Heflin: Third greatest Senator

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 8, 2004

The most colorful Senator from Alabama may have been “Cotton Tom” Heflin who represented Alabama in the Senate in the 1920’s. Fifty years later his nephew, Howell Heflin, took that same seat in the Senate.

Howell Heflin served 18 years with distinction. Unlike his uncle who was a renowned racist, Howell Heflin was considered a moderate in Washington and even a progressive by Alabama standards. Senator Howell Heflin’s 18 year Senate career and record mirror our two greatest U.S. Senators, Lister Hill and John Sparkman. I would rank Howell Heflin as our third greatest U.S. Senator only behind Hill and Sparkman. These two giants served in the Senate twice as long as Heflin.

They both served more than 30 years as U.S. Senators. Heflin got to the Senate later in life as he practiced law in Tuscumbia until he was 50 years old and then ran for Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. He served one six-year term as Chief Justice. He won statewide voter approval for a constitutional revamping of the Alabama Judiciary known as the Judicial Article.

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After finishing his one term as Chief Justice in 1976, he turned his attention to the U.S. Senate. He won the open seat of the retiring John Sparkman in 1978. Sparkman and Heflin were cut from the same cloth. Sparkman urged Heflin to run for his seat and endorsed him. They were both progressives from North Alabama who worked hard to give Alabama a good image and also bring home the bacon.

John and Clara Ruth Hayman wrote Heflin’s biography in 2001 entitled “A Judge in the Senate.” In their book they illustrated a man whose life has been lived above reproach. He will be remembered as a great Senator and Judge. He has overshadowed his uncle, Tom Heflin, as a U.S. Senator by all historical accounts. He probably has also far surpassed “Cotton Tom” and any other Southern politician in the art of storytelling. He has been a master at this art. His joke-telling and repertoire of jokes are unequaled on the political banquet circuit. He is the most colorful joke teller I have ever known.

Howell Heflin grew up the son of a Methodist Minister, graduated from Birmingham Southern and then on to the University of Alabama Law School. He became a highly decorated combat Marine in World War II. Heflin served in the Senate from 1978-to-1996. He retired at age 74. He was one of the last of the Roosevelt-style Southern porgressives to serve in the United State Senate. A large folksy man his engaging personal style masked a keen mind and political cunning that served him well in Washington and made him friends on both sides of the aisle. He is one of the few politicians in recent history to have spent a career in the public eye and retired with his integrity intact.

In fact, he was held in such esteem ethically by his colleagues in Washington that he served as Chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee. When he arrived in the Senate in 1978, his sterling reputation for integrity had preceded him and he was asked as a Freshman to serve on the Ethics Committee. He rose quietly to become Chairman. He also chose unselfishly the Senate Agriculture Committee which is not a glamorous or high profile fund-raising committee, but it was his work on this Committee that he should be remembered for by the Alabama and Southern farmer as the greatest friend they ever had in Washington. His work on the Agriculture Committee single handedly saved the peanut program and many other Southern mainstays for two decades. Many an Alabama farmer owes a large debt of gratitude to Howell Heflin. He was also a giant on the Senate Judiciary Committee. He was a natural leader of this important committee because of his brilliant legal mind and background.

Senator Heflin is enjoying his retirement years in his Tuscumbia home. He was a great Senator and a pretty good story teller.

Heflin’s fellow Colbert Countian, Representative Marcel Black, successfully named the State Judicial Building after Howell Heflin in the recently completed Regular Session of the Legislature. Heflin’s name will be placed permanently on the building. It is fitting and proper acknowledgment for the man known affectionately throughout Alabama as Judge.

See you next week.

Steve Flowers writes a weekly syndicated column on Alabama politics. He served 16 years in the Alabama House of Representatives. Steve may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.