Sample text for Brinkley's beat : people, places, and events that shaped my time / David Brinkley.
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I arrived in Washington in 1943, when the city was fast becoming a crowded, bustling war capital—filled with clerks and businessmen and diplomats and exiled foreign leaders. But my life was pretty simple: riding the segregated trolleys downtown to work at the NBC offices in the old Trans-Lux building on Fourteenth Street; living in rented rooms in private houses—the only housing available at any price—and having to deal with cranky landlords and landladies who constantly posted on the walls new rules of behavior and reminders of the need for neatness in the bathrooms. I had come to Washington from the South, and despite the new bustle, it had a very familiar feeling. It was sleepy, often slow-moving, inbred, and thoroughly segregated.
Local Washington, through presidents, wars, and depressions, had settled into an acceptance of George Washington’s poor choice of location in a sprawling, slow-moving Southern city. People from real cities—New York, Chicago, Boston, cities with factories and immigrants and subways—thought it astonishing. There were few restaurants offering anything not fried in deep fat. On Connecticut Avenue there was a place called Old New Orleans featuring in its front display window a large, plump black woman wearing a long gingham dress and a red bandanna on her head and sitting in a rocking chair, rocking by the hour—the restaurant’s trademark. Only a river’s breadth away lay the old Confederacy. Robert E. Lee’s house, Arlington, still stood on the opposite bank. The speaker of the House of Representatives, Sam Rayburn of Bonham, Texas, had not one but five pictures of Lee on his office wall, symmetrically arranged and all facing south. For whites as for blacks, Washington was southern. Capital of the United States, yes, but southern in manner, style, and appearance and southern in climate and culture.
I lived in Washington for fifty-five years after that, and saw it change a great deal before I left. But the image that has always stayed with me is of the quiet town I visited first with my mother in the 1930s, when we stayed at the old Hotel Harrington downtown, and of the only slightly noisier town I found when I moved there in the early 1940s.
To me, as a sometime Capitol Hill reporter, the antiquated character of the city was most visible in Congress, which was still carrying on in the manner of a fading aristocracy, in a setting of marble stairways, horsehair sofas, polished brass spittoons, snuffboxes on the senators desks, potted palms, Oriental rugs, leather chairs, and Havana cigars. There were even a few members still affecting frock coats, wing collars, and black string ties. Through the 1930s, it was a gentlemen’s club with but one woman senator—Hattie Caraway of Arkansas, who sat in the chamber every day knitting, listening, and saying nothing.
“People don’t give a damn what the average Senator or Congressman says,” the columnist Raymond Clapper wrote. “The reason they don’t care is that they know what you hear in Congress is 99 per cent tripe, ignorance and demagoguery and not to be relied on.” Clapper’s description applied to many politicians on Capitol Hill, but it fit no one better than a man from Mississippi, one of the most extraordinary and preposterous figures I ever encountered in my many years as a Washington reporter.
United States Senator Theodore Gilmore Bilbo (known at home as “The Man”) was somewhere between five feet and five feet six inches tall. He was a vain man, often described as a “strutting peacock,” and he refused to reveal his exact height. But one Mississippian who helped vote him into the Senate said, “When Theo Bilbo is on the stump, he’s seven feet ten inches tall,” which gives some idea of Bilbo’s talent as an orator, a talent he used freely in getting himself elected state senator, lieutenant governor, governor, and finally U.S. senator for two terms. Bilbo led a charmed political life, surviving scandal, imprisonment, defeat, and outrage, and climbing higher and higher all the time. In the 1940s, when he sat in the Senate during the greatest war in history, even colleagues who had been sharing the chamber with him for over a decade sometimes found it hard to believe that someone like him could really be there.
Bilbo, the youngest of ten children, was born in 1877 on a farm in the wire-grass country of Mississippi, six miles from the railroad station at Poplarville. It was an area of the state with little cotton and not many blacks; an area where slavery had not much taken root and where loyalty to the Confederacy had been relatively weak. People from around Poplarville had a lively resentment of the planter aristocracy and a belief that ordinary people were getting a raw deal from the government and the corporations. Like many poor whites, they also had a real contempt for black people—mostly because they needed someone they could feel superior to.
In Bilbo’s family, as in most others in the area, money was not plentiful. He went to school only by paying his own expenses. Between terms at Peabody College and Vanderbilt University, where he won a law degree, he sandwiched work as a “news butcher” on southern trains. While selling bananas and newspapers up and down lurching train aisles, he learned phrenology, a system by which some people thought they could determine character from head shapes. “During those days,” he said, “I earned as much as $250 a month.” He claimed he could look at a passenger’s head and determine the quickest and best way to separate him from his money.
