When it comes to politics and Washington we've been conditioned to expect the worst. And do. So news that Washington has another scandal hardly surprises people here in the Ozarks, or elsewhere in America today.
This time it's sex and drugs, homosexual liaisons between congressmen and young pages, with Capitol Hill cocaine dealing on the side. What else do you expect?
Nor would that cynical attitude, now so strong throughout the country, surprise Fayetteville's most prominent native son. Bill Fulbright (J. William, to be more formal), the former senator and sponsor of the international fellowships that have made his name a household word around the world, has been addressing that question of public morality and public ethics consistently for years. He bears listening to again, for the passing of time only strengthens the soundness of his message.
A generation ago, when scandals in Washington again were dominating the news and Americans were worrying about what appeared to be a decline in public and private morality, Fulbright stood on the Senate floor to deliver one of the memorable speeches about the quality of American life for which he was famous. This came after his investigation of the Reconstruction Finance Corp., a government agency that funneled money into ailing financial institutions. He had uncovered a tangled web of political manipulations that led to one sensational disclosure after another: of influence peddling, bribery, gifts of mink coats and all-expenses-paid trips to Florida, irregularities, deep involvement with the White House and a bitter public dispute with Harry Truman, a president of his own party.
"The vast majority of great civilizations have been destroyed," Fulbright said, "not as a result of external aggression, but as a consequence of domestic corruption. A democracy can recover quickly from physical or economic disaster, but when its moral convictions weaken it becomes easy prey for the demagogue or the charlatan. Tyranny and oppression then become the order of the day."
Typically of Fulbright, he did not stop with that sort of assertion. He went on to examine why the political system was being contaminated, and offered wise suggestions on how to improve it. His answers were not conventional. Nor were his questions. They challenged easy assumptions about public life being somehow more wicked than private:
"What of the men outside government who suborn those inside it? They are careful to see that they do not do anything that can be construed as illegal. They operate through lawyers . . . . Many businessmen, ostensibly reputable businessmen, employ these knavish lawyers to circumvent the law and enrich themselves at government expense. Too often the laws cannot reach them.
"Who is more at fault, the bribed or the bribers? The bribed have been false to their oath and betrayers of their trust. But they are often relatively simple men, men of small fortune or no fortune at all, and they weaken before the temptations held out to them by the unscrupulous. Who are the bribers? They are often men who walk the earth lordly and secure, members of good families, respected fixtures in their communities, graduates of universities. They are, in short, of the privileged minority, and I submit that it is not unreasonable to ask of them that high standard of conduct which their training ought to have engendered."
But the heart of Fulbright's message, always, involved something deeper. It was to remind people that government, both its activities and practitioners, was only a mirror of national life, no better, no worse. And it was to prod citizens into thinking about their responsibility for changing those political conditions that produce scandals and breed more cynicism. As he said:
"Because some of our public servants have been delinquent, many of our citizens have thrown up their hands and said that politics is a rotten business and that they will have nothing to do with it. The word politics has unfortunately with some people acquired a meaning synonymous with corruption. If it was ever justified, it was because of the indifference of our citizens, and it is every decent citizen's duty to bring the word back into good repute."
In the years since, as national scandal has followed national scandal, that need becomes greater than ever.
Down here at the University of Arkansas this weekend they are paying tribute to Fulbright by dedicating the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences. Many speakers have extolled his long and distinguished career. Most of the ingredients remain familiar:
The first Rhodes scholar to serve in the Senate; the man who introduced the congressional resolution that led to creation of the United Nations; the one who brought into being the Fulbright Fellowships; the strong chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who mobilized dissent against the Vietnam war; the courageous early opponent of McCarthyism, putting him virtually alone among his colleagues and subjecting him to vicious personal abuse.
By the end of the Eisenhower era, his name, as Arthur Krock wrote then, was "perhaps more favorably known in more countries than any American legislator in many decades" and Walter Lippmann said of him at the same time, "There is no one else who is so powerful, and so wise, and if there were any question of removing him from public life, it would be a national calamity." His most influential period, embracing the time when he coined the phrase "the arrogance of power" to describe U.S. involvement in Vietnam, was still to come.
In looking back at his career now, these and other achievements clearly put him among the handful of major American political figures of the last 40 years. Beyond these, he deserves to be remembered for something else.
Throughout his career, Fulbright has tried to teach the importance of a good government and to encourage the best of our people to enter political life. He did so not out of some naive notion of idealism, but from eminent practicality. A democratic society succumbs to the destructive elements of corruption and cynicism when its public lacks respect in its governmental system and it fails to attract its most talented citizens to its service.
That has been Fulbright's theme from the beginning. He was 34, the youngest university president in the nation, when he took over the University of Arkansas here in his hometown in 1939. His first public speech then remains relevant to the political situation in both Washington and the nation today.
"I used to advise my best law students to go into politics," he said 43 years ago, "and some of them were horrified that I should want them to engage in such a corrupt business. You might have thought I had advised them to be bootleggers. This attitude has kept many of our best minds from politics, and this attitude has been largely created by their parents and teachers. Too many of our older citizens have adopted the attitude that nothing can be done about politics. This defeatist view is, in my opinion, the greatest single threat to the preservation of our democratic form of government."
It still is.