Former Sen. John C. Stennis, a courtly Mississippi Democrat who exercised vast influence over America's military during his four decades in the Senate, died Sunday. He was 93.
Stennis died about 3:30 p.m. at St. Dominic Hospital, where he had been taken several days ago for pneumonia, said his son, John Hampton Stennis.Stennis earned a reputation in Washington for fairness and finesse that landed him delicate committee assignments and close association with eight U.S. presidents. But his opposition to integration blotted his record.
Stennis joined the Senate in 1947. At the time of his retirement in 1988, he was its oldest member.
Stennis, nicknamed the "conscience of the Senate" for his work on the Senate's code of ethics and strict religious convictions, overcame personal tragedy to continue public service.
He was wounded by robbers and left bleeding on the sidewalk near his northwest Washington home in 1973. Then-President Richard M. Nixon, emerging from Stennis' hospital room, said the senator would survive because, "He's got the will to live in spades."
Coy Hines Stennis, his wife of 52 years, died in 1983. And in 1984, he lost his left leg to cancer, and had to use a wheelchair.
"Discouraged? I suppose everybody's had his ups and downs. But I've never surrendered," Stennis said then.
Stennis, serving as chairman of both the Armed Services Committee and the defense subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee during the 1970s, wielded more clout over military matters than perhaps any civilian except the president.
He was a consistent advocate of the need for a strong military.
Though he stood for a tough military, Stennis did not always back presidential military policy.
He was a leading backer of the Vietnam War. However, in the war's waning days, he co-sponsored legislation to set limits on a president's power to commit American forces to combat without congressional consent.
A decade later, Stennis opposed using that law - the War Powers Act of 1973 - to permit President Reagan to keep Marine peacekeeping troops in Lebanon.
He condemned the Supreme Court's 1954 school desegregation decision, but in 1983 he switched and voted for an extension of the Voting Rights Act.
Stennis was born Aug. 3, 1901, in Dekalb and graduated from Mississippi State University in 1923 before attending the University of Virginia Law School.
He began his public service in 1928 in the Mississippi Legislature, then served as a district attorney and circuit judge before joining the U.S. Senate.