After college, Bilbo became a traveling Sunday school organizer and won a preacher’s license as a reward for secretarial services at Baptist institutions. Those who heard him said he could preach a thumping sermon on the regular minister’s day off. Those who heard his speeches in later years didn’t doubt it.
He first ran for office, county court clerk, at the age of twenty-two and lost by ninety-six votes. At thirty he was back again, seeking a $250-a-year job as state senator. He tore into that campaign furiously, rode his father’s horse two thousand miles, and took his message to the people. They liked it and elected him by a big majority.
The story of Bilbo and that first term in the legislature became famous in Mississippi, and there have been almost as many versions as tellers. It involves a well-documented charge of bribery, impeachment proceedings, and a resolution calling him “unfit to sit with honest, upright men in a respectable legislative body.” He was saved from impeachment by one vote and forever after blamed the impeachment attempt on the fat cats trying to get rid of him before he got rid of them.
Bilbo took the stump again four years later and won election as lieutenant governor. His first official act was to remove the “unfit” resolution from the records. The next four years were uneventful, except for another bribery charge and another acquittal. Bilbo then told the voters he wanted to be governor. They obliged him in 1915, burnishing the already growing legend of his political indestructibility. A defeated opponent once said, “The lower you push Theo Bilbo, the higher he bounces back.”
As governor, in one uproarious day, Bilbo fired the presidents of the University of Mississippi, the State College for Women, and the A and M College. On the same day he fired 179 professors and teachers. For chancellor of the university system he named a real-estate salesman who held no degree. The Mississippi Power and Light Company’s advertising manager was made president of A and M. For a University Administration Board, he chose two dentists, one bank cashier, one doctor, and three lawyers. When Bilbo was criticized for tampering with the schools, his only answer was “Things have come to a hell of a pass when a man can’t wallop his own jackass.”
Bilbo was not a particularly handsome man. But he didn’t seem to know it, and neither, apparently, did most of the people in Mississippi who came to hear him. He had a flair for showmanship, particularly in his wardrobe. He stocked up on pinkish shirts, flaming red neckties, red suspenders, and red handkerchiefs. (At night he wore red pajamas.) The final bit of dash was the diamond horseshoe stickpin, which he’d bought in 1916 at an auction for $92.50, and which he considered a good luck charm. He didn’t have much hair, but what he had was slicked back, well oiled, and plastered down. It was his magnetism, not his looks, that presumably endeared him to his supporters (and also to the many women he liked to “visit” with as he traveled around the state). Some thought Bilbo’s dandyism might get him into trouble with the state’s poor white farmers, but it never seemed to hurt him. He even survived a charge by an opponent that he had been seen in public taking dancing lessons and eating caviar.
He was in many ways a progressive governor, in the peculiar fashion that Deep South politicians became progressives. Like his racist mentor James Vardaman, Bilbo combined his love of the white man (and hatred of the black) with efforts to help poor whites and stir up their resentment of rich people and corporations, the kind of resentment that had been a staple of political life in his home town. He fiddled with the tax codes to make corporations and utilities pay more and ordinary people pay less. He increased state aid to public schools. In later years, he called his program “books and bricks.” Some people in the 1930s liked to compare him to Huey Long, and like Long he lashed out at “Wall Streeters” and rich corporations and the political old guard. Once he even told an audience that he thought “every man should be a king and every woman a queen,” using Long’s trademark phrases. But Bilbo was not nearly as skillful or smart as Long, and he was always getting into trouble. If it wasn’t a scandal, it was one or another stupid decision that he stubbornly refused to change even though it was clear it would fail or hurt him politically, or both.
One of them involved the South African tick, a tiny insect he said was spreading Texas fever, a disease deadly to cattle. As governor, he pushed legislation requiring farmers to dip their cattle into chemical vats to kill any ticks they might be carrying. Farmers didn’t like the idea. They feared the dip would kill their cattle along with the ticks. But Bilbo persisted, even after someone sneaked into the state’s dipping yards and dynamited the vats.
By law, Bilbo couldn’t run for re-election. Lee M. Russell, who succeeded him, hadn’t been in the State House long when he became involved in a lawsuit. The complainant summoned Bilbo as the main witness, but Bilbo avoided testifying against his friend Russell by hiding in a barn. The case was dismissed for lack of evidence. But Judge Edwin R. Holmes gave Bilbo thirty days in jail for contempt. He served only ten, but even those days weren’t wasted. His cell faced a street, and by shouting through the barred window he gathered a crowd outside. He told them about the injustice of his case and announced he would seek a second term as governor at the next election. He did, but the farmers remembered those livestock dipping vats and were still resentful. So he lost.
