FITE: I think that's Burnet Maybank.
LAMB:Who are all these folks and why did you decide to put them on the
Mr. FITE: Well, they were people that were supporting Richard Russell and
the Southern cause in regard to civil rights. They were part of the Southern
caucus, and since a good deal of the book deals with the struggle and the
conflicts over civil rights, the publisher thought that was an appropriate
Mr. FITE: You know, the authors don't have anything to do with that.
LAMB:Before we get into that, you live where?
Mr. FITE: We live in northwest Arkansas, not far from Senator Fulbright's
former home at Fayetteville.
LAMB:That's where you live?
Mr. FITE: Yes, now.
LAMB:And what do you do for a living?
Mr. FITE: I don't do anything. I'm retired.
LAMB:How long have you been working on this book?
Mr. FITE: I started working on that about 1980 when I was at the University
of Georgia in Athens. And then I had it almost completed when I retired in
1986 and then I was having so much fun in retirement I had a little problem
getting back to it. And then I finished it and it was published last year.
LAMB:On the front cover it says, `By, Gilbert C. Fite, the
Fred W. Morrison Series in Southern studies.' Do you know what that is?
Mr. FITE: That is a series of books that the University of North
Carolina Press has published. I think many of them are biographies of
Southerners and they've gotten special support from this foundation or
LAMB:`The Russell chair in American history at the University of Georgia.'
That's what you held?
Mr. FITE: Right.
LAMB:Now the first thing the--when you read this, you'd think the
Russell chair at the University of Georgia and you're writing a biography
about Richard Russell, how do you keep your biases out of it? And did
you go into this project being pro-Richard Russell?
Mr. FITE: Well, I think--the first book I ever wrote back in the late 1940s
was a biography of Senator Peter Norbeck of South Dakota, a liberal
Republican. But I think--well, my philosophy of history is that we ought to
be as objective in writing our history as we possibly can and we ought to
keep--when we're writing biography--keep the person in the time and place in
which he lived. And that's what I did, especially on the question of civil
Now Richard Russell and I would not agree on the question of civil rights.
But I think I have presented his position fairly. I've been critical, but I
don't think unduly so. I've tried to place him in the time that he lived in,
the environment that he came out of, the influence of history on him and his
family, and so forth.
But other than the civil rights issue, I think Richard Russell was very much
in the mainstream of Democratic politics in the period from 1933 to 1971,
except, possibly, right at the end--he and Lyndon Johnson had a falling out
over a good bit of the Great Society program. But other than that, he was a
New Dealer in the early years, supported Franklin Roosevelt all the way
through, and supported such things in the early years as federal aid to
education. I mean, he was not out of tune, except on this one issue, with the
main thrust of the Democratic Party.
LAMB:On the issue of Lyndon Johnson, though, you said that he spent
a lot of evenings inside the White House?
Mr. FITE: He did. I expect after Johnson became president, he spent more
time with Johnson than I would guess any other senator--a lot of time over
LAMB:He was 38 years as a United States senator and was he ever majority or
minority leader of his party?
Mr. FITE: No. He could have been majority leader in 1953--I mean, minority
leader in 1953 or he could have been majority leader in 1955. He did not want
the--or he could have had it earlier--he did not want the majority leadership
because by the time he could have had it, he and Harry--Harry
Truman, who had become president, had a sharp difference over the civil
rights question. And Russell said, `I do not want the responsibility of
handling the administration program, as I would need to do if I were majority
leader, with this civil rights issue in it as a main part of
LAMB:How much did he have to do with making Lyndon Johnson the
Mr. FITE: Well, I think he had a lot to do with making Lyndon Johnson first
minority leader and then majority leader. Russell liked Johnson from the
beginning and Johnson courted Russell as he did other people. And when
Russell--I mean, when Johnson came to Washington, the Johnsons almost
immediately began to entertain Russell--inviting him for dinner and that
kind of thing and courted him unmercifully, really. And so Johnson and
Russell had or did develop a fairly close personal relationship early on.
