Fulbright of Arkansas: I

Senator Fulbright: Portrait of a Public Philosopher

by Tristram Coffin
Dutton, 378 pp., $6.95

The first biography of Senator Fulbright is panegyric almost to the point of caricature. Within the first few pages, Tris Coffin calls him “a modern Prometheus…a public philosopher…an investigator to rank with Pecora and Walsh…a social critic of the American scene to compare with de Tocqueville and Mark Twain.” This is advertising copy, not serious writing. It is difficult to appraise Fulbright justly because he does not fit the easy stereotypes of American politics. He is not a rebel, a dissenter, a crusader, or a fighting liberal. He is not a liberal at all. In Britain this young heir of Fayetteville, Arkansas’s First Family would have been easily placed. There he would have been recognized at once as a well-educated young country squire of minor but inherited and ample wealth, with a taste not so much for politics as for public life. There he would naturally have joined the Conservative party, and soon found himself on its rebel wing among those who wanted a more thoughtful foreign policy. He would also have been allied with those Tories who have a feeling for social reform as long as it is neither too sweeping nor too hasty. This is the landed civilized gentleman type, not unknown even today in New England and the South but foreign to the American egalitarian tradition. We are willing to extend equal treatment in politics even to Rockefellers—after all they are only trying to make a bigger bang with a bigger buck—but the country gentleman is as alien to our tastes as hereditary monarchy. (We prefer elected Caesars.) In England Fulbright might conveniently be described as an American Anthony Eden. Here the average American would be puzzled by the comparison. None of us finds it easy to place J. William Fulbright in our rather rough-and-ready political categories.

Now that Fulbright has become a hero on the left and to the peaceniks, a saga has grown up around him. One of its best known episodes is the lone vote he cast in the Senate in February, 1954, against a $214,000 appropriation to continue the work of Joe McCarthy’s investigations subcommittee. One would therefore expect to find a passion for civil liberties in Fulbright’s record. But he is not a passionate man, even when it comes to the First Amendment. One would never guess it from this biography, but Fulbright’s voting record on the basic political freedoms in those terrifying years of McCarthyism was a poor one, not so different from that of his fellow Senator from Arkansas, McClellan, who also helped to do McCarthy in. As one Veteran Arkansas politician told me, “Bill [Fulbright] always sounds more liberal than he is while McClellan is less reactionary than he sounds.” Both voted in 1950 to override Truman’s veto of the Mundt-Nixon Internal Security Act, which, for the first time in American history, set up a regulatory body, the Subversive Activities Control Board, to determine and label dangerous ideas and associations, on the model of the Pure Food and Drug…

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