Steve Patterson: A Tale of Two Senators

John C. Stennis and Steve Patterson
March 17th, 2016     Guest Authors

“Great men are they who see that spiritual is stronger than any material force – that thoughts rule the world.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

 “In reading the lives of great men, I found that the first victory they won was over themselves – self-discipline with all of them came first.” – Harry S. Truman

In the mid-19th century, Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle suggested that the entire history of mankind can be explained by the impact of divinely inspired “great men” or heroes.

“The history of the world,” said Carlyle, “is but the biography of great men.”

According to this view, all history can be explained by the personal attributes and divine inspiration of people who have risen to positions of authority and influence. Through the sheer force of their personalities, personal charisma, intelligence, political skills, and/or divine inspiration, they harnessed their powers in ways that had a decisive, historical impact on their fellow human beings. I subscribe to the”Great Man Theory” of history.

Not everyone takes this view of history.

Many thoughtful historians and serious scholars take the contrary view —  that events shape the leader.  In fact, the “Great Man Theory” is probably a minority view among scholars these days.  Nonetheless, I firmly side with Carlyle.

It is men or, to be more accurate, people who shape events.

Regardless of one’s perspective, no one can quarrel with the fact that it is profitable to study and reflect on the lives of so-called “Great men.”  By examining the lives of those larger than life heroes we inevitably uncover something about our own true nature.  The example of the “greatest” that ever lived, Jesus Christ, immediately leaps to my mind.

I have been privileged to know several “Great Men,” men of power, influence, and prestige.  Some I knew intimately.  Others, only casually.

We have all known many good individuals, but few rise to the level of “great,” due to their stations in life and never having been given – or having earned – a position of leadership that impacts the lives of others on a grand scale.  Few of the many good men I have ever known achieved greatness.  Conversely, not all of the people whom history would view as “great” were also “good”.  “Greatness” does not translate into “goodness” any more than “goodness” becomes “greatness.”

This is a story of two great men…who also happened to be good!  One, a near-tee-totaling Presbyterian; the other, an alcoholic Methodist.  One, a cotton state Southerner, the other a corn belt Midwesterner.  One, a staunch conservative; the other, a bleeding heart liberal.  One, a Phi Beta Kappa University of Virginia graduate; the other, a college drop-out.  One, a military hawk; the other, a dove.  One, a former circuit court judge; the other, jailed in six different states.

Both of these good and great men stood over six feet tall.  Both had booming voices and were noted for their oratorical skills.  Both were Democrats.  Both served in the United States Senate during the turbulent 1960s.  Both were on the Senate Armed Services Committee.  Both possessed unyielding integrity.  Both believed that government could be a positive force in people’s lives, and neither considered compromise an ugly word!  Both were governed first and foremost by their faith.

I knew both men pretty well, and, in my estimation, they were both divinely inspired leaders – two of the “greatest men” I have ever known.  Each in his own way had a profound impact on the country he served, not to mention a profound impact on me personally.  As you read this, I hope you will come to know why.


James O. Eastland

James O. Eastland

Almost everyone who knows me and has ever had a political ear to the ground assumes that my political roots run right through the middle of former United States Senator James O. Eastland’s political apparatus.  My close friendship with Senator Eastland, the Eastland family, and the universal support my campaigns always received from the old Eastland organization cause many to make this correct assumption.  To be certain, Senator Eastland’s friends were my friends.  However, it was United States Senator John C. Stennis, “The Conscience of the United States Senate” – not “Big Jim” Eastland – that gave me my start in Mississippi politics.

Freshly armed with a bachelor’s degree in history and political science, full of energy and ambition, feeling as though I had the world in a jug and the stopper in my pocket, I sought and received a very junior position on Senator Stennis’ staff in Washington D.C.  One cannot imagine the excitement I felt at this opportunity.  I had never even visited Washington D.C., and now I was about to move there and join the staff of a man I viewed as the most respected and admired in our Nation’s capitol.

