WASHINGTON — FOR younger Americans, it took Bill Clinton to put Arkansas on the political map. Their parents remember a day, not so long ago, when this putative rural backwater produced some of the savviest, most influential politicians around.
Etched into the history of the 1950s and '60s are such legendary figures as Rep. Wilbur Mills and Sen. John McClellan, Arkansas Democrats who ruled key congressional committees with iron hands.
Twenty years later, the third member of what may have been the most powerful congressional delegation of its time reflects with satisfaction on Arkansas's reemergence into the national spotlight.
"The country's very fortunate to have someone with Bill Clinton's ability," says former Arkansas Sen. J. William Fulbright, whose long career is best remembered for the international exchange program that bears his name.
"When I was young, we used to say `Thank God for Mississippi,' because it was the only state poorer than we were," Senator Fulbright says. "But economic conditions are much better, relatively, than they used to be, and I think Clinton deserves much of the credit. He's been a good governor. He's very bright. When he gets to the White House, he'll use his head."
A visit to Fulbright's Washington law office reminds one, oddly enough, of Thomas Jefferson's tombstone.
The modest Virginian had the three accomplishments he was proudest of inscribed on it but neglected to have one incidental achievement noted - that he had been President of the United States.
As for Fulbright, the modest Arkansan displays none of the usual mementos of an illustrious Senate career that spanned three decades. No photos of handshakes with the presidents he has known and worked with, dating back to Franklin Roosevelt. No hints of his long tenure as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, during which he galvanized congressional and public opposition to the Vietnam War. Only reminders of the thing he cherishes most: the Fulbright Scholar Program that has opened doors t o the world for thousands of students and scholars.
"It's the main thing," he says of the program in a recent interview, the singular achievement of a celebrated, sometimes controversial career.
Since the Fulbright program was enacted in 1946, more than 100,000 scholarships have been awarded, about a third to US citizens, for study, lecturing, and research abroad. Nearly half a century later the Fulbright alumni list has become an international who's who of prime ministers and diplomats, business leaders and scholars. Resolutions of appreciation, signed by dozens of participants, adorn Fulbright's office walls.
"I introduced the legislation two weeks after we dropped the atomic bombs on Japan," Fulbright recalls. "I understood then that atomic weapons would make war intolerable. In a sense, that's dictated everything I've tried to do in the exchange program.
"The main purpose is not academic - it's political," he says. "I had a theory that if you go live in another country, if you get acquainted with other people, if you realize that they have families and children just like you do, you won't be inclined to go to war with them."
Fulbright speaks as a man whose own horizons, once limited to Arkansas, were broadened by a Rhodes Scholarship, awarded in 1926 when he was a senior at the University of Arkansas.
"It was like a fairy tale going off to England; I was transformed by the experience," says Fulbright with an enthusiasm undiminished by the intervening decades.
After returning he went to law school, taught briefly, became president of the University of Arkansas, then launched into politics. He won a House seat in 1942. Two years later he was elected to the Senate, where he served until being defeated in a 1974 primary by fellow Democrat Dale Bumpers. Today he is counsel to a large Washington law firm.
If any single impression dominates his Senate years, it is of Fulbright, bedecked in sunglasses to protect against the TV lights, presiding over one of the most influential rounds of congressional hearings in history.
As chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Fulbright led the inquiry that threw an unflattering light on US intervention to prevent Vietnam from being forcibly united under communist rule. A gadfly to Democratic president Lyndon Johnson, Fulbright became a hero to the swelling antiwar movement that he indirectly helped to nourish.
"The hearings attracted considerable attention," Fulbright acknowledges. "They were largely for our own benefit, to understand what this was all about. But the more we learned about it, the more I disapproved of our intervention. It cost a lot of money, it cost a lot of harm, and what did it accomplish?
"Even now, after all these years, I don't think we had any business going halfway around the world to intervene. They had their revolution, and they should have been allowed to decide things for themselves. I don't have any reservations about my position. The only thing wrong with it was that I didn't reach it soon enough."
As he has done in the past, Fulbright expresses regret over voting for the enabling legislation - the so-called Gulf of Tonkin resolution - that gave Johnson nearly unlimited authority to prosecute the war.
"Johnson's theory was that if he passed the resolution, North Vietnam would be scared off and that would be the end of it," Fulbright says. "Of course, it proved to be just the opposite. He had no idea how persistent [the North Vietnamese] were."
Fulbright takes obvious delight in the election of a fellow Arkansan to the White House, but he speaks critically of what modern presidential campaigns have become: "It's outrageous. In the old days they used to talk about government things, economic policies, and not so much about who you slept with. What difference does it make?"
As the interview ends, a secretary calls with word that a young Japanese businessman is waiting to pay his respects.
"These people just come by to say hello and thank you," Fulbright says, obviously gratified by the lasting legacy of his first political act.
He gestures to a short statement from a long-ago speech on the Fulbright program, reprinted in script and framed on his office wall:
"It is a modest program with an immodest aim - the achievement in international affairs of a regime more civilized, rational, and humane than the empty system of power of the past. I believed in that possibility when I began. I still do."