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Senator Unbowed by Age, Illness : Mississippi’s Stennis Thrives on Work at 84

Times Staff Writer

John Cornelius Stennis, the mild-mannered, 84-year-old Mississippi Democrat, sat at a huge mahogany table in his spacious office and described the elixir of energy and cheer that has sustained him for almost four decades in the Senate:

“Without question, my work is stimulating and rewarding,” he said. “I never wake up in the morning and say, ‘I wish I didn’t have to go to work this morning.’ I’m ready to get up, ready to see what’s going to happen.”

After 39 years of such awakenings, Stennis’ tenure in the Senate is second only to that of Carl Hayden, the Arizona Democrat who retired after serving nearly 42 years.

Leg Amputated

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Stennis’ career is extraordinary for reasons other than mere duration, however. He survived two gunshot wounds suffered at the hands of robbers in 1973, and amputation of a cancerous leg two years ago. He underwent major heart surgery and had pneumonia in 1983, the same year his wife of 54 years, Coy, died.

“Any one of these experiences would have been enough to force the retirement of any ordinary person,” said Sen. Thad Cochran, Stennis’ Republican colleague from Mississippi. “He is no ordinary person.”

Stennis’ face is weathered and his frame now appears slight, but his baritone voice has lost none of its resonance. Although he must make his way around the Capitol with the aid of a wheelchair or a walker, he has trimmed his grueling schedule by only the faintest of margins in recent years, and his mental dexterity seems remarkable proof against that harshest of thieves, time.

Work Keeps Him Going

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Stennis says that hard work--challenging and enjoyable work--has done more than anything else to keep him going. It is a view that the experts share, and one that has applications in a lot of occupations outside the U.S. Senate.

“Compelling interests generate energy,” said James N. Mosel, director of the industrial-organizational psychology program at George Washington University. Sara Rix, a sociologist and consultant on issues involving older workers, said: “The fact that they remain active is what keeps them active.”

In Congress, that adage applies to many members besides Stennis, who is not even the oldest. That distinction belongs to Rep. Claude Pepper, 85, the Democrat who served Florida for 14 years, was defeated for renomination, spent the 1950s as a private lawyer and has served in the House for the last 25 years. Despite minor infirmities--he wears hearing aids--Pepper is a vibrant chairman of the House Rules Committee, and he champions the legislative goals of the elderly.

Nor are Stennis and Pepper Congress’ only octogenarians. Others in that retirement-defying category are Sen. Strom Thurmond, 83, and Rep. Melvin Price, 81.

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Plans to Switch Jobs

Thurmond, elected to the Senate three times as a Democrat and four times as a Republican, remains a vigorous chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and has announced that he plans to switch to the chairmanship of the Armed Services Committee when the current chairman, Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), a relative youngster of 77, retires at the end of the year.

The years have not been so kind to Price, an Illinois Democrat whose career in the House began two years before Stennis came to the Senate. Last year, House Democrats unceremoniously dumped Price, weakened by age, as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee in favor of Les Aspin, 48, who was 6 years old when Price became a congressman.

No such ignominious a destiny seems in store for Stennis. He is even entertaining the idea of running again in 1988, when his current term expires.

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Making Career of It

“I don’t think about that now,” he says. “If you go to talking way in advance about not running, you’re killing off your influence up here.” Then, smiling, he adds: “I did say I was thinking about going on and making a career out of this thing.”

Stennis begins his typical day at 6 a.m. After a breakfast of cereal, eggs and dry toast in his Capitol Hill apartment, he is wheeled the two blocks to his office by a staff member or an American University law student who lives in his building.

On Wednesdays, Stennis, a Presbyterian, joins a small group of his colleagues for a prayer breakfast. One member is Jennings Randolph, former Democratic senator of West Virginia, who began his congressional career in 1933 and retired from the Senate at the end of 1984. Randolph says of Stennis: “I never served with a finer gentleman.”

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When the Senate is in session, Stennis selectively makes appearances on the floor, where he uses a desk that once belonged to Jefferson Davis, a Mississippi senator before he become president of the Confederacy. Since his left leg was removed in November, 1984, to prevent the spread of cancer from a tumor in his thigh, Stennis has used a special brace to support himself at his desk and allow him to stand when he has the floor. He uses paper clips on each page of notes, to make them easier to turn with one hand.

So far this year, he has been present for only 81% of the Senate’s floor votes, down from the 85% average he compiled in casting about 10,800 votes during his career. It is as if he were an aging baseball player who skips more games than he used to and saves himself for the big ones.

“Sen. Stennis doesn’t waste himself on trivia,” said Sen. Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.), a colleague on the Appropriations Committee. “He paces himself.”

