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Lessons of Mike Mansfield

By Beacon Staff

Often when our nation seems to be on the wrong track we have a nostalgic reaction to think back to the “good old days” when we remember things were better. Usually this sentimentalism is based less on fact than fable. Core human characteristics haven’t measurably changed in the last few life spans, and while great problems confront us, problems have always posed challenges in their time.

In politics we read, hear and repeat how politicians of the past worked in harmony, burying their differences for the common good, which they always could identify. Certainly, politics was never so cordial and simple. Freedom to “bicker,” publicly criticize, and disagree, is fundamental to democracy.

Mike Mansfield was of a previous time, and he is often identified with a better brand of politics than the one served up today. I had the wonderful opportunity, over the course of three extended conversations, to get to know this greatest Montanan. In fact, shortly before his death, syndicated columnist David Broder described him as “the greatest living American,” when six former Presidents were still among the living. Mansfield had the qualities of greatness in any generation. It was the good fortune of our country that he was able to rise to the top in his time.

Mike was shrewd and tenacious. The wind beneath his wings was his wife, Maureen, who recognized in the uneducated Butte miner the potential he couldn’t see in himself. That, I believe, was the key to Mike’s brilliantly self-effacing leadership style.

According to Don Oberdorfer’s insightful biography, following his first election to the U.S. Senate in 1952, probably on the advice of Montana-born Washington insider, James Rowe, the freshman Senator supported moderate Lyndon B. Johnson for Democratic minority leader over his own Montana colleague, Senator James Murray, who was the candidate of the party liberals. It will probably never be known whether Murray forgave Mansfield for that vote, but it is important to history that Johnson remembered.

According to Oberdorfer, after his selection as party leader, Johnson actively assisted freshman Mansfield in obtaining a coveted seat on the Foreign Relations Committee. Two years later, when the Democrats regained the Senate majority, Majority Leader Johnson, made Mike his number two, or “whip.” In 1960, Mike remained loyal to LBJ when most members of the Montana delegation to the Democratic National Convention supported John F. Kennedy. Then, when Johnson was elected Vice President, Montana’s Mike Mansfield fell heir to the position of U.S. Senate majority leader.

Regarded at first as a lap dog of Lyndon, Mike became increasingly independent, even as Johnson succeeded to the presidency. By subtle toughness, pragmatism and a completely transparent style of cards-on-the-table fair dealing, Mansfield emerged as perhaps the most successful Congressional leader of any era in history.

Under his almost mysteriously effective firm but fair guidance, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were passed, and these when the cloture rule required 67 votes to impose rather than the 60 necessary now. Even more remarkably, when viewed from today, in the face of accusations of “socialism,” Mike secured passage of Medicare and Medicaid with a truly bipartisan coalition, which included 12 Republicans. He engineered similar victories for Federal Aid to Education, the School Hot Lunch Program, the 18-year-old Vote and other major reforms, all with the votes of Republicans as well as Democrats.

Mansfield also won reelection in Montana almost without ever spending any money. As evidence of that, Mansfield campaign memorabilia is a rare item.

With race riots and massive anti-war demonstrations, Mansfield’s America was far more “polarized” than the nation is today. His achievements are particularly remarkable because the change he was instrumental in bringing about occurred in an angry and divided country. Mansfield didn’t try to manipulate us with expensive political advertising, and if he ever told a lie we never caught him. He was a tiger in the jungle of his time, more formidable and noble than the rest. His times were anything but the good old days. His greatness was that he stood out, remarkably, above them.

Bob Brown is former Montana Senate president and secretary of state.

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