To link to subsections of the introduction, click on the titles below:
Everett Dirksen spent much of the last three weeks before his unexpected death in September 1969 working on this book. Following the mid-August recess of the 91st Congress, Dirksen had retired to his home to rest up for scheduled lung surgery. At "Heart's Desire" in Virginia, he tended his gardens, prepared for the resumption of the legislative session, and put the finishing touches on his autobiography. Dirksen's thoughts had turned increasingly to the deterioration of the nation's civic life. Appalled by the country's social and political turmoil, manifested in race riots and demonstrations against the war in Vietnam, he worried that young people seemed to be turning their backs on their American heritage. He sought to bring them, in his words, "back into the stream of tradition," and he hoped that the telling of his life story would help reestablish the virtue of public service.
The Education of a Senator was the result. In it Dirksen described the three primary ingredients in his career: preparation, ambition, and opportunity. He recounted the story as only Dirksen could, with anecdotes, observations about people met along the way, lessons learned. The memoir's style is vintage Dirksen, too, written as if he were telling a story to his grandchildren, filled with those marvelous words and phrases he seemed to summon up on command. As Dirksen himself put it: "I make no pretense in this narrative of maintaining any kind of strict chronology," preferring instead to skip around, relying on his memory -- he did not keep a diary or a strict accounting of his activities. Neither is there evidence that Dirksen employed a researcher or consulted historical studies during the preparation of the manuscript. In other words, The Education of a Senator was distinctly a personal story, not a political or legislative history, not a scholarly treatise. Dirksen carried the account only through his election to the Senate in 1950, apparently planning to write a second volume dealing with his years in the Senate. It is not possible to know what he would have said, but the story of his life is not complete without reference to his remarkable career there. This introduction will fill out that story and provide context for Dirksen's own account of his life before the Senate.
The manuscript lay unpublished in a portion of the Dirksen Papers housed at the research center named for him in his hometown. The University of Illinois Press agreed to publish it as part of the centennial observance of the Senator's birth on January 4, 1896.
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Dirksen's affection for his family and his community was as plain as could be. It was a theme in his autobiography and at the root of his outlook on life and politics. Dirksen was the son of immigrant parents, part of a big colony of their countrymen which had settled in Pekin, Illinois, in the mid-1800s. The Deutschlanders were frugal, industrious, civic-minded, and Republican. Everett McKinley Dirksen had an older brother, Benjaimn Harrision; an identical twin, Thomas Reed; and, two half-brothers.
Although his father died before Everett was ten, the family foundation remained unshakeable. His mother took up vegetable gardening and livestock raising to keep the family together. The boys helped out at an early age. A neighbor recalled the three Dirksen youngsters going barefoot around the neighborhood, carrying pails of milk to the family's customers. Later Dirksen would say that "There was a certain ruggedness about life, and a certain ruggedness in living that life." His memoir suggested an upbringing long on earnest determination, hard work, uncompromising principles, and stern discipline fairly meted. He described the family home and routine, the importance of the Reformed Church in their lives, and his pals in the neighborhood "gang." Everett particularly prized the family's plot of land. The Dirksens kept a half-dozen cows, a half-dozen pigs, 150 chickens, and a horse. They raised berries, turnips, lettuce, onions, and radishes. Dirksen called it "one acre and liberty."
Roman L. Hruska, later Dirksen's best friend in the Senate, once recalled that Dirksen "was fortunate in being born near the center of our Nation in a rural environment where initiative and hard work were complemented by both failures and successes, and to parents who had faith in man's abilities through Divine guidance."
Schooling paved the way for Everett Dirksen to move beyond the neighborhood and his community. His brothers dropped out before attending high school, but Everett rose to the challenge with relish. School came easily to him. Here he cultivated friendships, practiced leadership in student groups, indulged his passion for the theatrical, and acquired a knowledge of the world beyond Pekin, largely because he was a voracious reader. In hindsight, all these experiences were essential to his preparation for politics and public service, although the ambition was by no means clear at this early age. Dirksen graduated as class salutatorian, taking the class motto as his theme for the graduation address: "Ad Astra per Aspera," -- "through difficulties to the heights." One wonders how the audience responded -- next to Dirksen's picture in the yearbook appeared the appellation, "bigworditis." A classmate once said that Dirksen "must have swallowed a dictionary."
Dirksen found employment in a corn refining company upon graduation, working eleven hours each day for one week and thirteen hours each day for the second week for $54 per month. His industry paid off in a promotion to assistant chemist. What spare time he had went to amateur theater. Then his mother suggested that he take a vacation to visit his half-brother in Minnesota. Young Everett seized the moment, enrolled in the University of Minnesota in the fall of 1914, worked to earn the money to stay there, tasted of politics for the first time in the presidential campaign of 1916, and engaged in spirited campus discussions about the war raging in Europe. Later, Dirksen would trace his political aspiration to his days on campus "when we sat around in the Student Union, [as] the budding politicians discussed the various things they hoped to accomplish in life . . . ." On January 4, 1917, his 21st birthday, Dirksen was inducted into the army. [POST-PUBLICATION NOTE: Although Dirksen recalled entering the service in 1917 on his 21st birthday, he was mistaken. According to the records of his military service, Dirksen was inducted on January 5, 1918.]
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World War I proved every bit as essential to his preparation for politics as had his upbringing and schooling. The war took him outside the Middle West and outside the United States. He encountered racial segregation for the first time while training at Camp Jackson in South Carolina. In France, he became a horse officer at Camp Coetquidan, then was assigned to the 19th Balloon Company at Toul. Europe fascinated him, and he traveled widely after the armistice. But offers to stay on fell on deaf ears. After 18 months of overseas duty, Dirksen wanted desperately to return home.
He took with him, he wrote in his memoir, a conviction: "I was not sure that I wanted to return to school and complete my law course, but I did know that I wanted to do something to end the madness of conflict and the insane business of arbitrating the differences of men and nations with poison gas and high explosive shells." He believed that false pride and a hyper-nationalism had bred the conflict. Further, he was optimistic that "if these problems could be approached with proper humility and a realization of the ghastliness of conflict, settlements might be more easily contrived. In any event, the answer now was becoming simpler for me. I must go into politics."
Despite Dirksen's preparation for politics and his budding ambition, the right opportunity did not present itself immediately. He returned home in October 1919 but admitted to "floundering" for some time. Expecting a hero's welcome, he was barely noticed. Dirksen wrote that he was "unhappy and bewildered." He fell into a routine rooted in his upbringing: work, religion, theater, and home. Dirksen did not mope around for long, though. "Life meant work," he recalled, "for only in work could one be happy and really content." He tried various endeavors from washing machine manufacture to dredge boat operator with mixed success. Finally, he joined his brothers in a wholesale bakery, a job that required Dirksen to travel throughout central Illinois delivering bread to grocery stores.
Dirksen filled in at the pulpit of his church for several months, too, brushing up on the Bible and honing his use of the language. The returning veteran indulged his theatrical passion as well, composing more than one hundred works (plays, short stories, and five novels) between 1919 and 1926. Although none paid the bills, "I began to make plans to pursue a theatrical existence, which I confided to my widowed mother," Dirksen recollected. "But she had a typical old-country, small-town, puritanistic view of the stage as a wicked domain. She demanded that I assure her right there that I would not essay it as a career. I gave her that assurance, but that, of course, did not destroy the urge. I had to appear before people." Dirksen looked up Clarence Ropp, a chum from school, to find an outlet for their "common urge for self-expression." They collaborated on a production for Pekin's centennial in 1924, an event more noted for bringing Dirksen together with the future Mrs. Dirksen than for the quality of the show. Meeting Louella Carver was fortuitous, for Dirksen's mother died during this period in his life. Everett and Louella were married in 1927. Their only child, Danice Joy, was born on February 10, 1929.
Upon his return to Pekin after the war, Dirksen did something else that proved crucial to his career. He joined the American Legion. Perhaps he merely sought the friendship of those who had served in the armed services. Or it may have been an early demonstration of Dirksen's political acumen. As it happened, the American Legion was organized into districts which coincided with the boundaries of congressional districts. Dirksen plunged into Legion activities, becoming district commander in 1926. He refined his speaking skills on that circuit and slowly, carefully began to build the network of contacts that would assure him a place in Congress.
But Dirksen's first political opportunity developed in Pekin. In the 1927 elections to the town's non-partisan city council, a huge turnout selected Dirksen first among eight candidates vying for four seats. His record suggests that Dirksen saw government action positively, appreciating that it had a place in peoples' lives. He favored the development of city services, from parking meters to bus transportation to ornamental lighting. He supported the city's purchase of the local waterworks and public funding in the amount of $100,000 for the construction of a bridge across the Illinois River. He was appointed to the local committee of the governor's Commission on Unemployment Relief, which was responsible for preparing measures for future emergencies.
Dirksen enjoyed the attention and worked hard at his job, admitting to the "great lure" of service. AIt is exhilarating when something is accomplished," he noted, ". . . and finally there is some recognition, no matter how humble the office." He admitted to having an ego:
There is usually enough written in the local press to satisfy what egotism one may possess. I was no exception to this. I regarded myself as a normal human being with normal tastes and weaknesses, and with that feeling of delight that goes along with hearing yourself referred to as "The Honorable Everett McKinley Dirksen, Commissioner of Finance of the city of Pekin." It sounded pretty good to me, I admit.