In 1927 his luck was better and he was elected governor again. This term was an unhappy one both for Bilbo and the people of Mississippi. His enemies controlled the legislature. He refused to sign its tax bills, and it refused to pass his. When his term ended, the state’s treasury balance stood at $1,326.17, and appropriated obligations were $7,486,760.20. The state of Mississippi was broke. So was Bilbo—out of a job and out of money.
He began looking at the U.S. Senate. Senator Hubert D. Stephens, then representing Mississippi, fell ill during Bilbo’s second term as governor. Hearing Bilbo was interested, he charged him with “waiting like a ghoul for me to die” so he could appoint a successor.
“Senator Stephens,” Bilbo retorted, “is a vicious, malicious, pusillanimous, cold-blooded, premeditated, plain, ordinary liar.” Later he added, “I was really very considerate of him. He was a sick man.” But he didn’t die in time for Bilbo to replace him. Bilbo was never a man to forget a grudge.
When he left the governorship, Bilbo campaigned for U.S. Senator Pat Harrison, then up for re-election in Mississippi. Harrison won and rewarded Bilbo with a $6,000-a-year Department of Agriculture job as a “consultant on public relations.” What Bilbo really did was supervise a corps of women who clipped mentions of the New Deal’s Agricultural Assistance Administration from newspapers and magazines. He denied that he ever dipped a brush into a paste pot, and he resented the name applied to him both in Mississippi and Washington: “the Pastemaster General.” For a year he fussed with the AAA’s scrapbooks and managed to see that his name appeared in its clippings occasionally, and that it was always properly spelled.
But Bilbo was not cut out to be an agency bureaucrat, and in 1934 he appeared suddenly in Senator Harrison’s office and announced that he planned to oppose Stephens in the next race. Harrison told him to go ahead, but added, “I’ll have to support Stephens.”
“By all means do so,” Bilbo said. “That’ll give me my best campaign argument.”
“I’m going to say you now have two Senate seats in your pocket, but the Constitution calls for two men and I’m running for the vacancy.”
Bilbo ran, and he put on the loudest, gaudiest campaign Mississippi had ever seen. He toured the state from end to end in his flivver. He threw barbecue parties for more than 18,000 persons. He sang “Bringing In the Sheaves,” “The Ninety and Nine,” and “Clementine,” accompanying himself on the melodeon. He promised voters everything he could think of. He blasted such fanciful enemies as “farmer murderers, corrupters of Southern womanhood, and skunks who steal Gideon Bibles from hotel rooms.” He said the state was ridden with Communism and needed him to cleanse it. (Forty-seven Communist votes were cast in the state that year.) He reminded the voters that Bilbo is a two-edged sword. “That’s me,” he said. “I fight coming and going.” Most Mississippi newspapers hated Bilbo and tried to stop him, but he enjoyed their dislike of him and just campaigned harder. He once admitted that he liked campaigning better than holding office.
To attend a Bilbo rally was like being in the presence of a furious, tireless human windmill. He called for “a planned redistribution of the wealth,” old-age pensions, and any other legislation he could think of, however unlikely it was ever to pass, to tax the rich and give jobs and cash to the poor. Then you might hear him give his famous description of himself: “Bilbo—what a man! A man of titanic energy, dynamic driving force, a wonder in sustained power of endurance, and a marvel of intellectual brilliance! The Man—Bilbo!”
In all, Bilbo made more than a thousand speeches, rising at 4 a.m. every day and traveling until after sundown. He not only won the election with 101,702 votes to Stephens’s 94,587 but gained ten pounds in the process, mostly because he lived on a diet of sardines, cheese, and crackers. When someone asked him, “What’s the population of Mississippi?” he answered: “Votin’ or eatin’?”
Bilbo arrived in Washington in 1935 in the same dusty campaign flivver he had driven over Mississippi from Yellow Rabbit to Vinegar Bend. He brought with him a blustery promise to “raise more hell than Huey Long,” whom he had always disliked (partly because Long was very popular in Mississippi). There was some hope, and fear, that he and the Kingfish would tangle on the floor of the Senate, but Bilbo was too wary of Long’s influence to battle him openly. They sniped at each other once in a while, but they never really fought. Bilbo sometimes called the Louisianan “the Crawfish” and said, “He better stay out of Mississippi.” Long, who never minced a word, called Bilbo “just a plain damned fool.” Bilbo shed no tears when Long was assassinated in 1935.
