After 50 years, congressman is an anachronism

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- Representative J. J. "Jake" Pickle, a down-home Texas Democrat, was describing how Jamie L. Whitten, his longtime colleague from Mississippi, had become "very exasperated" at one of the 10 presidents Mr. Whitten has worked with or against in the past half-century.

"He said, 'Mr. Speaker, I do declare, let me say, I do declare that I believe President So-and-So is the worst president I have served under since U.S. Grant,' " recalled Mr. Pickle.

Of course, not even Jamie Whitten -- who will soon set a record for longevity in the House of Representatives -- remembers Reconstruction. But the 81-year-old Democrat from Cascilla, Miss., has seen an astonishing sweep of U.S. history -- having served in Congress for about a fourth of the country's existence.

Come Jan. 6, Mr. Whitten will surpass the record held by the late Representative Carl Vinson, D-Ga., who served from Nov. 3, 1914, through Jan. 3, 1965, a total of 50 years, two months and 13 days.

In this era of term-limit referendums and sound-bite campaigns, Mr. Whitten is among the last of Dixie's congressional dinosaurs -- harking back to a time when Southerners used a loyal electorate and the seniority system to develop disproportionate power on Capitol Hill.

The Senate was once ruled by drawling old Democrats like John Stennis and James Eastland of Mississippi, Russell Long and Allen Ellender of Louisiana, Richard Russell of Georgia and Ellison Smith of South Carolina. Now only Strom Thurmond, the 89-year-old Republican from South Carolina, remains of this fraternity of Southern senators who served more than 35 years.

The House, meanwhile, was long managed by Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas, who served more than 48 years, while Vinson chaired the powerful Armed Services Committee. Mr. Whitten follows in this political lineage.

But it is unlikely that the heritage will carry forth to another generation of congressional Southerners.

Both Congress and the South have changed. Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta, said seniority, especially in the House, doesn't count nearly as much as it once did.

In the post-Watergate reform of the mid-1970s, the House Caucuses began electing all committee and subcommittee chairmen and ranking minority members by secret ballot every two years, with the positions not necessarily going to the most senior members. Among the first chairmen ousted under the new system were Southerners.

Professor Black said the era of the veteran Southern Democrats also has been curtailed by the establishment of a two-party system below the Mason-Dixon Line. In Mr. Whitten's own Mississippi, when the old Democratic lions Eastland and Stennis finally left the Senate, they were replaced by Republicans Thad Cochran and Trent Lott.

Certainly, the GOP was but a bitter memory in the yellow-dog ("I'd vote for a yellow dog before I'd vote for a Republican," the saying went) Democratic 1st Congressional District of Mississippi when Mr. Whitten won a special election to finish the term of his predecessor, Walt Doxey, who had moved to the Senate. Moving to Washington with his wife, Rebecca, Mr. Whitten was sworn into office Nov. 14, 1941 -- less than a month before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

In a recent speech on the House floor, Mr. Whitten recalled his early days in Washington and meeting with President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

"He briefed you at the White House and took charge of the conversation," said Mr. Whitten. "If he did not want to bother with your matter, he just entertained you until your time was up."

The son of a Tallahatchie County farmer, the new congressman from Mississippi was a lawyer and former grammar school principal. He was quickly embraced by the voters of his rural district, which stretches from the edge of the Delta to the hill country. It includes Oxford, home of University of Mississippi and William Faulkner, and Tupelo, birthplace of Elvis Presley.

Mr. Whitten said he never intended to make a career in politics.

"I came here to stay three years, but I got on the Committee on Appropriations and I haven't gotten the job done yet," he explained. "But we keep trying."

Indeed, it is through the Appropriations Committee that Mr. Whitten has left his mark.

In 1949, he became chairman of the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, from where he wielded such power over farm policies that he was dubbed "the permanent secretary of agriculture."

Three decades later, he earned another nickname -- King Jamie -- after taking over as chairman of the full Appropriations Committee, with considerable power over the purse strings of the federal government.

Others marveled as Mr. Whitten mumbled controversial appropriations bills into law -- often laden with political pork for the Mississippi folks.

Mr. Whitten is hardly apologetic about his reputation.

"Somebody told me, 'Jamie, you're the biggest pork barreler in Congress,' " he told Congressional Quarterly's Politics in America. "I said, 'I guess I am, because pork barrel is what you do in the other fella's district, and I've helped more districts than anyone.' "

Like others of his generation of Southern congressmen, Mr. Whitten was a staunch segregationist in the 1950s and 1960s. As Mr. Thurmond has done in the Senate, though, Mr. Whitten changed his views with the times.

