Despite his wishes, Senator Mansfield won't soon be forgotten

October 15, 2001|By Joseph R. L. Sterne

LONG ABOUT cocktail hour, on the evening of Nov. 7, 1963, Tom Dodd of Connecticut took the floor of a nearly empty Senate to complain that the majority leader, Mike Mansfield of Montana, was "not leading the Senate" and was compiling a "record of failure."

Dodd yearned in a boozy voice for the days when Lyndon B. Johnson ran the Senate like an "orchestra leader" blending the sounds of his ensemble into a harmonious whole.

That hilarious description of LBJ's cacophonous Senate was one of the least offensive things Dodd had to say.

The minority leader, Everett McKinley Dirksen, another of Dodd's targets, ("soft... decadent") tartly observed the next day that "quite a number of things can induce cerebral incoherence."

Mansfield responded in quite a different way.

When Dodd telephoned him the morning after, offering to come to the majority leader's office to make amends, Mansfield insisted that he would go to Dodd's office. And he did. "I felt like a skunk at a lawn party," said the Connecticut senator - and none of his colleagues demurred.

Mike Mansfield died the other day, at age 98, a record-holder in a league with Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds. He served 34 years in Congress - 16 unprecedented years as Senate majority leader during the era of Vietnam, the civil rights revolution, assassinations, urban riots, nuclear arms control, the Berlin Wall, Watergate and the most significant outpouring of legislation since the New Deal. Then he went off to Japan for 10 years as ambassador during a period of trans-Pacific tension. The Japanese revered him.

Actually, Dodd's complaints about Senate inaction in late 1963 had some merit. But the fault for Senate doldrums lay more with John F. Kennedy's administration than with the Mansfield-Dirksen leadership. It was only after Kennedy's assassination, 15 days after the Dodd diatribe, that Washington regained its creative juices. President Johnson was the energizing force as he invoked the Kennedy legend and reshaped it to fulfill his own ambitions. But he owed much to the remarkable magic of Mike Mansfield, Democrat, and Ev Dirksen, Republican.

No two legislators could be more unlike. Dirksen was a flamboyant showman who enjoyed the spotlight and public adulation. Mansfield was taciturn, austere, subtle and more adroit in managing the Senate than his colleagues or the country realized. He changed the institution, reducing the power of old oligarchs, eviscerating the power of Southern filibusterers, cutting back the power of his own office to force responsibility on committee chairmen, opening new opportunities for Senate newcomers.

Always he was his own man. His patriotism, honed by service in the Army, Navy and Marines, led him to oppose the Vietnam entanglement. His sense of propriety and reverence for the Senate led him to treat all his colleagues as equals even though, up close, he knew many were not. When asked late in life what he would like to be remembered for, he replied (not altogether candidly): "I'd just like to be forgotten."

Instead, as one of the greatest senators of the past half-century, he deserves the highest of honors. Robert Taft, last leader of the isolationists, has his carillon. Richard Russell, stalwart defender of the "Lost Cause" South, has his name inscribed on a huge white-marble Senate office building. As does Ev Dirksen.

So that leaves Mike Mansfield, who is due all posthumous honors the nation can bestow. He will not be forgotten - not by Senate buffs; not by the people of Montana, where he is a state historic treasure; and not by reporters (like this writer) who forced untold quantities of bitter, Mansfield-concocted instant coffee down their gullets to hear his clipped, concise words of wisdom.

Joseph R. L. Sterne, a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies, is a former editorial page editor of The Sun.

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