Except for the car and the hollow promises to take on Huey Long, Bilbo made almost no impact at all on the Senate in his first months. He took his seat and said nothing, following the tradition that a newcomer should be seen often and heard seldom. Finally he broke silence with a short speech admitting that “the real reason I ran for election was to get a place in the Senate garage to park my car.” The outstanding event of Bilbo’s first year was the grand opening of his briefly famous “Dream House” back in Poplarville, a twenty-seven-room monument to himself with five bathrooms, including his own, which was decorated in orchid and black. He invited hundreds of friends and served them a hundred pounds of cheese, ten cases of crackers, six hundred cans of sardines, five gallons of dill pickles, fifty gallons of ice cream, ten cakes, and eight hundred five-cent cigars.
Bilbo’s first real, Mississippi-style speech in the Senate came when his colleague, Senator Harrison, nominated Judge Edwin R. Holmes for the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Bilbo, remembering the ten days he had spent in jail at Holmes’s order, took the floor and attacked him for five solid hours. The Senate listened patiently and politely, then confirmed the nomination. No one but Bilbo voted against him. That speech started a four-year feud between Bilbo and Harrison. When the Democrats elected a Senate leader in 1937, Harrison and Alben Barkley were the leading candidates. Barkley won by one vote—in Harrison’s view, the one Bilbo cast for Barkley rather than for his fellow Mississippian.
Otherwise, Bilbo’s Senate career was distinguished by its unabashed racism, which even in an all-white Congress filled with segregationists was notable for its viciousness. He realized after a while that as a member of the Senate he could introduce any piece of legislation he liked, however ludicrous and embarrassing, and then speak on its behalf for as long as he wanted. The other senators would have to sit in their seats, squirming, and listen to him. He could also speak against any measure he didn’t like, as he did with the Holmes nomination. He launched two famous filibusters—one against a proposal to repeal state poll taxes (a device particularly popular in the South because black voters usually couldn’t afford to pay them) and another against the 1938 bill to make lynching a federal crime (a bill motivated by the correct belief of anti-lynching activists that lynchers would never be convicted in local courts in the South). When issues involving race came up, Bilbo forgot about first-term reticence and jumped into the battle in full cry. In those debates, Bilbo usually found a way to introduce his pet scheme for solving the race question no matter what the actual topic was: his long-standing proposal to ship the country’s black citizens to a colony in West Africa. During the poll tax debate, Senator William Langer of North Dakota asked him if he was still for “the bill he had here before, to send all the Negroes to Liberia”?
Bilbo was delighted to reply. “I introduced a bill to provide the ways and means by which they could be voluntarily settled in West Africa.” It was, he insisted, a sensible way to create a “permanent solution of the race question which we have had before us, which we are having now and of which we will have more in the future.”
Langer asked him how those sent to Africa would be selected.
“It is not a question of selection. That is merely a question of defining what a nigra is. A nigra is anyone who is ascended from the African race.” One drop of African blood would be enough.
Other members of the Senate left the floor, or tried to pretend they were not hearing what they were hearing.
At other times, he supported his demand for the expatriation of black Americans by telling the NAACP the colored race could never expect fair treatment in this country and would be happier in a nation of its own. He said he was “the best friend the Negro has got” and claimed more than 3,500,000 blacks had endorsed his plan. Black leaders regarded it as ridiculous.
After speaking for three hours, Bilbo returned to the subject at hand, the poll tax, and offered a final piece of wisdom on the bill to outlaw it: “By the way, the idea of the pending piece of legislation came from Russia. Those behind it saw this as the opening way to make a stab at the very heart of the Constitution of the United States.” The bill died on the floor.
Every senator is given a seat on some committee or other, and Bilbo—one of the least respected members—was put on the one considered least consequential: the District of Columbia Committee. There, it was thought, he could do no harm. But no one had counted on the effects of seniority, particularly in a committee that most senators left as soon as they could. In 1943, Bilbo became chairman of the District Committee, a job carrying the unofficial title “Mayor of Washington,” since the city then had no elected government of its own and depended on Congress for its budget. It would have been hard to imagine a more alarming choice for the job of “mayor” of what was being called the “capital of the free world,” because there was no one more likely to reveal to the world Washington’s most shameful secrets.
