One of the most majestic landmarks of our nation’s Capitol is the oldest of the three Senate office buildings. Since it began being built in 1903, it has stood at the crest of Capitol Hill looking down Constitution Avenue, adjacent to the Capitol. Its Beaux-Arts style enriches the architecture of the Capitol complex.
Since 1972, the building has borne the name of Georgia Sen. Richard Russell (D), who died 40 years ago at the age of 73 after 38 years in the Senate. Washington, D.C., is a town where memories fade fast, so it should not be surprising that the question is sometimes asked, “Who was Richard Russell?” Two Members of today’s Senate were not born when he served and more than half were still minors. Among more than 400 Senators who served with him, only Daniel Inouye (D) of Hawaii remains. In my case, I remember him well. I was his press secretary for the final four and a half years of his life, and it was my responsibility to announce his death on Jan. 21, 1971.
In the intervening 40 years, I have had the rich experience of encountering scores of Senators. I have given a lot of thought about what distinguished Russell from others and have arrived at a simple answer. He was the most trusted person I have ever known. He was trusted by his constituents and his colleagues. Many Senators sharply disagreed with him, but none questioned his integrity, his sense of honor, his intellect, his knowledge of history, his understanding of the issues or his intentions. Few were his equal when it came to matching wits on the Senate floor. Many powerful Senators willingly yielded to his leadership especially when the issue was national security.
Significantly, he was trusted by presidents with whom he served. He knew them all before they took office, and all relied on his knowledge and judgment, beginning with Franklin Roosevelt. They had confidence in his discretion in exchanging views on policy challenges.
Russell and Roosevelt had been fellow governors. Roosevelt was governor of New York when Russell was governor of Georgia. Moreover, Roosevelt was a part-time constituent of Russell’s. In 1931 and 1932, there were frequent exchanges of visits between the governor’s mansion in Atlanta and the Roosevelt home in Warm Springs, Ga., that would eventually be known as the Little White House. Roosevelt was planning a run for the White House, and the youthful Georgia governor was an indispensable supporter.
Russell sat next to Harry Truman on the floor of the Senate for eight years in an era when Senators spent more time in the Senate chamber. Truman has said that Russell was the most qualified person to be president.
When Truman faced a major crisis as president, Russell emerged as a national leader. The president’s dismissal of Gen. Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War touched off a national upheaval that approached a boiling point. In the midst of this upheaval, the Senate turned to the calm, confident leadership of Russell.
Russell was selected to chair a joint investigation by the Senate Armed Services Committee and Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Trust was the factor that gave him the nod over a more senior chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.
When the investigation was concluded, tempers cooled and the nation moved past the issue. The president and the presidency had been saved from a damaging blow from an angry electorate.
Russell had known President Dwight Eisenhower as an Army major and served in the Senate with John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. When Edward Kennedy became a Senator, President Kennedy advised him, “if you want to learn how to be an effective Senator, you should start by going to see Dick Russell.”
Russell’s relationship with Johnson is legendary. Books have been written about Russell’s influence on Johnson’s career, and the depth of the relationship has been captured on the tapes of Johnson’s telephone conversations.
Nixon and Russell respected one another. Nixon summed up a major dimension of Russell’s career when he said, “When the security of the United States was the issue, six American presidents leaned upon this great patriot; he never failed them.”
Other Senators have had close relationships with presidents, but none has had an influence so often, on so many, over four decades as Russell.
Part of the trust bestowed on him by his colleagues stemmed from the respect with which he treated them. He had courtly manners and patrician courtesy. Civility was an operating principle for him; that one may disagree without being disagreeable was his creed.
In this moment, when lawmakers are being urged to soften their rhetoric, Russell’s statue in the rotunda of the building bearing his name offers a reminder that trustworthiness and civility work in the real world of lawmaking and statecraft.
Powell Moore was press secretary for Sen. Richard Russell from 1966 to 1971. He was an assistant secretary of Defense for legislative affairs under the George W. Bush administration and an assistant secretary of State for intergovernmental and legislative affairs under President Ronald Reagan. He was chief of staff for former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.).