As “life-and-times” books go, Fulbright: A Biography is a decent one, but intimate it certainly is not, perhaps because its subject was aloof and his family not particularly forthcoming. On public matters, for example, the reader learns about the senator’s antiunion voting record but not about specific campaign contributions collected as payback. On matters more private the reader learns the name of William Fulbright’s favorite television show (Bonanza), but on the topic of extramarital sex there is only the cryptic remark that “if there were other women in Fulbright’s life, there is no evidence of a meaningful relationship.”
While the bulk of the book deals with Fulbright’s chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC), especially his opposition to the Vietnam War, it does not neglect the roots or political education of the junior senator from Arkansas (so called because John McClellan’s six-term tenure as U.S. Senator from Arkansas, beginning in 1942, commenced two years prior to the first of Fulbright’s five terms). Labeling Fulbright a conservative internationalist, the author interprets many of his actions, values, and personality traits (including his snobbishness, vanity, and contentiousness) in the light of his formative experiences as a Rhodes scholar and lacrosse star at Oxford University.
Fulbright’s reputation as an intellectual stemmed in part from his two-year tenure, beginning in 1939, as president of the University of Arkansas, located in his hometown of Fayetteville. His mother’s political contacts paved the way for the appointment, controversial because of her thirty-four-year-old son’s lack of experience or academic credentials. Two years later, after rival Homer Adkins was elected governor, Roberta Fulbright’s son was summarily dismissed, paving the way for him to plunge into the political arena six months later, when his home district’s seat in the House of Representatives became vacant.
In sharp contrast to Bill Fulbright and his aristocratic wife Betty, most of the voters in his district were subsistence farmers. Randall Bennett Woods describes the first campaign trail as
hot, dusty, and narrow, a maze of hairpin turns amid dense hickory and oak forests. Dotting the wilderness were country stores, farms, blacksmith shops, and rural post offices. People still lived in log cabins, hospitals were nonexistent, and Saturday-night square dancing enlivened with home brew constituted the principal means of entertainment. Evening Shade, Yellville, Berryville, Mountain Home, and Fifty-six were part of the Fulbright itinerary.
From the outset Fulbright meant to make his legislative mark in the area of international relations. His maiden speech was a defense of America’s war aims as enunciated in the Atlantic Charter, delivered in rebuttal to remarks by another mercurial freshman, Representative Clare Booth Luce. Fulbright also made news for a resolution endorsing the establishment of the United Nations.
Revenge against Adkins came in 1944, when Fulbright won a landslide Senate victory over a field that included incumbent “Silent Hattie” Caraway. Even though Fulbright spoke out against the participation of African Americans in primary elections, his vote total was enhanced significantly by the votes of thousands of black tenant farmers coerced into voting for him.
More pragmatic but only slightly less preachy than fellow southerner Woodrow Wilson, another Anglophile and scholar in politics, Fulbright was more capable of intellectual growth on world matters than on the race question. Indeed, his opposition to federal civil rights legislation, a result more of moral blindness than of hypocrisy, is the great stain on his historic reputation. Woods does not dodge this issue but might have included more information on Fulbright’s opposition to the civil rights plank at the 1948 Democratic convention (the first one he attended) or his attitude toward the subsequent formation of the States Rights Party.
Fulbright had never been particularly impressed with President Harry S Truman and had raised eyebrows in party circles when he had suggested, following the 1946 off-year debacle, that the “Man from Missouri” consider resigning in favor of a Republican, such as Senate Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, who would first be appointed secretary of state. Truman’s response was to continue dispensing Arkansas patronage through Senator McClellan and to label Fulbright “that over-educated Oxford S.O.B.”
The man who first coined the nickname “Senator Halfbright” was not Truman or Lyndon Baines Johnson (who picked up on it twenty years later) but Joseph R. McCarthy, the Red-baiting Republican from Wisconsin. Fulbright opposed his Senate colleague early, often, and sometimes alone, on issues ranging from the appointment of Phillip Jessup to the United Nations to the McCarthy staff’s illegal access to Federal Bureau of Intelligence files. At one point, Fulbright’s was the only nay vote on a measure continuing funding for the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Successful...
(The entire section is 2106 words.)