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Memories of Sonny Montgomery

Published 12:00pm Wednesday, October 16, 2013

As the government shutdown and the subsequent rancor and gridlock reached new depths, I couldn’t help but think about the late U.S. Rep. Gillespie V. “Sonny” Montgomery.

Montgomery was a lifelong Democrat — a “boll weevil” Democrat, some called him — but a Democrat. But during his 30 years of congressional service, Montgomery was effective under Democratic or GOP leadership in the White House and in the Capitol.

I pass Sonny’s statue almost daily on the Mississippi State University campus. Through interaction with the Montgomery Foundation, I’ve had occasion to spend a significant amount of time going through his papers in the Mississippi Congressional and Political Research.

It was my pleasure to know Congressman Montgomery on a personal level. He was a man of great conviction who was guided by his principles and his fundamental love of God, his family and his country. But those principles did not lead him to doctrinaire political histrionics or lead him to conclude that the solution to the problems that vexed the U.S. government was to throw a wrench in the works of government.

Former U.S. Sen. Trent Lott said at Sonny’s 2006 memorial service: “Our friend Sonny Montgomery had the dignity of simplicity and the nobility of the common man. We honor him now as we loved him in life. A long-time Democrat, Sonny was truly above party. And no one, on either side of the aisle, ever questioned his sincerity, his integrity, or his independence. A loyal son of Mississippi, one of ours, from his birth to his passing, he really belonged to the nation. For although he saw things from the wisdom and experience of Mississippi’s people, what he always looked for the national good.

“He will long be remembered for many things. But foremost among those was the way he championed the men and women who wear our country’s uniform in the military. Whether the Guard, the Reserves, or the Regulars, they (the soldiers) were his true constituency,” Lott rightly observed.

 In today’s toxic political environment, the national good gets lost in the practice of politics from the political extremes of the left and the right. Compromise has become a dirty word, the conduct of the people’s business has become far more about partisan advantage than about the “national good.”

 Montgomery’s legacy is the Montgomery GI Bill, which provided upward mobility to American veterans willing to work after their military service was complete. It can be said with clarity that perhaps no single American did more to help middle-class and poor Americans attain a college education than this humble, dignified citizen soldier from Mississippi.

Montgomery’s conservative voting record and his friendships with former Presidents George Bush and Ronald Reagan may have caused Democratic leaders to deny him the coveted position of chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

 Sonny was never willing to let partisanship get in the way of what he saw as “the national good.”

 In the final negotiations over his new GI Bill, Montgomery hit a snag and it appeared that House and Senate conferees might fail to reach agreement. The hour was late and many wanted to adjourn and go home. Montgomery passed out military C-rations and invited his colleagues to stay and work through their differences.

He succeeded in getting the bill to passage on the three-year trial. At the end of the three years, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill making the “new” GI Bill permanent.

I think if Sonny Montgomery or John Stennis or any of the old congressional titans could see the state of affairs in our nation’s capital, they would throw up. Statesmanship has given way to political theater and the threats that reality bring to our nation’s future are chilling.

(Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at 601-507-8004 or sidsalter@sidsalter.com)

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