But what Russell liked about Johnson was his ability to get things done and
his ability to work with different elements in the Democratic Party. And
that, I think, is one of the main reasons that he supported Johnson for
majority leader. He could see--Russell could see the Democratic Party
dividing over the question of civil rights by the late 1940s and he felt
Johnson would be the best person in the party, that he knew of anyway, to kind
of keep the two groups, the two elements in the Democratic Party, together.
And he worked hard toward that end. But he admired Johnson. He liked
Johnson. They were just the very opposite. If the old saw is right that
opposites draw one another, here's a good example of it, because Russell was
private, he was reserved, he was polite, while Johnson was often boisterous
and demanding and so forth. But they got along very well together...
Mr. FITE: ...until...
Mr. FITE: ...the judge, right.
Mr. FITE: Well, in 1968, Russell made a nomination for a federal judge in
south Georgia. And if I can go back just a minute. Some people thought
that Johnson and Russell really came from parting of the ways over the Great
Society program. And it's true that Russell opposed most of that program, but
they still had very close social relations all during the '60s up to 1968.
And so Russell nominated an old friend and political supporter, and a rather
distinguished lawyer, for a judgeship in south Georgia. And the man had
earlier made some anti-civil rights statements and took some anti-civil rights
positions. This had been almost a decade before. And some of the civil
rights people and the attorney general's office said we'd better look into
this a lot more carefully.
And so groups began to oppose judge--the nominee. And Russell thought that
the president ought to put it right through. And so when he didn't--although
he told Russell that, you know, `I'm finally going to appoint the--your
nominee, but I've got to solve some political problems that I've got here with
the appointment beforehand.' And Russell thought he was too slow and
embarrassing his nominee and so forth, and so he wrote the president a red-hot
letter. In fact, it was so hot that Johnson told one of his aides that he
didn't want to even keep it in the file, although he did.
And they never recon--the appointment was made, but Russell never
forgave him. And Johnson tried to--after he decided he wasn't going to run
for president and went back to Texas, he tried to mend the split, but he was
never successful. And Russell--in fact, when they were doing a book on
Johnson and wanting some of his former colleagues to say some kind things
about him, Russell didn't even answer the request until, finally, one of his
assistants or one of his aides said, `We've got to write something,' and so
they did. But Russell was unforgiving, I'd say, in that situation.
LAMB:How did you find the information? And where did you find
Mr. FITE: Well, I got--I found it both in the Russell Papers and in the
LAMB:And where are they located?
Mr. FITE: The Johnson--the Russell Papers are in the Russell Library at the
University of Georgia, and the Johnson Papers are in the Johnson Library at
LAMB:How about personal interviews with former staff people?
Mr. FITE: And I interviewed most of the senior staff people, yes.
Charles E. Campbell was his last administrative assistant and I interviewed
him at some length.
LAMB:What about--there--maybe one living senator--is Senator Stennis still
Mr. FITE: I believe he's still alive.
LAMB:Did you talk to him?
Mr. FITE: Yes, I talked to him. Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
LAMB:And any other senators that he served with?
Mr. FITE: Fulbright. Let's see--well, I interviewed a number of
Others -- and, of course, Senator Talmadge, the other senator from Georgia.
LAMB:And what was the relationship of Senator Russell with the Talmadge
family in the past and...
Mr. FITE: Well, Eugene Talmadge had run against Russell for the Senate in
LAMB:And who was Eugene Talmadge?
Mr. FITE: Eugene Talmadge was a governor--he'd been secretary of Agriculture
in Georgia and was--and then became governor.
LAMB:But his relationship to Herman Talmadge, eventually the senator?
Mr. FITE: Was his father, right. And so Tom--Eugene Talmadge was a--well,
had a lot of support from the--from rural Georgia, and that was his--that was
his base. And a lot of people thought that he would give Russell a real
battle in 1936. Russell--his first election was for four years to fill out a
term of a deceased senator. And so then he came up in '36 again and a lot of
folks in Georgia thought that Talmadge could beat him because Georgia was
predominantly rural at that time and he had a farm, and in his
past political history, he had appealed to the rural element.
But the surprising thing was for many people, including me when I began to
study it, was how much support Russell had from farmers. And he never acted
like a farmer. He never, you know, hardly ever campaigned
without his shirt and tie in those rural areas. And yet he got the farm vote.