But as much as Dirksen enjoyed the life of public servant, he grew tired of the endless stream of petty complaints on the local level. As his ambition grew, he looked to a larger stage.
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Restless and emboldened, in 1929 Everett McKinley Dirksen announced his decision to forsake Pekin politics for the national arena and a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. He said that his aspiration was similar to the "flu" in that "everybody gets it at some time or another." The incumbent, William Edgar Hull of Peoria, had unseated an incumbent himself in 1922. Wealthy and well-connected, Hull seemed to have every advantage going into the race. But he did not possess Dirksen's energy and voice. The challenger poured himself into the race, losing thirty pounds in the bargain. The outcome seemed in doubt well into election night. But Dirksen had misjudged the opportunity. "Dirksen Loses in a Brilliant Race" read the next day's headline in the Pekin Daily Times.
Undeterred, Dirksen announced immediately after the election that he intended to seek the seat in 1932, and he began campaigning. Two years of grueling work paid off in an upset of Hull in the Republican primary, when Dirksen won 52 percent of the votes. In the general election campaign, he dismissed the doctrine of party regularity, questioned high taxes, deplored farm and home foreclosures, and claimed that the country's problems were moral and ethical as well as economic. This time he won, and with a plurality that matched Franklin D. Roosevelt's in his district (some 23,000). Dirksen staked out his independence early. He would not take the Republican pledge. "With unemployment increasing, . . . banks popping. . . and . . . business stagnant, what could one say," he explained to his neighbors following the election, "in behalf of Herbert Hoover and against Franklin D. Roosevelt . . . ? How could one apologize for Republican leadership when the nation was bleeding from the wounds of depression?"
Dirksen knew his district intimately and was inextricably bound to it. Years of selling bread to area groceries, his American Legion activity, and two congressional campaigns put him in close touch with his constituents. Even after he left for Washington, Dirksen remained a Pekinite. "All the major decisions of my life have been made here," he reflected. "This is my native city, where the family taproot goes deep, and it will ever be." The16th Congressional District stretched across six counties in north central Illinois, partly rural, partly urban, with some coal mines, a corn-hog economy, considerable soybean production, and the city of Peoria its manufacturing and commercial hub. Located across the river and about eight miles north of Pekin, Peoria boasted a population of over 100,000, was a major producer of whiskey and industrial alcohol, and served as a transportation hub for fourteen railroads, as well as the Illinois Waterway's River and Rail Terminal. Taken as a whole, the 16th district encompassed a variety of economic and social activity. Its people suffered mightily during the Depression, but they, as Dirksen with them, kept their skepticism about government-sponsored programs.
In this memoir, Dirksen described the experience of a 36 year-old freshman congressman setting up his office, getting to know the ropes. It was not an unalloyed pleasure. First, he faced the fact that the Republicans were outnumbered in the House 313 to 117. It disappointed him that his colleagues lacked the historical presence he had expected to find -- they seemed too much like himself. In his first vote, he opposed Roosevelt, setting off a torrent of mail chastising Dirksen. "When it was all put together I was a rather unhappy freshman Congressman," Dirksen remembered. "The gloating of the New Dealers did not ease my pain or anguish." And what he called the "radical design of the legislation which had been pummeled through Congress" seemed alien to his conservative nature. He felt relief when that first historic session adjourned on June 15, 1933.
Although he opposed the Democrats in his vote against the so-called Economy Act, Dirksen actually supported many New Deal measures. In the early New Deal days, Dirksen voted for the Agricultural Adjustment Act, the Federal Emergency Relief Act, the Home Owners' Loan Act, the National Industrial Recovery Act, the National Labor Relations Act, the Social Security Act, and the Guffy-Snyder Coal Act. Twenty years later, Dirksen explained his support in these words: "Those days of 1932 and 1933 were troublous and beset with difficulty. Insofar as conviction permitted, one was expected to adjourn all partisanship and participate in the common enterprise of lifting the Nation from its despondency."
As the Depression wore on, Dirksen continued to exercise his independence from the standard Republican position, even receiving support from the American Federation of Labor and the Railroad Brotherhoods. In 1938, he campaigned on a record of support for New Deal farm legislation during his service on the House Appropriation's Committee's Agriculture Subcommittee. He opposed strip mining on the grounds of environmental damage and job losses for shaft miners. He also seemed amenable to the Capper Bill, a federal health insurance scheme providing for an employer-employee contributory system, with federal matching grants of 25 percent for the states.
Yet, Dirksen gradually distanced himself from the New Deal. The mounting national debt troubled him, mostly because it reflected the growing intrusion of government into the ordinary affairs of citizens, and it represented the ceding of congressional authority to the president. Dirksen deplored both developments. Furthermore, Dirksen did not believe that the New Deal was very effective at what he thought was its primary purpose: recovery. In recounting those days of the mid and late 1930s, he wrote that "the New Deal was long on reform, much longer on relief, yet very short on actual recovery and restoration of normal conditions."
Historian Elliot Rosen reminds us that Dirksen's misgivings reflected those of Main Street. Many a mid-westerner desired the benefits afforded by the New Deal without the tendency toward omnicompetent government that seemed integral to TVA, AAA, the Resettlement Administration, and Roosevelt's proposals for government reorganization. Dirksen began to draw the line more plainly after 1937. He played a primary role in the 1939 debate over the Townsend Plan, which called for a tax on every commercial transaction to guarantee every person a minimum income. Dirksen led the opposition and succeeded in defeating the bill. Dirksen described the episode in his memoir, but he did not recall a letter he wrote to Louella immediately following the vote. In it, he described an epiphany:
In my case, it was a good deal more than a speech and a vote. For such a long time, I have perhaps done as other politicians have done. Never wanted to offend any considerable segment of the voters. But the trouble is that such a course sooner or later developes [sic] a fear-complex which if left to continue, must inevitable destroy that sense of conviction that a student of public problems should have. I am afraid that on other occasions, I have approved of or supported proposals which were broadly demanded by this group or that group, which I knew down deep to be wrong. And so there came a time - there had to come a time - when I must emancipate myself from those feats and determine, irrespective of the cost, to do that which every impulse of conscience dictated that I should do. It was like going thro [sic] a mental crisis. There is the temptation to say nothing or to sit back and shirk the duty which heart and conscience imposed. And so I did. I believe I shall find now that if my own estimate of a proposal is that it is wrong, it will take more than the mere endorsement of an organization with votes to persuade me to change my mind. Thus Mother darling, as the years move on, values become more fundamental and one sets greater store by the fact that he has a conscience with which he must live, long after the transitory things are gone.
Among the many thousands of pages he wrote, this letter is one of the most reflective Everett Dirksen ever composed. It spoke to his evolution as a politician and legislator. It marked his support of Edmund Burke's notion that legislators must exercise independent judgment even at the risk of unpopularity. Dirksen loathed what he later called the "ghastly cowardice" of all men in public life who "cannot bear the thought of losing office."
As his time in Washington lengthened, Dirksen acquired a commanding knowledge about the House which he used skillfully to influence the legislative process. He paid heed to the advice of the pragmatic, moderate assistant minority leader, Massachusetts's Joseph Martin, who counseled Dirksen, "Perfect yourself in committee work, and in due course you'll start up the ladder. Study the rules. Those who know the rules know how to operate under the rules." Dirksen took this advice to heart, spending countless hours reading the House rule book and the multi-volume edition of Asher Hinds' Precedents of the House of Representatives. "I suppose I could describe my Congressional existence over the years as a diligent effort to remain abreast of every legislative proposal which was submitted to Congress," Dirksen recalled, "to answer the mail as expeditiously as possible, to process the complaints, and do the errands requested by constituents at home." Preparation, a hallmark of Dirksen's career, stood him in good stead as he rose in the ranks of the House Republicans. As his memoir made clear, however, Dirksen complemented his book knowledge with practical information, meaning that he observed people, tried to understand what motivated them, and marveled in the pulling and hauling that is politics.
By 1940 the New Deal was struggling with its promises and its lack of performance. After eight years of Democratic rule, opposition was building to Roosevelt and his program. "One thing is absolutely certain and that is that we discovered that there were no royal roads to a solution" to the Depression, Dirksen opined. He shared in the growing disillusionment, although he opposed the dismantling of the New Deal and, as he put it, the stirring up of dead dreams within his party. He also developed a powerful sense of limits, believing that government, and particularly the Executive branch, needed to be restrained.
Within a year, though, the nation's attention turned to the war in Europe. Dirksen, generally an isolationist as befitted a representative of the 16th district, anguished over the United States's position in the conflict. In Dirksen's first eight years in the House, he had voted against reciprocal trade, against U.S. participation in the International Labor Organization, against Lend-Lease. Then in September 1941, he delivered a speech in the House that signaled a profound metamorphosis. He called for a "moratorium on hate" and said that he was satisfied "now that the President means to keep us out of war if he can." He abandoned his isolationist opposition to the draft and aid to Great Britain in favor of a strong internationalism.
