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Colleagues Hail 'Conscience of Senate' : Stennis, 86, to Retire After Four Decades

October 20, 1987|ERIC LICHTBLAU | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Sen. John C. Stennis, the 86-year-old Democrat from Mississippi who in four decades has carved a revered niche as "the conscience of the Senate," announced Monday that he will not seek reelection to the seat he has held since Harry S. Truman was President.

"He is the last of his kind--a man who believes in the system of the Senate and never lost faith in it," said Sen. Mark O. Hatfield (R-Ore.), a longtime admirer and close friend. "He is the embodiment of the Senate."

Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) called Stennis' decision "the end of an era," and fellow Mississippi senator Thad Cochran, a Republican, hailed his "remarkable career." Added an aide at the Mississippi Republican Party: "We'll miss him. Even if he's a Democrat, he's a great man."

Fourteen years ago, the resilient Stennis rebounded with vigor after he was shot in the chest and leg in a robbery attempt in front of his home. He later called the incident his "little rendezvous with death." He also underwent major heart surgery four years ago and had a leg amputated shortly after that. But his active schedule--he still rises each morning at 5:30--did not suffer markedly.

The senator, now "forced to recognize" growing concern over his age and health, said that "common sense" makes him wary about the demands of seeking an eighth six-year term, which would begin in 1989.

Stennis was in the hospital Monday but was recovering well from his latest health problem, which was described as a "routine" operation for a prostate problem. Doctors found no evidence of cancer, officials said. He is expected back at work later this week and plans to fulfill the 14 months remaining in his current term.

"My heart says 'yes,' run again, but my best judgment says no," said Stennis, who was only challenged seriously for reelection once, in 1982.

He currently heads the Appropriations Committee and is president pro tempore of the Senate, making him third on the list of succession to the presidency.

The announcement Monday of the senator's decision--which came as a jolt even to Stennis' closest political confidants--sparked a mad scramble in Mississippi as state politicians began lining up behind potential successors.

Former and current Mississippi congressmen, governors and other prominent state politicians were immediately mentioned as possible successors to Stennis in 1989. Democratic Rep. Wayne Dowdy announced his candidacy Monday and political observers said that Republican Rep. Trent Lott may be a viable contender.

Stennis was thrust into the political spotlight during his 40 years in the Senate--the second-longest career in the history of that body--by his early condemnation of Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy's anti-Communist campaign, his opposition to school desegregation in the South and his early opposition, then support of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

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