When Georgia Sen. Richard Russell died in 1971, President Richard Nixon and 54 Senate colleagues made the pilgrimage to Atlanta, where his body lay in state in the Georgia Capitol.
Honoring Russell’s 38 years in Congress, The Washington Post in its obituary called him “the closest thing remaining to the embodiment of the Senate of old, the keeper and the symbol of the tradition, mores and tone that gave the place its stature.”
Even the liberal New York Times editorial page, which had long opposed Russell’s conservative views, declared, “Public men, whether they are right or wrong, are measured by their character and by the size of the issues which concern them. By these standards, Richard Russell was a big man.”
From his perch as chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Russell could be remarkably prescient. In a May 1964 conversation with his close friend and fellow Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson, captured by LBJ’s White House taping system, Russell unloaded on the folly of Vietnam: “It’s the damn worst mess I ever saw. … I don’t see how we’re ever going to get out of it without fighting a major war with the Chinese and all of them down there in those rice paddies and jungles.”
In October 1972, with the construction of a third office building planned, the Senate belatedly got around to naming its two existing buildings. Previously, they had been known — with some merriment — as the Old SOB (for Senate Office Building) and the New SOB.
Rather than going back in history (as the House did in naming its office buildings after great speakers), the Senate simply honored two of its recently deceased titans: Republican Everett Dirksen and Russell. (The third building was named in 1976 after liberal icon Philip Hart.)
There is another aspect of Russell’s career worthy of note — a cause that was central to his personal and political identity as a Southern gentleman.
A longtime segregationist
For more than three decades, from anti-lynching legislation in the 1930s to the epic battles over voting rights and public accommodations in the 1960s, Russell was the leader of the segregationist cause in the Senate, unwilling to ever compromise on civil rights.
“In defending that cause, Russell was outwardly very different — in appearance and in arguments — from racist senatorial demagogues,” writes Johnson biographer Robert Caro in his epic volume “Master of the Senate.” Instead, Russell masked his antebellum views in the lofty constitutional language of states’ rights.
But unlike Southern politicians such as Arkansas Sen. J. William Fulbright who pandered to a segregationist constituency for political survival, Russell was also free from anguish over the rectitude of his chosen cause.
As historian Gilbert C. Fite wrote at the conclusion of his biography of Russell, “White supremacy and racial segregation were to him cardinal principles for good and workable human relationships. [Russell] had a deep emotional commitment to preserving the kind of South in which his ancestors had lived. No sacrifice was too great for him to make if it would prevent the extension of full equality to blacks.”
So why again is Russell’s name immortalized on the 1909 structure that used to be known as the Old SOB? About the only way it is fitting is because Russell’s racial views would have fit neatly into Southern white orthodoxy in 1909.
Please understand that I am not an advocate of toppling all 19th century statues and setting off in an orgy of renaming like a banana republic after a revolution. Every historical figure has flaws and blind spots — especially when suddenly assessed by the most rigorous of 2017 standards.
But it is appropriate to judge the people for whom we name buildings by their behavior in the context of their times and their careers. And it is by this flexible standard that Richard Russell falls grotesquely short.
Civil rights was the great moral crusade of Russell’s lifetime — and at every moment the Georgia senator was on the wrong side. Even Russell’s legendary mastery of Senate procedure was rooted in the need of segregationists to use every legislative trick to block civil rights legislation.
Contrast Russell with his fellow building honoree, Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen. A grandiloquent old-fashioned orator, Dirksen was often ridiculed as the Wizard of Ooze.
But when it came time to vote on the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Dirksen rose to quote Victor Hugo, “Stronger than all the armies is an idea whose time has come.” And that was how the cautious Dirksen came to view civil rights. When LBJ signed the landmark legislation, he gave the first commemorative pen to Dirksen for his behind-the-scenes efforts.
What’s in a name?
So whose name should replace Russell’s on the oldest Senate office building?
It would be tempting to name the building after LBJ, the greatest 20th century senator, who broke with Russell and the Southern caucus on the moral cause of civil rights.
But, in my view, the honor should go to Maine’s Margaret Chase Smith, the first Republican woman to have a serious Senate career. Her dedication was legendary during her four terms in office. As she once explained, “I have no family, no time-consuming hobbies. I have only myself and my job as United States senator.”
Smith’s career embodies two qualities sadly missing in today’s Senate — courage (she famously excoriated Joe McCarthy for his smear-artist tactics) and independence (she broke with Richard Nixon on two Supreme Court picks).
Forty-five years ago this month, the Senate made an epic mistake in naming a building after a segregationist. Renaming it for Margaret Chase Smith would right the record — and belatedly honor women in Congress.
Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.