Congressional Lions: Everett Dirksen
As I discuss in my book-in-progress, Congressional Lions, Everett McKinley Dirksen was a leading Republican congressman and senator representing the state of Illinois from the 1930s through the 1960s. A prominent conservative voice in Congress, Dirksen once joked about his liberal colleagues’ propensity to spend extravagant sums of money: “a billion here, a billion there, pretty soon, you’re talking real money.” A vehement supporter of the Vietnam War during the 1960s, Dirksen also proved to be instrumental in passing the 1964 Civil Rights Act. While serving as the Senate minority leader for a decade, he prided himself on his ability to reach across the aisle and work with Democrats to enact important legislative measures. He especially enjoyed working with Lyndon B. Johnson and Mike Mansfield when those men served as the Senate majority leader. Dirksen’s keen grasp of the legislative process and his strong work ethic made him an effective member of Congress. Owing to his theatrical oratorical style, Dirksen earned the sobriquet the “Wizard of Ooze.” In 1972, three years after Dirksen’s death, the U.S. Senate named an office building after him.
He and his twin brother, Thomas, were born to Johann Frederick and Antje Conrady Dirksen, German immigrants, on January 4, 1896, in Pekin, Illinois, a farming community of 5,000 souls near Peoria. Dirksen’s parents included a middle name, “McKinley,” in honor of William McKinley, the man who was then serving as governor of Ohio and later became the 25th president of the United States. They named his twin Thomas Reed Dirksen after the powerful incumbent speaker of the United States House of Representatives. Another sibling, Benjamin, was named for Benjamin Harrison, the 23rd president of the United States.
The family was extremely poor. In 1917, Dirksen left school to enlist in the United States army on the eve of World War I. He was dispatched to France in May 1918 where, in his own words, he served as a “gas-bag man.” Suspended in a hydrogen-filled balloon 3,500 feet above the battlefield, he watched artillery fire and called down corrections to improve the accuracy of American gunners. Commissioned a second lieutenant, Dirksen remained in the army until October 1919. His fluency in German made him a valuable officer, but he declined to remain in uniform after he was offered an opportunity to become a career military man.
Dirksen set his sights on a full-time political career, challenging the incumbent Republican congressman, William E. Hull, in the Republican primary election. He lost by 1,100 votes. Undaunted, Dirksen resolved to run again. In 1932, he defeated Hull to win the first of his eight terms in the United States House of Representatives.
During his early days in the House, Dirksen developed a reputation as a no-nonsense moderate Republican. The Great Depression had all but decimated his district, as it had with so much of America. Setting aside partisan and ideological concerns, he became a staunch supporter of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. As his career progressed, Dirksen became more conservative and a prominent isolationist. Yet he switched gears when the nation entered World War II, becoming a vocal supporter of the war. He was known as an eloquent orator, but a man who frequently changed his mind on crucial issues. A political opponent characterized Dirksen as "a man of the greatest insincerity and hypocrisy. He has been alternately a rabid isolationist and an ardent internationalist.”
He was a difficult man to pin down, figuratively and literally. A workaholic, Dirksen was not satisfied merely to serve as a member of Congress. He studied law privately after his election to the House. Dirksen was admitted to the District of Columbia Bar in 1936, and the Illinois Bar in 1937.
At the end of 1943, he announced that he was a candidate for president of the United States in 1944. The press refused to view him as a serious contender, believing that he sought only to weaken the likely Republican standard-bearer, Wendell Wilkie, a strong internationalist. Nonetheless, Dirksen insisted that he was in the campaign to win. He even rejected claims that he would settle for a vice presidential slot. As it turned out, he garnered support for neither position.
Following a two-year absence from political life to care for a health ailment, he resolved to run for a seat in the United States Senate after Illinois Republican Party insiders solicited his support. He won his election, and Dirksen returned to Congress rejuvenated. Grateful to enjoy improved health and a seat in the upper chamber of Congress, he took to the Senate floor on multiple occasions, always engaging in his signature oratory, an overblown style that demonstrated a flair for the dramatic. So often did the rumpled, weary-looking senator address his colleagues from the well of the Senate that he became a national figure. His melodramatic presentations earned Dirksen a semi-affectionate nickname, “the Wizard of Ooze.” Spectators flocked to the gallery to watch the crusty old curmudgeon wax eloquent on all matters great and small.
In 1957, he became the party whip. Two years later, after Minority Leader William F. Knowland rejected another term in the Senate so he could campaign for governor of California, Dirksen became the Senate’s Republican leader.
He changed the long-established seniority system, assigning junior senators to desirable committees. The reform aggravated senior members, but Dirksen knew that freshmen legislators would react favorably, and they would remember the man who aided their early careers. By instilling a sense of camaraderie and a feeling that all Republicans, regardless of ideology and length of service, could work together on salient issues, Dirksen united the GOP in a way it had not been united in decades.
The craggy-faced, white-haired Dirksen became a natural, intuitive performer before the Washington press corps. He frequently emerged from meetings to hold court for reporters, answering innumerable questions as he smoked cigarettes and sipped coffee. Unlike many politicians who expect reporters to bend to their wishes, Dirksen was respectful of the press. He understood the need to make a deadline and their desire for a snappy quote or a juicy headline. In his dealings with the men who covered Capitol Hill, he was seldom condescending or contemptuous in his replies. He patiently delivered what they needed and, in turn, he garnered far more favorable press coverage than he would have received if he had been less attentive to reporters.
While Dirksen’s style was sophisticated and largely successful, on matters of content he remained vulnerable to criticism. His legendary policy reversals continued well into his career as a Senate leader. With some exaggeration, one newspaper reported that the senator had switched positions 62 times on foreign policy, 31 times on defense policy, and 70 times on farm legislation. His most notable reversals occurred when he changed his mind and supported a United Nations bond issue in 1962, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Even as he became something of an unlikely folk hero, Dirksen remained, as ever, the quirky iconoclast who was not always a consistent ideologue. Although Lyndon Johnson was a Democrat, Dirksen became one of the president’s strongest congressional supporters of continued American involvement in the Vietnam War. Dirksen demonstrated his conservative bent by opposing federal court reapportionment orders at a time when the trend was to challenge partisan gerrymandering. He introduced an unsuccessful constitutional amendment to countermand the United States Supreme Court’s opinions upholding one man, one vote because he believed the decisions harmed rural voters. He also championed a constitutional amendment to allow prayer in public schools.
Dirksen continued his congressional service even as his health declined. He suffered from numerous ailments: duodenal ulcers, chronic emphysema, a cracked vertebra, and a broken hip, among other things. By the time he died of cardiac arrest at the age of 73 on September 7, 1969, the poor boy from Pekin, Illinois, had become a legend. Explaining the philosophy of governance that drove his career, he supplied his own epitaph. “I live by my principles,” Dirksen said, “and the first of these principles is flexibility.”