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Dirksen's Death Prompts Leadership Race

September 24, 1969


The Senate lost one of its greatest leaders in 1969—Everett McKinley Dirksen of Illinois. In late summer Dirksen underwent surgery to remove a malignant lung tumor, but complications set in and on September 7, 1969, Dirksen’s heart stopped beating. Needless to say, the Republican leader’s death left quite a vacuum. Within hours, speculation focused on a successor. “The cast is big,” commented one observer, “the actors are skilled if a little inclined to bombast; the plot is seasoned with elements of intrigue, comedy, and suspense in a mystery drama” entitled, “After Dirksen, Who?”

Dirksen had been Republican leader since 1959. For 10 years, Thomas Kuchel of California served as his whip. When Kuchel lost his re-election bid in 1968, Dirksen backed the conservative Roman Hruska of Nebraska for whip, but the Republican caucus chose instead the more liberal Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania. When Dirksen underwent surgery, therefore, it was Scott who became acting Republican leader. Many assumed that Dirksen’s death would result in an easy rise to leadership for Scott. It did not. Instead, Dirksen’s untimely demise prompted a heated contest in a Republican caucus divided into competing factions. The moderate-to-liberal wing of mostly eastern senators supported Hugh Scott. A second camp, consisting primarily of midwestern conservatives known as the Old Guard, favored Roman Hruska. Finally, there were the “Young Turks,” a group of moderate Republicans, many of them freshmen, who backed Howard Baker of Tennessee. “Scott will have [to] battle for it,” predicted one senator, as eulogies to Dirksen began filling the Congressional Record.

Howard Baker had the advantage of being Everett Dirksen’s son-in-law, and he quickly gained some powerful backers. “[It] is time for men with…fresher ideas to take over…the posts of leadership,” proclaimed Barry Goldwater as he endorsed Baker. When Roman Hruska withdrew and threw his support to Baker, the race became a two-way contest between the 68-year-old Hugh Scott, who could boast of a congressional career dating back to 1941, and the 43-year-old Howard Baker, just two years into his Senate service. For two weeks, the Senate became a battleground, as Republicans debated the relative strengths and weaknesses of the Elder Scott and the Young-Turk Baker. When rumors surfaced of a compromise that would give the leadership to Scott and the whip position to Baker, the Tennessee senator denied any deal. “The people I am counting on are first-ballot votes for leader,” he insisted. “I am not running for whip.”

On September 24, 1969, by a vote of 24 to 19, Republican senators elected a new leader. And the winner was—Hugh Scott. “The Elder” triumphed over “the Upstart.” Citing Baker’s lack of experience, a coalition of liberal and moderate Republicans joined senior conservatives to elect Scott. That afternoon, Baker hastily declared his candidacy for whip. Again, he lost. That victory went to Robert Griffin of Michigan. It took nearly a decade for Baker to gain his father-in-law’s coveted leadership post. When Hugh Scott retired in 1977, Howard Baker finally became Republican leader. Even then, he squeaked in by the slimmest of margins—a single vote.