by Phill Brooks
One of the most colorful and powerful characters I’ve covered in Missouri’s statehouse was Richard Webster.
He was a longtime senator from the southwest Missouri town of Carthage, serving from 1963 until his death in 1990.
One of my reporters at the time described Webster as an amateur actor, and he certainly treated the Senate chamber like his personal stage.
His frequent filibusters were some of the most entertaining times I’ve had in the Senate. I’d sit for hours enraptured by the tales he would tell.
Once while filibustering a bill to let teenagers enter pool halls without adult escorts, Webster gave a performance from a scene about a pool table in the musical “The Music Man.”
On another occasion when some Japanese government officials were introduced to the Senate, the World War II veteran responded, “I had the privilege of killing many of your ancestors.”
Somehow, maybe because he had such a playful style, Webster could get away with that kind of joke. “It was an honor to have our ancestors killed by such a distinguished senator,” came back the reply from the translator.
The quotes come from the Senate’s former communications director years later, but they’re exactly what I remember of the scene that caused a lot of raised eyebrows in the Senate.
Tall and lanky, Webster looked like a Missouri version of Abraham Lincoln. And, occasionally his dress seemed to come from that era. More than once he’d appear dressed in an all-white suit and vest appearing much like a riverboat gambler.
His office was like the back poker room of a riverboat with liquor flowing and thick clouds of smoke from Webster’s ever-present cigarette.
But Webster was far more than just an entertaining figure. During his time, he was one of the Senate’s most effective and influential legislators. Despite Democrats controlling the Senate, some described the Carthage Republican as the chamber’s most influential member.
If Webster didn’t like a bill, it was a sure bet it would not pass. And he was a master at getting his issues quietly stuck into amendments.
Webster’s office was run by his longtime assistant Pat Michelson. She and Webster made his office like a second home for legislators of both parties. His door was always open.
It was a place where, in a more relaxed environment, legislators and lobbyists could discuss key issues and personalities. Understandings, if not complete agreements, were reached. If you did not know about Webster’s office, you could not fully understand what was happening in Missouri’s General Assembly.
Despite his hospitality, Webster had a mean streak. If you crossed him, you could have an enemy for life.
That became the case for some poor public servant in the Natural Resources Department who had done something — I don’t remember what — that set Webster off. As a result, I watched him on the Senate Appropriations Committee regularly try to eliminate the woman’s salary and get her kicked out of government.
Webster truly hated some of the young staffers for Gov. Kit Bond and verbally attacked them viciously. He coined the phrase “kiddy corps” that he used repeatedly in Senate attacks to describe this crew of brash new folks. They were not sufficiently conservative for Webster nor did they display sufficient respect for the Senate.
They were fellow Republicans, but “he felt they hadn’t paid their dues,” as one of Webster’s closest Senate colleagues recalled.
Despite enrapturing oratory, you could not quite trust everything Webster said. He loved to tell tall tales, but he would, to put it mildly, sometimes exaggerate.
It struck me that it was for no better reason than to make his story more entertaining. He was not really deceptive about it. To some, he’d acknowledge that he sometimes would make things up. He actually advised me that I should not trust everything he said.
I remember one night he was talking about his own history and he pointed to the biography he had written about himself in the state’s official manual.
“He operated the first landing barge ashore in the invasion of the islands of Lubang and Masbate,” his biography noted in 1969. It was true, Webster said.
But, then with a chuckle in his voice, he went on to acknowledge that the “invasions” of the Pacific islands occurred after Japan’s emperor had surrendered. So what he saw when he landed were Japanese soldiers lined up in formation politely bowing.
It was a great story, but it wasn’t true.
In checking the spelling of the islands for this column, I learned that the invasion of those two islands actually had occurred well before Japan’s surrender. There had been real fighting.
It would seem that decades after his death I’m still learning the lesson Webster tried to teach me — to not believe everything he or any other politician says.
[Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and a faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.]