Constituents Drop By

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Stennis reserves time in his office for his constituents, who drop by in droves. On a recent day, seven Mississippi life insurance executives gathered around the big table in his office to discuss their concerns about the bill to revise the income tax.

Stennis, a Mississippi prosecutor and judge before coming to Washington, listened carefully, asked questions, and at one point urged the executives to speak out, saying: “All right, gentlemen, this is open court.”

Stennis’ energy is legendary with his staff of 18. Rex G. Buffington, his press secretary, said the senator “has a great deal of stamina” and “never seems to get tired.” Linda Hudson, a legislative assistant, added: “He blows and goes, that’s for sure.”

Keeps Staff Busy

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During staff meetings, Stennis sometimes casually turns a desk sign that reads “Look Ahead” toward a staff member who may need a little motivation. “He’s patient but demanding,” Buffington said.

Stennis usually leaves work around 6 p.m. and has dinner at home, assisted by the law student neighbor. He often takes work home with him. “I still work at night,” he says. “I don’t claim any credit for that. It’s entertainment for me.”

He has few other diversions. He no longer hunts quail, and must do without trips to Baltimore Orioles baseball games. On a rare outing, he attended a recent Billy Graham crusade as a guest of the evangelist, but he says he almost never goes out at night for fear of “toppling over” in his wheelchair and breaking a bone--which could leave him “shut up for months.”

Stennis is no stranger to convalescence. After he was shot by robbers outside his home one night in January, 1973, Stennis lost a lot of blood and underwent three operations. He dreamed of reading a headline: “Stennis Dies in His Sleep.” Within 17 months, however, he was back on the Senate floor, leading a seven-day debate on a military procurement bill.

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Pro-Military Leaning

Stennis has steadfastly supported the military throughout his Senate career. He chaired the Armed Services Committee from 1969 until the Republicans took control of the Senate in 1981. Now he is the top-ranking Democrat on both the Appropriations Committee and its defense subcommittee. Cochran, also a member of the Appropriations Committee, said of Stennis: “When he speaks in committee, everybody shuts up. One of his traits is to have order.”

Before 1982, Stennis had established himself as a hard-core opponent of every civil rights bill that came before the Senate. Only when a Republican opponent gave him his first serious reelection challenge in 1982 (Stennis still won 64% of the vote) did he change his tune and vote for an extension of the Voting Rights Act. Even then, he voted against cutting off a filibuster against the bill.

Follow Constitution

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Ronald W. Walters, professor of political science at Howard University, said it is “well known that he stood in opposition to civil rights issues.” It is an anachronism, Walters said, “for the seniority system to perpetuate someone who is a racist.”

When asked about his views on race, Stennis said: “What I’ve tried to do--and I told the people of Mississippi when I was running--I would try to follow the Constitution. You can’t be absolute about everything; you’ve got to recognize the other fellow. That’s what I’ve tried to do. You can’t just change it all overnight, but we’re coming along on that.” (Stennis has two blacks on his staff, both hired since 1982.)

Backs Waterway Project

Stennis also has been criticized for his tenacious support of the massive Tennessee-Tombigbee waterway, a canal through his home state that parallels the Mississippi River. Many oppose the waterway as both wasteful and harmful to the environment. Not so, says Stennis, who argues that the project will cut shipping costs.

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Stennis has his home-state detractors, who complain that he has grown too involved with national issues. “He has served Mississippi well” from Washington, says Wayne W. Weidie, editor and publisher of the weekly Ocean Springs (Miss.) Record newspaper. “But he could have a more positive effect on Mississippi politics.”

Such criticism pales beside the praise he receives, however, and it seems unlikely to cost Stennis his seat if he runs in 1988. As Weidie put it: “I think there are people who would vote for him if he was in a coffin.”

Morris W. H. Collins Jr., director of the John C. Stennis Institute at Mississippi State University--Stennis’ alma mater--attributes much of Stennis’ popularity to what he calls his “great sense of compromise"--his ability to grasp complex issues and find the middle ground.

Approach to Lawmaking

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Sen. Sam Nunn, a Georgia Democrat who has carved out a niche as a defense expert, says Stennis has had “a profound influence” on him by demonstrating that the Senate is more a “board of directors” than a panel of experts who are familiar with technical details.

Stennis regrets the increasing degree of specialization that has been forced on the Senate by the growing number and complexity of issues it must grapple with.

“We’ve reached the point where we have more than we can personally give attention to,” he says. “We used to seek each other’s judgment more than we do now. Sound legislation comes from men sitting around a table after they’ve gotten the facts.”

But the heavy workload has its rewards. “My work is my play and my play is my work,” Stennis says. “I just enjoy it.”

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