Most white Washingtonians rarely saw black people, except when they had black servants in their homes or black service workers at their offices. But nearly a third of the city was black, one of the highest percentages of any city outside the former Confederacy, and the number was rising. Every day, more black migrants streamed across the Fourteenth Street Bridge from Virginia: young men alone, with their possessions tied up in bundles carried on sticks on their shoulders; families, with small children in tow, sometimes bringing a few farm animals with them; refugees escaping the poverty of the tobacco lands of rural Virginia and North Carolina or the cotton communities of the Deep South. They were hoping for something better than long days in the field for low pay and large debts, but in Washington they seldom found it.
Few of the newcomers had access to the jealously guarded world of the black middle class ensconced on one side of Capitol Hill and in parts of Georgetown. So they did what generations of newly arrived African Americans had done before them. They moved to “the alleys,” rows of tiny, shabby dwellings crammed behind row houses in the residential areas next to Capitol Hill. For a while after the Civil War, new Irish immigrants competed with freed slaves for space in the alleys. But after a time, the Irish moved on. The African Americans remained.
They lived in a squalor that some whites might have found more alarming had it not all been so conveniently out of sight. Alley dwellings often had no plumbing. One water faucet on a pipe rising up from the ground was used by several houses. Open-ended barrels set down over holes in the ground served as privies—the city health department counted fifteen thousand of them—and were used by as many as thirty people each. The alley shacks themselves were crumbling, unpainted, unheated, and filthy.
Wherever they lived—on “the Hill” or in the alleys or in the crumbling Georgetown houses that were now being snatched up by New Dealers and converted into expensive housing—they looked out on a city that was rigidly and thoroughly segregated. Throughout the city, hotels, restaurants, movie theaters, libraries, and taxicabs refused to serve blacks. Retail stores, even those in black neighborhoods dealing with black customers, refused to hire black sales clerks. Dress shops allowed black women to buy clothes but wouldn’t let them try them on. White residential neighborhoods were governed by strict covenants forbidding homeowners to sell their houses to blacks (or, in many neighborhoods, to Jews).
For years, the federal government had hired virtually no blacks—a few dozen janitors and messengers, but not many others. And while things had gotten a little better under the New Deal—blacks occupied enough significant offices that they were able to form an informal “black cabinet” to try to advance their goals—most of the federal bureaucracy remained under the control of whites from Central High School and the like.
This was the city Bilbo encountered when he became its un- official “mayor,” the place he promised to turn into “the model city of the world.” He would not, he said, let the Washington establishment continue its passive, genteel ways. He would, he promised, shake things up. Washington soon learned that Bilbo wasn’t joking. Every move he made was somehow related to his hatred of the city’s black population and his efforts to subordinate them, or to send them away. In less than a month, the newspapers and church and civic organizations were crying for his scalp. The uproar started when the “mayor” of the nation’s eleventh largest city made the following pronouncements:
• All the 20,000 persons living in the capital’s alley dwellings, 90 percent of them African Americans, must move out within one year, thus clearing up the city’s worst slums in one grand swoop. This ill-housed, low-income group had to find homes elsewhere—on their own. Those who couldn’t had to go back to the farm, wherever that might have been.
• Washingtonians, barred by law from voting, should not be granted suffrage, according to Bilbo, even though they had been asking for it continually since Congress took it away in 1878. “If suffrage should be granted,” he said, “the Negroes would soon have control of the city and the alleys would be outvoting the avenues.” Much of his language on the subject of Washington’s black population was a great deal more shocking than that.
The Washington Post immediately labeled Bilbo’s new administration “An Adventure in Bigotry” and asked for his removal. The Southeast Council of Churches, calling him “anti-Christian and unpatriotic,” asked for another District Committee chairman. The Negro Tribune called him “the Bilbonic plague,” the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People said he was “unfit to preside,” and the Washington Daily News said, “Throw him out.” Hostesses in white Washington society made Bilbo a pariah, a crude and embarrassing figure never to be admitted into a respectable home.
Undeterred, Bilbo demanded a stiffer penal code for Washington, a city that at the time was almost completely free of organized or big-scale crime, and advocated taking back from the state of Virginia a thirty-square-mile strip of land that had once been a part of the District. The land had been given back to Virginia in 1846. “That,” said Bilbo, reviving an issue a century dead, “was a mistake.”
Washington was accustomed by sad experience to being governed by out-of-towners who knew nothing of its local problems. Residents had no voice in their own government. For decades, an act of Congress was required to change the hours for turning on streetlights or the days when shad could be sold in fish markets. Most residents had to some degree accepted their votelessness and political invalidism as a price they paid for front-row seats at the drama that is the national government. But in 1943, some of them began to think that Bilbo was setting the price too high.