I think because they felt, `He's giving it to us straight. We can depend on
what he says.' And Russell didn't make many promises to farmers, but he still
got their vote.
LAMB:There's a poster here that you have in this book, I want to show
--not because of the obvious, but right down here it says, `The leading
candidate for governor.' When was this poster used? And that's his
poster, isn't it?
Mr. FITE: That would have been in 1930.
LAMB:And was he governor?
Mr. FITE: No, he was running for governor.
LAMB:I mean, did he make--was he elected governor?
Mr. FITE: Yes, he was elected. He was never defeated in an election. In
any--from the House--when he was 23 years old, he ran for the House in his
district, that is the state House of Representatives, he won that against
an older man in the county who was well-established--beat him, I think, better
than 2:1, as I remember it. And then when he ran for governor, a lot of
people thought--this was in 1930--that he was just testing the water, so to
speak. That used to be characteristic in Georgia and probably other
states--run and get known. And he said, `No, I'm going to run to win.' And he
beat some of the best old-line politicians that the state had.
LAMB:How much money did he spend when he ran for the Senate--on the
different races? Did he spend a lot?
Mr. FITE: Oh, not much. One year, he spent $3,000 when--I think when he ran
the first time for governor. I expect when he ran for the Senate--it seems
to me--I'm not sure of these details, but I think it was about $12,000 for...
LAMB:How could he do that?
Mr. FITE: Well, he had a car and a driver, and he'd go from town to
town and talk to people at the courthouse square, or he might stop along the
road and talk to a farmer. And he didn't use much radio, but he did use
radio some in 1932, and at least he made maybe three or four talks on radio.
So that's about all the costs he had.
LAMB:If somebody's just tuning in, again, the years that he was a United
States senator--38 years from when to when?
Mr. FITE: From January 1933 until he died in January 1971.
LAMB:Was he a senator when he died?
Mr. FITE: He was a senator when he died, and was chairman pro tem of the
LAMB:What does that mean?
Mr. FITE: Well, that's, I think, the most distinguished title that the
colleagues can give to somebody that they deeply respect and--it does
carry some--or it did at that time, anyway--carried some perks with it.
You know, he had a car after that and that sort of thing.
LAMB:And what was his power base in the United States Senate over the years
that he was there?
Mr. FITE: I think, in the first place, he was chairman of the Subcommittee
on Agriculture Appropriations in the 19--late 1930s. And the United States
was very rural in the late 1930s, and he did a lot of favors for people--for
senators all over rural America, which was a good share of America at that
time. And so that was--he--as I said a while ago, he did a lot of favors for
people. Also, he had established this reputation of being fair, of
being--having great integrity. And there was another thing about Richard
Russell: He--if you told him something in confidence, you could be sure it
was never going to be repeated.
And so, over the years, his stature just increased year after year with more
and more of his colleagues respecting him, and then, of course, seniority
played a big part here because seniority was a lot more important in those
days than it is now, because when you got to be chairman of the--let's say of
the Armed Services Committee, which he was for 16 years, or chairman of the
Appropriations Committee, which he was after 1969, why, you know, you had a
lot of power.
LAMB:Page 244, you talk about something called the--let's see if I can find
it--the Relocation Commission.
Mr. FITE: Yes.
Mr. FITE: That idea had floated around. A number of people had that idea,
of relocating blacks from the South to the North. Russell, on the racial
issue, did not believe in integration in any form whatever. He believed that
both races would be better off if they were separate--physically separated.
And so as the civil rights movement developed, Russell and people who
held those views said--and many of the views were coming from the
Northeast and the North and, to a lesser extent, from the West, in Congr--that
is, representatives in Congress from those areas, Russell said, `Well, if
we're going to have integration, why don't we have it in the North as well as
in the South?'
And so he favored this relocation bill. If--any black family that wanted
to move on, at least one of the bills said that they'd be paid $1,500 to move
to some other community. Of course, that got nowhere in Congress, any more
than the idea that had been around during quite a little of the 20th century
of moving blacks to Africa or some idea of that kind.
