The writer was Sen. Richard B. Russell’s press secretary from 1966 to 1971.
It is unlikely that the proposal offered in the March 15 Post op-ed, “Make it the Kennedy Building,” to change the name of the Russell Senate Office Building will receive much attention, but it nevertheless should be answered.
In their piece, Syracuse University history professor David Bennett and his son, Third Way co-founder Matt Bennett, betrayed a surprisingly limited knowledge of 20th century Senate history. Richard B. Russell’s “core legislative legacy” is far different than the one they describe.
Russell (D-Ga.) was a key member of the national security leadership of the United States for three decades. During this period, the United States defeated Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan and laid the foundation for the fall of the Berlin Wall and the eventual disintegration the Soviet empire. Russell’s views had the close attention of six U.S. presidents, a standing that few, if any, other senators have matched.
Because of the Senate leadership’s confidence in his judicious temperament, they turned to Russell in a moment of historical significance. In 1951, he was selected to preside over hearings to examine President Harry S. Truman’s hugely controversial dismissal of Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Russell’s handling of this delicate issue allowed passions to cool and for the nation to move forward.
In 38 years in the Senate, Russell also compiled a substantial record of domestic achievements. As Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) himself pointed out in his tribute at the time of Russell’s death, “through his efforts, we now have school lunch programs, aid to farmers, assistance for the hungry, and funding for better education and highway construction.”
The factor that separated Russell from other senators was his exceptional trustworthiness. His colleagues knew they could rely on his integrity, patriotism, intellect, knowledge, diligence and sense of honor. He was revered in the Senate.
A proposal to replace Russell’s name with Ted Kennedy’s on a Senate building cannot be taken seriously. Kennedy was an accomplished and likable man, but his personal deportment did not always rise to Senate standards. In contrast, Russell placed a high value on honor, decorum and respectability.
The Bennetts stumbled again when they cited Kennedy’s role in the leadership to bolster his case. After two years as majority whip, Kennedy was defeated by Robert Byrd (D-W. Va.) for reelection in spite of tutoring Kennedy received in Senate rules and procedures from a true master on the subject — Russell.
The Bennetts’ case rests on the issue of civil rights. There is no question that segregation and slavery are a stain on U.S. history. But Russell didn’t invent segregation, he inherited it.
By the same token, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were slave owners, having been born into a system of slavery. Let’s leave Washington’s name on his monument, Jefferson’s name on his memorial and Richard Russell’s name on what was once called the Old Senate Office Building.