On Friday October 5, 2001, Senator Mike Mansfield of Montana, the longest serving Majority Leader in the history of the United States Senate (1961-76) died just two years shy of a century. We have experienced a genuine loss of a national treasure. The noted commentator David Broder, not long ago, insightfully labeled Mansfield as "The Greatest Living American." I would not for an instant contest Broder's astute analysis.
Mansfield's life might best be represented by a series of Norman Rockwell portraits. Born in New York City, he was taken as an infant to Butte, Mont. As a boy, like many in Butte, he was a mucker in the copper mines. At age 14, while World War I was raging, he dropped out of school to join the U.S. Navy (fudging his age on the enlistment application to pass muster). His five-year military career took him to Asia and ingrained in him a lifelong interest in that vital region. Upon his return to Montana, he met and fell in love with Maureen Hayes. This dynamic woman, daughter of a legendary state senator, prodded her "patriot driven drop out" to obtain his G.E.D. and later to attend the University of Montana.
Last year his wife, Maureen Hayes Mansfield, the love of his life and partner for more than 70 years, passed away.
Mansfield firmly applied his exceptional intellect and quickly earned his bachelor's degree. The blossoming scholar then merited his master's from the University of California at Berkeley. After graduation, he successfully secured a teaching position in Asian Studies back at the University of Montana. He quickly emerged as both a highly respected professor and a trusted foreign policy advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1942, he replaced the remarkable Jeanette Rankin in the United States Congress. Mansfield's laudable legislative service in the House then propelled him to a U.S. Senate seat in 1952. There he served as Senate Majority Whip under Lyndon Johnson, until his unprecedented unanimous election to the post of Majority Leader in January 1961.
It is a well-known fact that President John Kennedy asked Johnson to be his vice president in order to provide political balance to the national ticket. It is also true, however, that President Kennedy served another purpose in selecting Johnson; he wanted Mike Mansfield, and not Lyndon Johnson, at the helm of the United States Senate. Kennedy captured the essence of this good and gentle man by eloquently stating that Senator Mansfield "was a gem -- all class and all character." Mike Mansfield's storied service as congressman, senator, Senate Majority Leader and as United States Ambassador to Japan clearly affirm that enlightened endorsement.
As Senate Majority Leader, Mansfield orchestrated a conscious departure from the raw, heavy-handed leadership exercised by his predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, and promulgated a model characterized by civility and integrity. The list of monumental legislation passed by the "greatest deliberative body in the world" under Mansfield's stewardship is simply staggering. A short list must suffice: the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the Peace Corps, the Civil Rights Act, Medicare, the Tax Investment Credit, the Space Program, the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and the Freedom of Information Act.
The real measure of this extraordinary public servant, however, rests not with impressive lists, but rather with his sage council, steadfast integrity and substantive courage. After a 1963 presidential fact-finding mission to Vietnam, his candid assessments reinforced JFK's growing resolve to withdraw from Vietnam.
In a 1964 memo, he wrote that escalating the war would take the nation "further out on a sagging limb," concluding that "If a significant extension of the conflict beyond South Vietnam should occur, then the prospects are appalling."
Tragically, President Kennedy's assassination was followed, in short order, by the Johnson/Nixon leadership debacles in Southeast Asia, leading to just what Mansfield feared. In response, Mansfield's steady probes and honed legislative actions limited -- and eventually helped to end -- America's military involvement.
In 1964, Mansfield's subtle timing, determined focus and unrelenting fairness isolated the Senate's arch-segregationists and insured the passage of the Civil Rights Act -- forever changing the history of this nation. His reasoned governance set the political climate for the dignified removal (by resignation) of a discredited President Nixon. In the 16 years he led the United States Senate, he transformed that legislative body into a prototype of political productivity and civility.
"What the Senate does in a legislative sense in any given period will be felt for a long, long time by all the people of the nation," Mansfield once wrote, in a rebuke to partisanship and political posturing. "We are not the actors or actresses to be applauded. We are here as senators to do the business of the government. It is not we but that alone, in the end, which counts to the nation."
Mansfield served as United States Ambassador to Japan from 1977-1989 under presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, once again setting a record for longevity and effectiveness. In the unique "Mansfield manner," he quietly earned the respect and heartfelt admiration of the Japanese government and their discerning people, as he graciously served both American interests and Japanese expectations.
Now he is gone, but he left us his legacy. Mike Mansfield epitomized all that is good about this republic, and we are, indeed, a better nation because of his enlightened public service.