Little did I know how accurate my young, immature feelings about the man were.  The dramatic events I was about to witness confirmed their truth.

On Tuesday, January 30, 1973, Senator Stennis was brutally shot, robbed, and left for dead in front of his home in suburban Washington, D.C.  Three criminals took his gold pocket watch, a Phi Beta Kappa key and, as the newspapers reported at the time, a quarter from his pocket.  Senator Stennis, after a long recovery, would often joke “it wasn’t a quarter at all.  It was two dimes and a nickel.”

Six days later, on Monday, February 5, 1973, I joined the Washington D.C. Staff of Senator Stennis.  I was at least twenty-five years younger than the rest of the staff, and had no clue as to what my real responsibilities would be.  I knew before arriving that part of my duties would be to man a Senators-only elevator that transported senators from their office floor down to the basement and on to the Senate Chambers in the Capitol.  This rather demeaning job would later prove to be a huge blessing, and allowed me to cultivate personal relationships I would never have had if I had been closeted in my tiny office all day.

My first day on the job was one of the most memorable of my life.  The office was overflowing with flowers, fruit baskets, and various expressions of good will to such a degree that it seemed more like a funeral parlor than a senate office.  Soon, I was escorted by Miss Mildred – the Senator’s longtime personal secretary – back to what would soon become my office, which was sandwiched between the legislative staff and the press offices.  I could hardly wait to take possession of my desk, but someone else had commandeered it on that first day.

Then-CBS news anchor, Roger Mudd, was busily at work along with an attractive young assistant, when Miss Mildred introduced me to him and explained I would be his gopher for the remainder of the day.  “Just tell this young man whatever you need and he will get it for you,” Miss Mildred said.

The balance of my day was spent delivering boxes of files, old newspaper clippings, and recently received telegrams from all over the world to Mr. Mudd, helping sort through them, and awkwardly flirting with his pretty, young assistant.  Later that evening, the pretty, young assistant told me what Mr. Mudd was really up to: he was writing Senator Stennis’ obituary – they didn’t think he could possibly survive.

As a naïve twenty-two year old man, I understood something that Mr. Mudd and his CBS News crew apparently did not: the power of prayer.

The day after the assault, at the national prayer breakfast in the Capitol, an estimated twenty-three thousand people of one mind and spirit prayed for Senator Stennis.  Miraculously, Senator Stennis’s life was spared.  I believe it was prayer and prayer alone that intervened and healed this good and great man.  Over the years, I heard Senator Stennis confirm that he held the same belief.

John C. Stennis

John C. Stennis

Several years later, Roger Mudd spoke at the University of Southern Mississippi.  He read a portion of that obituary written on my first day in Washington, D.C. – which, although never published for obvious reasons, detailed the extraordinary accomplishments of the “courtly gentlemen from Mississippi,” Senator John C. Stennis.  It was a glowing tribute to the man whose approval I always craved.

As my days on Capitol Hill grew in number, my opinion that Senator Stennis was the most respected, loved and admired member of the Senate was verified.  My few hours each day on that Senators-Only elevator proved invaluable.  Every Senator knew I worked for John Stennis, so I became their source of information as to his daily progress.  The Southerners all knew me by name: Talmadge of Georgia; Long of Louisiana; Fulbright of Arkansas; Byrd of Virginia; Ervin of North Carolina – they would all seek me out and inquire about the Senator’s health.  It wasn’t only the Southerners, but liberal Democrats and Republicans alike: Kennedy, McGovern, Humphrey, Scoop Jackson, Goldwater, Muskie, Jacob Javitz, Howard Baker, and one of my personal favorites, George Akin of Vermont – a doddering old Republican gentleman who reminded me of the poet, Robert Frost.  “Steve, how’s John doing today?” or “How’s the Chairman?” or perhaps in a few instances the ultimate respect would be shown: “How’s Judge Stennis today?”  Such was the daily refrain.

