WASHINGTON - Mike Mansfield, the longest-serving Senate majority leader, who shepherded landmark legislation in the 1960s and 1970s on issues from civil rights to political reform and set a standard for civility in a lawmaking arena now often the scene of partisan vitriol, died yesterday. He was 98.
Mansfield, who underwent surgery Sept. 7 to have a pacemaker implanted in his chest, died at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, said Charles Ferris, his attorney and one-time Senate aide.
After he left the Senate in 1977, Mansfield was U.S. ambassador to Japan and wielded significant influence in Tokyo for more than 11 years as the emissary of Democratic and Republican presidents. No one else has served longer in that post.
His 34 years in Congress, including 24 in the Senate, secured the Montana Democrat's place in 20th-century political history. In 16 years as Senate majority leader, from President John F. Kennedy's inauguration in 1961 to President Gerald R. Ford's exit in 1977, Mansfield guided a remarkably productive upper house of Congress during a turbulent political era.
It was the era of President Lyndon B. Johnson's war on poverty, the moon landings and landmark civil rights legislation. It was also the era of the failed Vietnam War, Cold War crises and the Watergate scandal.
Mansfield was a pivotal figure through those years, in part because he, unlike many leading politicians, was content to share or even cede the legislative stage.
"He was a wise, decent and endlessly patient man who believed deeply in the ability of free people to govern themselves wisely," Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, said in a statement. "It's no coincidence that the Mansfield years remain among the most civil, and the most productive, in the Senate's history."
"We have had few like him, but then with the good Lord's help, it only takes a few," Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican, said in a statement.
When the Senate made history in 1964 by breaking a Southern-led filibuster to pass the Civil Rights Act, Mansfield let his Republican counterpart, Minority Leader Everett M. Dirksen of Illinois, grab the spotlight.
Eventually, Dirksen delivered 27 of the 33 Republican senators on a vote to cut off the filibuster, which had dragged on for more than 500 hours spread over several weeks. The 71 votes for cloture - a legislative device to cut off filibusters that was rarely used at the time - was four votes more than the 67 required.
Senators and presidents from both parties respected him as a straight shooter. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson sent him to Indochina on fact-finding missions. Mansfield advised both, in confidential reports released years later, to curb U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
Mansfield voted in 1964 for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which Johnson later used to justify sending U.S. troops in Vietnam. But Mansfield later said he was deceived by the administration. He went on to become one of the war's most persistent critics.
In one icy White House meeting, Johnson assailed Mansfield's position on Vietnam and expressed disappointment that he was not receiving more support in the Senate from "my majority leader."
According to biographer Francis R. Valeo, his longtime aide, Mansfield responded, "Mr. President, I'm not your majority leader. I'm the Senate's majority leader."
Born Michael Joseph Mansfield in New York City on March 16, 1903, the son of poor Irish immigrants, Mansfield always went by "Mike." He quit school before finishing the eighth grade and in 1917, at 14, he left home to join the Navy.
After stints in the Navy, Army and Marines, he returned to Montana in 1922 and went to work shoveling copper ore. He became engaged to a Butte college student, Maureen Hayes, who persuaded him to resume his education. He earned his high school diploma, married Maureen and entered what is now the University of Montana.
Maureen Mansfield died in September last year.
Mansfield was elected to the House in 1942 and to the Senate 10 years later. He put the interests of Montana ahead of almost everything else. He was known to keep Cabinet officers waiting in an outer office while he sipped coffee over a small marble table with a visiting constituent.
He was named ambassador to Tokyo in 1977 by President Jimmy Carter. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan took the unusual step of reappointing the longtime Democratic leader as ambassador.
In Japan, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said yesterday: "Former Ambassador Mansfield's contributions to the friendship between Japan and the United States were great. ... I offer my heartfelt condolences."