So none of--these were mostly ideas to deter or to turn aside
the main drive for civil rights. And Russell and the Southern caucus,
which started out with about 20 senators and finally declined until it only
had about 12 or 13 left that they could really depend on to oppose civil
rights legislation, those--well, by that time they were just trying to
slow the process up. As Russell said on many occasions, you know,
`If I could just stop this for 20 years,' or something like this.
LAMB:Let me read from your book. This is in the summing-up chapter near the
end. `But as a party leader in the Senate, Russell resisted every step toward
racial equality. Not only did he believe that whites were superior to blacks
and that mixing of the races would weaken the nation, but he saw demands for
civil rights as an attack on his beloved South and all that the region stood
I want to keep reading because it--you need to get all this in context, `The
South, with its rigid caste and class system, never had a stronger supporter
than Dick Russell. As has been emphasized elsewhere, he did not possess a bit
of demagoguery in his makeup, nor did he wish ill for blacks. In his view,
blacks had made great progress since the end of slavery and the relationship
between whites and blacks should not be disturbed. According to Russell, the
races should remain separate and unequal.'
Mr. FITE: Well, I think he would have said separate and equal,
but my view is that you--they can't be separate and equal. They're
separate and unequal. And so Dick Russell would have argued with me on that
point--or with anybody. He did. The Congressional Record is full of the
arguments. But--now unlike Senator Talmadge, let's say, who came in
in the '50s, who had a--who came in as a strong segregationist, but who
gradually changed some of his views. But Russell never did.
And I think part of this was due to his understanding of history. He--as I
mentioned a while ago, he was a great reader of history. And some of
the history he read was on Reconstruction after the Civil War. And he read
the history in that period, which tried to show that blacks were totally
irresponsible when they got in positions of influence, as they did in some
of the Southern states there during Reconstruction.
And so with that understanding and with the stories that the older men in his
community used to tell him about the Civil War and about Reconstruction, he
was--he just believed that blacks could not handle the kinds of
responsibility, let's say, that he could do. And so he was--as I say
there someplace, he was sort of bound by his understanding of history and how
blacks had functioned in American society at a particular time,
particularly during Reconstruction.
And he just never changed his mind and there was no
reasoning with him on that point, although he was a most reasonable man on
almost every other issue. But not that one.
LAMB:Your last paragraph of the whole book, you quote from April 1st,
1969, "Senator Margaret Chase Smith, who Russell finally called Sis"--and I
believe she's still alive...
Mr. FITE: Mm-hmm.
LAMB:...lives in Maine, a Republican, and you quote her as saying that
Russell should have been president because, quote, "He was eminently qualified
for the office," and because, quote, "our nation would be a better nation had
he been president."
`The country had not agreed with this flattering assessment, but the tribute
did indicate what people who worked most closely with Russell thought of him.'
I guess I wanted to go back, then, on the other page, where you write,
`Russell set an example of honesty, integrity, dignity, rectitude and honor,
ancient values that many Americans took too lightly.'
How does all this track the--for--people saying he should have been
president and he had--he was a senator's senator, a president's senator and
all this--with his views on race. How can you have both?
Mr. FITE: Well, he just, for some reason--and I can't explain it--and
his correspondence, which--practically all of which I've read, don't explain
why he never changed his view on this one issue.
He changed views on many other issues--very important issues, and--for
instance, in his early years he was a strong isolationist. Well, he got away
from that in his later years. But on this issue of race, he lived in a
time, was raised in a community that was strictly segregated, and just could
not, for some reason or other, bring himself to see that this was wrong.
LAMB:To prevent the civil rights acts from being passed in the late '50s and
the early '60s, what did he do with the filibuster rules?
Mr. FITE: Well, he kept the filibuster rule in force, and even tightened it
up in some cases, so that a minority had more power than it had had earlier.
And it wasn't until 19--when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed that the
rest of the Senate was strong enough to override that small minority. And
if the Senate, at that time--or, that is, if the caucus--Russell
and the Southern caucus--could have gotten the thing in
committee--the Civil Rights Act--they might have blocked it even longer. But
in 1964 there were enough votes to put it directly on the calendar, and so
there was no way for a committee to block it. And, of course, that was done
in a purposeful way by the people who wanted civil rights legislation passed.