Although Dirksen had changed his mind repeatedly since arriving in the House, this foreign policy reversal, just months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, captured more attention from the public and foreshadowed a career of introspective, considered policy reversals. Critics called it, variously, political opportunism, inconsistency, or spinelessness. Over the years, Dirksen fashioned a series of responses to those charges, often citing Abraham Lincoln: "The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew, we must first disenthrall ourselves and then we shall save the Union."
Dirksen did not devote much attention to the war years in his autobiography. But he did emphasize how much power flowed to the White House as a result of the conflict, accentuating the trend toward centralization in government that so bothered him. For Dirksen it boiled down to this: "Will the American system of living, which rests upon the morals of individualism, become the victim of a pious collectivism and will freedom be just a word or a way of life?"
By the end of World War II, Dirksen had risen to a prominent position within the national Republican party. In 1944, he conducted a brief campaign for the presidency, in the hope of securing a vice presidential bid. His effort failed, but he used the accumulated campaign funds to take a four-month trip to Africa, the Middle East, India, and Europe, arriving in Paris on May 7, the day before victory in Europe was declared. The trip had a huge influence on Dirksen's thinking. In small notebooks Dirksen used to record his thoughts almost daily, he wrote nearly 260 pages of notes about that trip -- a remarkable testimony to the methodical way he approached his work. What follows is a sample of the dialogue he carried on with himself:
How can one earnestly ponder the present forces without getting that uneasy feeling that maybe after all it is One Total World to which we move - a world in which the total idealogy [sic] of Russia, Germany and others is gaining the upper hand and that our palaver about freedom and the sacrifices of pulsing young lives is just another sham and mockery. . . . that unless we do a sharp about face and forsake this doctrine of [planning], we are headed for the very serfdom that has taken millions of young men from their homes to die in the fevered infested marshes of the tropics and on the icy fields of the western front. What a tragedy this would be. Tragedy. That's scarcely the word. It would be the greatest catastrophe yet visited upon mankind because it would mean frustration and the death of the most promising civilization that has ever sprung up on earth.
When Dirksen returned from his 21-nation trip overseas, the conversion to internationalism seemed complete and permanent. He voted for U.S. participation in the International Monetary Fund and the International Bank, supported President Truman's policies in Iran, Turkey, and Greece, and even envisioned the "development of a United States of Europe." He hailed the Marshall Plan and talked enthusiastically of making it a $19 billion program, much larger than it eventually became.
On the domestic side, Dirksen supported Harry Truman selectively. He voted for the Employment Act of 1946, an extension of selective service, the Federal Employee Loyalty Act, the Atomic Energy Act, and civil rights legislation. On the other hand, deficit spending concerned Dirksen very much, and he voted repeatedly to cut Truman's domestic spending.
An August 1946 poll of House members by Pageant magazine rated Dirksen as that body's most effective speaker and its second "ablest member." When the Republicans took control of the House in 1947 for the first time in sixteen years, Dirksen became chairman of the District of Columbia Committee and the Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture.
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Then apparent tragedy struck. After delivering a speech at Bradley University in Peoria, Dirksen made the short trip home. But when he arrived, the lights seemed dimmed. He saw "cobwebs in my eyes." Despite rest, the affliction continued upon Dirksen's return to Washington, and he began a long series of medical consultations in 1946 and 1947. These culminated in a defining moment, which Dirksen described in detail in his autobiography, when he rejected his physician's advice to remove his right eye, a decision he reached during prayer. Instead, Dirksen resolved to let "the Great Physician" take care of his eyesight and to retire from the House to give his eyes a rest.
Dirksen could not get politics out of his blood, however. He even had second thoughts about retiring, though he did not change his mind. "You can believe me that the decision not to seek renomination for Congress was not an easy one and was dictated only by consideration for my family and my physical welfare," he wrote to his political adviser in Chicago. "I'm confident that with an adequate amount of rest this condition can be overcome. I consider it as an interlude in my public career and expect to render many more years of service as soon as I have regained my energy." He answered a call from Thomas Dewey's campaign to help in the 1948 election. Dirksen's assignment was to travel with Vice Presidential candidate Earl Warren and add some spark to his stump speaking. Dirksen tried, but Warren ignored him.
The Stevenson-Douglas victory in Illinois in 1948 decimated the Republicans. Dirksen began to receive entreaties from those who wanted someone to run against Scott Lucas, the Democratic leader in the Senate, in 1950. As Dirksen told it, no one seriously thought Dirksen could win. He was not sure either, and he pondered the possibility for weeks. Then the miracle he had prayed for happened; he learned that his eye ailment was not malignant, and that it would eventually clear up. The news created the opportunity all his preparation and ambition had groomed him for -- the race for the U.S. Senate. In Dirksen's words:
Why does one do it? How does one do it? How [to] summon enough energy to do it on a statewide basis? If a man devoted an equal amount of time, energy, and concentration to any business or profession, I felt he would be bound to succeed, but there was a lure, a fascination in politics that had appeal to certain people and I knew I had placed myself in that category.
Success, according to Dirksen, would require three elements: a clear-cut image with the voters for the Republican party; mass exposure of the candidate; and, energized party workers who would stay on their toes through Election Day. Success would also call for a high degree of political dexterity. Dirksen was an ambitious Midwestern Republican. Because he was ambitious, he could not dedicate himself completely to Illinois GOP conservatism and ignore the occasionally conflicting views of the national party. But because he was a Midwestern Republican, he could not wholly forsake isolationists and follow the rising star of "modern" Republicanism. He was caught between the two Republican poles, and it had become, over the years, an increasingly awkward perch.
In the 1930s, for instance, it had been perfectly safe to be an isolationist conservative from downstate Illinois. But as the national party swung liberal (behind Willkie and Dewey) and his own ambitions expanded, Dirksen saw the focus of power swinging away from him, and he went with the pendulum, risking the wrath of the Chicago Tribune. When Dewey lost in 1948, however, Dirksen saw it was time to re-embrace Illinois Republicanism. Gearing up for a state-wide run in 1950, Dirksen felt he had no choice.
The entire Dirksen family, the Three Musketeers as Everett called them, dove into his first statewide campaign, a 21-month, 1,500-speech, 250,000-mile ordeal. Dirksen lambasted the "failure" of the Truman administration's foreign policy, calling it "expensive, inconsistent and ineffective." He labeled the European Recovery program "Operation Rat-hole." He attacked the Yalta agreement and the Truman administration's handling of communists and corruption in government. In Dirksen's mind, the race was not against Scott Lucas, who merely "carries the banner and takes instructions." No, for Dirksen "the real issue is the Fair Deal Program which is taking us down that very same road which threw Britain into the very arms of Socialism and liquidated those liberties for which Jefferson so steadfastly stood."
If boundless energy and long hours guaranteed victory, Dirksen would have been a cinch. But the opposition did not roll over. Scott Lucas had his staff analyze Dirksen's voting record in the House. The result was a two-volume document, "The Diary of a Chameleon," which concluded that Dirksen "has literally stood for nothing." The Chicago Sun Times took the theme public, accusing Dirksen of switching his position on military preparedness 31 times, on isolationism 62 times, and on farm policy 70 times during his years in Congress.
Dirksen could not deny the charge in principle. His record was not consistent. On the matter of defense spending, for example, one would have been hard put to categorize Dirksen. Early in his House days, Dirksen had argued that military spending must be curtailed for the economy's sake and because "great force and such large armaments . . . will be the inspiration for another war." By 1936 he had changed his mind to the extent of saying that "a large Navy is not a cause for war any more than a police force is a cause of crime." By 1937 he had reversed himself again and demanded that no money be spent on naval supplies for maneuvers more than 300 miles off the continental U.S. shoreline. In 1937 and 1938 he backed the Ludlow Amendment, which would have required a national referendum before a declaration of war. In 1939 he voted against the fortification of Guam and the construction of 1,283 war planes. But by 1940 he was saying, "Thank God there is a national defense program under way." He then voted against the draft act.
Other newspapers picked up the Sun Times story in 1950. Astutely, Dirksen fended off the criticism by embracing change, not repudiating it. In the tradition of Illinois Republicans, he relied on Lincoln for support, citing his quote about the "dogmas of the quiet past." Dirksen added his own words, too: "You sort of walk the middle of the road. You try to be a rational being. I've learned that nothing is white or black -- there are too many shadings in life. In a society such as ours you can't plow just that one furrow. You have to re-examine your premises in the light of changing conditions." Try as he might to blunt the charge, however, it became the staple of every subsequent election to resurrect the Sun Times story analyzing Dirksen's "flip-flops."
On election eve, Dirksen sensed victory -- correctly. The indefatigable campaigner from Pekin beat Lucas by 294,000 votes, carrying 82 of 102 counties with 54.1 per cent of the vote. "To the voters of Illinois, I am humbly grateful for the fidelity and vigor with which they rallied to the American ideal in an hour of jeopardy," Dirksen said in acknowledging the win. "With their own eyes they could see the Socialist pattern which was being readied for our country. They saw the ugly head of Communism within the citadel of government. They knew full well, the burden of taxes which a squandering administration had placed upon them. They saw the ineptness of a leadership which has taken us to the brink of our fourth war in 33 years. They've had enough os [sic] this and have accepted the pledges of the Republican Party to take this country on the road to sanity, safety, strength and solvency."
