A strong and quiet Democrat

Mike Mansfield was a legislative giant, yet his two favorite words might have been “Yep” and “Nope.”  He could be a Sunday-morning news show host’s worst nightmare, because the brevity and directness of his answers meant that the host would have to prepare more like 50 questions rather than 15, for what in reality was a 22-minute program.  Asked if he agreed with a policy or with the words of another public official, he would simply say “Yep” if he did and “Nope” if he didn’t.  He had his reasons, but preferred to reveal them without embellishment and only when the interrogator showed that he too had some understanding of the issue.

He became one of the giants of the mid-20th century as a gentle yet strong senator, born in New York City, who as a young boy moved out to Big Sky country (Montana).  Mike Mansfield served as Senate Majority Leader from 1961 – 1977, longer than anyone else in American history.  It was not an easy task to succeed Lyndon Johnson, the savvy but bloviating leader from Texas, who had gone on to the Vice-Presidency and then the Presidency after John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

Think of what Congress accomplished during Mansfield’s sixteen years as leader of the Senate.  Three important Civil Rights bills passed Congress, one in 1964, covering public accommodations, a second in 1965, strengthening voting rights, and a third one in 1968, enacting fair housing rules.  This was after a century in which Congress essentially stood by while a few presidents exercised what power they could to advance civil rights, and the Supreme Court came to acknowledge that the “equal protection” clause of the 14th Amendment applied to African-Americans as well as whites.  In 1964, Mansfield cleverly convinced Republican Minority Leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois to ally members of his side of the aisle with northern Democrats to stifle the filibuster of Southern Democrats; the kind of individuals who would have felt right at home with Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s recent declaration of April as Confederate History Month without any mention of slavery.

Mansfield also helped Johnson shepherd through the monumental Great Society, which while important and lasting in many ways, was cut off at the knees when Johnson turned his attention and resources to the war in Vietnam. Before Johnson was sidetracked, Congress, under the leadership of Mansfield in the Senate and John McCormack in the House, established the War on Poverty, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Higher Education Act, the Bilingual Education Act, Medicare, Medicaid, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, National Public Radio, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Truth-in-Lending Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act.  The significance of these accomplishments shines even brighter as we see that today’s Congress took fifteen months to pass a watered-down health insurance reform act.

Johnson Signs Medicaid; Mansfield over left shoulder

Mansfield also collaborated with Johnson to ratify the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963.  But the Vietnam War caused a schism between them.  As Joel Connelly of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer said in a 2001 eulogy of Mansfield, who had died at the age of 98:

After a 1962 trip to Southeast Asia, Mansfield warned that the United States was nearing “the point at which the conflict in Vietnam could become of greater concern and greater responsibility to the United States than it is to the government and people of South Vietnam.”

He privately told Kennedy it was wrong to send U.S. “advisers” and that America should pull out entirely if the South Vietnamese government was unable to stand on its own feet.

“I got angry with Mike for disagreeing with our policy so completely,” JFK later told aide Kenny O’Donnell, “and I got angry with myself because I found myself agreeing with him.”

During the Nixon era, Mansfield was the initiator of the Senate Select Watergate Committee that investigated Nixon’s role in the cover-up of the famous break-in and other related transgressions.

Mansfield retired from the Senate in 1977 to “pass the torch to a new generation” and to enjoy Big Sky Country.  But public service beckoned again; for eleven years he served as U.S. ambassador to Japan, retiring from this position in 1989 at the age of 85.

Perhaps Mansfield was best described by former Minnesota senator and presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy, a man not given to sentimentalism or embellishment, when he said that Mansfield was an example that “a man of gentle exterior can be framed in steel.”

So a message to all of us: let’s keep our eyes out for leaders like Mike Mansfield; they’re hard to find and quite valuable.

photo credit: Corbis