LAMB:So what you're really saying is that if he had lived and had succeeded,
that--well, actually, he lived past the civil rights legislation--that if he
had had his way, the Civil Rights Act of '57, '64 would not have been
Mr. FITE: They would not have. Now he did--he finally voted against the--he
knew the '57 law was going to pass, but the most effective parts of that law
he and Lyndon Johnson arranged to cut out because Johnson could see--Johnson
became a strong supporter of civil rights because he wanted to become
president, and he saw that no person in American history, from this time
onward, would probably--could be elected president without supporting civil
And so he and Russell made a deal and they got the law passed, but it wasn't a
very effective law. Neither was the 1960 law. And it wasn't until 1964 that
Johnson had built up enough support that they were able to put it past this
minority that would have talked forever to keep it from passing if they'd had
LAMB:You also write, `White supremacy and racial segregation were to him
cardinal principles for good and workable human relationships. He had a deep
emotional commitment to preserving the kind of South in which his ancestors
and he had lived. No sacrifice was too great for him to make if it
would prevent the extension of full equality to blacks.'
Again, I hate to keep harping on this--you write about it so often in the
book, though--but how does--how do you get a reputation for integrity and
honesty and respect of all your colleagues, and have this attitude about
your fellow human?
Mr. FITE: I have seen nothing in the record where his colleagues challenged
him on this contradiction, as you imply. I believe it was Hubert Humphrey
that once said that Richard Russell was in the mainstream of the Democratic
Party, except on this issue of civil rights.
And I never saw Humphrey--any record of Senator Humphrey or any of the
other strong pro-civil rights people, you know, criticizing Russell in the
broad sense because of this one issue. And I think that's just because
they did have deep respect for him, but on this one issue, you know, `Dick,
you don't know what you're talking about, and we're going to change it.' And
LAMB:If he were here today and saw what was going on--the Senate's on
television; there are lots of--I mean, of--compared to what it was in those
days--black--more black representatives, and in the next election it looks
like they're going to--the number of black representatives is going to go up
by 50 percent--and women--what would he think of all that?
Mr. FITE: I think--in the case of women, I think Richard Russell would
have supported that move. I don't think we can really guess
whether--if he had lived long enough--that he would have changed his mind, but
certainly there was no indication by 1971 that he was changing his mind. Now
he had given up on the fight over civil rights. For instance, he had been a
strong opponent of some of the housing legislation and that sort of thing,
but he quit, really, opposing that in a vigorous way--might vote against
it, but he wasn't taking the lead in it.
LAMB:What do you think he would think of television?
Mr. FITE: Well...
LAMB:And did he appear on television very often?
Mr. FITE: Not very often. Russell was very critical, in fact, of his
colleagues, who he said instead of tending to day-to-day business, were
running to the television station to get on TV so they could send their
message home and that sort of thing. He thought we'd have better
government if everybody did their work and paid attention to the
day-to-day operations more than trying to get publicity for themselves.
And the way we spend money nowadays on elections would have simply
been abhorrent to Richard Russell. Now, of course, he did have the good luck
of not having any opposition after 1936, so all he had to do was to raise
enough money to file his candidacy. But he never spent much money and the
idea that we have--or have had recently, of where candidates--or I mean
members of Congress can keep a certain amount of campaign money,
that--Richard Russell--he would have thought that was the worst thing in the
world. Because he always--if he had any extra campaign money left over at the
end of a campaign, he always sent it back if he could find the people to send
it to. And when he couldn't find the people to send it to, he gave that money
to the University of Georgia in his will.
Mr. FITE: Yeah.
LAMB:...ran for president?
Mr. FITE: Right.
Mr. FITE: Well, his Southern colleagues put a lot of pressure on him to run
for president in 1952. He had been nominated in 1948, but he never joined the
Dixiecrats; he went ahead and supported Truman, although he had been
nominated, and it was on the--on a civil rights issue--on the civil
And so then he said he would--wouldn't run anymore, but he had a lot of
pressure from Southerners to run for president in 194--in 1952, and so he
finally decided that he'd take a swing at it, and he did.