The Education of a Senator ended with the fulfillment of Everett Dirksen's ambition to serve in the United States Senate. After thanking the people who were his special friends (none of them who had made their life's work politics), Dirksen expressed his concern for the lack of respect accorded to political work and public service, quoting in its entirety the letter he would send to those seeking his advice about a career in politics. It is worth reading today.
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Of course Dirksen's career did not end with that election in 1950. In fact, it only really began, in the sense of the national impact this baker boy from Pekin would eventually have. From January 3, 1951, when he took the oath of office for the Senate, until his death in Walter Reed Hospital on September 7, 1969, Everett McKinley Dirksen established a career that brought him national fame, and an apparently complete fulfillment of his political ambitions. He was reelected easily in 1956, again in 1962, and with a still comfortable margin in 1968. His influence as Republican whip and later as minority leader grew steadily throughout his long tenure of office both in his own party and with Democratic administrations of President John Kennedy and President Lyndon Johnson. Few senators in our history have known and enjoyed such power; few have managed to keep on good terms with so many colleagues and government officials of all political stripes; few have gained such widespread recognition as a public figure.
The Washington to which the Dirksens returned at the end of 1950 had not changed outwardly. Many of the new Senator's friends in the capital city were still there, and he knew the legislative ropes from his terms in the House. But the political climate had become decidedly more conservative. The Korean War and troublesome, persistent economic problems had roused a feeling of discontent with the administration of Harry Truman. Dirksen believed that the President was leading the nation to welfare statism, that government controls and the regulatory bureaucracy had stifled economic freedom, and that Dirksen's job as the newly minted senator from Illinois was to check those dangerous trends.
To no one's surprise, the new Senator allied himself with the conservative elements in the 82nd Congress. He was already a friend and to some extent a disciple of Bob Taft, "Mr. Republican" and leader of the conservatives. In an unusual gesture of confidence toward a freshman senator, Taft appointed Dirksen chairman of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee. It was the bottom rung of the leadership ladder, but it was essential preparation for what followed.
Astutely, though, Dirksen hedged his bets, much as he had done throughout his House career. He retained the friendship and esteem of many who considered Taft too conservative, exerting his independence at key moments. Dirksen himself admitted on "Meet the Press" in 1951 that he and Taft had disagreed on the five most important votes in the Senate that term. But Dirksen pointed out that they had agreed on the fundamental principle: "the preservation of our free economic system within the framework of a free government." This ability to adapt himself to people and circumstances, to do his homework thoroughly on any pending legislation, and to bide his time became characteristic during Dirksen's first few years the Senate. Gradually he won the favor of his colleagues by his willingness to do party chores and to help raise money and make speeches in their re-election campaigns.
Dirksen burst on the national scene at the 1952 Republican convention. He was an active supporter of Taft for president and had been mentioned as a possible vice presidential nominee. Then millions of Americans saw him on television fighting against Dwight Eisenhower and shaking an accusing finger at Eisenhower's floor lieutenant, Thomas Dewey. "We followed you before and you took us down the road to defeat," Dirksen bellowed. This to a man he had supported vigorously in 1944 and 1948. The frankness of his speech disturbed many supporters of the Eisenhower ticket. No speech he ever made created more of a stir than this one. It was one of only a handful in his entire career that he composed in advance. A loyal party man, Dirksen campaigned wholeheartedly for Ike and the ticket even after Taft's defeat, giving speeches in two dozen states. But it took some time for the rift with the new President to heal. Neil MacNeil, a journalist and Dirksen biographer, termed the early 1950s "The Black Years" because of Dirksen's stridency and hard-edged conservatism.
In public, Dirksen himself chose not to focus on the split in the Republican ranks. Instead, he emphasized the challenge the new team faced in overcoming the New Deal and Fair Deal legacies. He delivered the Republican response to Harry Truman's last State of the Union message, where he made that strategy clear. He began by describing the Democrats' legacy: "excessive and outrageous taxation," "staggering national debt," "prodigious waste of public money," and "disastrous inflation." Dirksen said the Republicans' first priority would be devising a fresh approach to world economic stability as the basis for security and peace. The new administration must tackle, he said, "the job of arresting the moral deterioration of government and of establishing honesty, integrity, and trust in public service."
The Taft wing and the Eisenhower wing of the Republican party had different ideas about how best to set the nation back on course. For the most part, Dirksen cast his lot with Bob Taft. For example, he joined with isolationist Republicans, including Joseph McCarthy, to oppose Eisenhower's nomination of Charles "Chip" Bohlen as Ambassador to Russia. The junior senator from Illinois also backed the Bricker Amendment designed to limit the president's treaty-making powers. Dirksen opposed Ike's spending plans, urging deeper cuts in the budget in areas such as foreign aid. More controversial was Dirksen's decision to back McCarthy's hunt for "Reds" in government. Dirksen exclaimed in early 1953 that Republicans "have to eliminate Communists and their fellow travelers from government. It will have to expose those who seek to destroy America's free institutions." Although his rhetoric mimicked the excesses of the times, Dirksen actually tried to persuade McCarthy to cut short his probe, but failing that backed the Senator from Wisconsin to the very end. In the first years of the new Republican administration, Dirksen proved to be a thorn in Ike's side.
But the Senator's public remarks during this period also suggested a philosophical, as opposed to political, basis for his dramatic, flamboyant posturing against Eisenhower's early initiatives. In April 1953, for example, he addressed a commission investigating intergovernmental relationships. He sounded a familiar Dirksen theme, one that recurred throughout his career: the threat of an expanding federal government. When his remarks were published later, he chose this as the title: "Big Government -- The Road to Tyranny." He singled out the intrusion of government into so many aspects of life as the primary difference between 1932 and 1953. It amazed him that people had ceded so much authority to Washington. He worried that the "concentration of power" threatened "individual liberty and freedom as we have known it." Dirksen called for a return to, as he called it, "the plain channel." It did not particularly matter to him whether the government was run by Republicans or Democrats if the effect was to disenfranchise the citizenry through centralization. His experience with the New Deal had convinced him that the concentration of power on the national level was inconsistent with the principles of American democracy.
Bob Taft died on July 31, 1953. For Dirksen, this did not have an immediate political impact. He continued to oppose the administration and associate with the conservative side of the party. But Taft's successor as Republican leader in the Senate, William Knowland of California, proved inept, contributing to a growing strain between the White House and Senate Republicans. Eventually Dirksen saw the opportunity this situation afforded him. In 1955, he began to mend fences with the Eisenhower administration. Political circumstances in Illinois, such as the death of the power behind the Chicago Tribune, Colonel McCormick, on April 1, made it possible. President Eisenhower, frustrated legislatively in his first term, turned equally to Dirksen for support. It was a marriage of convenience that would pay big dividends for the senator from Illinois. The following year Dirksen led a campaign to enact the administration's civil rights bill. Throughout 1956, Dirksen supported the President, frequently at the risk of his standing with his party's conservative Senate hierarchy. The future now lay with the Eisenhower wing of the party. In terms of percentages, Dirksen supported Ike 75 percent in 1955, 85 percent in 1956, and 95 percent in 1957. Dirksen's reputation soared, and power and influence within the Senate came with it.
To win re-election in 1956, Dirksen used his new alliance with Ike to good effect. On September 22, 1955, Eisenhower agreed to let Dirksen make public a letter of glowing endorsement at a fund-raising dinner in Chicago: "Especially in the past three years, I have come to know and appreciate the great value to our country of Senator Dirksen's labors in his influential position. Since 1952 Everett and I have not, of course, agreed on every public issue, but never have I had the occasion to doubt that sincerity and conviction have motivated every vote he has cast."
Dirksen's speech to the National Federation of Republican Women during his re-election campaign showed how far he had moved to Ike and how much more modulated his arguments had become -- the hard edge of Taft conservatism and McCarthy-style zealotry had softened. "It is not the length of one's days but the worth of one's days that matters," he began. "It is the impress of character and leadership on one's own generation which matters. It is the legacy which one leaves to the future which matters." One can almost hear the phrases rolling off Dirksen's tongue, for history and legacy were subjects dear to his heart. "There is a need for faith and hope in a fretful world. There is a need for peace of mind and courage. There is a need for standards and ideals by which to live. There is a need for moral and spiritual leadership in public affairs." Then Dirksen, the candidate, closed by associating himself with Eisenhower, attributing to his leadership a new sense of decency and honor and an energized conscience within the country: "He has helped us to rediscover the well-springs of our strength and greatness. Such has been the worth of his days."
Dirksen's new-found fidelity to Ike baffled some. A newspaper called Dirksen "the strangest figure in this bizarre election." This former protege of the Chicago Tribune and spokesman for the isolationist faction of the Republican Party was basing his entire campaign upon his close ties to Eisenhower. "It's a hell of a switch to keep in mind," a faithful supporter said.
