Time Capsule: ‘The Great Dissenter’ Suffers Crushing Defeat

Sen. J. William Fulbright, who helped to rally opposition to the war in Vietnam from his powerful perch on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was overwhelmingly defeated in a bid for a sixth consecutive term in the U.S. Senate on this day in 1974.

Fulbright, whose dreams of culminating his long public career with a stint as Secretary of State were shattered when Lyndon B. Johnson retained Dean Rusk — a Kennedy appointee — following the 1964 presidential election, had long intimated that his fifth term in the U.S. Senate might be his last, but later had a change of heart and announced in early January of 1974 that he would seek a sixth term.

The 69-year-old lawmaker knew he faced an uphill battle against popular two-term Gov. Dale Bumpers, who unexpectedly entered the race shortly before the filing deadline.

A previously unknown country lawyer who had lost an earlier race for a state legislative seat, Bumpers had quickly developed a reputation as a “giant-killer,” having defeated six-time Gov. Orval E. Faubus in the 1970 Democratic primary before upending Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller — the state’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction — in the general election. 

A southern moderate, Bumpers was widely regarded as a rising star in national politics who was likely to end up on the Democratic national ticket in 1976.

Fulbright’s popularity, on the other hand, had diminished considerably in Arkansas and had been on the wane since 1968 when he appeared ripe for plucking, barely mustering 53 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary against decidedly lackluster opposition.

He was even more vulnerable in 1974.

One couldn’t help feeling a bit wistful watching the authentic Arkansas hero — a man who helped orchestrate Joe McCarthy’s downfall and later became one of the chief architects of the belated U.S. withdrawal from South Vietnam — fight for his political survival that spring.

The nation clearly owed the “Great Dissenter” a debt of gratitude.

From the moment he tossed the winning touchdown pass against rival Southern Methodist University as a 17-year-old University of Arkansas halfback — giving the Razorbacks their first ever homecoming victory — the citizens of Arkansas always had a special place in their hearts for Fulbright.

That devotion deepened two years later when Fulbright was named the youngest Rhodes scholar in history, and was cemented forever when he became president of the University of Arkansas in 1939 while still in his early thirties — the youngest in the school’s history.  At the time of his appointment, Fulbright was the youngest university president in the country.

The citizens of Arkansas took tremendous pride in the respect that their contemplative Senator commanded in Washington and around the world.

“People dumped on our state and said we were all a bunch of back-country hayseeds,” recalled former President Bill Clinton.  “And we had a guy in the Senate who doubled the I.Q. of any room he entered.  It made us feel pretty good, like we might amount to something.”

Clinton, of course, had worked as an intern on the Senator’s Washington staff in the summer of 1967 and later followed in his footsteps to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar.

Committed to peace and wary of power, Fulbright had been a thorn in the side to presidents of both parties.  “In a democracy,” he famously asserted, “dissent is an act of faith.”

Putting partisanship aside in his role as chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee — a post he held from 1959 to 1974 — Fulbright turned his committee into the nation’s leading forum for opposition to the Vietnam War, much to the consternation of Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon.

Fulbright also called for a reduction of U.S. commitments abroad, including foreign aid. Under his leadership, the Gulf of Tonkin resolution — which to his everlasting regret he had introduced at LBJ’s request in the summer of 1964 — was repealed and the U.S. Senate reasserted its constitutional war-making authority.

By 1974, Fulbright had overseen the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam and a détente policy established with the Soviet Union and China.  Foreign aid had also been reduced.  Working closely with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the longtime chairman of the Foreign Relations committee looked forward to fashioning a peace plan in the Middle East.

Best remembered for establishing the Fulbright fellowships for international study, as a young congressman — he served a single term in the House from 1943-1945 — Fulbright also introduced legislation to create the United Nations in 1943.  Fulbright’s books, particularly The Arrogance of Power (Random House, 1967) and The Crippled Giant: American Foreign Policy and its Domestic Consequences (Random House, 1972), affected an entire generation of Americans.

Few men in public life have arguably ever left a more lasting imprint on foreign affairs.

None of that mattered in 1974.

By then, Fulbright, who didn’t maintain a residence in Arkansas, was viewed by many of the state’s voters as too distant and unapproachable, an aloof, if not arrogant, intellectual increasingly obsessed with international developments rather than the ordinary concerns of the farmers and blue-collar workers who gave third-party candidate George C. Wallace a healthy plurality against Dick Nixon and Hubert Humphrey in 1968.

