PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
December 7, 2004

A Public Life Well Lived

by Jim Newsom

Senator Mansfield: The Extraordinary Life of a Great American Statesman and Diplomat
by Don Oberdorfer

(Smithsonian Books)

I always loved Mike Mansfield, U. S. Senator from Montana. When he appeared on the Sunday talk shows like Meet the Press, his answers were short and to the point, often simply “yes” or “no.” His questioners would run out of things to ask him long before the show was over because he didn’t feel the need to pontificate, waffle or straddle the issues. It certainly appeared to me that he always told it like it was.

After the ugliness of this year’s political season, and before we kick off next year’s state races, now may be a good time to cleanse your soul with Senator Mansfield, a biography of this politician, statesman and diplomat written by former Washington Post journalist Don Oberdorfer. It’s a fascinating study of a genuine leader and the turbulent times in which he served.

But just so you understand that ugly campaigns by the GOP are nothing new, take a look at Mansfield’s first campaign for the U. S. Senate in 1952---

McCarthyism was at its peak. His Republican opponent tried to label him an appeaser to the communists, sending flyers out that said “Mansfield Aided Communist Line WHICH LED TO KOREAN WAR!” There were anonymous telephone calls to registered voters in which the callers would say, “Mike Mansfield is a communist” and then hang up. Joe McCarthy himself came into the state, calling the Democrats the “Commiecrat Party” and describing Mansfield as “either stupid or a dupe.”

Two days before the election, Mansfield went on the radio to deliver this address:

“If I win this election, I want to win it honestly and on the record. I can look every man and woman in Montana in the eye because I have done nothing I am ashamed of nor have I spoken evil of my fellow man. I have exercised restraint in this campaign until the 16 outside Republican senators sent into this state to defeat me had been heard; until the man who admitted he was a Communist had been brought into Montana by my opponent and his group and had attacked my patriotism, my character, my religious faith, my integrity; and, until my opponent, who, himself, and his friends had made all of his charges and made all the falsehoods known.

“What in heaven’s name has happened to us as Americans? What have we done that a public servant should be so defiled and defaced? Is it not intolerable that a man seeking high office with its agonizing burdens would have to suffer the indignity of having to defend, not his political beliefs, but the very honor of his soul? How in these perilous times can we get decent men and women to run for public office if they are going to be subject to these vilifications?”

Mansfield won by a margin of less than 6,000 votes, and began a 24-year Senate career matched by few others. When Lyndon Johnson was elected Vice President in 1960, incoming President John F. Kennedy personally asked Mansfield to replace his running mate as Senate majority leader. He would hold the post from 1961 to 1977, longer than anyone before or since. But where LBJ had led the Senate Democrats by pressure and intimidation, Mansfield’s was a more moderate, gentle, self-effacing style.

“From the first,” the book points out, “Mansfield began to dismantle Johnson’s highly centralized apparatus for exerting personal power in the Democratic majority.” He listened to both sides and allowed consensus to develop rather than overpowering his colleagues.

China and Southeast Asia had been an area of special interest for him dating back to a visit there as a Marine in 1922. In the ‘50s, few in Congress knew much about the region at all, and he acquired a reputation as an expert on Vietnam in the early days of American involvement.

The meat of this book is the story of that involvement and Mansfield’s attempts to dissuade Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon from pursuing the policies that cost so much in lives, money and American prestige, and that literally ripped this country apart. It was a frustrating experience, as he tried to work behind the scenes rather than going public with his opposition to the escalating war. They didn’t heed his advice, but he continued to present it every chance he got.

He was on target with his analysis, right from the start. When he returned from a visit to Vietnam in 1962, two years before the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that launched the escalation of the American war there, he reported to President Kennedy on the problems he foresaw:

“It is difficult to conceive of alternatives, with the possible exception of a truly massive commitment of American military personnel and resources---in short going to war ourselves against the guerrillas---and the establishment of some sort of neo-colonial rule in South Vietnam. That is an alternative which I most emphatically do not recommend…To ignore that reality will not only be immensely costly in terms of American lives and resources but it may also draw us inexorably into some variation of the unenviable position in Vietnam which was formerly occupied by the French.”

The triumph of passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 may be hard to understand from our viewpoint forty years later, but the effort to gain approval stretched from February 17 to June 19, with a tremendous amount of quiet, resolved leadership required to obtain the final 73-27 vote. Mansfield was both eloquent and honest at the start:

“Speaking for myself, let me say at the outset that I should have preferred it had the civil rights been resolved before my time as a senator or had it not come to the floor until afterward…But, Mr. President, great public issues are not subject to our personal timetables; they do not accommodate themselves to our individual preference or convenience. They emerge in their own ways and in their own time…The time is now.”

Don Oberdorfer has written a fascinating history of a man and his times, one that is both inspiring and, considering the caliber of congressional leaders in recent years, dispiriting. Still, it is the ideal book for anyone interested in the history of the last half of the twentieth century, and a salve for those who have not yet given up hope for our country and its government.

copyright © 2004 Port Folio Weekly. Used by Permission.