Mansfield led with subtlety


Statesman: As Senate majority leader, the Montanan was a man of subtlety and let others have the headlines, but he was the greatest of the 1960s `Great Triumvirate.'

December 23, 2003|By Joseph R.L. Sterne | Joseph R.L. Sterne,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

AS YOU WALK down the steps at the east front of the U.S. Capitol and face half-left, you will see three huge white marble buildings marching in formation along Constitution Avenue. These are the Senate Office Buildings.

In the old days, when there was only one such structure, then-Sen. Harry S. Truman liked to tell constituents that all they had to do to get in touch with him was to send a letter addressed to "Truman SOB, Washington, D.C."

That all changed in 1972 when the Senate decided to name the two Senate Office Buildings then in existence in honor of two recently deceased colleagues, Richard Russell of Georgia and Everett McKinley Dirksen of Illinois. Together, Russell and Dirksen constituted two-thirds of what can accurately be called the Great Triumvirate of the 1960s, senators so outstanding that they deserve comparison with the Great Triumvirate of the 1830s - Daniel Webster, Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun.

Four years later, in 1976, as ground was broken for a magnificent third building, the Senate in a burst of sentimentality named it for Sen. Philip Hart of Michigan, then in the last stages of a terminal illness. Hart was a beloved colleague, a mild, modest, sweet man of fine personal qualities who never sought to be and never was a mover and a shaker.

If history were neat and orderly, the third Senate Office Building should have been named for the third and greatest of the 1960s Triumvirate, Michael Joseph Mansfield of Montana. But the timing wasn't right.

In 1976, Mansfield was a vigorous septuagenarian winding up 34 years as a member of Congress, the last 16 of which included a record-breaking stint as Senate majority leader. He soon was off to Japan where, for a decade as U.S. ambassador serving Democrat Jimmy Carter and Republican Ronald Reagan, he orchestrated what he called the world's "most important bilateral relationship - bar none."

Mike Mansfield died two years ago at age 98. He thus was not alive for the publication in his centennial year of a full-fledged biography by Don Oberdorfer, a Washington Post reporter who shared with Mansfield an agonized interest in the Vietnam War, a conflict the senator described as "the greatest tragedy that has ever befallen this Republic."

While the nation plunged ever deeper into the morass in Southeast Asia in the 1960s, it was preoccupied at home with an epic struggle to attain the civil rights for African-Americans that theoretically had been won a century earlier at Gettysburg and Missionary Ridge. The Senate was the foremost stage for prolonged debate on both issues, issues that scrambled shifting alliances within the chamber and tugged at the emotions of its members.

As the Southern member of the 1960s Senate Triumvirate, Dick Russell courageously fulfilled the thankless task of leading his region into a retreat that was, in time, to prove its salvation. A master of Senate rules and procedure, a seasoned practitioner of filibusters that thwarted meaningful civil rights reforms, Russell fought with a tenacity that ironically enabled his fellow Southerners to accept another Lost Cause with honor intact. Dixie was ready to be transformed.

Russell was not only the leader of the Southern bloc. He was chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and, as such, was acutely aware of misgivings in the officer corps about Vietnam. He quietly urged his friend, Lyndon Johnson, to avoid a dreaded land war in Asia but later, as the U.S. commitment grew, he allied himself with generals adhering to the MacArthur maxim that "there is no substitute for victory."

As the sole Republican member of the Triumvirate, Ev Dirksen had the delicate task of leading a party far more internally divided than it is today. Its Eastern Establishment, international in outlook and liberal on social-cultural matters, had little in common with isolationist conservatives from the Plains and the Rockies or with Goldwater radicals destined to take over the party.

In 1964, Dirksen found himself in a predicament. Asserting that civil rights were "an idea whose time had come," he was able to convince a few reluctant Westerners to provide the votes to break Russell's filibuster. And then, in less than two weeks, he fulfilled his role as "Mr. Republican" by nominating for president Sen. Barry Goldwater, one of just four Republicans to vote against civil rights.

On Vietnam, Dirksen was as cautious as he was bold on civil rights. Adhering to the Eisenhower-era formula of congressional support for presidential power in foreign affairs, he was an ally of both Presidents Johnson and Richard M. Nixon in their prosecution of the war.

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