Morse’s speeches on the Senate floor were riveting, informative, and for anyone paying attention, a wonderful primer on the Constitution and especially the separation of powers, war making and America’s involvement in Vietnam. Whenever I could, I would sit in the senate gallery to listen to him speak. Or, if I could not attend, I would make a special attempt to read his remarks in the Congressional Record. For me, as a future academic, that was a special time.
So, on this particular day in 1967, I went to pick him up and, as I entered the Detroit Metropolitan Airport, I heard his name being paged. When I answered the page, it was the White House operator trying to reach him for President Johnson. I informed the operator that he had not arrived and that I was waiting to pick him up and would give him the message. Meeting the senator at the gate as he arrived (in those days you could do that) I told him the President was trying to reach him. He said, “I know, let’s go. I don’t want to talk with him.” I was surprised at his reaction because I thought talking with the President would be a big deal for anyone.
During the drive to his hotel in downtown Detroit, he told me about a labor dispute concerning the machinists that the President wanted him to resolve. The Senator had the reputation of an expert on law and labor relations, serving on the Senate Labor Committee and was renowned as a skillful labor arbitrator. Further, he had a reputation during his senate career for fighting against those who wanted to restrict the rights of labor unions to organize and strike. The senator said to me that the President wanted him to use his influence to settle this dispute, and the Machinists would not like it.
As we arrived at the hotel, both the bellman who greeted us and the front desk receptionist told us that the President was trying to reach the senator. Morse told both of them that he wanted to go to his room first. Once in the room, the phone rang and I answered. It was the White House. I told the senator and he said, “Tell them I will call them back.” As I hung up, he came over to me and he said, “I will tell you in confidence, if I do what the President wants, I will lose my re-election. But my dilemma is, he’s our President. We only have one at a time and he considers what he is asking vital to the national interest.” And then, the senator asked rhetorically, “How can I refuse?”
He asked me to call the White House. I did. He took the phone and I heard him say, “Yes, Mr. President, I am sorry I was traveling. Yes, I understand. Yes, I will help you. But you must know, this will cost me my seat, but you are my President and I will do what you want.” The Senator was prescient, for he did resolve the dispute and the machinists never forgave him and he did lose his re-election.
Fast forward to today, how many of today’s senators and, for that matter, any of our national legislators would do what Senator Morse did, if they were asked by the President? This, among many other reasons, is why in the annals of the U.S. Senate, he stands as a giant and was known as the “Tiger of the Senate.” Honorable, always trying to do the right thing, irrespective of personal costs, he never flinched, minced words or played fast and loose with the facts. He kept his word and never wavered from his principles while serving the state and the country he loved.
This being the 50th anniversary of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, an act which expanded executive power and later was repealed, I have to relate one more conversation. After Senator Morse left the senate, I had returned to Washington and saw him often. He had become a mentor to me and I would frequently seek his advice and the conversation would always turn to politics, the state of the nation and the state of the world in which he had so much interest.
It was in the spring of 1974 that I last saw him. At the time, I was representing the governor of New Jersey, Brendan Byrne, in Washington, D.C. At a breakfast meeting, I asked him to tell me his perception of President John F. Kennedy and about his interactions with him. He said he would tell me about the last time that he saw President Kennedy and that he had not discussed this with many people. The Senator said, “It was a few days before the President went to Dallas in November of 1963.” He said he had been at the White House for a meeting and after the meeting was over, President Kennedy told him to wait. He wanted to speak with him privately. The Senator continued, “The President came over and said, ‘Wayne, let’s go to the Rose Garden.'” The Senator went on, “When we were in the Rose Garden, the President said, ‘I have been reading your Senate speeches about the Vietnam War and I believe you are right about the dangers of our involvement. In fact, I have a report on my desk from Galbraith. (John Kenneth Galbraith was our ambassador to India.) I had sent him secretly to Vietnam and now he is reporting to me, and it seems he must have been reading your speeches because he agrees with what you have been saying on the Senator floor.’” The Senator said, “I was pleasantly surprised that perhaps, finally, my words were having an effect.” Then the Senator said, “The President asked me ‘When I get back from Texas, will you come over and give me some of your time to discuss how we can extricate ourselves from that problem?’” The Senator mused, “Can you imagine the President asking for my time? I responded, ‘Mr. President, I am at your service any time, day or night, all you have to do is just let me know and I will be there.'”” Then the Senator told me, “That is the last time I saw him and to this day, there is not a single doubt in my mind that, had the President lived, we would never have gotten ourselves into the Vietnam debacle.” And with great sadness for me even today, that is the last time I saw the Senator.
Senator Wayne Morse was a mentor and a friend, from whom I learned by example, and he lived his life as the poet once said, “Never falling in love with wealth or position and never fearing death.”