For a twenty-two year old boy from Cotton Plant, Mississippi, this was pretty heady stuff.  Senator Stennis often said “some people come to Washington and grow, while others just swell.”  When I walked through the Capitol’s corridors, hearing these giants calling me by name and summoning me for private conversations, I’m fairly certain I was doing a little more swelling than growing – at least at that time.  It was hard not to.  But, they knew me for one reason and one reason alone: I worked for their hero, Senator John C. Stennis.

Senator Stennis served his state and nation well, with over sixty years of public service.  In his forty years of service in the Senate, he amassed a record of unparalleled legislative achievement.

He was the first member of the Senate with the courage to speak out against the reckless, unwarranted antics of the self-appointed Communist hunter, Joseph McCarthy.  It was a Stennis speech to the Senate in which he accused McCarthy of “spreading slush and slime” on the Senate and warned that unless McCarthy was stopped, “something fine and good will have left the Senate,” that led to McCarthy’s ultimate demise.

Mississippi’s own John C. Stennis wrote the original senate ethics bill and served as the chairman of the senate ethics committee, earning himself the nickname “Conscience of the Senate.”  Big issues, the most important of the day, fell under the purview of this good and great man.  The cold war, Vietnam, the space program, the war powers act, nuclear test ban treaties, Watergate, Supreme Court nominations, all bore the mark of Senator John C. Stennis’ hand.

Former Vice-President Walter Mondale once jokingly said of Stennis and his colleague, Senator James O. Eastland: “They are humble and fair-minded men.  They always believed that everything should be split right down the middle, 50/50.  Fifty percent for Mississippi and fifty percent for the rest of the nation.”  There is no doubt that both men had their beloved Mississippi at the very top of their priorities.

It is difficult for me to find any fault in my hero and mentor, John C. Stennis.  Nonetheless, there is one ugly scar on his record: civil rights.  He was from a different time with different perspectives.  Yet, he was dead wrong on that issue – dead wrong in every way.  I do not offer any excuses; but I do recognize that virtually all of the South, and much of the Nation, was wrong and devoid of a true moral compass to lead us out of the darkness of the past and into the bright sunlight of the future (current circumstances notwithstanding).

Near the end of his service in the Senate, Senator Stennis confessed to then Delaware Senator Joseph R. Biden, that his stance on civil rights had been wrong.  “The civil rights movement freed the white man more than the black man.”  He told the current Vice President: “It freed my soul.  It freed my soul!”

William Winter and Steve Patterson

William Winter and Steve Patterson

I came to know Senator Stennis much better after leaving his staff than I ever did while working for him.  As a staff member and advisor to Governors William Winter and Bill Allain, I developed a much closer personal relationship with my old hero.

I worked side by side with the Senator when I served as Executive Director of the Local Sponsor of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway.  In fact, it was Senator Stennis who was largely responsible for me getting that job.  I know first-hand that had it not been for the efforts of Senator Stennis, there would be no Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, the Natchez Trace would not have been completed, the Forestry Incentives Act would not have passed, and the Appalachian Regional Commission would not exist.  I could go on and on outlining his many accomplishments, but you get the picture.  Senator Stennis’ service positively impacted the lives of people all over the world.  That is what made him great.  It is not what made him good.  His goodness came from having a good heart and moral code of conduct.  When a man’s heart is good, all the rest seems to fall into place.

Senator Stennis’ first campaign promise, way back in 1947, was “I’ll plow a straight furrow to the end of the row.”  He kept his word.  He did what he promised.  He plowed a straight furrow.


John Stennis had been a hero of mine since early childhood.  I stood in awe of him right up to the day he died.  But, by far the most remarkable, awe-inspiring man I ever knew was Harold Hughes, United States Senator from Iowa.