But change did not perturb Dirksen. He did not fear it as a campaign issue. "I long ago learned that formula of vegetate or decay, grow or die. And government is not unlike that. I think its [sic] just like individuals; you simply have to grow; you have to feed on new things; re-orient your thinking; keep abreast of what goes on; because the world is certainly not a static place where things suddenly stand still. It's a dynamic thing and is constantly moving forward and so you've got to be abreast of change . . . ." Dirksen won in 1956, traveling 200 miles per day in the last ten weeks of the campaign.
Eisenhower's second term in the White House turned out to be one of the most constructive and satisfying periods of Dirksen's life. Ike found him far easier to deal with than Bill Knowland, who continued as the titular leader of the Republicans in the Senate. Often in situations calling for parliamentary skill and aplomb, Dirksen showed himself to be Knowland's superior. He developed a leadership style based, as his biographers have chronicled, on mastery of details, cordiality, concern for the principles espoused by his colleagues, and the ability to persuade without being obnoxious. In 1957, Dirksen became the Republican whip in the Senate.
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As Dirksen emerged as a leader in the Senate, reporters paid more attention to him, and in their interviews Dirksen revealed himself in more nuanced detail. He possessed a coherent, conservative political philosophy, one that he held to even as he changed positions on specific issues. He fashioned this philosophy from four principles: faith in the individual, optimism, skepticism about an active government, and the importance of adapting to change. About the worth and promise of the individual, Dirksen felt especially keen. He believed that the hope of society reposed in the individual, in his integrity, his dignity, his peace of mind, "and the power that he can wield in the area where he lives and serves." The individual, within the context of his community, living and working one day at a time, represented for Dirksen "the last and best and noblest hope of mankind."
After the disastrous congressional elections of 1958, in which the Democrats considerably increased their majorities in both houses of Congress, it became clear that Dirksen was in line for the post of minority leader, left vacant on the retirement of Knowland. There was considerable opposition from the moderate Republicans, but Dirksen enjoyed some advantages. First, the small number of Republicans in the Senate made it easier for the new leader to pass out good committee assignments, essentially buying off potential opponents. For example, he ducked a potential split between conservatives and moderate-liberals in the party by backing the liberal Thomas Kuchel of California to the post of assistant minority leader. Dirksen also gave up his own seats on the prestigious Appropriations Committee and the Labor and Public Works Committee to younger members, engendering loyalty among the junior senators of his party. His years of preparation, in this case as Chairman of the Senate Republican Campaign Committee, paid off, too.
Second, the soon-to-be Minority Leader enjoyed a warm, personal, and respectful professional relationship with his counterpart for the Democrats, Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson. Finally, President Eisenhower, tired of working with Knowland and grateful to Dirksen for assisting behind the scenes, embraced him. Dirksen was named leader by a caucus vote of 20 to 14 and began his long tenure in the important post, destined to last until his death.
In his leadership role, he was to become the uncrowned king of the Senate, a situation made all the more remarkable in that Dirksen played his leadership cards with the deck always stacked heavily against him; only in his last few months as minority leader did Dirksen have more than 40 Republicans serving with him in the Senate. Despite continuing Democratic majorities, he managed by adroitly combining the conservative elements of both parties and by employing his substantial knowledge about Senate rules and procedures. Dirksen explained his philosophy of leadership, with its emphasis on making the legislative process work, this way: "The Senate is a public institution; it must work; it's a two-way street; and that requires the efforts of both parties. One party cannot do it on its own because if the opposition, or minority party, wanted to be completely obstructionist, you could tie up the Senate in a minute, even with a handful of people." By cajoling, by gentle pressure, by using his remarkable memory and his gift of repartee, the Senator took over power in his own painless way. As he was wont to say, "The oil can is mightier than the sword."
By virtue of his almost twenty-five years in Congress, Dirksen had a rich understanding of how things worked. He appreciated that leading such a temperamental body as the Senate was a subtle business. He brought to it an instinct for self-effacement rare for a public figure; ambitious, yes, but self-centered, no. He accepted those gritty little debts and commitments that are part and parcel of political life. And he was willing to put in the time, hours upon hours, to master the substance and the process. Dirksen had little faith in obstructionism for the sake of obstructionism -- of opposition to Democratic proposals simply because they may have implemented the majority party's goals. He found such an attitude both unrealistic and self-defeating. In many cases, in his view, the minority simply abstained from participation in the great problems of the day if it took so stubborn a partisan stand.
Dirksen's unwillingness to follow the Knowland model of leadership did not mean that he followed a passive course. Dirksen was an activist leader, partly because that was the only way to exert influence when outnumbered two-to-one. He worked unceasingly to unite his party. He placed a great deal of importance on communicating with his colleagues at regular briefings and at social occasions which he would arrange. In contrast to the stodgy Knowland, Dirksen went out of his way to cultivate the press, with good results, for the most part.
According to one biographer, by the time Dirksen settled into his duties as leader, he had undergone a political and personal reorientation. "The role of leadership and responsibility transformed Dirksen," Neil MacNeil wrote. "His frustrated ambitions were satisfied, and he played the game of politics with renewed zest." He had abandoned his aspirations for the presidency and channeled his ambition along a new course in the Senate. He came to view the Senate as an end in itself. The nature of his ambition had changed.
In August 1959, the U.S. News and World Report could report on Dirksen's success. The story reasoned that President Eisenhower had gained the upper hand with the Democratic Congress largely because of the unpublicized activities of Dirksen and his counterpart in the House, Charles Halleck. The article talked about the "revolution" in the relationship between the White House and the Hill. "Under the Dirksen-Halleck regime, members of the congressional group return to the Capitol with the feeling that they know and understand what the President wants, that they and the President are in agreement on legislative issues. This is considered to be a new and important contribution to Republican vigor."
It seemed almost effortless, the way Dirksen drew the press to him. William Barry Furlong, in Harper's at the end of 1959, wrote a detailed feature entitled "The Senate's Wizard of Ooze: Dirksen of Illinois." Furlong's piece became the archetype for stories about Dirksen. In an apparent effort to mimic Dirksen, the article employed such embellishments as these: "Everett McKinley Dirksen is a moist, able, unctuous individual who has achieved influence through the use of what a newspaperman has described as 'tonsils marinated in honey,' plus a remarkable flexibility"; "His every scene is overplayed and rich in rhetoric. His face set in spaniel-like sadness, his stance that of the dramatically beleaguered . . ."; "At times, he clearly gets carried away by the opulence of his own oratory." Furlong called Dirksen a "virtuoso of the switch," citing another famous story about Dirksen attributed to an unnamed newspaperman: "He delivered the best speech in favor of foreign aid and the best speech against foreign aid that I ever heard." Yet the author also wrote that "What is usually overlooked in the flummery is that Dirksen is a skilled parliamentarian, a wily legislator, an effective if oleaginous floor speaker, and an able advocate of whatever cause he is currently pleading."
Such articles marked the ascendancy of Dirksen and his distinctiveness. Here obviously was a man who enjoyed his job, cultivated good relations with the press and his colleagues, was able to poke fun at himself and battle the Democrats with high good humor, without pettiness or undue partisanship. At a moment of declining Republican fortunes, his ability stood out and won him national acclaim. Even his eccentricities, such as the deliberately tousled hair and the "ham" quality noted by observers, friendly and otherwise, made him conspicuous.
Dirksen could point to several legislative achievements as his first leadership term ended. He had taken the lead in getting Eisenhower's defense budget approved, secured the enactment of the Landrum-Griffin Labor Management Reform Act, supported amendments to Social Security to increase health benefits for the aged, and pushed through a public housing bill acceptable to the administration.
A great deal of hard work lay behind this attainment. He had little time for diversions or private life. Principally he relied on Mrs. Dirksen for advice and comfort, and he took his greatest pleasure in seeing his daughter and her husband, Howard H. Baker, Jr., son of a Congressman from Tennessee, and their children. Everett and Louella had purchased property near Sterling, Virginia, where they built a pleasant, modern house, all on one level, on a branch of the Potomac. The Senator could relax there and indulge his passion for growing flowers and vegetables in a large garden. But moments of relaxation were few and far between.
In 1961, the conditions for Dirksen's leadership changed markedly, in a fashion that would happen only one more time, near the end of his life. As a result of the 1960 election, a Democrat replaced a Republican in the White House. Dirksen and John F. Kennedy had a personal history, but not an intimate one. The two men shared committee work on occasion. In 1959 they had spent a great deal of time working on the Landrum-Griffin Bill together, both in committee and as Senate conferees. Though they held fundamental political differences, they remained friendly.
But now Dirksen's role as Senate Republican leader required some adjustment. Once the faithful lieutenant to Ike, Dirksen achieved a new measure of independence and exposure as the highest elected Republican in the capital city. Although he continued to support the President in foreign policy, as witnessed in the 1961 Bay of Pigs disaster and the Cuban missile crisis, Dirksen worked to delay or change Kennedy's New Frontier at home. He once said that the 1962 State of the Union address resembled "a Sears Roebuck catalog with all the old prices marked up." He used the media to great advantage. The Senator and Representative Charles Halleck, the Republican House leader, had undertaken to make regular television appearances shortly after Kennedy became president in order to present the Republican side of things at a moment when all the publicity was going to the new masters. It proved a deft move, particularly for the more telegenic Dirksen. The "Ev and Charlie" show, as it was sometimes derisively called even by Republicans, soon became a staple of the night-time news. In fact, throughout the 1960s, no senator and no Senate leader received more press mentions than did Dirksen.