In a speech honoring Mr. Whitten's longevity, Eleanor Holmes Norton, the non-voting Democratic representative from the District of Columbia, said she has known him since her days as a civil rights worker in Mississippi nearly three decades ago.

She praised "the extraordinary way he has lived through the old Mississippi into a new day in the new Mississippi."

Much of the power in the Appropriations Committee has been dispersed among the subcommittee chairmen, and Mr. Whitten has edged closer to the more liberal Democratic leaders of the House. By changing with the times, he has continued to be re-elected to the committee chairmanship, increasingly winning the votes of Democratic members who were not even born when he first came to Capitol Hill.

In this media age, though, Mr. Whitten is a political anachronism in other ways. He shuns the television politics and interviews that his colleagues thrive on, preferring to wheel and deal in obscure committee rooms as he has for a half-century.

In a floor speech marking his 50th year in Congress, Mr. Whitten talked about his longevity.

"About a year ago, a lady in Richmond, Va., whom I did not know, wrote me and said 'From reading about what they say about public officials, how in the world do you stand being in Congress so long?'

"I thought about it a little bit, and I wrote her back, and I said, 'I enjoy it,' " Mr. Whitten said.

Southern survivors

There still are a few Southerners on Capitol Hill continuing the colorful lineage of their political forebears who came to Congress and stayed nearly a lifetime. Among them:

Senate:

Strom Thurmond, South Carolina Republican, elected 1954: For students of Southern history, there could be no greater confirmation that times have changed than to tune in to the confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas and see this one-time segregationist Dixiecrat promoting a black man married to a white woman to become a Supreme Court justice. At the age of 89, Mr. Thurmond's political adaptability and improbably shaded hair are already the stuff of Senate lore.

Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat, elected 1958: With his silver pompadour and flair for fiddling, Mr. Byrd is probably the only senator qualified for the Grand Ol' Opry. His oratory is legendary -- flavored with quotations from the Bible, Shakespeare, Socrates and anybody else whose words might be helpful in channeling federal dollars to the hills and hollows of Mr. Byrd's beloved home state.

Ernest F. Hollings, South Carolina Democrat, elected 1966: A quarter-century in Washington has only deepened the Low Country drawl of the handsome, white-haired Mr. Hollings, whose manner and appearance make him seem to be the senator from central casting. He has a mean streak, though. During an appearance on an ABC-TV news program, reporter Sam Donaldson asked Mr. Hollings, a made-in-the-U.S.A. cheerleader, where he bought his suit. Mr. Hollings replied that he got it on the same street "where you got that wig, Sam."

House of Representatives:

Charles E. Bennett, Florida Democrat, elected 1948: A casualty of seniority reform, this 81-year-old congressman from Jacksonville was twice turned down by the Democratic Caucus in his quest to be chairman of the Armed Services Committee. But those were small setbacks to a politician who has walked with the aid of two canes since he contracted polio while in the Army in the Philippines in World War II.

Jack Brooks, Texas Democrat, elected 1952: A neighbor tells of waking up one morning to see the cigar-smoking Brooks out watering his yard in a bathrobe and 10-gallon cowboy hat. A former Marine, the feisty congressman from Beaumont burst on the national scene for his role in the Watergate and Iran-Contra investigations. His rabid partisanship comes from being a protege of two other Texas Democrats -- former Speakers Sam Rayburn and Jim Wright.

William H. Natcher, Kentucky Democrat, elected 1953: Mr. Natcher's claim to fame is that he never misses a vote. The tally is about 17,000 consecutive yeas or nays and counting. He has also managed to be re-elected nearly 20 times without ever including television spots in his campaigns. Maybe that's why so few folks beyond Bowling Green and Owensboro have ever heard of him.

Dante B. Fascell, Florida Democrat, elected 1954: The stubby, ,, stubborn chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee represents the Florida district nearest the Equator -- stretching from Coral Gables to Key West -- which makes Mr. Fascell a geographic Southerner but hardly a cultural one. Indeed, his family moved to Miami from Long Island when he was 8 years old. The fiery, 5-foot-5 Mr. Fascell charges around Capitol Hill with the assertiveness of a New Yorker.

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