Longest-Serving Congressman Jamie Whitten Dead at 85
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) _ Former Rep. Jamie Lloyd Whitten, a Mississippi farm boy who served a record 53 years in the House and exerted quiet but powerful control over the nation’s purse strings, died Saturday. He was 85.
Whitten, a Democrat who retired in 1994, died from complications of chronic cardiac and renal disease, said Drs. Keith Mansel and Michael King, his physicians at Baptist Memorial Hospital-North Mississippi in Oxford. He had been hospitalized since Monday.
``His mind stayed fine until the very end. Just his body broke down,″ said his son, Jamie Whitten Jr., a Washington lawyer.
Whitten had battled health problems since 1992, including several strokes and a recent bout with pneumonia.
``Congressman Whitten dedicated himself to the concerns of the hard working people of this country,″ President Clinton said in a statement released by the White House. ``He worked tirelessly on behalf of America’s farmers, especially our family farmers, and he never gave up working to build more opportunity for all Americans willing to make the most of their own lives.″
A conservative Democrat, Whitten served with 11 presidents and was chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee from 1979 to 1992.
He was elected to Congress on Nov. 4, 1941, about a month before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. At his retirement, he was the last member still serving who had been in Congress when the United States entered World War II.
Whitten won re-election 26 times. On Jan. 6, 1992, he broke the record held by Georgia Democrat Carl Vinson for longest service in the House. The record for service in Congress is still held by the late Carl Hayden, the Arizona Democrat who was in the House and later the Senate for a combined total of 56 years.
``I really meant to stay only three years, but I got swept up in all this,″ Whitten once said.
Critics said Whitten epitomized a system that divided federal spoils instead of improving the economic health of the nation and called him a ``pork barrel king.″
``You know what a pork barrel is? Anything you can’t see from the Washington Monument, the press calls a pork barrel,″ Whitten said.
Whitten was sometimes called the ``permanent secretary of agriculture″ for his interest in farm matters. Except for 1953-55, when Republicans last controlled the House, Whitten was chairman of the Appropriations Committee’s agriculture subcommittee from 1949 until 1992.
``We can leave our children all the paper money in the world, but it’s what we do for our land and our people that make our real wealth,″ he said.
Even though his district in northern Mississippi was more than half black, Whitten signed the 1956 Southern Manifesto declaring that the Supreme Court’s landmark desegregation case two years earlier started the United States ``on the downhill road to integration and amalgamation and ruin.″
His conservative views, mirrored in his 1966 book ``That We May Live,″ which questioned regulation of pesticides, created problems for Whitten in the early 1970s when young, liberal House Democrats sought to strip him of his jurisdictions.
He opposed Medicare, expansion of the food stamp program and nearly all anti-poverty programs, and voted against all major civil rights legislation in the 1960s.
Democrats in 1978 tried to block his ascension to chairman of appropriations, but Speaker Thomas ``Tip″ O’Neill of Massachusetts stepped in to assure the chairmanship for his longtime poker-playing buddy.
In return, Whitten began supporting food stamps and liberal programs backed by the Democratic Party, and fellow Democrats continued to back him as appropriations chairman until health problems interfered with his ability to run the committee.
Whitten was born on April 18, 1910, son of a Cascilla farmer and country store owner. He sold high school rings to help pay for law school at the University of Mississippi.
He was elected to the state Legislature at age 21 and then served two terms as a district attorney. He also worked as a school principal before his election to Congress to fill an unexpired term.
Whitten’s Southern accent, described more as a slur than a drawl, was particularly difficult for some northern representatives to understand.
``On many occasions I have not understood a word that he has said to me and I sometimes wonder whether he liked it that way,″ Rep. John Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, once said.
In addition to his son, survivors include his wife, Rebecca, and daughter Beverly Merritt.
Funeral arrangements were incomplete.