Dirksen on the Record

“He speaks, and the words emerge in a soft, sepulchral baritone. They undulate in measured phrases, expire in breathless wisps. He fills his lungs and blows word-rings like smoke. The words curl upward. They chase each other around the room in dreamy images of Steamboat Gothic. Now he conjures moods of mirth, now of sorrow. … ‘Motherhood,’ he whispers and grown men weep. ‘The Flag!’ he bugles, and everybody salutes. No one who has seen and heard this performance will ever forget it." Everett McKinley Dirksen (1896-1969) was as well known for his use of the language as for his legislative prowess in the U.S. House of Representatives (1933-1949) and the Senate (1951-1969). 

Popular with reporters, animated in his own press conferences, a frequent guest on the Sunday morning talk shows, a favorite of Republican candidates on the campaign trail, and an orator from the old school on the House or Senate floor, Dirksen’s remarks gained him no small measure of fame. He understood the importance of language, of words, of reasoning and argument.

His friends in the press applied various adjectives to describe his oratorical flair. Among the most colorful were “Honey Tonsils,” “The Senate’s Golden Voice,” “ The Capitol’s Foremost Forensic Mesmerizer,” “The Old Growler,” “The Rumpled Magician of the Metaphor,” “Colorful Cornball,” “Silver Throated Senator,” “Pagliacci of American Politics,” and “Buttered Larynx.” One Congress member noted that Dirksen could recite the alphabet and make it sound like the Gettysburg Address, while anybody else could recite the Gettysburg Address and it would sound like the alphabet.