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Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen Dies

September 7, 1969

Everett McKinley Dirksen by Richard Hood Harryman

During 11 years as his party's Senate floor leader, Illinois Republican Everett McKinley Dirksen became more closely identified in the public mind with the U.S. Senate than any other senator of his time. His physical appearance, his dramatic flair, his cathedral-organ voice: all these attributes made him the personification of radio entertainer Fred Allen's fictional 1940s "Senator Claghorn."

He was the grand marshal of the Tournament of Roses parade; he pioneered a televised weekly press conference with his House counterpart; and, with a narrative album entitled Gallant Men, he became a recording star. The hordes of admiring tourists who flocked to his leader’s office in the Capitol forced him to remove his name from its door. Today, because a Senate office building honors him, his is one of the best known names on Capitol Hill from his generation.

Everett Dirksen first came to Congress in 1933 as a House member. During World War II, he lobbied successfully for an expansion of congressional staff resources to eliminate the practice under which House and Senate committees borrowed executive branch personnel to accomplish legislative work. He gained national attention in 1950 when he unseated the Senate Democratic majority leader in a bitter Illinois contest. Enjoying the confidence of his party’s conservative and moderate factions, he became assistant Republican leader in 1957 and minority leader two years later.

During 10 of his 11 years as party floor leader, the number of Senate Republicans never exceeded 36. Yet, as a supremely creative and resourceful legislator, Dirksen routinely influenced the agenda of the majority-party Democrats. His willingness to change position on issues earned him designations ranging from "statesman" to "Grand Old Chameleon."

On the subject of Senate leadership, it was Dirksen who said, "There are 100 diverse personalities in the U.S. Senate. Oh Great God. What an amazing and dissonant 100 personalities they are! What an amazing thing it is to harmonize them."

Researchers have been unable to track down the quotation most commonly associated with Dirksen. Perhaps he never said it, but the comment would have been entirely in character. Cautioning that federal spending had a way of getting out of control, Dirksen reportedly observed, “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking real money."

This singularly colorful Senate leader died at the age of 73 on September 7, 1969.