“Bill’s a lot smarter than the rest of us in Arkansas,” sneered one former supporter who was now backing Bumpers.  “If you don’t believe that, just ask him.”

“In the old days, the voters let Bill Fulbright do this thing in Washington in exchange for looking after their interests,” said one Fulbright supporter in Little Rock.  “Now, many of them are fed up with rising prices of meat and baling yarn, disgusted with Watergate, and ready for a new face.”

Fulbright’s seniority and foreign policy expertise didn’t matter as much as it had in the past.   

Bumpers, who rarely mentioned Fulbright by name, went out of his way to avoid criticizing the incumbent — a strategy predicated on the belief that Fulbright was going to lose anyway.  The popular governor, who was widely believed to harbor national ambitions, obviously wanted to dispense of the thirty-year veteran with as little bloodshed as possible.

The strategy nearly backfired.  Bumpers, complained the Arkansas Gazette — the state’s leading newspaper — was “asking the people to turn out a veteran incumbent senator, one of the most honored men ever reared in Arkansas, without even making a case against him.”

Like the Gazette’s editorial writers, Fulbright couldn’t quite understand why Bumpers was running that year, instead of waiting until 1978 when John L. McClellan, the state’s senior Senator, was expected to retired.  After all, he and Bumpers agreed on most of the issues.

But Bumpers, who could have just as easily been elected to a third term as governor that year, refused to mix it up with his aging rival, leaving Fulbright to challenge his rival to reveal “what is behind that very smooth, attractive, and pleasant smiling face.”

“We are not running for homecoming queen,” snapped Fulbright, who drove the point home time and again in newspaper and television ads. “It’s more than just a popularity contest.  It’s the most crucial election in America.”

Following the advice of Washington political consultant Mark Shields, Fulbright hoped to make seniority a major issue in the campaign, arguing that his longevity in the nation’s capital had been invaluable for Arkansas. Pointing to Sen. McClellan’s role on the Senate Appropriations Committee and Rep. Wilbur D. Mills’ chairmanship of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, the thirty-year incumbent said that it would be a mistake for the state’s voters to overlook the importance of seniority.

He was right, too.  Rarely in American history had any state — particularly a small state like Arkansas — possessed such a concentration of influence on Capitol Hill.

“Anybody who thinks the Senate is going to give Arkansas its fair share because somebody asks them to join hands has another thing coming,” said Fulbright.  “You’ve got to fight for it.”  Bumpers, he constantly reminded voters, would enter the Senate at the bottom of the seniority scale. 

Fulbright’s comment was a direct slap at his younger rival, who had famously appealed to the voters of Arkansas to “join hands” in providing new leadership while insisting that seniority shouldn’t be a deciding factor in assigning committee chairmanships.

Trailing by more than thirty points, the scholarly Fulbright — putting aside his cherished moments of reflective solitude to greet voters at shopping centers, fiddling’ contests and country catfish fries — campaigned vigorously but was unable to cut into the governor’s seemingly insurmountable lead. 

Fulbright’s moody indifference to politicking vanished as he fought valiantly for his political life.

“I don’t pretend that I’m a guru and that if I leave everything will collapse,” he said as the campaign came to a close.  “I admit willingly that the country will continue whether I’m there or not.  But the people of Arkansas have a great investment in me and what I can do.  I do think I can be more effective in protecting their interests.”

The voters of Arkansas apparently thought differently.

Despite claims that an internal poll conducted by his campaign showed him with a narrow four-tenths of one percent lead on the eve of primary, Fulbright went down to humiliating defeat, losing to the 48-year-old Bumpers by a margin of 380,748 to 204,630.

One Comment

  1. Possibly more interesting is the fact that Sen. Fulbright was re-elected in 1968. That same year Arkansas elected Winthrop Rockefeller (Rep) as Governor, and the state gave its electoral votes to George C Wallace running on the American Independent Party ticket.

    Given the rarity of strong third parties, that kind of a three way split is unusual. In 1940 Wisconsin went for FDR, while it re-elected Sen Robert LaFollette Jr (Progressive) and re-elected Governor Peter Heil, a Republican.

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