Montana senator Mike Mansfield, the new majority leader in 1961, contrasted sharply with his powerful and outgoing predecessor, Lyndon Baines Johnson. A soft-spoken man, Mansfield’s style of leadership seemed the antithesis of Johnson’s forceful arm-twisting. Before long, however, some senators began to speak nostalgically about Johnson’s aggressiveness and to blame Mansfield’s passive leadership for President John F. Kennedy’s stalled domestic agenda.
Mike Mansfield took an unusual path to Congress. Born in New York City in 1903, he soon moved to Montana to live with relatives after his mother died. He dropped out of grade school to join the navy during World War I, despite being underage, and later served in the army and the marines. He returned to Montana as a miner, but his life changed when he met and married a schoolteacher, Maureen Hayes, who persuaded him to go to college. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Montana and taught Far Eastern history there while working on his doctorate. In 1942, with the help of his students, Mansfield won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. He quickly established himself as an authority on Asian policy and traveled to China on a special wartime mission for President Franklin Roosevelt.
In 1952 Mansfield won a narrow victory for a seat in the U.S. Senate from Montana, and subsequently was reelected to another three terms by much wider margins. Although his chief interests were in foreign affairs, especially in Southeast Asia, Mansfield was tapped by Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson to serve as whip in 1957. When Johnson was elected vice president, Senate Democrats unanimously elected Mansfield to move into the majority leadership—a post that he reluctantly accepted and would hold for a record 16 years.
As majority leader, Mansfield believed that the Senate worked best by accommodation, respect, and mutual restraint. He insisted that all senators were equal and therefore must share in the responsibility of legislating. Spreading legislative responsibilities among junior senators also reduced the influence of senior members who chaired the key committees and were the most resistant to reform. Mansfield abolished most patronage positions and further professionalized the staff of the Senate. He also abandoned Johnson’s practice of handing out prized committee assignments in exchange for legislative support.
When the Senate resisted President Kennedy’s legislative program, Mansfield came under fire from members who thought he should wield power more assertively. They reasoned that since the Democrats enjoyed a two-to-one ratio, they could accomplish more if the majority leader would just “knock some heads together.” But ideological differences within his party undercut that apparent numerical advantage. After this criticism became public, Senator Mansfield prepared a response that he intended to deliver on the Senate floor on November 22, 1963.
Mr. President, some days ago blunt words were said on the floor of the Senate. They dealt in critical fashion with the state of this institution. They dealt in critical fashion with the quality of the majority leadership and the minority opposition. A far more important matter than criticism or praise of the leadership was involved. It is a matter which goes to the fundamental nature of the Senate. . . .
Of late, Mr. President, the descriptions of the majority leader, of the Senator from Montana, have ranged from a benign Mr. Chips, to glamourless, to tragic mistake. . . .
. . . I confess freely to a lack of glamour. As for being a tragic mistake, if that means, Mr. President, that I am neither a circus ringmaster, the master of ceremonies of a Senate night club, a tamer of Senate lions, or a wheeler and dealer, then I must accept, too, that title. Indeed, I must accept it, if I am expected as majority leader to be anything other than myself—a Senator from Montana who has had the good fortune to be trusted by his people for over two decades and done the best he knows how to represent them, and to do what he believes to be right for the Nation. . . .
. . . [W]ithin this body, I believe that every Member ought to be equal in fact, no less than in theory, that they have a primary responsibility to the people whom they represent to face the legislative issues of the Nation. And to the extent that the Senate may be inadequate in this connection, the remedy lies not in the seeking of shortcuts, not in the cracking of nonexistent whips, not in wheeling and dealing, but in an honest facing of the situation and a resolution of it by the Senate itself, by accommodation, by respect for one another, by mutual restraint and, as necessary, adjustments in the procedures of this body.
. . . The constitutional authority and responsibility does not lie with the leadership. It lies with all of us individually, collectively, and equally. And in the last analysis, deviations from that principle must in the end act to the detriment of the institution. And, in the end, that principle cannot be made to prevail by rules. It can prevail only if there is a high degree of accommodation, mutual restraint and a measure of courage—in spite of our weaknesses—in all of us. It can prevail only if we recognize that, in the end, it is not the Senators as individuals who are of fundamental importance. In the end, it is the institution of the Senate. It is the Senate itself as one of the foundations of the Constitution. It is the Senate as one of the rocks of the Republic.1
Mansfield explained that he had no intention of playing the ringmaster in a three-ring circus. Instead, he modeled his leadership on the words of Lao Tsu, a Chinese philosopher of ancient times, who said, “A leader is best when the people hardly know he exists. And of that leader the people will say when his work is done, ‘We did this ourselves.’” But on the afternoon that Mansfield was scheduled to deliver those remarks, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. So Mansfield simply inserted the unread prepared text in the Congressional Record.
Lyndon Johnson’s elevation to the presidency changed the political dynamics on Capitol Hill. The legislative logjam broke, and Mansfield’s decentralized style of leadership facilitated enactment of the mass of legislation that comprised Johnson’s Great Society program. Mansfield also worked closely with his Republican counterpart, Senator Everett Dirken, to break a lengthy filibuster against the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Mike Mansfield retired from the Senate in 1977. President Jimmy Carter appointed him ambassador to Japan, and Mansfield remained in that position during Ronald Reagan’s Republican administration, making him the longest-serving U.S. ambassador to Japan. In 1998, at the age of 95, he returned to the Senate to deliver the first of a series of “Leader’s Lectures.” On that occasion, Mansfield chose to deliver the 1963 address that he had been unable to give in the wake of Kennedy’s death. Even 35 years later, his comments remained relevant. “What moved Senators yesterday still moves senators today,” he said on that occasion. “We have the individual and collective strength of our predecessors and, I might add, their weaknesses. We are not all ten feet tall, nor were they. Senators act within the circumstances of their fears no less than their courage, their foibles as well as their strengths. Our concerns and our efforts in the Senate, like our predecessors and successors, arise from our goals of advancing the welfare of the people whom we represent, safeguarding the well-being of our respective states and protecting the present and future of this nation, a nation which belongs—as does this room [the Old Senate Chamber]—not to one of us, or to one generation, but to all of us and to all generations.”2
1. The Senate and its Leadership, 88th Cong., 1st sess., Congressional Record (November 27, 1963): S 22858, 22862.
2. Trent Lott, Leading the United States Senate: The Leader’s Lecture Series (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 2002), 22-23.