President Lyndon B. Johnson (center) speaking with Sens. Mike Mansfield, D-Montana and Everett Dirksen, R-Illinois, on Sept. 6, 1968 (Courtesy LBJ Presidential Archives | National Archives).
Can you imagine U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer sending Minority Leader Mitch McConnell a box of his favorite candy?
Not so long ago, when politics was less about bloodsport, the leaders in the Senate were more cordial and collegial. Even though Sen. Everett Dirksen, a Republican from Illinois who was the minority leader, was the opposite in almost every sense of the word from his more reserved counterpart, Sen. Mike Mansfield, a Democrat from Montana who was the majority leader, they enjoyed a strong friendship that was tested during the turbulence of the 1960s. A new book by prominent historian Marc C. Johnson explores their relationship and concludes that the warm friendship helped guide the nation through the rocky times.
Johnson’s book, “Mansfield and Dirksen: Bipartisan Giants of the Senate,” is as much of a detailed historical look at the kind of relationship the two opposites had, as well as an argument of the benefits of bipartisanship.
Johnson analyzed both men, aided in great part by Mansfield’s meticulous habit of saving correspondence and notes.
“I can say in a definitive way that his collection of papers from Congress until 1977 is the most extensive collection of papers in the country,” Johnson told the Daily Montanan. “God love him for his historical sensibilities.”
That’s probably not going to surprise many who know the history of Mansfield, a former miner turned history professor whose keen understanding of national and world politics made him a soft-spoken giant in the U.S. Senate.
But Dirksen was a lot different than Mansfield, being a colorful and engaging orator with a flare for the dramatic, earning him the nickname, “The Wizard of Ooze.” Dirksen often played the foil to the pipe-smoking, quiet demeanor of Mansfield. But Johnson said without the support of Dirksen, especially on key pieces of legislation like the Civil Rights Act, some of the highlights of the 1960s might have wound up as historical footnotes.
Dirksen was an anomaly by today’s standards, a moderate if not liberal leaning part of the Republican Party even as it was being forced to the right by more conservative leaders like Barry Goldwater. Meanwhile, Mansfield was contending with division in his own party as southern Democrats bristled against civil rights measures in the South.
In other words, the men were perfectly suited for each other and their times.
“Clearly there was something unusually special between these two guys – about how politics could work, and doesn’t today,” Johnson said.
Both men had division within their party, and both struggled with the seminal events of the decade, including war, assassination, political turbulence and civil rights.
Johnson points to their accomplishments, which include many things Americans may today take for granted. But Medicare, fair housing, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Voting Rights Act needed both Dirksen and Mansfield.
And both men championed the first of what would become a limited nuclear test ban treaty.
“Both men came to the Senate and grew to love it and understood it, really, as the bedrock of American democracy,” Johnson said. “They understood that the federal government doesn’t work unless the Senate does. They both understand that you had to compromise, and that’s the piece that’s so often missing now. Too many today don’t appreciate it as a unique institution or how it’s supposed to function.”
He credits Mansfield’s demeanor and understanding of history that helped him become so effective, especially after the heavy-handed leadership of the former Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Baines Johnson.
But Mansfield approached the job with the characteristic humility and soft-spoken way, sometimes “bending over backwards” to help guide the relationship with Republicans.
“Never before or after did someone approach the job like he did,” Johnson said.
That initially caused some problems, leading critics within the John F. Kennedy administration to distrust Mansfield because he seemed too accommodating to Republicans.
“But there were no surprises. This guy was all he seemed to be – he was as genuine and honest as the day was long, and he was fair,” Johnson said. “He seemed to accumulate power by giving it away (to others within the Senate).”
That earned Mansfield near universal respect.
Mansfield would also go against the grain in other respects, being a frequent and early critic of the Vietnam War, much to the chagrin of his old Senate colleague and then-President Lyndon Johnson.
One of Mansfield’s areas of academic study and expertise was Asia.
“He knew exactly how the war would go, and he wrote eloquently about it,” he said.
He even advocated to lift up the fractured Republican Party after its landslide defeat in the election of 1964.
“Imagine a Democrat doing that today,” Johnson said.
And both men put aside partisan differences for each other. Mansfield endorsed Dirksen in a Republican primary for Senate in 1962, and in 1964, when Mansfield was running for re-election, Dirksen told GOP leaders he would campaign anywhere for a Republican except Montana.
However, it was that kind of gracious politics that helped ensure victory for some of the decade’s most controversial and far-reaching policies, which included the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Right Acts.
“I have admired many of the politicians I’ve studied,” Johnson said. “But the more you learn of them, you begin to see their flaws. Mansfield may be the exception. The more I studied his approach, the more impressed I have become.”
Johnson is skeptical that something like the enduring friendship of Dirksen and Mansfield could happen today with a non-stop news cycle and politics that seems more about personal attacks than policy matters. Could such a friendship exist today?
“Only if we elect better people to these jobs,” Johnson said. “You have to be totally willing to vote for people who respect the system and acknowledge that the other side may have value and accept that they’re going to be transparent and honest.”
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