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Bill Fulbright Looks Back on 30 Years of the Scholarships That Bear His Name

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What if young Bill Fulbright of Fayetteville, Ark. had not been smart enough to win the Rhodes scholarship that sent him to England in 1925? “Probably,” says former Sen. J. William Fulbright, “I would have become an Arkansas businessman, bottling Coca-Cola like my father.”

Now, what if Lyndon Johnson had been similarly exposed to foreign cultures in his youth? “I’m sure there would have been a difference,” Fulbright answers. “The Vietnam war was simply a misjudgment. Lyndon misjudged not because he was a bad man but because of his inexperience. After he came into the White House it was too late to teach him anything.”

The occasion for Fulbright’s assessment of the price of cultural parochialism was the 30th anniversary of the famed scholarship program that bears his name. Since enactment in 1946, it has sent 41,000 Americans abroad and brought to the U.S. 78,000 scholars from 122 foreign countries. The anniversary was celebrated in Washington, where lawyer Fulbright (who represents the United Arab Emirates for the big law firm of Hogan & Hartson) has continued to live since Arkansas voters retired him in 1974 after 30 years in Congress. An impressive array of leaders from government, the arts, the media and academe—Fulbrighters all—gathered at the State Department (which runs the program with the Board of Foreign Scholarships). They shared cocktails, gossip and memories and toasted the program and its creator, now 71.

Fulbright characteristically turned from nostalgia to ruminate on the significance of his program. The “real justification” of the grants, he says, is not that they can enhance the education of individuals but that they can make a substantial contribution to world peace.

Fulbright sees the program as “related to the United Nations.” Why is the U.N. ineffectual? “It’s no good without people to make it work,” he says. The Fulbright scholarships were meant “to disabuse people of inherent prejudices against foreigners” and “create enough people with empathy” to make the U.N. work. The program is still too small, Fulbright complains: “We haven’t spent as much on this as we spend on one submarine.”

The inspiration for his program began, Fulbright says, with the “cultural shock” of living in England. “At the age of 20,” he recalls, “I was lifted from the Ozarks to Oxford. I’d never been to New York, Boston or San Francisco. It left a great impression.” Afterward, he went on to law school, the presidency of the University of Arkansas and a term in the House.

Does he miss the Senate? “Yes, sure”—the forum, the chance to shape events, the staff assistance and more mundane things, too. Recently he was invited to the State Department and left his car where he had always parked, only to get himself a ticket. “Very unfair,” he says. “It was an empty space—reserved for congressmen.”