Joe Biden

Joe Biden

As I outlined earlier, I had casual acquaintances with several powerful, well respected men during my brief tenure on Senator Stennis’ staff.  Most of these men I never saw nor heard from again.  Through my own aggressive efforts and their welcoming spirits, I cultivated lasting friendships with three remarkable men whom I first met while wandering through youth in Senator Stennis’ office.

The current Vice-President of the United States, Joseph R. Biden, and I became friends then, and remain close friends today.  We have shared life’s ups and downs for over forty years now.

Ernest (Fritz) Hollings

Ernest (Fritz) Hollings

Senator Ernest Hollings of South Carolina, who greatly admired Senator Stennis, took me under his wing then, and maintained an active interest in my political life for its duration.  After I was elected Chairman of the Mississippi Democratic Party, no one helped me more than Senator Hollings. I am indebted to Senator Hollings for sharing his great sense of humor and biting wit, which I find myself appropriating to my own great benefit, without attribution, to this very day.

My relationship with Senator Harold Hughes, the third Senator with whom I developed a friendship surprisingly had little to do with politics, and everything to do with spiritual life.

I lived in a small efficiency apartment on C Street just south of the Capitol.  Senator Hughes’ longtime personal secretary Miss Ruth lived across the hallway from me.  She was a wonderful grandmotherly figure who was always preparing home-cooked meals for me.  I knew almost nothing about Senator Hughes except that he served on the Armed Services Committee chaired by Senator Stennis.

One night after I had overindulged on her delicious homemade yeast rolls, Senator Hughes’ secretary told me the story of the Senator’s life.  He was born in poverty in tiny Ida Grove, Iowa, and struggled to overcome incredible obstacles.  After returning from World War II, he got a job as a long-haul truck driver, began drinking heavily, and saw his life spiral out of control.  His family was broken.  His finances were in ruin.  There were multiple warrants for his arrest for disorderly conduct and drunk driving.  Harold Hughes was, quite bluntly, nothing more than a hopeless drunk.  This behavior, this cycle of pain, had ruined his life and the lives of all who had come near him.  He was a failure in every way: a cheat, a liar, and a scoundrel!  He had battled the demon of alcohol for years and lost every scrimmage; and, now, alcohol was priming to declare total victory.

Filled with self-hatred, condemnation, and a terrible emptiness, Harold E. Hughes climbed into a claw-footed bath tub and put a twelve gauge shotgun to his mouth with the intention of taking his own life.

Miss Ruth fought back tears as she told me the story through trembling lips.  “Then,” she said, “something happened.”  The Governor – as she still called him – said something told him he should explain his suicidal intentions to God.  So he did.  “Oh God!” Hughes cried out, “I am such a failure.  I am lost and hopeless and I want to die.”

According to Miss Ruth, at that point, the spirit of God entered the room, rescued Harold Hughes, and gave him a sudden peace unlike anything he’d ever experienced.  That night, Harold Hughes surrendered totally to the authority of Christ, and his alcoholism was brought under control as if by divine intervention.

Then, without warning, Miss Ruth said, “Steve, would you like to meet him?”  I will never forget my embarrassing response: “Miss Ruth, I know Christ.  I was raised in the church.  I have always known Christ.”  Miss Ruth burst into hearty, uncontrollable laughter.  When she finally regained her composure, she said, “No, silly.  I mean Senator Hughes.”

I eagerly said I would, of course, love to meet him.  “Well,” Miss Ruth replied, “ Let me call him.  We have a prayer group at six in the morning, and I’ll see if it’s ok for you to stop by.”

She made the arrangements, secured the invitation, and I was all set to meet this former three-term Governor of Iowa and United States Senator, Harold Hughes.  When I arrived at Senator Hughes’ reception desk in the Dirkson Senate Office Building the following morning, I was immediately ushered into Senator Hughes’ private office and greeted by a giant man with huge hands that looked like a movie star cast in a Hollywood Western.  Senator Hughes introduced himself, and then the other five or six people in the room – mostly members of his staff – and promptly sat down and began talking.  It took me a few minutes to realize who he was talking to!  He was talking to God!  The prayer had begun!  It was like no prayer I had ever heard.  It didn’t sound like a prayer at all, but rather like a conversation with God.  No one bowed their head, but rather seemed to find a specific, fixed place to focus their attention.  Some closed their eyes.  Some did not.  Senator Hughes was one of the latter.

