Stennis Center for Public Service Director Rex Buffington speaks to the Starkville Rotary Club on Monday about former U.S. Sen. John C. Stennis. Buffington, who has directed the center for 30 years, was a former press secretary for Stennis. Photo by: Alex Holloway/Dispatch Staff
January 8, 2019 10:53:11 AM
Rex Buffington can still remember former U.S. Sen. John C. Stennis' reaction to learning a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier would be named in his honor.
It was a dinner party in 1988 after the Democratic senator, who served from 1947-89, announced he wouldn't seek another term. Buffington said about 1,200 people attended and the dinner party was an "amazing night." President Ronald Reagan gave the event's keynote address, Buffington said, and compared Stennis to various ships-of-the-line.
Once Reagan announced the United States' next nuclear aircraft carrier would be named the USS John C. Stennis, Buffington said the room erupted in applause. But it was Stennis' reaction that stood out.
"I remember when Sen. Stennis finally stood up -- and I share this to show the human side of it -- he said 'I wish my parents could be here,'" Buffington told Starkville Rotarians on Monday. "Who wouldn't have said that or thought that, or felt that? It was so human."
Buffington, director for the Stennis Center for Public Service Leadership and a former press secretary for Stennis, said the senator, who hailed from Kemper County and is a renowned Mississippi State University alumnus, held tremendous sway in the Senate.
Stennis was one of only two U.S. senators in the country's history to chair both the Armed Services and Appropriations committees. During his time in office, he gained a reputation as the "Conscience of the Senate" and authored the body's first code of conduct.
Stennis served as the president pro tempore of the Senate from 1987-89, making him third in line of succession to the presidency.
"The thing that I think is most remarkable and that I really want to share today is that it wasn't the positions of power that he held that made him great," Buffington said. "It was his character. His integrity. His trustworthiness -- the affection that was held for him from senators on both sides of the aisle.
"He was genuine," Buffington added. "He put his duty for his country ahead of personal comfort. Nobody outworked him and he persevered through hardships that would have brought down so many."
As another example of Stennis' character, Buffington recounted the 1982 campaign, when Stennis was forced into the realities of modern political campaigning. He said the senator, rather than just meeting people in towns and shaking hands at courthouses, had to hire a media consultant.
At the first meeting, Buffington said, the consultant kept saying the Senator needed to do certain things "to win" the campaign. While Buffington noted the consultant didn't suggest anything inappropriate or unethical, the suggestions weren't the "Stennis way," to plow straight ahead.
"I could tell it wasn't going over very well with Sen. Stennis but the media consultant didn't have a clue," Buffington said. "Finally he paused and Sen. Stennis kind of interrupted him. He touched him on the shoulder and said, 'Hold on just a minute. Before we go any further, there's something you need to understand.' He just looked him straight in the eye and said, 'We don't have to win.'
"You could see that had a physical impact on the guy," Buffington added. "When we walked out of the room later he leaned over to me and said 'That was the low point of my professional career.'"
Buffington, who's served as the Stennis Center's director for 30 years, has announced his plans to retire in the spring. The center focuses on drawing young people to public service careers and offers training for leaders who are in or likely to be in public service.
Among the center's initiatives are the Stennis Fellow Program, which offers leadership development for senior-level U.S. congressional staff, and Ready to Run Mississippi, which encourages women to get involved in politics across the state.
"I just can't even begin to say how proud and thankful I am for the opportunity I've had and how great the opportunities have been," Buffington said.
However, Buffington said the future is bright for the Stennis Center. Brian Pugh has been selected as the center's next director and will assume his new position in April. Buffington said Pugh has served with Mississippi's legislative budget office, as Gov. Phil Bryant's director of budget and finance and as the deputy director of the Mississippi Department of Budget and Fund Management.
"He's an amazing young leader who's going to do great things at the Stennis Center. He's a hard-working young leader who's won the respect and admiration of all who know him, both for his intellect and his integrity."
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