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The Fulbright Phenomenon

February 12, 1995

J. William Fulbright was as contradictory as the tumultuous times he helped shape, mostly with principled, steely and often abrasive dissent.

A product of rural Arkansas politics, he came to be known worldwide as the urbane intellectual conscience of U.S. foreign policy in his three decades in the Senate. Rooted in the power structure, he was often a dour and defiant skeptic of power.

A staunch segregationist and implacable foe of civil rights legislation, like most other Southern senators of his era, he was nonetheless a hero among the youthful legions of protesters against the Vietnam War.

A Democrat, he often clashed bitterly with fellow Democrats--among them President Harry S. Truman and later, over the Vietnam War, President Lyndon B. Johnson. And he led the way to Senate censure of that ruthless scoundrel, Joseph McCarthy, for his witch hunt for communists in the American government.

Fulbright will long be remembered for the international scholarships bearing his name that have sent more than 65,000 students and educators abroad and brought 100,000 foreigners to study in this country. He considered that his greatest accomplishment.

But some others will say his highest legacy is the role he played in ending the suffering and bloodshed in Vietnam. The televised hearings he conducted as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the late 1960s exposed the pillars of government deception on which that war was built.

The enduring enigma of Fulbright is how a man of such intelligence could have embraced the anathema of racial apartheid. It was perhaps a matter of political survival in the Jim Crow South. Perhaps his good works in other areas can be seen as expiation for his racial sins.

A flawed figure, surely. But Fulbright's death Thursday in Washington at 89 reminds us that greatness can emerge from the most unlikely sources.

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