In these appearances and on the stump, Dirksen rooted his opposition to the New Frontier in the familiar, conservative vernacular. He opposed government's interference with the economy as inevitably compromising personal freedoms. His remarks in Boston in February 1962 were vintage:
Let government but dictate when to sow and reap and sell and juggle prices with loans or by surplus dumping; let government soak up surpluses with public funds; let government but manage public opinion by every modern device of communication; let government but prescribe under penalty how businesses shall be operated and the whole system of production and distribution placed under prescribed controls, and socialism becomes complete without fanfare or struggle or bloodshed.
It was on this basis that Dirksen fought the New Frontier. ". . . I consider myself a conservative, probably not as conservative as some, not as moderately liberal or liberally moderate as others," Dirksen remarked on national television in March 1961, two months after the new administration had taken office. This deliberately vague statement of philosophy probably suited the Republican leader just fine. He understood that he could not lead without followers. "You see after all, a Party leader has a job. There are viewpoints over here and viewpoints over here, but I think your first responsibility is to develop a degree of unity and cohesion in your party as best you can to make a good militant phalanx, and that I tried to do in the first two years of my leadership, and I am trying to do it again now, insofar as I can." He was old-fashioned but no anachronism.
In 1962, as Dirksen entered his fourth year in the back-breaking role of Senate Republican leader, he was greeted by conflicting appraisals. Fellow Republican senators, including most of the liberals who originally opposed his elevation to the job, now viewed him as irreplaceable. "If something would happen to Dirksen, we'd be in one hell of a fix," advised one GOP senator. But prominent Republicans in the outside world viewed Dirksen as an unrelieved political liability. Party functionaries charged him with selling out to Kennedy on foreign policy. Conservatives claimed he temporized on matters of principle. Liberal Republicans regarded him as an obstructionist and stand patter. And the image-conscious conservative, liberals, and moderates alike unanimously viewed the 66-year-old, tousled-haired Illinoisan as an old fogy who fit perfectly the caricature of the unappealing old guard Republican.
His liberal critics were in for a surprise. In 1962, Dirksen demonstrated his political sagacity by executing the first of three legislative reversals in three successive years that would seal his reputation as a leader and legislative craftsman. The first episode involved the Kennedy administration's effort to finance the United Nations. Kennedy requested authority to purchase United Nations bonds to make up deficits resulting largely from the refusal of the Soviet Union and France to pay peace-keeping assessments. Dirksen initially opposed the move. But on April 5, 1962, he rose on the Senate floor and admitted that he had done some soul-searching: "Mr. President, I will not charge my conscience with any act or deed which would contribute to the foundering of the United Nations, because I do not know how I would then be able to expiate that sin of commission to my grandchildren." The measure passed, 70 to 22, with Dirksen bringing along two Republicans for every one who voted against it. On August 22, colleagues from both sides of the aisle joined in an unusual, extemporaneous outpouring of tribute to the Senator from Illinois.
Dirksen had taken his power to new heights, and the public recognized it immediately. The national media heaped attention on the Minority Leader. Time magazine featured him on the cover of its September 14, 1962, issue. The lead story concluded that "Dirksen has become one of the truly remarkable characters of the Senate," calling him the most effective GOP leader in memory. These accolades were especially well-timed considering that Dirksen was up for reelection less than three months later. It was an election he won handily.
In the 88th Congress, convened in 1963, the cooperation of Dirksen and his group of Republicans continued on foreign policy. The most sterling example involved the second legislative reversal by which Dirksen built his reputation. Like the United Nations bond issue, this one concerned foreign policy -- a nuclear test ban treaty negotiated by the Kennedy administration. At the outset the Minority Leader was against it, bolstered by 40,000 letters and petitions containing 10,000 names backing his opposition. But in studying the treaty, Dirksen became convinced that his fears had been based on misunderstanding. He knew from his mail that millions probably shared the same misunderstanding. In handwritten notes to President Kennedy, he set forth questions on which senators wanted assurance. He asked the President to send a letter to Majority Leader Mike Mansfield and himself clarifying issues raised by critics. The President did so. On September 11, Dirksen rose again on the Senate floor, noting that his earlier opinions "did not stand up." He read the President's letter, concluding: "Mr. President . . . this is a first single step. . . . But with consummate faith and some determination, this may be the step that can spell a grander destiny for our country and for the world. If there be risks, Mr. President, I am willing to assume them for my country." The treaty was approved 80 to 19, with 25 Republicans voting for it and eight against. The Illinois chapter of Republican Women passed a resolution condemning Dirksen, and the Chicago Tribune asked, "Is Dirksen Going Soft?"
If Dirksen's allegiance to the President on foreign policy caused him trouble, then he was careful to redress the balance on Kennedy's domestic agenda. He maneuvered skillfully and in cooperation with conservative Democrats to defeat many key administration bills in the domestic field. Dirksen opposed the Kennedy civil rights legislation, mostly because of its public accommodations section, which he felt was unworkable and likely to lead to more rather than less racial conflict. By careful tactics and threats of a filibuster he was able to postpone final consideration of this bill.
The Senator's conscientious attempts to perfect what he realized was a necessary piece of legislation were interrupted by the shocking events in Dallas. During the political moratorium that followed the assassination of John Kennedy, Dirksen offered his help and sympathy to the new president, his old and good colleague, Lyndon Johnson. Their friendship was close and instinctive. "I can talk to the President like he ought to be talked to," Dirksen told the press. "I use firm language with him. And we're friends. We understand each other." Their intimacy was so great and their relationship so informal that Johnson would often call his friend five or six times a day to chat, and at the end of the day would invite him to drop in at the White House for bourbon and branch water. "Dirksen could play politics as well as any man," Johnson wrote in his memoirs. "But I knew something else about him. When the nation's interest was at stake, he could climb the heights and take the long view without regard to party. I based a great deal of my strategy on this understanding of Dirksen's deep-rooted patriotism."
In retrospect, two issues determined the relationship between the Senator from Illinois and the President from Texas: civil rights and Vietnam. Only through the lens of these issues is it possible to understand Dirksen's career and leadership after November 1963. The first watershed related to civil rights. John Kennedy had submitted his proposal for civil rights legislation to Congress in June 1963, where it went to the House first for consideration.
In the past Dirksen had supported civil rights bills. According to his own records, he had personally introduced nineteen bills that dealt directly with civil rights and dozens more that addressed the problem indirectly. In all but two congressional sessions between 1932 and 1964, Dirksen had sponsored measures touching the entire range of civil rights issues including the poll tax, lynching, employment discrimination, voting rights, school desegregation, and housing. He recognized, too, that social pressure to enact sweeping legislation had developed, erupting in violence in many cases. According to government statistics, there were nearly 1,000 civil rights demonstrations in 209 cities in a three-month period beginning May 1963. Dirksen also knew that more Americans, especially northern whites, favored aggressive protection of minority rights. The National Opinion Research Center determined, for example, that the number who approved neighborhood integration had risen 30 points in 20 years to 72 percent in 1963.
But the bill as it came from the House in February 1964 aroused great doubts in Dirksen. Consonant with his fear of government intrusion, Dirksen was particularly worried about Title II of the bill which gave the federal government the power to enforce privately-owned businesses against their will to serve black customers. He believed that such authority was an unconstitutional invasion of private property. He preferred voluntary compliance backed by state enforcement powers. The Minority Leader staked out his position in late March on the first day of debate in the Senate, attacking the bill and claiming "They are remaking America and you won't like it." Grueling negotiations ensued, and Dirksen seized the leading part, working with Hubert Humphrey and Lyndon Johnson's White House and Justice Department staffs.
On April 16, Dirksen offered ten amendments which he believed would improve the bill, resolve his own questions, and provide a basis upon which other uncommitted senators could support the bill. He made it clear that he did not intend to weaken federal protection of minority rights:
I do not wish to save any pockets of prejudice for the future. I have an interest in what happens long after I have left this mundane sphere. I have a couple of grandchildren. I want them to grow up in a country of opportunity as completely free from hate and prejudice and bias as can be consummated by legislation, and a maximum amount of good will of the part of the lawmakers. . . .
The media recognized Dirksen's pivotal role. "His influence has never been so clear as in his handling of the hotly controversial civil rights bill," wrote James McCartney in the Chicago Daily News. "Dirksen today is at the peak of his power." The Chicago Tribune reported that the Democratic majority, huge as it was, "would have been helpless without him." More negotiations took place. On May 26, Dirksen told the chair he was presenting an amendment in the nature of a substitute for the House bill, an amendment which had been shaped "on the anvil of controversy and discussion" with the Justice Department and the civil rights coalition. He hoped it would command enough support to make cloture possible, and thus permit a vote.
By June, Dirksen estimated that he had heard from at least 100,000 people on the bill. Dirksen resented the pressure from black groups, whom he felt had failed to recognize his progressive record on the issue, and he complained about it, giving hope to southern conservatives in the Senate who thought, momentarily, that Dirksen might side with them. But Dirksen stood tall. On June 10, cloture was invoked. Dirksen had succeeded. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law shortly thereafter.
