Sen. J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, who created the international scholarship program that bears his name and that has produced 59 Nobel Prize winners among its estimated 360,000 alumni, was not, for entirely legitimate reasons, a humble man. Admitted to the University of Arkansas at 15, he would become a star halfback on the school’s football team and a Rhodes scholar. He also studied at Oxford for three years before being named president of his alma mater at 34.
By the time of his last Arkansas campaign, in 1974, when I worked for Fulbright, he had already won national attention as an outspoken critic of Sen. Joe McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunts and for, longer than anyone in U.S. history, chairing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he conducted, much to the anger of President Lyndon B. Johnson, nationally televised hearings opposing the U.S. war in Vietnam. During that 1974 campaign, Fulbright chatted late one evening about the six U.S. presidents who had served with him. What I remember today was Fulbright’s description of John F. Kennedy: “Whenever I went to the White House for any occasion during his administration, I was always proud, as an American, that Kennedy was my president.”
It is frankly impossible to imagine any current U.S. representative or senator, regardless of how blind a partisan he or she might be, paying a compliment remotely similar to that of Fulbright’s toward JFK to the current president of the United States. Before Donald Trump, our most recent chief executive from New York state was Franklin D. Roosevelt, who, 80 years ago in a Washington speech, urged the Daughters of the American Revolution, a quite conservative group that is prideful of its lengthy American pedigrees and that considered FDR a “traitor to his/(its) class,” “Remember always that all of us — and you and I, especially — are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.”
Kennedy noted that every American who has ever lived, “with the exception of one group,” has been either an immigrant or the direct descendant of an immigrant. Of course, the exceptions include — as Will Rogers, proud of his Cherokee blood, observed — those who were there on the shore to greet the Mayflower. When Kennedy began “A Nation of Immigrants,” he quoted the historian Oscar Handlin, who wrote, “Once I thought to write a history of the immigrants in America. Then I discovered that the immigrants were American history.”
JFK was simply echoing the values of his immediate predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, who, in his first State of the Union address, reminded Congress and the nation that “we are — one and all — immigrants or sons and daughters of immigrants.” Ike was appealing to what was best and most admirable in his fellow citizens. The same, sadly, cannot be said about our current president’s baseless and mean-spirited charges that his immediate predecessor, Barack Obama, was “not born in the United States” or his denigrating immigrants from Mexico as “rapists” or his insisting in August that there were “very fine people” among the white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia.
We Americans, all of us, are indeed either immigrants or the sons and daughters of immigrants, a truth that we can never forget — even if the man who sits in the Oval Office today has never learned it.