LAMB:You--well, you mention that at one point there was talk about an
Mr. FITE: Well, newspaper talk of that, yes.
Mr. FITE: Yeah. Right.
LAMB:I mean, back in those days General Eisenhower could have been just as
easily a Democrat as a Republican?
Mr. FITE: There were some Democrats that would have been--would have loved
to have had Eisenhower as their candidate.
LAMB:Another small issue: He was notorious--maybe that's not a fair
word--around Capitol Hill for the way he was listed in the Congressional
Mr. FITE: Right.
LAMB:What's that story?
Mr. FITE: Well, he was listed as Richard B. Russell, Democrat, Winder,
Georgia, and that's all that they had in the Congressional Record after about
And this--he was going to change this, but his colleagues came around when
this issue of the directory came out and they saw that his one line of
identification--when the rest of them had a half a page or a page or a page
and a half, telling all of the great things they had ever done--his colleagues
came up to him and said, `Dick, that's great. We think this is
wonderful.' So he got so many compliments from people that he never changed
it, and after the mid-'50s, for about the last 15 or 16 years he was in
Congress, that was the only identification in the Congressional Directory:
Richard B. Russell, Democrat of Winder, Georgia.
LAMB:There's a story about how he felt about a sound system in--you know,
the loudspeaker system in the Senate.
Mr. FITE: Right. He opp--Russell was a very conservative man on an
issue such as this. He didn't want the sound system and he said, `The
reason I don't want the sound system is because in the gallery, if people--if
they have trouble hearing, they'll be quiet and kind of pay strict attention
to what we're saying. If we have a sound system, why, there'll be whispering
up there and all this and they won't any pay attention--or not as much
attention to us.' So that was his reason. But, of course, they put
in the sound system.
LAMB:Is there much of a family left in the Russell family in the
Mr. FITE: Oh, there's a very big Russell family, right--nephews, nieces.
Some of the senator's family--some members of it are still alive.
LAMB:Were they at all sensitive when you wrote this biography because of
what you had to do with the civil rights issue?
Mr. FITE: The family were all--members of the family were all very
cooperative. His sister gave me access to files that she had--Mrs.
Hugh Peterson. And other members of the family were generous in giving time
for interviews. And one of them told me--one of the sisters who was a friend
of the lady that he came--well, that he almost married--she told me something
about that situation and so the family--all the members were very
LAMB:Was anybody at all sensitive and tried to prevent you from writing up
the civil rights part of it?
Mr. FITE: No, I don't think so.
LAMB:Was there--did you have final say-so on what went in the book?
Mr. FITE: Oh, yes. Yeah. Nobody edited out anything.
LAMB:As you were working on the book, what did you keep saying to yourself
is the importance of this book? What can people learn from it?
Mr. FITE: Well, I think they can learn how the Senate operated, to a
considerable degree, during that period. I think they can learn something
more about some of the main issues that confronted the country during those
years. And I think you get something of a flavor of what society
was like at that time, how it moved from sort of the simpler, at
least, rural society to a more urban society with different kinds of problems.
For example, in the early part of the book I had to deal a lot with
agricultural policy because Russell was greatly interested in the condition of
farmers in rural America. But relative to the rest of the economy, by the
time he left the Senate there had been a great change. You know, the farm
population had declined from about 30 percent to 32 percent down to about 3
percent so he had--he took up other issues. And so you see that change
throughout the book. And I think you see how one senator--and we do this
in all--in the biographies of all the senators--how one operated and how they
LAMB:How much does this book cost? It's published by Chapel Hill.
Mr. FITE: I think it's $29.95.
LAMB:It's not on the flap here. That's why I asked.
Mr. FITE: No, they don't put it on--maybe--I don't know about why they
didn't, but it's published by the University of North Carolina Press at Chapel
LAMB:There's a picture here that has a lot of stories in it. You can see
Richard Russell there and Douglas MacArthur next to him, and Henry Cabot Lodge
next to him. Can you tell us this story?
Mr. FITE: This was a committee that made a trip around the world, to all--or
not to all, but to many American military bases in 1943. And the committee
went out to kind of see how American troops were doing and how the whole
operation was organized, and to try to answer questions of that kind.
