Richard B. Russell, Jr., Senator from Georgia

Richard B. Russell, Jr., Senator from Georgia

Richard B. Russell, Jr., Senator from Georgia

Richard B. Russell, Jr., Senator from Georgia

Synopsis

Richard B. Russell, Jr., represented Georgia in the United States Senate from 1933 to 1971, a period of sweeping social change. Russell (1879-1971) was regarded by his fellow senators as the quintessential member of the Senate's establishment, and they dubbed him "a Senator's Senator" and "the Georgia Giant." So great was his popularity in Congress that Lyndon B. Johnson once said, "If the membership of the Senate were to cast a secret vote on the man they believed best qualifies to be president of the United States, they would choose Richard Russell."

Gilbert Fite's masterful biography begins with Russell's upbringing in an elite Georgia family. The highly stratified and class-conscious society of his early years would later influence Russell's legislative agenda. In 1920, Russell was elected to the Georgia General Assembly, and in 1931 he became governor of Georgia. He held that office until 1933, when he began his thirty-eight years of service in the U.S. Senate.

During Russell's long senatorial career, he was deeply involved in many of the most important episodes of our national life: the New Deal, World War II, the MacArthur investigation, the foreign aid debate, and the Warren Commission inquiry. His greatest contribution, according to Fite, was his fierce determination to maintain a strong national defense during the Cold War; in his sixteen years as chairman of the Armed Services Committee, he emerged as the acknowledged leader in Congress on defense matters. A career-long member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Russell also became one of the nation's strongest advocates of farm price supports. Under his sponsorship, the Senate enacted legislation establishing the school lunch program and distribution of food to the needy.

But Russell never abandoned his dedication to the South's traditional values, and he became the leader of the Southern Bloc that staunchly fought to defeat civil rights legislation and maintain the structures of segregation. Russell's unwillingness to compromise on civil rights, says Fite, meant that his career was ultimately one of regional rather than national leadership.

Excerpt

Writing a biography of "Richard Brevard Russell, Democrat, of Winder, Ga.," as he liked to be known, has been a challenging but rewarding adventure. Russell's contemporaries found him a difficult man to understand, and the passage of time since his death in 1971 has not done much to clarify his enigmatic character. Indeed, Russell was in many ways a complex and contradictory figure. A quiet, reserved, and modest man, he relished the frequent praise heaped upon him; although he never married, he believed deeply in family values; he had many admirers in Georgia and throughout the nation but very few close personal friends; and he held no personal ill will toward blacks, but he was largely responsible for delaying effective civil rights legislation for nearly twenty years. These and other seeming inconsistencies and contradictions may make it difficult to understand Russell the man, but they in no way cloud his long career of distinguished public service. It is my hope that this biography will help explain Russell's thought, his strength of character, and his contributions to his state and nation. Because of his penchant for secrecy on some matters, not all of Russell's actions can be adequately explained. This was especially true in regard to aspects of national defense and his oversight of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Born on November 2, 1897, and reared in an elite southern family, Russell grew up in a highly stratified and class-conscious society. No other factor made such a deep impression on him as his upbringing and residence in the South and his understanding of the region's history. The Russell family planned that Richard, Jr., the oldest son, would pursue a political career, and that he did. He served in public life from 1921 to 1971, a period that witnessed some of the most dramatic and far-reaching changes of any half century in American history. After ten years in the Georgia General Assembly, the last four as Speaker of the House, he was elected governor in 1930. He served in that office from 1931 to . . .

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