The late Gov. Ross Barnett delighted in the mid-1970s in taking his guitar and his oratorical skills under the tin roof of Mississippi’s grandest political stage – the Founder’s Square Pavilion at the Neshoba County Fair – and skewering Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.
Ross would plink through his tortured version of Are You From Dixie?- his musical selection broken only by a series of boilerplate stories that usually brought encouragement from the crowd.
Of Teddy Kennedy, Barnett intoned:
“Ladies and gentlemen, I submit to you today that Teddy Kennedy, that GREEAAT senator from Massachusetts, that GREEAAT drivah, that GREEAAT swimmah, that GREEAAT lovah, you know who I’m talking about. I submit to you today, ladies and gentlemen, that the ONLY time Teddy ever turned right in his life was off the bridge at Chappaquiddick!”
It was a line that rarely failed to produce laughs and jeers. But the truth is that Barnett’s relationship and interactions with the Kennedys – his favorite political target – were far more complex that Barnett’s repertoire of jokes would suggest.
With each year that passed after the mid-1970s, Barnett’s performances softened as he aged and as Mississippi – now with integrated schools, active black voter participation and racial reconciliation that was making halting steps forward – changed and softened.
But tape recordings of telephone conversations between Barnett, President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy reveal a more pleading, placid Barnett who was negotiating feverishly on Sept. 29, 1962, the day before federal troops escorted black student James Meredith onto the Ole Miss campus and were challenged by angry protesters.
The Kennedys also, unwittingly, provided perhaps the quintessential Ross Barnett story.
The islands of Quemoy and Matsu, off the coast of China, figured heavily in a debate between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon during the 1960 presidential campaign. The islands, controlled by the Chinese anti-communists in exile on Taiwan, had been bombarded by the Communist Chinese on the mainland during the late 1950s and early in 1960.
Mississippi Capitol reporters asked Barnett what he would do about Quemoy and Matsu. “I guess I’d just appoint them to the Game and Fish Commission,” Barnett reportedly replied.
The Kennedys had their political way with Barnett – that’s the truth behind the down home stump speeches and jokes at Teddy’s expense.
Conact columnist Sid Salter at (601) 961-7084 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.