Our iconic Senior United States Senator, Richard Shelby, will walk out of the Senate chambers in Washington, D.C. this week and come home to retirement in Tuscaloosa. History will reveal Shelby as Alabama’s greatest U.S. Senator, especially when it comes to bringing home the bacon to the Heart of Dixie. To say Shelby is the greatest is saying a mouthful, because we have had some great ones. Shelby will rest along with the likes of John Bankhead, John Sparkman, Lister Hill and Howell Heflin. He has served longer in the Senate than any Alabamian in state history – 36 years. He served eight years in Congress before beginning his senate tenure in 1986.
Many of you have perceived, and correctly so, that I admire and appreciate the accomplishments of Shelby. A good many of you will be glad to see me stop writing such glowing things about him. Over the years many of you have accused me of actually being his press secretary. My favorite restaurant is the historic Bright Star in Bessemer. A good many Tuscaloosans, especially older ones, Shelby’s contemporaries and friends and neighbors drive up to eat at the Bright Star. Invariably, they will ask me to come over to their table to visit. They always say, “you sure do like Richard Shelby.”
Many of them are familiar with the fact that we are also friends. We have, indeed, been political friends and confidantes for close to four decades. This does not take away from the fact that in my humble opinion, he is Alabama’s greatest senator. The facts speak for themselves.
In Washington, Shelby is considered royalty with omnipotent power. He is treated like a king. Shelby has served in the Senate alongside eight different presidents. He has been more powerful than the last three. He has controlled the federal purse strings. Therefore, national political pundits know the political golden rule: “Those that have the gold make the rules.” Presidents, congressional leaders and especially powerful lobbyists, treat Shelby with deference akin to royalty. When he enters a room, people stare and stand up. This is especially true when he enters any famous Washington restaurant. The maître de has assigned him the best table. When he enters the fine dining establishment, every head turns to see which million dollar a year lobbyist has been bestowed the honor of dining and visiting with the king. Other lobbyists will reserve a table next to him to simply be able to say they sat next to him.
However, when Shelby comes home to Tuscaloosa, to the home he and his wife Annette have shared for over 50 years, his peers and neighbors will just call him Dick Shelby. “A setting sun sets off very little heat,” and a “prophet is not recognized in his own country,” “familiarity breeds contempt” and “Alabama is just a big front porch. All of these admonitions will ring true for ole Shelby. However, I do not think he will mind. Even though he has lived his life as a public person – eight years in the state senate, eight years in Congress and 36 years in the U.S. Senate – he is a private person and really enjoys his time with Annette. He will very much enjoy his anonymity.
This coming home to rest in obscurity has played out throughout the years with our Washington giants. Old timers in Jackson County say that the legendary, powerful, Tennessee Valley Congressman, Bob Jones, in his retirement would go into a restaurant to eat in Scottsboro by himself and nobody would hardly know him.
I was friends with Heflin, who we all called “Judge.” After 18 years in the Senate, Judge came home to the Quad Cities. He would ask me to come up to visit with him and talk politics, which I gladly did. We would go to breakfast or early lunch at a downtown restaurant, which doubled as a coffee club gathering place in Tuscumbia. We would walk in, and they would nod, and he would speak, but they would not make a fuss over the former, powerful, U.S. Senator. In fact, I am not sure some of them even knew who he was. Tuscaloosa is a bigger place than Scottsboro or Tuscumbia, so Shelby will be private.
In the meantime, Alabamians will soon begin to realize what immense power Shelby had in Washington.
Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. He served 16 years in the state legislature and may be reached at steveflowers.us.
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