Recently, 47 U.S. Senators sent a letter to the leaders of Iran in an effort to derail current negotiations with President Barack Obama. Forget party politics for a minute — this was an overt attempt by members of Congress to go behind the back of a sitting President while he was conducting foreign policy. This kind of action is unprecedented, and reflects the sorry state of affairs not just between Capitol Hill and the White House, but also between almost every branch and department of our federal government.
Yesterday, March 16, would have been the 112th birthday of Michael Joseph Mansfield. He held many titles throughout his life — Marine Corps private, member of the U.S. House of Representatives, majority leader of the Senate and U.S. ambassador to Japan, among others. He presided over the Senate’s functions for 17 consecutive years — something no other majority leader has surpassed. Mansfield was a soft-spoken, humble, generous and pragmatic giant of his time. It’s the way he conducted himself within our nation’s capital that should be remembered on March 16, in the face of so much congressional stagnation and petty politics.
A terrific biography written about Mansfield by Don Oberdorfer reveals the life of a man who spent much of his time trying to stay away from the limelight. Oberdorfer describes the Senator’s many accomplishments while he was a member of our nation’s Upper House — including the successful passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other Great Society programs, as well as a continuous objection to military escalation in Vietnam, advice that President Johnson unfortunately did not heed. Being a Democrat or a Republican was much more of a nominal title back then, and Mansfield consistently stayed above party politics and led, for the most part, a very apolitical career.
Legislative achievements aside, Mansfield may be most remembered for his remarkable persona. When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Jacqueline Kennedy, the president’s widow, asked that Mansfield give a eulogy while the president lay in state at the Capitol. There was a reason Mansfield led the Senate through five different presidencies and served as ambassador to Japan — a job that is typically reserved for political benefactors — even after Ronald Reagan took office from Jimmy Carter in 1981.
It could have been his humble beginnings: a boy from New York City raised in Montana by a distant aunt and uncle, only to run away at an early age and subsequently live in an orphanage for over a year. He worked as a coal miner without a high-school degree for almost a decade. His future wife, Maureen, convinced him to work his way toward a bachelor’s degree, and he went on to get his master’s and teach at the University of Montana.
A few years ago, James Grady wrote a wonderful piece on Mansfield in Politics Daily. In it, Grady recalls an episode in which Mansfield “Caught a Democratic colleague breaking a promise to a Republican, (so) Mike used the rules of the Senate to give the Republican his promised fair shot.” There was little pettiness in the Mansfield Senate, very small-scale bitterness and hostility among its members; Mike regularly reminded his colleagues to, as Grady puts it, “Act like they belonged to ‘the world’s greatest deliberative body.’ ” During the Watergate scandal, Mansfield made sure to make a non-partisan investigative committee to oversee the hearings, something that secured constitutional integrity throughout the process to remove a corrupt politician from the White House.
Mansfield once said, “When I’m gone, I want to be forgotten.” This kind of modesty, statesmanship and respect for everyone surrounding him makes Mansfield a politician of his own kind, from a different era. Today, seldom do you see a member of government deliberately try to avoid taking credit, solely focusing on bettering the people of the state of Montana and the country that he fought for and loved.
I wish I could truly express the excellence that embodied the life of Mansfield; however, I believe the best way to do that is to review his life, and realize that he was truly one of the greatest leaders to ever set foot in Washington, D.C.
He is now buried in Arlington National Cemetery, in the same simple gravestone that marks the thousands of soldiers lying with him, still keeping watch over our nation and its lawmakers.
I hope that those who work in our government, and those who aspire to one day be in our government, take notice of the lessons taught to us by Mansfield. The state of American politics is in fragile condition, constantly being tested by the extreme partisanship of our country’s leadership. Let us hope that the words and wisdom of Michael Mansfield can once again be realized, especially by the ones who walk in his footsteps.
Ben Keller is an LSA freshman and Editorial Board member.