A Contrary Voice

updated 02/27/1995 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/27/1995 01:00AM

DISSENT, J. WILLIAM FULBRIGHT once observed, "is an act of faith. Like medicine, the test of its value is not its taste but its effect...." For those on the receiving end of the Arkansas Democrat's own eloquent dissents during his 30 years in the Senate, the taste was often bitter indeed. Harry Truman called him "an overeducated Oxford SOB" (though he later apologized to Fulbright for any reflection on the senator's mother); Joe McCarthy vilified him as "Senator Halfbright"; and Lyndon Johnson was scathing after Fulbright, in 1966, began nationally televised hearings questioning America's involvement in Vietnam.

In fact, Fulbright, who died in Washington last week of a stroke at 89, was, politically a source of frustration to both friends and enemies. One of six children of a wealthy farmer and businessman, and of a politically active journalist mother, he was a star halfback at the University of Arkansas who later, at 34, became the school's youngest president. A Rhodes scholar who believed in the power of education to reshape the world, he was the legislative father of the prestigious international fellowship program that still bears his name. Yet he was also a reluctant Southern loyalist in matters of racial politics. It was this that kept President Kennedy from choosing him as Secretary of State (the President's father sent the senator a case of scotch to soften the blow), an appointment that ultimately might have halted our national descent into Vietnam. "Fulbright would have been leery of any expansion of military force, and I'm sure he would have advised Kennedy against it," says Fulbright biographer Haynes Johnson. "Kennedy knew that he gave good advice. I have always thought that the course of history might have been changed." Later it was Fulbright, virtually alone, who counseled JFK against the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. ("You're the only one who can say, 'I told you so,' " the President told him afterward.)

Aloof, introspective and impatient with small talk, Fulbright, the father of two daughters, was married for 53 years to Elizabeth Williams, a onetime Philadelphia socialite. In 1990 a widower, he married Harriet Mayor, now 61, who was then director of the Fulbright Association, an alumni organization for various educational exchange programs. Until the end he was an inspiration to President Clinton, who served briefly on his staff in the '60s. "People dumped on our state and said we were all a bunch of backcountry hayseeds," Clinton once said. "And we had a guy in the Senate who doubled the IQ of any room he entered. It made us feel pretty good."

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