Next to operating from the Oval Office, the front row desk on the majority side of the aisle in the United States Senate is arguably the most difficult perch in politics. That seat is where the Majority Leader sits – or stands – and attempts to move forward the world’s greatest deliberative body.
Mike Mansfield, by general agreement, did the job better than anyone ever has. Not bad for a one-time mucker from the copper mines of Butte, Montana.
During this holiday season, as the Senate rancorously flails its way to a conclusion on health insurance reform legislation, ol’ Mike is looking better than ever.
Current leader Harry Reid of Nevada will get – and deserve – any credit (or blame) due if Congress does complete the legislation, as is looking likely. But Reid has gotten to the finish line with a much different style than Mansfield would have used and, as a result, he presides over a much different Senate.
As Reid pushes for a bill, difficulties and tempers flare around the leader. His home state situation is troubling, too. Reid trails in the polls in Nevada and his unfortunate comments equating GOP opposition to the health insurance bill to support for slavery riled the Senate.
Mansfield was from a different era, for sure, but his was also a time – like ours – of great divide in the country. Somehow he made the Senate work a lot better than the current model. It is worth pausing for a moment to remember the truly incredible Mansfield and his style in the Senate.
Mike, as his Montana constituents knew him, held the Senate’s top job longer than anyone in history – from 1961 to 1977. His memory is revered in Montana and deserves to be long remembered in the history of American politics in the 20th Century.
Through civil rights legislation, through Vietnam, LBJ’s Great Society, Watergate and investigations of the CIA, Mansfield cultivated an approach to leading the Senate that involved less of him and more of everyone else. He insisted on fair play and dignity. Mansfield once stopped proceedings on the Senate floor in the middle of a roll call vote to demand that an amendment be considered that then-rookie Republican Ted Stevens felt had been given short shrift. Another Senator had given Stevens his word that the amendment would be considered, but then reneged on the pledge. Mansfield made it right. Stevens never forgot the moment and he told me years later that he considered Mansfield the Senate’s greatest leader and an even greater person. No faint praise coming from a highly partisan Republican.
Very late in his life, I had a fascinating few minutes with Mansfield in his Washington, D.C. office. He was long out of the Senate, had been U.S. Ambassador to Japan under both a Democratic and Republican president and was, just shy of 100 years old, still working almost every day as an advisor to Goldman Sachs. He came out of his tidy office in the old Washington Star building to greet me, ushered me to a comfortable chair and proceeded to make me a cup of coffee.
I realized at that moment some of the secret to his success. He was practicing the “servant as leader” approach to personal relationships. He had no need to see me, nothing to gain from offering 45 minutes of his time, and had no doubt answered the same questions that I would put to him a thousand times. Still he displayed for me the same qualities he used so successfully and for so long in the Senate – civility, respect, kindness, attention to detail and candor.
We spoke that day of Montana political history and I remember asking him his assessment of the great Montana political figures. He mentioned Senators Lee Metcalf, Thomas Walsh, Jim Murray and Burton K. Wheeler before allowing that he would rank below all of them in all-time accomplishment. I questioned his ranking and he firmly pointed out that I had asked him for his assessment. “And that is my assessment,” he said.
There is no institution of our government remotely like the United States Senate. It was designed by the founders to be slow. Tradition says that every Senator, no matter how junior or powerful, can bring the place to a grinding halt with two words – “I object.”
The last few weeks have often shown the Senate at its worst, locked in endless parliamentary combat with Democrats seemingly more focused on gathering up the magic 60 votes to stop a filibuster than in producing understandable reform. Republicans have played the obstruction card full tilt, which Senate rules allow if not encourage. The civility and respect that a Mike Mansfield brought to the leadership seems totally lacking on both sides of the aisle these days. It seems like Reid and his GOP counterpart Mitch McConnell are so locked in blind partisanship that they can’t see what the rest of the country sees – legislative chaos and incredibly unproductive gamesmanship.
Contrast that with Mike’s approach to incredibly contentious civil rights legislation in the 1960’s. As Don Oberdorfer writes in his masterful biography of Mansfield, the Majority Leader knew, as he prepared for what turned out to be the longest Senate debate in history, that he first had to deal with southern Democrats opposed to any civil rights legislation. The southerners, like today’s Republicans, were determined to slow and, if possible, kill any bill with the filibuster. In those days, it required even more votes – 67 – to cut off the talking and start the voting.
With great dignity and deference, Mansfield called the cagey leader of the southerners, Georgia’s Richard Russell, to his office and explained in detail the approach he would be taking to the legislation. Oberdorfer writes, “Russell was astounded by Mansfield’s candor and wondered if it were a prelude to some unpleasant surprise – perhaps a discovery of an obscure provision in the rules that had somehow eluded the master parliamentary experts from Dixie.”
Oberdorfer goes on to quote Mansfield: “I kept Russell informed of every move that we made on the civil rights bill. I don’t think he took me too seriously at first, but he did with the passage of time. [There were] no back strokes, no hidden areas.”
Next, Mansfield invited the Republican leader, Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen, into the strategy development – Dirksen produced 40 amendments – and Mansfield insisted that his staff work to get the GOP leader the press attention he coveted and that ultimately lead to Dirksen receiving much of the credit for passing the landmark legislation. When Senators gathered after the historic vote to congratulate each other and claim credit, Mansfield avoided being in any of the photographs. He conspicuously gave away the credit to others.
Still, most Senators knew who had created the atmosphere for progress. Florida’s George Smathers summed up the feeling. “Much of the credit for the fact that [the bill] was disposed of without leaving large schisms was due to the good, calm, patient, magnanimous, long suffering and much admired Mike Mansfield.”
My favorite Mansfield story is told by former Montana Congressman Pat Williams, another wonderful and talented Butte Irishman. Pat had tried and failed, while Mansfield was serving as U.S. Ambassador to Japan, to lure the former leader to Capitol Hill so that he could be feted appropriately for his years of statesmanship. Finally, on a pretext, Mansfield had to come to a reception and be part of a receiving line where he quickly became the star attraction amid much praise of his work in the Senate and the Far East. When Williams reached out to shake hands with the former Senator, Mansfield pulled him in close and whispered, “Pat, what are we going to do about the Berkeley Pit?”
Never one to stand on any kind of ceremony, Mansfield was thinking, even at that moment and far away from Montana, about the massive Superfund site in his hometown.
The U.S. Senate may never see another leader like Mike Mansfield and that is a real shame for the Senate and the nation.