In 1946, Democratic Sen. James Tunnell of Delaware, a staunch New Dealer, looked unbeatable. The Republican Party had difficulty recruiting challengers, so when livestock feed businessman and political novice John J. Williams (1904-1988) stepped up, he easily gained the nomination. His platform consisted of four planks:
“1. To eliminate class hatred and racial prejudice under our flag.
2. To remove all controls that are shackling both industry and labor.
3. To balance our budget and check inflation.
4. To revive the faith of the American people in their Government” (Morgan, 2016).
Williams campaigned door-to-door, attended community dinners, and made his case that economic controls were hindering efficiency and growth. On election day, he prevailed over Tunnell by 12,000 votes. His campaign reflected his commitment to honest government and economy: he returned $1078.28 of his $6,500 in campaign funds to the Republican National Committee.
In the Senate, he would vote his platform, opposing Truman’s Fair Deal, Kennedy’s New Frontier, and Johnson’s Great Society. Although Williams gained a reputation as a staunch conservative and a Republican partisan, he had another reputation: as the “Sherlock Holmes of Capitol Hill”.
“The Conscience of the Senate”
In 1949, he discovered $96 million missing from the Commodity Credit Corporation. In 1951, his investigations blew wide open a scandal in the IRS in which employees were embezzling taxpayer funds, making it look like taxpayers who had paid still owed money. 125 IRS employees were convicted on charges of bribery, extortion, and perjury among other crimes (Pearson, 1988). Williams’s fiscal conservatism and honesty applied to himself as well: he fought with the U.S. comptroller general to return all but $300 of his $1800 stationery fund to the Treasury, which after years he eventually won. For a time the “Conscience of the Senate” was considered for Vice President, but he eschewed the notion of running for executive office, wishing to maintain his independence.
In 1962, Williams pursued LBJ’s top aide and influence-peddler Bobby Baker on corruption charges regarding his company, Serve-U Corporation. He had established this company with friend Fred Black and mobsters Ed Levenson and Benny Sigelbaum to provide vending machines for companies working through federal grants. While this investigation would send Baker to the penitentiary for fraud, theft, and tax evasion, Williams had a greater target in mind: his boss. He got one of Baker’s associates, Don B. Reynolds, to testify that LBJ had demanded kickbacks in exchange for his business and testified about witnessing a $100,000 payoff to him for securing the Fort Worth TFX contract (Simkin). The date of the testimony was November 22, 1963.
After LBJ was sworn in, he used Reynolds’s FBI file to launch a smear campaign to discredit him, including accusations that he had supported Joseph McCarthy and uttered anti-Semitic statements on a visit to West Germany. On Reynolds’s January 9th testimony, he did not implicate Johnson, as he didn’t want to go up against him now that he was president. Williams almost took down a president, and that president wanted to get him. In 1964, LBJ funneled DNC money to Elbert N. Carvel, Williams’ challenger in the Senate election (Savage, 158). In spite of the election being a landslide for Democrats, Williams held on by 3 points. Johnson would not be free of the thorn on his side.
Although Williams had voted against Medicare and Medicaid, he wanted to make sure they were being run ethically now that they were law. With Sen. Russell Long (D-La.), he investigated fraud in Medicare and Medicaid, with the results of their investigation leading to the issuance of new rules on the prevention of fraud in the programs in 1971.
Civil Rights, Vietnam War, and Spending
On the question of civil rights, Williams had supported the desegregation of the armed forces but did not support Brown v. Board of Education (1954), finding it to intrude on state’s rights. However, his public urging of the people of his state to obey the decision in spite of disagreement quelled potential civil unrest after an agitator from a group called the National Association for the Advancement of White People came to Delaware (University of Delaware). Williams did vote for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (he cast the vote that broke the filibuster of the bill) and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He supported legislative rather than court remedies to end Jim Crow.
On the Vietnam War, Williams was critical of the conduct of the war, concluding the US either needed to commit to winning or conclude its involvement, and predicted that it would be ended by negotiation (University of Delaware). Williams was also concerned with civic disturbances from anti-war demonstrations, and called for restraint just as he had with the Brown decision.
Williams’ greatest legislative victory came in 1968. After realizing that a tax increase was inevitable, he worked with Sen. George Smathers (D-Fla.) to successfully add provisions to cut spending by $6 billion. If the government was going to tighten its belt, it would do so by increasing revenue and limiting spending.
Standing Up to His Own Party
Williams was also not afraid to stand up to his own party. For instance, he went against the Republican Old Guard when he voted to censure Sen. Joseph McCarthy in 1954 and he successfully pushed for the resignation of President Eisenhower’s Chief of Staff, Sherman Adams, over the relatively minor “mink coat” scandal. A persistent critic of foreign aid who had voted against the Marshall Plan, he did not support increasing foreign aid because Eisenhower wanted it, as some other Republican critics of Truman’s foreign aid spending had. He also at times butted heads with President Nixon. He opposed his Supreme Court nominee Clement Haynsworth over ethics allegations, opposed expanding the war into Cambodia (but opposed the Cooper-Church Amendment to limit the President’s power to support Cambodia, as the measure it would be attached to extended the same support to other nations), and opposed the ambitious Family Assistance Plan as he feared it would cost too much and expand the welfare rolls.
End of Career
In 1970, Williams chose not to run for reelection, believing that elected officials should not serve after the age of 65, but continued to play a role in politics. He joined the American Enterprise Institute in 1972 and the following year he was considered to replace Spiro Agnew as Vice President. Williams again declined the post. In 1980, he joined a bipartisan group called the Committee to Fight Inflation, which lobbied for such measures in Congress.
John J. Williams was not a man prone to supporting large, costly government schemes that purport to better the American public. He’d rather have our government make good use of taxpayer money and be honest in its dealings. He is also one of my political heroes.
John J. Williams Biographical Note. University of Delaware.
Morgan, M. (12 January 2016). Williams: An outsider determined to make a difference. Delmarva Now.
Pearson, R. (13 January 1988). John J. Williams, 83, Dies. The Washington Post.
Savage, S.J. (2004). JFK, LBJ, and the Democratic Party. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Simkin, J. John J. Williams. Spartacus Educational.
Retrieved from http://spartacus-educational.com/JFKwilliamsJ.htm