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John Stennis: Remember Me As Having Done My Best Also moved for AMs

April 17, 1985 GMT

WASHINGTON (AP) _ John Cornelius Stennis sits in a wheel chair, his left leg lost to cancer, his body still bearing the scars of the bullets that nearly killed him a dozen years ago.

Lifting his head like an aging lion, he points to a small plaque in his Senate office that reads, ″LOOK AHEAD.″

″That’s part of my philosophy there. Look ahead,″ says Stennis, who at 83 is the oldest senator and the most senior, a pillar of military preparedness under eight presidents.

″As a young lawyer I used to have to listen to people lamenting the past. You can’t do that. You have to look ahead. ... I realize life’s not altogether what you make it. But that’s a good part of it. What you make yourself.″

The Stennis voice is strong and booms off walls bearing the trophies of a life in politics. It is a voice that has roared countless times in defense of the nation’s military budgets.

Stennis was chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee from 1969 until the Republicans took control of the Senate in 1980. He now is the ranking Democrat of the Appropriations committee, serving on its defense subcommittee.

″He’s the president’s man on defense, always has been, regardless of which party is in power,″ says a Senate aide. ″He always went with the president. He’ll always be associated with defense.″

In the past, the Stennis voice also was raised vigorously, some would say stridently, in defense of the traditions and institutions of a segregated South.

Stennis was one of the authors of the Southern Manifesto, which condemned the Supreme Court’s 1954 school desegregation decision. He voted against civil rights legislation.

But in 1983, Stennis broke the pattern, voting for an extension of the Voting Rights Act.

″I didn’t want to go back to all the days of misunderstanding,″ he said afterward. ″I didn’t want to turn around and go back.″

Today he says he was never against opportunity for anyone, even though he thought his region was being treated unfairly.

″I always rejoiced to see blacks or anyone else have better opportunities.″ he said. ″And I think we’ve made progress, even though its not perfect.″

A lawyer and a former Mississippi circuit court judge, Stennis has built a reputation for fair mindedness and fair play that transcended political and policy differences with his colleagues. He was the first Democrat to publicly denounce Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy, R-Wis., saying if the Senate failed to censure the Wisconsin Republican ″something big and fine will have gone from this chamber.″

Stennis had celebrated a quarter century in the Senate when, in the winter of 1973, he was robbed by three men as he returned home from a reception. After taking his wallet, his gold pocket watch and his Phi Beta Kappa key, the robbers pumped two bullets into the 71-year-old senator’s stomach and thigh, leaving him bleeding on the sidewalk.

Five hours of surgery were needed to repair a ″slivered″ pancreas. Full recovery took more than a year.

Senate Democratic leader Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, who calls Stennis ″a senator’s senator,″ ecalls turning to a colleague one day and saying, ″I’m afraid we’ve lost John.″

President Richard Nixon, emerging from Stennis hospital room, said the senator would survive because, ″He’s got the will to live in spades.″

After his recovery, Stennis said: ″It seemed to me I had to make a special effort if I was to survive. I deliberately considered the matter of living or dying. And I made up my mind if I could be useful, I wanted to make the fight to survive, to overcome this thing.″

About 12 years later, on Nov. 30, 1984, surgeons at Walter Reed Hospital amputated Stennis’ cancer-ridden left leg.

For the first few weeks after the operation, Stennis spent his days in the Senate and his nights in the hospital. Senate carpenters have built a platform to enable Stennis to roll his wheelchair to his desk in the rear of the Senate chamber.

″Discouraged? I suppose everybody’s had his ups and downs. But I’ve never surrendered,″ Stennis said.

″In many degrees, it’s a different world for me,″ he said. ″But people are the same and friends are the same and there are just as many things to be interested in as before.″

″Not as much physical activity. But leaving that out, all things are rather much the same. I’m gradually getting back my capacity for work. ... I get physically tired, but I mean, I don’t want to throw in the sponge as to facing the problems, and all.″

A Stennis spokesman, Rex Buffington, says the senator is increasingly ″really back to his old self, really back in the middle of every issue,″ and that he has moved back to his Capitol Hill apartment full-time.

Buffington says the senator’s doctors have assured him that he’s ″completely clear″ of cancer.

Coy Hines Stennis, his wife of 52 years, died two years ago. Associates say that was a harder blow to Stennis than being shot.

But as he sits in his wheel chair, a pile of papers on the table before him, a leather folder in his lap and his aluminum walker on the floor by his side, Stennis wants to talk about the present - and the future.

″I’m just like a wound-up clock,″ he says, grinning over an expanse of white starched shirt front. His cufflinks display the Great Seal of the United States. His gold lapel pin bears the single word, ″Mississippi.″

″Things are boiling up here,″ he tells an interviewer. ″We’re a long ways from home on this financial thing, these deficits. We’ve got to change our ways. Keep that money more in balance.″

″Yes, going to be a lot of hair pulling here this year. It’s hard going.″

The conversation ranges from his parents’ childhood memories of the Civil War - ″they helped bury the family silver″ - to the Depression - ″every time you saw a line of people on the street you knew another bank had failed, banks were popping all over the country.″

″How would I like to be remembered? I haven’t thought about that a whole lot,″ Stennis says. ″You couldn’t give me a finer compliment than to just say, ‘He did his best.’ I get satisfaction about doing the best I can, and if that best doesn’t turn out well enough, you still have that personal satisfaction.″

He adds, ″In public life, which I’ve thoroughly enjoyed, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to come in contact with the problems. I’ve never run from them. And I’ve never gotten tired of it.″

In the Senate, what difference does 38 years make?

″Well, we don’t converse with each other as much as we did,″ he replied. ″I was in the (Senate) cloak room the other day and there were 20 or more senators in there. We weren’t talking to each other at all. Not at all. Everybody just looking at the television. We were not exchanging problems with each other.″

Committee room doors used to be closed then. Now, ″sunshine″ laws have opened them, ″and everybody’s hearing everything that’s said. You don’t feel as free to discuss the alternatives as much as we used to. We used to close the door and the sky was the limit. Everyone had their say. It was press for this, press for that.″

One Senate observer, who spoke on the condition he not be identified, said of Stennis, ″He’s a senator who wins not because of his dominance of the subject matter but because he knows how to get something done.″

The story is told that once, behind one of those closed doors, Stennis pressed for appropriations for an ammunition plant he wanted built in Mississippi despite opposition from the Army.

According to the story, the argument went like this:

″Now we’ve got to get ammunition over to our troops in Europe and between Europe and us is the Atlantic Ocean and the Atlantic is connected to the Caribbean Sea and the Caribbean is connected to the Mississippi River and the Mississippi is connected to the Red River and off that river is a canal, and that canal is full of water.″

The storyteller continues, ″Immediately after that, with the senators still laughing, he started talking about how good the quail hunting is in Mississippi and he invited all of his brother senators to hunt quail with him.″

And, Stennis got his ammunition plant.

Stennis won his seventh Senate election in 1982. It was the only time since 1947 that he faced Republican opposition. And the issue was his age.

On Election Day, Stennis overwhelmed his opponent, John Haley Barbour, then aged 35, and returned to Washington and a job he calls ″my play.″

″He’s doing what he thinks senators ought to do,″ said one long-time Stennis watcher. ″He’s living and breathing for the Senate.″