Former Tribune Writer Remembers Sen. Bellmon


SEN. HENRY BELLMON: The great Oklahoman from Billings was elected to the Oklahoma legislature in 1946, and in 1963 was elected Oklahoma’s first Republican governor. He was elected to the United States Senate in 1968 and was reelected in 1974. In 1986 he was again elected governor of Oklahoma.

David Jones was the Washington D.C. correspondent for The Tulsa Tribune from 1968 to 1975. He covered Henry Bellmon’s first term in the United States Senate from 1968 to 1974. Sen. Bellmon died Sept. 29 in Enid, Okla., from complications from Parkinson’s disease. He was 88. Bellmon was a two-term governor who also served 12 years in the U.S. Senate.

The Oklahoma Congressional delegation was a chummy little group comprised of four Democrats and two Republicans back in 1968. With the exception of Republican Jim Smith, a first-termer, each of the five remaining congressmen had served in the House of Representatives a minimum of 16 years and (gasp) regardless of party, they liked each other.

Indeed, Republican Page Belcher was a favorite of the Democratic representatives because he could help get bi-partisan support for their projects. The congressmen looked after each other and never tried to get their colleagues defeated. However, in 1966, Oklahoma Gov. Henry Bellmon came into Representative Tom Sneed’s Fourth District and campaigned to replace Sneed with Republican Truman Branscum. It nearly worked; Sneed squeaked back into office by fewer than 1,000 votes. Steed did not take kindly to Bellmon afterwards.

In 1968, however, Bellmon ran for the U.S. Senate opposite Steed’s good friend, incumbent Mike Monroney. Bellmon won, and as Steed later recounted it, he was surprised when, on Jan. 3, 1969, the day the lawmakers were sworn in for their next terms, he got a call from Bellmon. Could the new senator meet with the congressman? “My door is always open to you Senator,” Steed said he replied. A few minutes later the new senator arrived. The two men closed the door and talked for over two hours.

As Steed told it, with Richard Nixon about to become president, it was expected that any White House announcement that would aid Oklahomans would come from Republican Senator Bellmon. Bellmon proposed at his meeting with Steed that they would make joint announcements, a move that would help Steed politically as he could be seen as a man who could get things done for his district. They also agreed on how their two offices would work together to push Oklahoma projects. “He was as good as his word,” said Steed years later, “perhaps better.” The enmity by that time had long since been buried under years of mutual co-operation. That was the way Henry Bellmon did things.

Republican Senator Bellmon did not pick unnecessary fights. For example, Bellmon was in charge of trying to get one of President Nixon’s Supreme Court nominees approved. Senator Birch Bayh of Indiana led the Democratic opposition. After a rancorous debate, the nominee lost. Bellmon was asked to comment on Bayh’s tactics. He refused! He was working with Sen. Bayh on a major piece of legislation, he said. Candidly, he noted to this reporter, “Why muddy their relationship over a battle that had already been lost?”

He was a man of honor, sometimes in amusing details. Bellmon did not drink alcoholic beverages nor serve them in his home. When he would invite the Oklahoma press to his house for dinner, he served tomato juice but no alcohol.

He refused the easy vote, often at considerable political peril. When there was controversy about busing students from school to school to achieve racial parity, he refused to vote for an anti-busing measure that failed by one vote. Asked why, he said that the courts would have tossed out the vote anyway, and he didn’t want to give encouragement to those who were trying to slow down racial integration. His vote to turn the canal over to Panama was similarly principled. If Panama wanted it, he reasoned, there was no way short of war to keep it.

But one story that is known only to a handful of people illustrates best what kind of man Henry Bellmon was. He had a young woman working as a typist while she went to night school. Like many of the students in the early 70’s, she was extremely liberal. However, jobs on Capitol Hill were highly sought after and she was happy to be collecting a paycheck. What she was not happy with was what she was typing.

Being a true liberal, she couldn’t believe what she was putting on paper. The man she was working for had to be irrational, or a demagogue. Honor required, she quit her coveted job. She tendered her resignation and Senator Bellmon asked her why. In considerably more diplomatic language, she told him. For an hour and a half, he let her bring up every issue that troubled her and patiently explained how he had come to his point of view.

She later said that he hadn’t changed her mind about any of the issues, but she had to recognize that instead of simply playing to Oklahoma politics, there was a reasoned and honorable explanation for each of his positions. She tore up her resignation, but was left wondering about one thing. How many senators would spend that kind of time explaining themselves to a low-level and easily replaceable employee like her?
Henry Bellmon would.

Updated 11-23-2009

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