It was, perhaps, Dirksen's finest hour. Between February and June, he had gone through his greatest legislative reversal, the third in three years, and had managed to carry most of his Republican colleagues with him. In explaining to reporters why he was fighting for the bill he had violently attacked only two months before, the sage responded: "On the night Victor Hugo died, he wrote in his diary: 'Stronger than all the armies is an idea whose time has come.'"
His work on the Civil Rights Act in 1964 marked him as a statesman. John Stennis, senator from Mississippi, summed up Dirksen's legislative legerdemain when he allowed that "the greatest thing to be said about his career is that he was a natural legislator. More than most of us, . . . he could really put the pieces of a measure together and then get a composite view of the thinking and ideas of the membership." Lyndon Johnson added, "In this critical hour Senator Dirksen came through, as I had hoped he would. He knew his country's future was at stake. He knew what he could do to help. He knew what he had to do as a leader."
As the 1964 presidential election approached, Dirksen made the nominating speech for the Republican candidate, Barry Goldwater, a close friend and representative of the conservative Republican wing. Dirksen campaigned vigorously for him in the futile effort. The Johnson landslide and the resulting eclipse of Goldwater left Dirksen as the most prominent Republican in Washington, a position he thoroughly enjoyed for the next year or two.
As he began his fifteenth year in the Senate and nearing the age of 70, signs abounded that Dirksen had emerged as an elder statesman of sorts. He admitted that he had mellowed, citing the wisdom that comes with age. He had long ago recognized the virtue of patience, often likening free government to a waterlogged scow: "it doesn't move very fast, it doesn't move very far at one time, but it never sinks and maybe that is the reason we have a free government today." The old dredge boat operator probably knew what he was talking about. When asked how he would sum up his philosophy of life, Dirksen replied: "Well, I want to be ready for change at all times. I think I fully subscribe to the definition of progress as the constant and intelligent and undramatic action of life on what is here." For him, the greatest hazard of public life was the danger of getting into a political rut, where life will pass you by. "I think over and over a person in public life has to take inventory, to see where he is at the moment, to take a look back to see from whence you came and then see where the high road goes and then if your thinking is not attuned to it you disenthrall yourself," Dirksen reflected. Such distance, he thought, would give someone "the right cast of mind and the right thoughts" to tackle the future. "From Whence You Came" became a familiar title for Dirksen's remarks around the country.
In Congress, Dirksen sought to restore some ideological equilibrium to Republican positions on domestic and foreign policy issues. He used his influence to rid the party of extremist control. In matters of policy, it fell to him to band his small group of Republicans together to stem the Great Society juggernaut. In the first session of the 89th Congress, in 1965, Johnson submitted 87 measures of which 84 were passed; in the second session, 97 of 113 were approved.
In March, Life magazine published a detailed portrait of the "Grand Old King of the Senate." Reporter Paul O'Neil described Dirksen's home-spun image before concluding that "None of this should suggest that he is a simple or unsophisticated man. He is pragmatic, unpredictable and shrewdly conciliatory; he is at once theatrical and introspective, hopeful and sardonic; he is widely read, and widely traveled, exquisitely aware of the nation's problems and tirelessly dedicated to both the Senate and the 'coun-tray.'" Even his critics gave him a grudging respect. "There are a lot of Senators who are worse than they look," one colleague remarked. "Dirksen is the only one who is better than he looks."
On many domestic issues, Dirksen continued the balancing act so central to his effectiveness, as he saw it: maintain a constructive relationship with the opposition and the loyalty of the Republican troops. He took issue with Medicare, for example: "I would be eligible," he said indignantly. "Why should I be allowed to use dollars the government is taking from some young factory worker in Cleveland in the promise of providing for his old age?" The accumulation of Great Society spending programs appalled Dirksen. The taxpayers would have to come up with nearly $160 billion to fund them. Moreover, the programs brought with them an expanding federal bureacracy and increasing centralization. To Dirksen, the Great Society was a misguided attempt at creating an immediate, utopian "blueprint for paradise."
But even as he reached the height of his career and was being heralded for his statesmanship, Dirksen began to divert his energies into causes that many believed to be not only backward-looking but also futile. He sought constitutional amendments to permit voluntary prayer in public schools and to restore the principle of one man, one vote. On August 4, 1965, for example, Dirksen failed to win the two-thirds vote necessary for Senate approval of his proposed amendment to the Constitution which would have permitted seats in one house of state legislatures to be apportioned on a basis other than that of population. He never gave up the battle, but the issue probably distracted him and compromised his leadership in the long run.
But the captivating Dirksen was still in command. The Capitol Hill Republican Club selected him as the Republican who did the most for his party in 1965. Dirksen tallied 1426 points; Richard Nixon, 643; Gerald Ford, 561; and, John Lindsay, 543.
The task for Dirksen grew more difficult in 1966. Spiraling U.S. involvement in Vietnam and inflation were the dominant themes. Budgetary pressures to support Lyndon Johnson's "guns and butter" policies enlivened Republican opposition to domestic spending. Apprehension about the economy's performance came naturally to Dirksen. The over-heated economy was the result of intrusive government activity on the domestic front, in Dirksen's view: "Somebody's got to pay the bill. And there is no free money that I have ever seen around any place in the last thirty years. I am afraid of these deeper intrusions." When asked on "Issues and Answers" on July 3 about his greatest legislative accomplishment, Dirksen paused, then answered: "Well, if I had to put it in the large, probably it would be my endeavors to stop legislation that was not in the public interest. Because I have followed the old precept of Gibbon, the great historian, who said, 'Progress is made not so much by what goes on the statute book but rather by what is kept off and what is not put on.'" In 1966, Dirksen led the opposition to civil rights measures aimed at housing policy and efforts by the Democrats to repeal of section 14(b) of the Taft-Hartley Act. His efforts to amend the Constitution to permit prayer in public schools fell short in September 1966.
But Dirksen stood by his Commander-in-Chief on the more volatile issue of the war in Vietnam. "I've said to the President that I'm in his corner where our national security and interests are at stake," Dirksen announced. "Let's get the war over and done with and do what is necessary to bring peace over there." No Democratic senator was so close to Johnson, and this was at least in part because Dirksen from the beginning had given his wholehearted support to Johnson's Vietnam policy. He continued to do so even after some of his Republican colleagues turned against escalation of the conflict. Between the end of 1965 and 1966, U.S. troops increased from 181,000 to 389,000, deaths from 1,369 to 5,000.
His health declining, Dirksen finished out 1966 with his authority intact. Dirksen commanded Johnson's attention and allegiance. Congressional Democrats turned to him to find ways to pass or amend legislation. The Republicans, although some of them restlessly, still depended on Dirksen to promote their programs to the press and to the President. Dirksen's influence was an established fact, widely written about and acknowledged.
What accounted for Dirksen's power in the mid-1960s? In hindsight it appears that several factors explained Dirksen's success. The lack of discipline in political parties, for example, permitted him to form alliances with conservative, southern Democrats and gave the other Democrats reason to seek his blessing. Once he cooperated with them, they were in his debt. That many senators, especially as the war in Vietnam dragged on, rebelled against what they perceived to be a cavalier President also gave Dirksen an opportunity. This diverse, undisciplined nature of the parties was complemented by Dirksen's own ideological flexibility which permitted him to seize opportunities others might have avoided. Some analysts have suggested, for example, that Dirksen supported the 1964 civil rights act at least partly to cement his power by putting Democrats in his debt and then supported Goldwater to maintain his influence on the Republican right.
It may have been, too, that the American public wanted a strong, two-party system. In the face of an activist government prosecuting a war in Asia, the public may have found some comfort in a vigorous opposition. Such a rivalry between President and Congress, Democrats and Republicans, served the media's interests as well. The press wanted to cover the opposition if only to escape White House control of the news. Furthermore, at least in the Senate, there was no one who by stature or temperament could counterbalance Dirksen. Mike Mansfield, the Democratic leader, lacked the inclination to bring his party to heel. He, in turn, suffered because Johnson handled the Great Society personally, not allowing others to establish an independent authority.
Add to this mix what Dirksen brought to the job: knowledge, institutional memory, shrewdness, timing, instincts, showmanship, and skillful use of language and media. Unlike many conservative Republicans, Dirksen tended to think in terms of people rather than symbols. He used stories of real people in real situations to make his points. "Home, Motherhood. Some of my colleagues smile when I speak on such subjects--perhaps they believe I am being evasive," Dirksen once said. "But these are basic. You can appeal to people only through things which motivate them strongly. If a man's home or his family are in jeopardy, he will stop at nothing to save them. Fear is the universal passion; even an infant understands the gesture of the upraised hand."