The conversation was more questions than specific prayer requests.  After roughly twenty minutes of talking in calm conversational tones, Senator Hughes finally said something that sounded like the prayers I had heard and said all my life: “In Jesus name, Amen.”

The prayer meeting was over and the work day begun.  As I exited the office, Senator Hughes called out “Come back, son.  You have a standing invitation.  God bless.”

I have always heard the expression “anointed” or “anointed with the power of God” used to describe people with special spiritual gifts.  Senator Harold Hughes certainly seemed to me to be “anointed.”  To this day, every time I hear the word “anointed,” Harold Hughes is the image that springs to my mind.

To say that I ever had a close personal relationship with Senator Hughes would be an overstatement.  I did, however, feel a bond and kinship with him that cannot easily be explained.  I attended only a few more prayer sessions in his office and never had a single discussion with him on any political or business matter.  As I grow older, I regret not attending more of those sessions, but six o’clock a.m. is a mighty early time for a twenty-two year old boy.

After that first meeting with Senator Hughes, I eagerly began to read and research everything that I could find  about this man.  As I questioned others who knew him well, an amazing biography emerged.  It seems that when Harold Hughes surrendered to the Lord in that bathtub, he also made a simple promise to the Lord: “Father, tell me what to do, and I will do it.”

Little did he know where that promise would take him.  Only a few years later, he was the Democratic candidate for Governor of Iowa – a state that had never had a Democrat for a Governor – with no money, against impossible odds, Harold Hughes was miraculously elected.  No one has ever served three terms as Governor of Iowa.  No one, that is, but Harold Hughes!

Harold E. Hughes.

Harold E. Hughes.

In his last campaign for Governor, against a well funded, popular Republican, this anointed man, Harold Hughes, refused to campaign.  He held a press conference and announced: “I’m going fishing for the next three weeks.  I’ll be back in time to vote.  If it is the Lord’s will, I’ll win.  If not, he will tell me what he wants me to do next.”  Governor Hughes was re-elected by fewer than five-thousand votes.  He was considered the most progressive Governor in the nation at that time.

As a Senator, he was a thorough-going liberal.  He led the fight to continue funding Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society Programs, and stood tall in opposition to Richard Nixon’s attempts to slash those funds.  Senator Hughes was a fierce critic of the war in Vietnam and a strong voice for Civil Rights.

His major legislative focus and accomplishment, however, was the passage of the comprehensive drug abuse prevention and control act of 1970, which was the Federal Government’s first attempt to address the growing problems with which Senator Hughes had so much personal experience.

In 1971, Senator Hughes did a courageous, yet not very smart, thing.  Without any security or advance notice, with only one young staff member at his side, he decided to tour an abandoned house in the roughest part of Harlem, New York, where known drug addicts and heroin users hid from the rest of society.  As he entered the belly of this underworld of hell, a young, startled man lunged at him repeatedly with a large knife.  The Senator was able to avoid serious injury and finally subdue the young addict.  Fortunately for the Senator, New York Mayor John Lindsay, suspecting that the Senator, who never saw danger in anything, might pull such a stunt, had sent undercover police officers to track the Senator.  The young man was arrested and jailed.

Upon his arrival back at his hotel, Senator Hughes immediately called Mayor Lindsay and begged for the assailant’s release.  At first, Mayor Lindsay hesitated, then Senator Hughes became more forceful.  Reverting back to his days as a truck driver, the Senator released a barrage of curse words that would embarrass a drunken sailor.  Placing blame on himself for the incident, the Senator made an impassioned plea that the kid had a disease and that society had failed him as much as he had failed himself.  Mayor Lindsay finally relented and the addict was released.

