By Jim Heffernan
Marc C. Johnson is a local author who serves as President on Nehalem Bay Health District. He moved here after a career in journalism, teaching and government in Idaho and Arizona.
I do not often order a book before publication. But the subject and the author compelled me to take the risk. I am very glad I did. Marc Johnson is a very good writer and historian, and he did not disappoint me.
He traces the lives of Mike Mansfield (1903-2001) and Everett Dirksen (1896-1969) and paints a picture of America in their times. The bulk of the book is concerned with the years 1960 through 1969 when they were both leaders of the Senate. Mansfield was the Democratic majority leader and Dirksen was the Republican minority leader.
Both men began their legislative careers in the House of Representative, graduated to the Senate and became leaders of the Senate in 1960. Both of their careers were distinguished by fairness and dignity.
In the 50’s, Joe McCarthy and his crusade against communism was a dominant thread of political discussions. I find it curious that we have always managed to manufacture a “false threat” to confound ourselves.
By the 60’s, Mansfield and Dirksen, nominally opponents in the Senate, entered into a “golden age” of co-operation and bi-partisan ship. The list of bills that passed in their time was incredible. Nuclear Test Ban, Civil Rights, Voting Rights, Peace Corps, Gun Control, Head Start,,Job Corps, and Medicare are the high points.
It’s true that there was a substantial Democratic majority in the Senate, but it was nowhere near as strong a majority as the numbers suggested. Southern Democrats very often opposed legislation proposed by Northern Democrats. The only reason so much important legislation could be passed was because the leadership of Mansfield and Dirksen worked hard to balance the factions in the Senate. What’s most notable is that they achieved the needed balance without rancor and histrionics. Except for the dark shadow of South East Asia, I truly believe this was the Senate’s pinnacle of greatness.
Viet Nam was the tragedy of that time. Mansfield saw it as a bad idea from the start. Dirksen supported the war and saw it as a crusade against communism. The fact that these two giants of the Senate never reached a constructive solution to Viet Nam is perhaps their only failure of their era. Dirksen died in 1969 and never saw what a fiasco it was to become. Mansfield, speaking to a biographer in 2001, decades after his time in the Senate, said, with tears in his eyes, “It haunts me still. What a shame—55,000 dead, 305,000 wounded. Costs that we will paying well into the middle of the next century……..a tragic mistake.”
Viet Nam may have been the major event to destroy our trust in government, but there were others. Television made its way into the Senate and transformed it from an institution for statesmen to a stage for performers. Nixon was forced to resign and I believe the press developed a taste for blood. Lewis Powell’s 1971 “memo” provided a blueprint for “winning” that left many of us behind and disillusioned.
Some may find the details of legislative action tedious, but the stories of bi-partisan cooperation and respect are inspiring. How wonderful it would be to erase the divides of today’s politics and return to a spirit of true greatness.
I think the author best summarizes the point of the book with this excerpt for the last paragraph of the book, “At a time of great cynicism and worrisome concern about the direction of American politics, when significant numbers of Americans increasingly identify with authoritarian and antidemocratic leaders and methods, when national consensus about nearly everything seems beyond reach, and when the US Senate is often the most striking symbol of the nation’s starkly partisan divides, the Senate of Mansfield and Dirksen reminds us of what political leadership can and should look like.”
285 Pages (49 pages notes and acknowledgments) Published August 1, 2023
Available at Cloud and Leaf Bookstore, Manzanita, other booksellers, coming soon to Tillamook Public Library (I hope.)
As always, discussion is welcome at email@example.com.
Manzanita Writers’ Series Presents:
Marc C. Johnson, reading from his new book Mansfield and Dirksen: Bipartisan Giants of the Senate
August 30th, 4:00-5:30 pm
Free Admission | Register below to reserve your spot
Cloud and Leaf will provide books for purchase at this event
About the book:
A study of politics but also an analysis of different approaches to leadership, this is a portrait of a U.S. Senate that no longer exists—one in which two leaders, while exercising partisan political responsibilities, could still come together to pass groundbreaking legislation—and a reminder of what is possible.
About the Author
Marc C. Johnson is the author of books on US Senate history, a frequent commentator on American politics and political history, and a fellow at the Mansfield Center at the University of Montana.
His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Bulwark, California Journal of Politics and Policy, Montana The Magazine of Western History, and the Indiana Magazine of History. He is a columnist for the Lewiston (ID) Tribune and writes regularly on the blog Many Things Considered.
His previous books for the University of Oklahoma Press are Tuesday Night Massacre: Four Senate Elections and the Radicalization of the Republican Party (2021), a study of how independent expenditure campaigns upended American politics after 1980 and Political Hell-Raiser (2019), a biography of Montana New Deal-era Senator Burton K. Wheeler, a Spur Award finalist by the Western Writers of America.
Johnson served as press secretary and chief of staff to Idaho’s longest-serving governor, Cecil D. Andrus, and is a graduate of South Dakota State University.