Richard B. Russell, Jr., Senator from Georgia

By Gilbert C. Fite | Go to book overview

17
Kennedy, Russell, and the New Frontier

Richard B. Russell, Jr., reached the height of his power in the U.S. Senate during the 1950s. There is no way to determine precisely when political figures reach the pinnacle of their influence, but surely by John E Kennedy's election to the presidency in 1960, Russell no longer had the same power over legislative matters that he had during the 1950s. During the last ten years Russell was in the Senate, his image of power was greater than its substance. This, of course, is not to say that Russell was not one of the most powerful senators until his death early in 1971. Seniority and his chairmanship of the Armed Services Committee until 1969 and of the Appropriations Committee after that placed him in an influential and strategic position in the Senate. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson consulted him often, but very seldom did they take his advice on major national and international issues. Few senators were more out of step with the course of events in the 1960s than Dick Russell. He knew this even if others did not recognize the fact. As Russell looked around in the late 1950s and 1960s, he did not approve of much that he saw.

A number of conditions combined to gradually reduce Russell's power. One was his deteriorating health in the 1960s. From 1958 until his death, his breathing problems worsened. Although he stopped smoking in 1958, great damage had already been done to his respiratory system. By that time, his cough was getting worse, and he was increasingly short of breath. His mild-to-moderate case of emphysema that was diagnosed in the mid-1950s gradually became worse. Besides, Russell was becoming something of a hypochondriac, and he worried a great deal about his health. In 1959 he wrote Harry G. Thornton, an old friend and classmate at the University of Georgia, that he was afraid to go to the doctors for fear they would operate on him. He said he had a horror of any further operations. 1

By 1959 and 1960, Russell was taking an unbelievable variety of

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