Remarks at a Dinner Honoring Senator John C. Stennis of Mississippi

 

June 23, 1988

 

Thank you, Sam, and thank you all. And I want to thank you especially for extending your gracious southern hospitality to this fellow who happened to be raised up north in Illinois. In fact, being here with all you southerners -- would you be surprised if it reminded me of a story? [Laughter]

 

It has to do with a Yankee who was driving through the deep South, in Mississippi, and there was a car on the road with a native son driving. And there was an accident -- they collided. The cars were pretty much wrecked. But both got out, and fortunately neither one was seriously injured. And the hometowner, the constituent of our guest of honor, said, ``Wait a minute.'' He said, ``you look a little shaken up. Just a second.'' He went back to his wrecked car and came back with a bottle of bourbon and said, ``Here, take this. It'll settle your nerves.'' So, he took a shot and tried to give it back, and he says, ``No, no, no. Go on. No. Take another one. Go ahead.'' [Laughter] And about two or three drinks later, the Yankee said, ``Hey, look, wait a minute! Southern hospitality is all right, but here, you haven't had a drop. You take one.'' He says, ``No, I'm just going to stand here and wait until the police come.'' [Laughter]

 

Well, while we're all sorry to see Senator Stennis leave Washington, I want you to know that I have a special reason. You see, Senator, you're one of the few fellows left in this town who calls me kid. [Laughter]

 

But, Senator Stennis, honored guests, and ladies and gentlemen, this gathering tonight truly is a celebration. And the man we honor is no ordinary individual. The life and career of John Stennis are legendary in his home State of Mississippi and here in Washington, where he has served, as you've been told several times tonight, with quiet dignity for 41 years. Forty-one years -- consider that if you will. Senator Stennis has served in the Senate for one-fifth of the life of this nation.

 

Probably half of the people in this room tonight had not even been born when John Stennis came to Washington, and I suppose there are plenty in the other half who would hardly care to admit it -- [laughter] -- over four decades of service in the United States Senate, a period during which this great country has undergone tremendous challenge and change. The humble man who came to Washington from a small town in Mississippi has made an impression on American government that is difficult to measure and hard to fully describe. He has demonstrated for all of us that one man, committed to God and country, willing to work hard and sacrifice personal gain and comfort, can make a difference. Mississippi can take pride in the accomplishments of John Stennis, but he is a United States Senator, and so we celebrate his contribution to all of America.

 

Tangible evidence of the difference Senator Stennis has made abounds. Our strong and able military, represented so splendidly here tonight, owes much of its strength to this man who has always been an unwavering advocate of peace through strength. As chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee in the seventies, Senator Stennis led some of the most crucial legislative battles in history on behalf of our national defense.

 

Back home in Mississippi, the economic opportunities that Senator Stennis has helped to bring about are beyond counting. Today there's room for even more economic growth in Mississippi, as there is in all the 50 States. But now Mississippi fully shares in the economic life of the Nation.

 

And yet perhaps John Stennis' greatest contribution to American Government has been his abiding example of integrity in public service. From the time he was elected to represent the people of Kemper County in the Mississippi House of Representatives in 1928 until this moment six decades later, Senator Stennis has been under the oath of public office. And for these six decades, he has done that oath constant honor. Here in Washington, John Stennis established his reputation early in his Senate career, always recognizing that the effectiveness of the Senate is harmed when Members fail to uphold the highest standards. It's no wonder the Senate looked to John Stennis as a leader when the Select Committee on Standards and Conduct was formed in 1965.

 

And now, if I might, I'd like to add a personal note. Life has not always been easy for Senator Stennis. We all recall his remarkable recovery from gunshot wounds in 1973. His sense of purpose, his commitment to duty, would not allow him to stop or even to slow down. Then there was heart surgery in 1983. And then in 1984 there was more surgery, radical surgery. I remember visiting Senator Stennis at Walter Reed Army Medical Center just days after the removal of his left leg. I admit I felt great pain for him, this fiercely independent man forced to undergo such a life-altering operation.

 

I went to Walter Reed to encourage Senator Stennis, but when I left, it was I who had been strengthened. For even then, from his hospital bed, John Stennis talked of the future of this nation. Determination to return to his post was evident in everything he said. It was December 4th when I made that visit to Walter Reed. And just over a month later, I stood inside the Capitol to take the oath of office for the second term as President, and, yes, there was John Stennis in the front row.

 

Senator, when I consider your career, there's a certain comparison that comes to my mind. In troubled places, you've brought calm resolve, like one of the many great fighting ships you've done so much to obtain for the Navy. Serene, self-possessed, but like a ship of the line possessed of a high sense of purpose -- that is John Stennis.

 

And, Senator, if you think I'm leading up to something, I am. Senator Stennis, and ladies and gentlemen, it's my honor to announce tonight that, as an expression of the Nation's gratitude for the public service of the man we honor tonight, the Navy's next nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, CVN - 74, will be christened the U.S.S. John C. Stennis.

 

Senator, you have devoted your life to the service of our nation. I can do no more tonight than say, on behalf of the American people: Thank you for your dedicated service. Godspeed in your further endeavors, and God bless you.

 

Note: The President spoke at 9:25 p.m. in the Sheraton Ballroom at the Sheraton-Washington Hotel. He was introduced by Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia.