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Mississippi Spurning

A good bit of one-upmanship has transpired over the years between Trent Lott and Thad Cochran, the two Mississippians in this week’s showdown for Bob Dole’s job as Senate majority leader. But as Jackson columnist Bill Minor notes, their rivalry pales when compared with a feud waged six decades ago by two other Mississippi senators.

The nation knew the state’s junior senator, Theodore Bilbo, as a race-baiting demagogue, the author of a bill to ship blacks to Africa. But many Mississippians revered him as a champion of the poor and foe of the mighty. Others in the state despised him as a bribe-taking crook. One rival, preparing to discuss Bilbo in a stump speech, shed his coat and said, “Excuse me. I’m going to skin a skunk. Ladies had better leave.”

Mississippi’s senior senator, Pat Harrison, had helped engineer Franklin Roosevelt’s early New Deal. When the Senate majority leader’s job opened up in 1937, Harrison went after it. Nose counts put him in a tie with Kentucky’s Alben Barkley. Harrison’s campaign manager asked Bilbo to consider voting for his fellow Mississippian. Bilbo said he would if Harrison asked him to. That was a big if. Harrison loathed Bilbo and hadn’t spoken to him in years. The response was swift: “Tell the son of a bitch I wouldn’t speak to him even if it meant the presidency of the United States.”

When the ballots were in, Pat Harrison was a one-vote loser. But his reputation as the senator who wouldn’t speak to his home-state colleague remained intact.

Lewis Lord, quoted in USNews & World Report, June 17, 1996, p. 12.