Minutes before 6 p.m., C-SPAN camera operators took up their assigned positions. In the cramped gallery of the historic Old Senate Chamber, a capacity audience struggled through the narrow aisles to reach its minimally comfortable seats. On the floor below, senators greeted former colleagues, preparing for what all knew would be a historic occasion. On schedule, three men—two in their 50s and one in his 90s—began their procession down the center aisle. At first, they passed unnoticed. Then, as if by signal, the audience erupted in boisterous applause.
Majority Leader Trent Lott, accompanied by Democratic Leader Tom Daschle, began the proceedings by explaining that this was to be the first in a series of “Senate Leader’s Lectures.” Designed to “foster a deeper appreciation of the Senate as an institution, and to show the way it continues both to adapt to circumstances and to master them,” the series would present observations of nine former Senate party leaders and vice presidents of the United States.
Ninety-five-year-old Mike Mansfield then took the lectern to recall lessons learned during his record-setting tenure as leader, from 1961 to 1977. With the Montana Democrat’s opening remarks, it became clear to the audience that the evening would bring an added historical treat.
Mansfield explained that he had originally drafted his remarks 35 years earlier, in November 1963. He had done this in response to the whispered criticism from some of his Democratic colleagues, blaming him for not moving more speedily to advance President John F. Kennedy’s legislative agenda. “If some of my party colleagues believed that mine was not the style of leadership that suited them, they would be welcome to seek a change.” But President Kennedy’s assassination on the very afternoon Mansfield had planned to deliver his remarks caused him to shelve his address.
The 1998 lecture series presented an ideal opportunity for Mansfield to dust off his old speech to share its timeless observations about the nature of leadership in the Senate. An opening quotation from the Chinese philosopher Lao Tsu expressed his own leadership style. “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.’”
Over the next four years, the other speakers in the series carefully consulted the remarks of those who had preceded them, each thereby building a uniquely compelling record on the initial observations of the exemplary Mike Mansfield.