And they were in--they went to London and North Africa and to India
and then down to the South Pacific, where MacArthur was. And they were
gone about 30 days or such a matter.
LAMB:But when he got back...
Mr. FITE: When he got back he had some points to make that we're still
making. And one of them is that the countries they visited were anticipating,
as he put it, `a lot more help than we're going to be able to give them after
the war is over.'
And Russell later became a very strong opponent of foreign aid--in fact, he
never voted for a foreign aid bill after 1952. And as he--as he saw the
demands that were going to come to the American taxpayer, he said, `Our
taxpayers have been burdened enough by the war. It's time that we look at
things at home.'
LAMB:Also, though, you say that--in the book about the--he was planning to
give a special report on this trip around the world and Henry Cabot Lodge
snuck up on him.
Mr. FITE: Yes. There was an understanding that Russell, as chairman of that
committee, would make a report on that worldwide trip, and Senator Lodge did
reveal most of what he was going to say ahead of time, much to Senator
Russell's consternation. He didn't appreciate that at all.
LAMB:What role did Richard Russell play in Douglas MacArthur's life, and for
those who have never heard of Douglas MacArthur, who was he?
Mr. FITE: Well, General Douglas MacArthur was in command in the Far East
during the Korean War and he was fired by President Truman, which caused a
great hullabaloo, not only in the country, but in Congress. And MacArthur
came home, addressed Congress, made comments that caused many people to say,
`We ought to fire Truman and hire MacArthur.' It was a very emotional
issue. And the question was--in the Far East, the--well, the
recommendation of MacArthur to take some actions--bombing actions and so forth
And President Truman said, `This is a police action and we're not going to do
that.' And so he recalled General MacArthur. Something needed to be done to
quiet this issue, and Senator Russell headed the committee that examined
the official name of the hearings is Hearings on Far Eastern Policy, but
they were all known--always known as the MacArthur hearings.
And Russell called in all kinds of people to testify, including General
MacArthur, who Russell greatly admired. Russell had known MacArthur--oh, back
in the early '30s. And--but he developed these hearings on a very
even-handed--in a very even-handed way. And he just defused the whole
question, for which Truman was very grateful and the country was grateful. It
just kind of died and went away. And it had been a very emotional question
because of MacArthur's popularity from World War II and also during the Korean
LAMB:You give Senator Russell--and here's a picture of him in his kitchen,
is that right?
Mr. FITE: Right.
LAMB:You give him credit for the school lunch program. How did he get into
Mr. FITE: Yes. Well, the school lunch program first got its support
from those who were trying to do something for farmers and get rid of
the farm surpluses. And so we were buying all these commodities, so why don't
we distribute them to the schools? Which they began to do in the late 1930s.
And finally, in 1946, Russell was mainly responsible for getting a school
lunch law--a separate law--passed in Congress. Originally it had come out of
the Department of Agriculture, mainly.
LAMB:What was his relationship to Richard Nixon?
Mr. FITE: He got along pretty well with Richard Nixon, and Nixon greatly
admired Russell. And I think that it was a sort of a mutual admiration
society. We have a tape interview with President Nixon in regard to
Russell, and there's no question but he greatly admired him. In fact,
he was the president who called him a--called Russell a president's senator.
And so they had a good working relationship during that short time that they
were both--well, Russell was still in the Senate and Nixon was president.
But Nixon had one criticism of Russell, and that is he wasn't a very--very
effective in the electronic age. That is, he didn't come
across very well, Nixon didn't think. As a person, Nixon thought--well,
he thought that public officials needed to do this, to communicate with the
public in the electronic age in which we live and Russell just shied
away from that. And he did it on purpose.
LAMB:Of all the senators in the history of this country, where do
you think he'll fit in?
Mr. FITE: I think if we determine it by century, let's say, I think
he'll be a--in the first five or 10. I'd say in the first five in--in the
20th century or up to now in the 20th century.
LAMB:Our guest has been Gilbert C. Fite. This is what the book looks like.
And on the cover there are--Richard B. Russell Jr., senator from Georgia. You
can see a number of the Southern caucus back in the years when 30--during the
38 years that Senator Russell was in the United States Senate. Thank you for
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