What really started the organized campaign against him was a speech Bilbo made before the Mississippi legislature after his first month as District Committee chairman. It shocked most of Washington, official and otherwise, white and black. His remark that blacks “would soon have control of the city” if suffrage were granted in the District of Columbia was the starting point. He was horrified that some white and black government employees used the same cafeterias. He complained about white and black soldiers patronizing the same canteens, and wound up his tirade with a demand to “ostracize all who cross the color line.” That kind of language might not have been unusual in Mississippi, or even in Washington, a decade or two earlier. But in the 1940s, with the nation at war, government officials were under pressure to behave themselves before the world. Bilbo ignored the pressure.
His Senate colleagues, reluctant to enter into the tangle Bilbo had woven around himself, said little about his Mississippi speech beyond that it was “unfortunate.” Elsewhere the reaction was less restrained. Demands for his removal from the District Committee chairmanship were loud. Bilbo refused to resign.
Campaigning for re-election in 1946, Bilbo said that “the way to keep the nigger from the polls is to see him the night before.” But ironically, the most unvarnished racist in the Congress was under attack from his opponents in Mississippi that year for being—of all things—soft on white supremacy. Earlier in his career, Bilbo had campaigned against the poll tax in Mississippi—not because he had wanted blacks to vote, but because he knew that the tax also kept from the polls many of his poor white supporters in the hill country. Now his opponents used this against him. With the war over and black soldiers returning determined to claim the rights they had been told they had been fighting for, white supremacists everywhere were ratcheting up their rhetoric. Bilbo had to struggle to keep up. “In this fight for white supremacy in the South,” his opponents said, “we must have men in Washington who believe in the poll tax.” Never mind that Bilbo had filibustered against poll-tax repeal. Never mind that he had called for U.S. blacks to emigrate to West Africa. Never mind that he had once recommended making Eleanor Roosevelt “First Lady of Liberia.”
Bilbo won the election despite their efforts, but he lost his “mayoralty” in the process. Republicans now controlled the Senate, and the chairmanship of the District Committee went to one of them. Bilbo had other worries by that point: stopping the now very serious effort to bar him from the Senate. Glen Taylor, a liberal Democrat from Idaho, called for the Senate to investigate his colleague’s behavior because it “reflects seriously on the integrity of this body.” Republicans expressed horror at Bilbo’s call for barring blacks from voting in Mississippi in 1946. “Never to the knowledge of the undersigned,” a group of Republican senators said in a committee report, “has such vile, contemptible, inflammatory, and dangerous language been uttered in a campaign for the purpose of procuring nomination and election by an incumbent and member of the United States Senate, sworn to uphold the Constitution.” Those senators had obviously not spent much time in the South.
Once the new Congress convened, other senators began investigating Bilbo’s relations with war contractors. There were charges, probably true, that he had used his Senate position to win war contracts for friends and had received generous payoffs in return. It seemed almost certain that the Senate would vote to deny him his seat. But Bilbo was now nearing seventy, and while he was still able to raise a ruckus, he was sick. In the middle of the battle to unseat him, he suddenly disappeared from Washington. A few days later, word came that he was back in Poplarville, dying. The campaign to bar him from the Senate fizzled. And a few months later Bilbo was indeed dead.
For years after, Bilbo (and “Bilboism”) became a symbol for a kind of unvarnished, unreconstructed racism that most white people in Washington liked to think was beneath them. The city was, of course, still segregated. Black families continued to live in alley dwellings. Nothing very much had changed. But now that they had “gotten rid of” Bilbo, it was possible for white Washingtonians to return to their comfortable, genteel ways, unreminded of the racial problems around them. Herman Talmadge came to the Senate in the mid-1950s as a senator from Georgia, after serving as governor and proving himself just as determined a segregationist and white supremacist as Bilbo, but Washington hostesses lionized him because he was so polite and courteous and “refined,” because he wasn’t anything like that crude, terrible, foulmouthed man from Mississippi who wasn’t fit to enter their drawing rooms. Bilbo had become, in the memories of white Washingtonians and of most members of Congress, something like a bad hurricane—an awful event that had blown through town, shaken things up, and then was gone, leaving the city free to settle back into its old ways, its old habits, its old prejudices, for just a little while longer.
Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Brinkley, David, Television journalists United States Biography, United States Politics and government 1945-1989