In 1972, Senator Hughes made a brief bid for the Presidency.  Conventional wisdom among political observers at the time held that he had a fair chance of winning the Democratic nomination and was the only Democrat with realistic hopes of ever defeating President Nixon.  When he suddenly startled the political world by withdrawing from the race, he simply said: “I didn’t feel the calling.”

In 1973, Hughes stunned the Washington establishment, the Democratic Party, and his Senate colleagues when he abruptly announced that he would not seek re-election to the Senate.

“For profoundly personal religious reasons” he would seek “a new challenge and spiritual opportunity. . . .I believe that I can move more people through a spiritual approach more effectively than I have been able to achieve through the political approach,” he said.

After Senator Hughes retired, Senator James O. Eastland, who chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee, and who understood both the goodness and the greatness in this anointed man, recruited him to continue his service to the country by acting as a consultant to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

For the remainder of his life, Harold Hughes devoted himself to lay ministry in the Methodist church.  A big part of his ministry focused on Native American Tribes.  His work on alcoholism and drug abuse became legendary.

Senator Hughes established a religious retreat in Maryland and partnered with former Nixon aid, Chuck Colson, in his prison ministries outreach program. Senator Hughes played himself in the screen adaptation of Colson’s best-selling book, “Born Again.”

Harold Hughes was the most remarkable man I ever met.  Since that first prayer meeting in the Dirkson Senate Office Building, I had no more than a dozen occasions to be in his company.  Over the years, we corresponded by mail on occasion, and I once called him to seek advice and prayer during a period of personal crisis.  On the day I was sworn in as Mississippi’s State Auditor, I received a brief, hand-written note from Senator Hughes.  It was nothing more than a congratulatory note, but it concluded with these words: “Always remember to talk to God, Steve.”

John C. Stennis, Harold E. Hughes, were two great men who were also good.  They were different in so many ways.  Senator Stennis thought justice required the men that assaulted him to be jailed, and he lobbied to insure that they were.  Senator Hughes thought that justice required that the man who assaulted him be released, and he lobbied to insure that he was.

A nuclear powered Navy aircraft carrier was named after Senator Stennis; Senator Hughes was an outright pacifist.  Despite their opposing approaches to so many things, they had enormous affection for each other.

In one respect, this is an easy story to tell.  There are no doubtful dealings to explain, no discreet silences to observe about things that need forgetting, no unsightly corners that yearn for concealment – with the stated exception of Stennis’ civil rights record, which he later disavowed.  Conscience ruled their public and private lives, and politics, to them, was merely an extension of religious faith.  Contact with them went far to shame my own sometimes ignoble nature.  Their most impressive powers lay in their moral force, and their strongest leadership traits were epitomized by the moral ground upon which they took their stands.

John C. Stennis and Harold E. Hughes, together, were the vital force that made the weekly Senate Prayer Breakfast one of the institution’s most valuable assets.  Both men understood that “faith without works is dead.”  It was their splendid works that made them great.  It was their faith that made them good!

Theirs was a politics of integrity, thoughtful debate, and facing challenging issues with forthright courage.  Any casual observer can see the contrast between then and now.  Today’s politics is the politics of image, mass manipulation, childish name-calling, grotesque expenditures, and electronic dazzle.  A sad commentary, indeed.  God bless good and great public servants like Senators Stennis and Hughes.  May we live to see leaders like them again.

I was blessed to have a perch from which I could observe their noble examples.  They were the kind of men I always wanted to become.

And, I have always been glad that these two good and great men were not around to witness my own failures and disappointments.  Then again, perhaps they were.  Perhaps, they are still.  I will surely know one day.

Previous articles by Steve Patterson:  In Praise of Bird Dogs and Gentlemen, The Unlikeliest Christmas,  Billy Brewer and other friends,  America’s Dilemma

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