In January of 1961, as President Eisenhower handed over the Oval Office to John Kennedy, Republicans in Congress–outnumbered 64 to 36 in the Senate–wondered how they could maintain their influence in a Democratic administration. To address this issue, Republican leaders in the House and Senate created a joint leadership team. Each week, GOP leaders met behind closed doors. Afterwards, the House and Senate minority leaders held a joint press conference. Officially, this presentation was known as the “Republican Congressional Leadership Statement,” but everyone called it “The Ev and Charlie Show.”
On January 24, 1961, just four days into the Kennedy administration, the joint leadership team held its first meeting. When the session ended, Senate Republican leader Everett Dirksen joined House Republican leader Charles Halleck to face cameras in the Old Senate Chamber. At first, the press took a light-hearted view of such occasions. One reporter compared the two leaders to broken-down Shakespeareans, while another noted that Dirksen and Halleck demonstrated to a whole new generation just “what it was that killed vaudeville.” New York Times reporter Tom Wicker mocked it as “The Ev and Charlie Show,” and the label stuck.
Such coverage angered Charlie Halleck—“I’m no clown,” he complained—but Everett Dirksen loved the publicity. He embraced the label of “Ev and Charlie,” and encouraged reporters to compare them to other “great American duos” like “corned beef and cabbage” and “ham and eggs.” With his unruly hair and heavy-lidded eyes, Dirksen seemed better suited to radio than television, but his encyclopedic knowledge and a charismatic stage presence served him well.
The “Ev and Charlie Show” was a hit. “Every Thursday morning,” reported the New York Times, “two of this town’s most agile political performers have been taking a turn on-stage and on-camera for the Republican party.” Networks included excerpts of the show on the evening news, and the team received widespread coverage in daily newspapers, as they discussed issues that ranged from civil rights to Cuban affairs, unemployment to Vietnam. Before long, Dirksen and Halleck were well-known national figures.
By the time the Kennedy administration became the Johnson administration, the weekly broadcasts were a mainstay in American politics. In 1965, Gerald Ford replaced Halleck as House Republican leader and the show was renamed the “Ev and Jerry Show.” It continued its regular broadcasts until 1969, when Richard Nixon became president, but the new rendition never quite captured the magic of the original. As it turned out, Charlie Halleck’s irascible nature proved to be the perfect counterpart to Dirksen’s folksy demeanor.
For eight years the show gave Republican leaders a national forum as they tried to find what one contemporary described as that “elusive but important distinction between opposition and obstruction.” Sometimes criticized, frequently ridiculed, but always informative, Dirksen’s weekly press conferences with his House counterpart reminded the public of the importance of the loyal opposition and the relevance of a minority voice. In fact, Dirksen’s influence usually matched and sometimes surpassed that of his majority-party colleagues, because—as Jerry Ford readily admitted—Dirksen was always the star of the show.