Truth is elusive. Truth is increasingly rare and, therefore, extremely valuable. Truth is scarce and never simple. It is not ours to choose, nor is it dependent on our own capacity to tolerate it. Facts alone do not constitute truth.
I am reminded of Aaron Sorkin’s character Colonel Jessup in his play and movie script, “A Few Good Men.” In one of the most riveting, intense scenes, Jack Nicholson, playing Marine Colonel Nathan Jessup, screams at his interrogator, “The truth! You can’t handle the truth!”
Indeed, for many, unadulterated truth is not easily embraced. Truth is sometimes brutal, and we don’t like it when it does not conform to our own notions. In today’s world we are bombarded by partisan, ill-informed nonsense from analysts who we have cavalierly allowed to do our thinking for us. The discernment of truth has become hard work, and scant few are willing to devote the effort or value it enough to discover it!
As with many things, the wisdom of Winston Churchill is especially poignant: “The truth is inconvertible. Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end there it is.”
In the pursuit of truth, facts alone will not suffice. Facts must be accompanied by the time and context in which they became factual.
I believe that who we are and, consequently, what we do is a projection of where and when we were born, where we grew up, who we loved, who loved us, things that were withheld from us and things that were lavished upon us, our race, our gender, and our economic circumstances. Everything we succeed or fail at in life is a reflection of that context.
The last three weeks the political world has been up in arms over California Senator Kamala Harris’s scripted ambush of Vice President Joe Biden’s remarks extolling his abilities to work with southern segregationist senators. Biden had referenced two southern senators in particular, James O. Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia. They were two southern segregationists with whom he vehemently disagreed on civil rights, but found civility in spite of their disagreements. What he did not say, but is absolute truth, is that he found common ground with these senators on a variety of issues of national importance outside the civil rights arena.
Sen. Harris, in an effort to attack the Democratic front runner, continued her obviously well planned assault by attacking the former Vice President for the stand he took forty five years earlier, on federally mandated forced busing to aid in the integration of public schools.
Senator Harris’s contrived attacks had their short term desired impact. Biden experienced an incremental slip in polling and Harris broke into the top five in polling.
Now let’s discern the Truth behind this line of political attack. What’s the truth behind the stunt?
Let’s look at some context in our search for truth.
The truth about learning to deal with power
When the thirty-year-old junior senator from Delaware, who had entered politics because of his passion for civil rights, first entered the United States Senate, southern segregationist senators had near absolute control of the Congress.
James Eastland was President Pro Tempore of the Senate and Chairman of the Judiciary Committee. His Mississippi colleague, John Stennis was Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, as well as the Senate Ethics Committee. Arkansas’s John McClellan was Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. His fellow Arkansan William Fulbright was chairman of the Foreign Relations committee. Louisiana‘s Russell Long was Chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee. Alabama’s John Sparkman chaired the Senate Banking Committee, and his fellow Alabamian Jim Allen was considered the unrivaled master of Senate rules and procedure. Jennings Randolph of West Virginia chaired the Public Works Committee and his colleague Robert Byrd was Majority Whip of the Senate. Senator Talmadge of Georgia was Chairman of The Agriculture Committee (Talmadge also served on the special Watergate committee and was considered its most effective interrogator). North Carolina Senator Sam Ervin chaired the Government Operations Committee and was chair of the Special Watergate Committee. The leadership in the House of Representatives was similarly dominated by southern segregationists!
When President Richard Nixon learned that north Carolina Senator Sam Ervin would chair the committee investigating Watergate, and Georgia’s Senator Herman Talmadge would also serve on that committee, he bemoaned on tape to White House counsel John Dean, ”God damn it, Ervin works harder than most of our southern gentlemen. They are all great politicians; they are just more clever than the others. Just more clever.”
Nixon had watched the southern dominated senate at work for years. He knew that when matters of the constitution were at stake, “the southern club“ would rally and assert its sacred responsibilities. President Nixon knew his goose was cooked. Such was the truth about the power of the southern segregationists when the young Joe Biden arrived.
So, it’s pretty damn obvious that, if a young senator hoped to accomplish anything, he had to work with these senators with whom he had profound disagreements on civil rights.
Acknowledging the context of the times
I knew Mississippi’s Eastland and Stennis quite well. I always thought their views on civil rights were reprehensible, but I also recognized the times in which they were first elected and served. They both went to the United States Senate before I was born. My guess is, I spent about as much time as practically anyone still living, outside their families, with these two senators. I found them both to be men of the highest character, and extraordinary public servants. And I never personally heard either of them express any racial animus.