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Beginning around 1967, however, circumstances began to conspire against Dirksen. First was the matter of his deteriorating health. In the late 1950s, Dirksen had suffered a heart attack without knowing it. An enlarged and weakened heart caused him great physical distress over the final decade of his life. For a time the Senate Republican Leader frequently checked in and out of Walter Reed Army Hospital, suffering from acute exhaustion as well as chronic emphysema and stomach disorders. In 1967, he said, "I've been trying for four years to get a vacation. If I don't get one pretty soon, something is going to happen to me." Shortly afterwards, he was admitted to the hospital with infectious pneumonia so severe that it nearly killed him. He also suffered a cracked vertebra from a violent fit of coughing, and he broke a hip falling out of bed in the hospital, hobbling him on crutches for weeks. He smoked constantly. But Dirksen drove himself relentlessly. His only relief came on the 800 acre home on Broad Run, a small tributary of the Potomac. Much as he had at the beginning of the century, Dirksen found his solace in the land, away from "Tensionville" which is what he sometimes called the Capitol. As a home gardener, he was guided by two principles which seemed curiously to parallel his legislative life: he liked to have a little of everything and he liked to use all the space there was.
Dirksen's alliance with Johnson on Vietnam began to hurt him, too. During the 90th Congress (1967-68), the U.S. underwent two of the most trying years in the 20th century. As a rising wave of rioting and looting swept over the nation's cities and the war in Vietnam continued to cost lives and dollars, two major political leaders were assassinated, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy. 1967 was largely a year of stalemate in Congress -- the result of frustration with Vietnam and urban rioting and with the Democratic majority in the House diminished by the 1966 mid-term elections. Johnson's proposals on an income-tax surcharge, civil rights, gun control, crime, and East-West trade went nowhere, although the Senate did ratify outer space and consular treaties with the U.S.S.R. Congress's preoccupation turned to inflation and crime and civil disorder in 1968. The session produced landmark housing and urban development bills and a strong civil rights law, prohibiting discrimination in most of the nation's housing.
Increasingly, as discontent over the war and the uncertain domestic situation grew and Johnson lost his original popularity, Dirksen found himself in the odd position of having to defend the Democratic President against his own Republican colleagues especially with regard to the war. "All we want is for the communists to stop their aggression and let the South Vietnamese choose their own form of government," Dirksen stated simply. Dirksen's support of Johnson, according to biographers, stemmed from three convictions: a sincere commitment to self-determination, an intense desire to see communist expansion checked, and a belief that once foreign policy was set by the president, the minority party had a duty to support it.
Opposition to increased funding for the war and disagreements over military strategy became common place, however. Dirksen always rallied to the President's defense. "When you demean him," Dirksen said in the Senate, "you demean the prestige of this Republic." Criticism of Dirksen's friendship with Johnson mounted, and it was even rumored that Dirksen might have become a Democrat secretly.
The 1966 elections had given Dirksen three more Republican senators, but it was a mixed blessing. The Senate as a whole was generally less compliant with Johnson, more rambunctious. And Dirksen, faced with more troops to command, had no new weapons. Increasingly, talk turned to Dirksen's problems with the fractious junior Republicans and the likelihood that his power would be challenged. It was not a question of "if" but of "when." For the general public, though, Dirksen's popularity continued unabated. He had become something of a folk hero, and a particularly American one. His annual declarations on behalf of the marigold, his record contract with Capitol Records and the 1976 Grammy Award, an appearance on the "Johnny Carson Show," and a stint as Grand Marshal of the 1968 Tournament of Roses parade all contributed to his appeal.
As the Republican Convention loomed in 1968, Dirksen remained an active force. He wanted to write the platform and made no bones about it. In spite of the opposition of the younger party men, he had the power and he intended to use it. The only question was whether he still had sufficient stamina at the age of 71 to play his role. "Age is a state of mind, and heart and will," Dirksen surmised. "Age is no factor." Against the backdrop of Johnson's decision not to run for reelection, a decision that guaranteed a change in Dirksen's stature, Dirksen's role as Chairman of the Platform Committee took on added significance. He had sought the post in hopes of using it to heal some of the differences in the Republican ranks and to unify the party. The platform as it emerged was not controversial, and it endorsed the Vietnam war, but in careful fashion.
Dirksen himself won reelection in 1968. In spite of bad health, Dirksen announced his plans to seek a fourth term on February 17. "The easy road would be to walk away and let the fire burn," his press release read. "But to retreat from an unfinished war or from unresolved and baffling problems would be alien to every conviction which I cherish." Against a surprisingly resourceful challenger, William G. Clark, a little-known lawyer from Chicago, Dirksen scored his final electoral victory.
Perhaps from Dirksen's perspective, Richard Nixon's election in 1968 resembled John Kennedy's at the beginning of the decade. Both changed the basic calculus of Dirksen's leadership equation. Dirksen's influence and power diminished considerably upon the election of Richard Nixon. He was no longer the leader of the loyal opposition, the focus of Republican power. Instead he carried the new President's water on Capitol Hill, and he and the new president were not close. There were many fresh faces in the Senate, too. One of Dirksen's first tasks was to replace Senator Kuchel, who had been defeated, as Republican whip, Dirksen's top assistant. Dirksen favored another son of Middle America, Nebraska's Roman L. Hruska. But younger senators backed Hugh Scott, a liberal from Pennsylvania. Scott won, signalling the aging leader's diminishing influence. Columnist Jack Anderson said that Dirksen, "that delightful old political snake charmer, is losing his spell over his Republican charges." Dirksen also lost his prized television forum when the "Ev and Jerry Show" was cancelled. The need for it had disappeared upon Nixon's arrival in the White House.
The sizeable Democratic majorities in the House and Senate in 1969 hamstrung Nixon and Dirksen. They effectively prevented the new Republican administration from enacting a legislative program, resulting in a stand-off. Nixon was the first president in more than a century to face in a first term a Congress dominated by the opposition in both houses.
It was hard for Dirksen to lead when there was no place to go. The victories were few and far between. After months of delay, on March 13 the Senate overwhelmingly consented to the ratification of the treaty to ban the spread of nuclear weapons, a bill Dirksen favored but whose leadership was not essential. Nixon's only substantial win on Capitol Hill came in late summer. The administration had proposed to construct a system to defend U.S. missiles from Soviet attack, the ABM system. On August 6, the Senate voted 50-50 on an amendment to the plan, effectively defeating the change and permitting the administration to proceed. The record for Dirksen's own legislative interests was not much better. He re-introduced his prayer amendment, co-sponsored a bill to ban the interstate transportation of obscene material, another to increase federal penalties for drug trafficking, favored a study of voting rights violations, sought to protect federal employees' right-to-work activity, and pushed a measure to make his beloved marigold the national floral emblem. None succeeded.
The Minority Leader's diminished effectivenss was not lost on the media. U.S. News and World Report devoted two pages of its May 19, 1969 issue to "Dirksen's New Role." His critics now felt freer to attack him, focusing on allegations, never proven, of unethical activities. The June 16, 1969 issue of Newsweek printed "The Other Ev Dirksen," alleging that Dirksen had profited financially from his relationships with Democratic presidents. It pointed to what it called his "extraordinary interest" in legislation affecting certain industries, notably drugs, chemical, gas pipelines, and steel and lending institutions, and his frequent contact with members of Federal regulatory agencies. Dirksen's opposition to legislation that would require public disclosure of income, or sources of income, by members of Congress also hurt him. Yet even these critics had to admit that these counts against Dirksen formed only a web of circumstantial evidence.
The first session of the 91st Congress, the sixth longest in history, adjourned on December 23, 1969, with the lowest legislative output in 36 years. Most of what Congress finally did accomplish took place without the familiar leader of the Senate Republicans.
On August 12, just before the Senate recessed, the Senator held a press conference in his office. He expressed the hope that when Congress met again action could be taken on a host of serious problems. The White House, he said, had assured him that priorities would be set and pressure brought to bear so that legislation would go through. After a brief run-in with a Chicago Daily News reporter who had been writing stories about Dirksen's financial interests, Dirksen resumed a relaxed and mildly optimistic mood. The Senator chatted amiably with other reporters and joked with his staff. Everything seemed normal -- yet it was not. He had just been told that he was seriously ill. The doctors had discovered a spot on his right lung and suspected cancer. An operation was necessary.
It took place after he had rested for three weeks at "Heart's Desire" rummaging in his beloved garden, working on the memoir that forms the major portion of this book. The tumor proved to be malignant, but Dirksen's strong constitution and vigor brought him through the three-hour surgery, and his recuperation was rapid. Mrs. Dirksen and the Bakers found him alert and cheerful when they were first allowed to see him. The next day, however, he complained of pain, and it became necessary to replace the tube draining his lung. He rallied after this operation, but on the following day, September 7, his heart failed and the end came.
Mourning for the Senator was national and of a personal quality, particularly among his colleagues in Congress and the government and his friends in Pekin. His body lay in state under the great dome of the Capitol, an honor accorded to only three members of the Senate before him. Richard Nixon and his cabinet, with the Vice-President and many dignitaries, attended the funeral, after which the Senator was buried in his hometown.
In his eulogy to the fallen leader, President Nixon recalled remarks Daniel Webster made more than a century before in testimony to a political opponent: "Our great men are the common property of the country." That described Dirksen, as well. His public service spanned an era of enormous change, and he played a vital part in that change. Through four presidencies, as Nixon put it, "Everett Dirksen has had a hand in shaping almost every important law that affects our lives," and while he never became president, "his impact and influence on the Nation was greater than that of most Presidents in our history."
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