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Congressional Lions: Mike Mansfield


Mike Mansfield, sometimes called the “gentleman from Montana,” served as a United States congressman and senator from the Treasure State, eventually becoming the Senate majority leader. With a tenure that stretched from 1961 until 1977, he was the longest-serving Senate majority leader in American history. Later, he served as the U.S. ambassador to Japan for 11 years. As I discuss in my book-in-progress, Congressional Lions, Mansfield was the Democratic counterpart to Republican senator Everett Dirksen. A vocal opponent of the Vietnam War and yet a champion for President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society programs in the Senate, Mansfield used the prestige of his office to achieve his legislative goals.

In a career where politicians often are narcissistic and bombastic, Mansfield distinguished himself as a quiet, self-effacing member of Congress. He was LBJ’s polar opposite in terms of temperament and technique. During an interview late in his life, he explained his philosophy of governance. “Differences can be bridged, solutions can be found, concessions can be made,” he said. “It’s much better to take an inch than to take nothing at all. I don’t believe that winning is everything, though it’s very desirable. I don’t think there’s anything wrong in losing if you do it the right way.” It is difficult to imagine a public figure of such humility working in the age of Donald Trump, where competence, ability, and ethical values are eclipsed by racism, sexism, corruption, and shameless self-promotion.

He was born Michael Joseph Mansfield on March 16, 1903, in Brooklyn, New York, to Irish Catholic immigrants Patrick J. Mansfield and Josephine O’Brien Mansfield. After Josephine died of pneumonia in 1906, Patrick sent his young son to live with his two sisters as well as an aunt and uncle in Great Falls, Montana. Michael spent his youth there before dropping out of school and lying about his age to join the United States Navy. He was 14 years old. When naval officers discovered his age, they discharged him from service. He later joined the U.S. army, serving in 1919 and 1920, before joining the Marines and serving from 1920 until 1922.

Mansfield worked in copper mines near Butte, Montana, during much of the 1920s. He seemed destined to forever toil away at poor-paying manual labor jobs until he met a school teacher, Maureen Hayes, who encouraged him to seek higher education. He did, and it changed his life. “She did the pushing and pressuring that got me where I am today,” Mansfield said many years later of the woman who became his wife. “I get the credit. She does the work. It isn’t fair. She cashed in her life insurance to get me through school. She gave up her job as a high school teacher to follow me in my career.” Maureen Hayes married Mike Mansfield in 1932.

He never attended high school, but Mansfield passed college entrance examinations and attended classes at the Montana School of Mines to become a mining engineer. He also enrolled in the University of Montana, earning a bachelor of arts degree in 1933. A year later, he earned a master of arts from the university. During the eight years after he earned his master’s degree, he taught Latin American and Far Eastern history. The network of former students he built up during those years provided a ready source of volunteer labor during his political campaigns.

Mansfield first expressed an interest in running for political office in 1940. That year, he pursued the Democratic nomination for Montana’s 1st congressional district. He lost the primary election to Jerry O’Connell, a former congressman. O’Connell went on to lose the general election to Republican Jeannette Rankin. Two years later, Rankin declined to run for reelection. Mansfield announced his candidacy again, and he won the seat. It was the beginning of 34 years of service in Congress—10 years in the House of Representatives, and 24 years in the Senate.

He developed a lifelong interest in foreign affairs during his decade in the House. Serving on the Foreign Relations Committee, Mansfield enjoyed a front-row seat for one of the most tumultuous periods in American history. He witnessed Franklin D. Roosevelt’s leadership during World War II, even undertaking a special mission to China on the president’s behalf. Later, the Montana congressman attended the ninth Inter-American conference in Colombia as a delegate representing the United States. Mansfield, a liberal Democrat, supported the Truman administration’s efforts to rebuild war-torn Europe through the Marshall Plan. He also supported programs to provide aid to Turkey and Greece in the struggles against international Communism.

He recognized an opportunity to enter the United States Senate in 1952, and he won. Mansfield joined the august chamber as a member of the “Class of 1952,” an extraordinary group of new senators that became well known for their leadership for decades to come. Members included Barry Goldwater, John F. Kennedy, Prescott Bush (patriarch of the Bush family that eventually included two American presidents and a Florida state governor), John Sherman Cooper, Henry “Scoop” Jackson, Stuart Symington, and Albert Gore, Sr. (father of Vice President Al Gore). These figures were charismatic politicians, men who loved the sound of their own voices and sought to shape national affairs according to their own desires.

Mansfield was not the typical politician accustomed to delivering bombastic speeches and uttering wild promises. He became known as hard-working, industrious, quiet, and thoughtful, traits not often found in the U.S. Senate. By 1957, he had become the majority whip, a powerful leadership position that essentially made him the assistant floor leader.

After Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson moved to the vice presidency in 1961, Mansfield’s Democratic peers elected him to serve as LBJ’s successor. Johnson had achieved great successes by exercising power politics without apology. Brass tacks worked for the outspoken Texan, but Mansfield was a different political animal. Responding to critics who derided his low-energy persona, Mansfield defended his decision not to be a tough, ruthless parliamentarian ordering senators to do things his way. “In the first place, I couldn’t do it,” he said. “In the second, if I were to do it and I got away with it, the result would be temporary. Sooner or later they’d just tell you to go to hell and do what they wanted anyway. I like to treat the members as I would like them to treat me.”

During his 16 years as majority leader, Mansfield preferred to build consensus rather than strong-arm his opponents. “I’m not the leader really,” he said. “My Democratic colleagues are the leaders. They don’t do what I tell them. I do what they tell me. When they call, I jump.” The majority leader’s attitude was markedly different than Johnson’s had been. When Mansfield had served as majority whip, by his own admission he had been little more than a figurehead. His own whip, Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey, exercised considerably more power and influence than Mansfield had. The new majority leader left it to his lieutenant to hammer out policy details, preferring to focus on broad issues.

Practicing a low-key style of leadership did not mean that Mansfield abdicated his leadership role. His effectiveness was apparent in the way he handled the legislation that eventually passed as the Civil Rights Act of 1964. President Kennedy had announced his support for civil rights legislation five months before his death. Following JFK’s assassination, President Johnson vowed to pursue the martyr’s legislative agenda, including a civil rights bill. Mansfield assisted the new president in passing the measure.

He was a loyal Johnson supporter when it came to helping the president enact domestic legislation as part of the administration’s Great Society program. On one issue, the divisive Vietnam War, Mansfield’s position evolved over time, as did many Americans’ view of that conflict. He was a staunch supporter of Johnson’s decision to battle Communists in Southeast Asia in 1964, but he began to doubt the wisdom of widening the war. He peppered Johnson with memoranda urging a negotiated settlement even as he publicly expressed support.

By the early 1970s, after LBJ had retired and Richard Nixon had replaced him as commander in chief, Mansfield co-sponsored the War Powers Resolution that urged a president to consult Congress before engaging in military conflict and required that troops be withdrawn if Congress expressed its dissent over the action after several months. “Congress had handed its power over to the president on a silver platter,” he explained. It had to end.

He was no friend to the Nixon administration, but Mansfield agreed with the president that opening up China to the United States held many advantages. As a former professor of Asian history, the majority leader was well-poised to assist the administration in improving relations with China. Mansfield led a congressional delegation to the country not long after Nixon returned from his historic state visit in 1972.

Although he constantly opposed Richard Nixon’s policies, Mansfield took no delight when the Watergate scandal erupted and members of the administration were implicated. Throughout 1972 and 1973, stories regularly emerged indicating that Nixon and/or his top advisers were orchestrating a cover-up to prevent the public and investigators from learning about a variety of illegal activities and “dirty tricks” undertaken by high-ranking federal officials. Mansfield resolved to create a special Senate select committee to investigate, but he would not appoint anyone seen as a presidential contender lest the committee’s work and findings be dismissed as biased, a politically-motivated witch hunt. Mansfield settled on North Carolina Senator Sam Ervin, a long-serving southern Democrat who proved to be scrupulously fair and became something of a folk hero as a result of his high-profile committee chairmanship.

He served four terms in the Senate and probably would have won reelection in 1976 had he chosen to run. By that time, however, he knew it was time to move on. He could look back on his long legislative career with pride—he was especially proud of his role in promoting the Twenty-six Amendment, which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18—but at age 73, “Senator Mike,” as his constituents fondly called him, recognized that his time at center stage had come and gone.

Yet he had one more act left in his public life. Only months after Mansfield retired from the Senate, President Jimmy Carter appointed him to serve as the American ambassador to Japan. He retained the position even through the Reagan administration. When he retired in 1988, he had served as ambassador for more than 11 years.

Never an idle man, Mansfield became a senior adviser on East Asian affairs to the investment banking firm Goldman Sachs. He was 85 years old. He regularly went into his office until shortly before his death at the age of 98 on October 5, 2001.

On learning of the Montana gentleman’s passing, former Pennsylvania Senator Hugh D. Scott, Jr., remarked, “He’s the most decent man I’ve ever met in public life.” Scott had served as the Republican minority leader during part of Mansfield’s time as majority leader. Scott spoke for many legislators, Democrats and Republicans, who viewed the affable Montanan as a decent, humble, hard-working member of Congress, the beau ideal of an American public servant.


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