Many of these southern senators mellowed their views on issues of civil rights and ultimately renounced their opposition to civil rights. In fact, Senator Stennis, near the end of his career, confessed to none other than then Senator Joe Biden, himself, that the civil rights bills of the 1960’s was among the most important legislation passed in his lifetime, despite his own opposition. “It did more for the white man than the black man, “Stennis said. “It freed my soul, it freed my soul.”
As for Senator Eastland, he maintained a fierce loyalty to his views of the constitutional principles he always espoused. Nonetheless, it should be noted that as Eastland prepared for his last campaign, two of his most vocal and enthusiastic supporters were Charles Evers, brother of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, and long time NAACP President Dr. Aaron Henry, a legend in Mississippi’s civil rights struggles. Ultimately, due to his advancing age and the rigors of a campaign, Senator Eastland chose not to run.
None of these southern senators need me to defend them. In the bright sunlight of today, their attitudes on civil rights were wrong then and are still abhorrent now. Yet, they were reflecting the attitudes of the people they represented in the south and, indeed, in much of the nation. They must be judged in the context of their own life experiences and the times in which they served.
Lack of civility today impedes accomplishment
The point Vice President Biden was trying to make was that civility in public discourse is lacking these days, and is badly needed. I agree.
I well remember many times being in Senator Eastland’s office after hours. There, the lions of the civil rights movement would gather in his office and discuss the issues of the day. Senators Hart of Michigan, Humphrey of Minnesota, Nelson of Wisconsin, Tunney of California, Kennedy of Massachusetts and many others.
None of these men shared Senator Eastland’s views on civil rights. Yet they had a very cordial, mutually respectful relationship with the senator. In fact, Senator Ted Kennedy devoted an entire chapter in his autobiography to his cordial, even affectionate, relationship with Senator Eastland. Of course, no one rivals Senator Kennedy’s commitment to civil rights for all!
I vividly recall being privy to a conversation in which a group of Senator Eastland’s friends and political supporters were encouraging him to make himself more available to the press and media outlets . Eastland listened patiently and abruptly ended the discussion by stating, in typical Eastland fashion, “I’ve never been misquoted when I didn’t say anything.” One would think there was wisdom in that profound statement. Sadly, however, in Senator Eastland’s case, it did not apply. Years later vile, racist language was attributed to the senator long after his death. Only recently have serious historians debunked and proven the fallacy of these unsubstantiated claims of racist rhetoric. The senator was indeed misquoted for something he never said!
Hypocrisy and truth are mutually exclusive
As for Senator Harris’s attack leveled at Vice President Biden’s position on forced busing, it turns out to not be different than her own stance! While busing was a valuable tool to achieve racial integration, it was extremely unpopular in both the white and black communities at the time. In reality, Senator Harris’s views on busing and Vice President Biden’s views are very similar. Sadly, it took a couple of weeks for this truth to surface!
Senator Harris’s hypocritical stance reminds me of a politician who will chop down an old growth magnolia tree, then mount the stump and declare herself a conservationist! Truth is not hard to discern in that scenario!
I hesitate to condemn those who held such barbaric views, because I understand the context in which they were believed. I am certain that some of my own southern forefathers were vile racists. I know some were slave holders. I am certain that if I could meet them today, there would be much that I would find contemptible.
Racism is a sin today and it was a sin yesterday. Yet, I’m sure we do things today, things that we cannot even imagine, that will be considered equally wrong in the future! My guess is that, in the future, consumption of animal meat may very well be viewed as barbaric. If that’s the case, I’ll stand as an example of one of the biggest barbarians of all time!
I can only hope and pray that we will not be held accountable for not following the moral standards of the future.
We should study history to understand where we came from and how it made us what we are today. We should remember that twelve U.S. Presidents were slave owners, 41 signers of our founding document, the Declaration of Independence, owned slaves, and women were not granted the right to vote until 1920. That’s a great deal of significant change in our short two hundred and forty two year history
We should not study history to merely find someone to blame. The arc of history always bends toward justice and truth. And that, my friend, is unadulterated Truth!
More Steve Patterson: A Declaration of Conscience
Biden finds common ground: https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2019/06/biden-segregationist-eastland-talmadge/592228/
Thurmond Eulogy– Biden recounts Stennis’ “Freed my soul” statement: https://merionwest.com/2018/03/05/an-unlikelySfriendship-a-liberal-and-a-segregationist/James Eastland, John Stennis, New Albany MS, Vice President Joe Biden