Dirksen: Master Legislator

by Byron Hulsey, Assistant Director, Jefferson Scholars Foundation

NOTE: Byron Hulsey delivered these remarks at the National Archives, January 11, 2001. Everett Dirksen was the subject of his Ph.D. dissertation, "Everett Dirksen and the Modern Presidents: truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson" (University of Texas at Austin, 1998).

At the most superficial level, Everett Dirksen never escaped the caricature of a purposeless ham, well-meaning and good-natured but nevertheless a puppetlike buffoon who used the nation's political stage more to entertain and amuse than to lead and inspire. The journalist David Halberstam offers such a perspective, writing in the 1970's that "Dirksen was marvelously over-blown, like a huge and rich vegetable that that has become slightly overripe; watching him, one had the sense that he was always winking at the audience, winking at the role he had chosen to play, the stereotype of a slightly corrupt and old-fashioned senator." (1)

Dirksen's theatrical inclinations and rumpled appearance masked the fact that he was one of the twentieth century's master legislators. Today I would like to focus on six aspects of Dirksen's personality and character that made it possible for him to shape some of the most important laws of his generation. In addition to the qualities peculiar to Dirksen, I will from the beginning argue that his accomplishments were also due to luck, to a fortune whose opportunities he shrewdly grasped, but a fortune that he could not in the end control. Throughout this presentation, I want to invite you to compare today's political culture to the Washington milieu in which Dirksen worked. I will argue in the end, as an historian rather than a political scientist, that it was much easier to be a master legislator in Dirksen's day than in ours.

But first, to the world of Everett Dirksen. He was born in 1893 in the small, midwestern, and middle American town of Pekin, Illinois. Even as a child, he enjoyed a rhapsodic fascination for words and for the power of language. Coupled with an innate preference for showmanship that never eluded him, Dirksen's affinity for language made him into an oratorical giant. As a child he tirelessly practiced his preaching and his speech-making from the nearby family barn, as his brothers rolled their eyes and his mother sushed them quiet. At thirteen, he enjoyed the thrill of a lifetime when he met Democratic standard-bearer William Jennings Bryan, who counseled his young admirer to always speak to the back row of an audience. Young Everett's high school peers said Dirksen was afflicted with "bigworditis," but I am convinced that his love of language inspired his public life and fueled the speeches that so many Americans of his day remembered.(2) Very few senators admit to changing their votes as a result of a colleague's speech, but it is fair to say that on at least two critical occasions (when he spoke on behalf of the United Nations in 1962 and endorsed the Civil Rights Act of 1964) his remarks altered the moral and philosophical language of the debate.

Now most of us would acknowledge that oratorical prowess alone does not make for a master legislator. Two heralded speechmakers of Dirksen's day, John Kennedy and Barry Goldwater, were widely considered Senate lightweights whose lack of enthusiasm for the upper house prevented them from doing anything substantive as senators. Dirksen balanced his oratorical gifts with Herculean work habits. His son-in-law Howard Baker, himself a former Minority Leader of the Republican Senate, recently described Dirksen as a "semi-insomniac" and recalled that "he used to get up at 4:30 in the morning. On those occasions when I was with him, at that hour I would wake up and see the light on at his desk." Reporter Robert Novak suggested that Dirksen's emphysema, brought on by his three-pack-a-day smoking addiction, contributed to his insomnia. "He'd go back out on his screen porch in Leesburg," Novak remembered, "with an old portable typewriter and he'd take every bill that came out of committee, read the bill, read the report, and write a one-page precis on it." Thomas Kuchel's legislative assistant Stephen Horn remembered that Dirksen's work continued after the close of the legislative day. "When his chauffeur-driven car took him out to his home in Virginia," Horn recalled, "you could see the light on in the back seat and Dirksen reading his bills under that light." Horn argued that "there was no senator more serious about the study of legislation than Everett Dirksen." Novak agreed, insisting that Dirksen "knew the legislation better than anybody in the Senate."(3)

Closely connected to Dirksen's work ethic was his unparalleled knowledge of the rules. When he was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1932, Dirksen took a preliminary trip to Washington and sought the counsel of senior Republicans. He especially valued the advice of Joe Martin from Massachusetts, who told him to "Take the assignments you can get and work at them. Perfect yourself in committee work, and in due course you'll start up the ladder. Study the rules. Those who know the rules know how to operate in the Congress." Dirksen followed the crux of Martin's advice through his entire career, and used it to his advantage as Minority Leader when he was charged with slowing the Democratic legislative stampede. In 1959, with the Democrats enjoying a 66-34 margin in the Senate, Democratic Senator John Kennedy of Massachusetts sponsored legislation that would protect union finances and ensure workers the right to vote secretly for union officials. In addition to the provisions stipulated in Kennedy's bill, Republican President Dwight Eisenhower and Dirksen sought legislation to outlaw blackmail picketing and to prohibit secondary boycotts. Kennedy and the Democrats saw these additions as antilabor proposals and fought to push the original bill through the Congress. Dirksen sought to slow its passage. By resorting to a Senate rule that forbade committees to meet without unanimous consent while the Senate was in session (usually beginning at noon), Dirksen frustrated Democratic efforts to hold Labor Committee hearings on the bill. When the committee did meet, Dirksen stymied the legislation's progress in other ways. To delay the formation of a quorum, he and other Republicans would wait until the last Democrat appeared before arriving at the committee hearing. After Kennedy spoke for the bill, Dirksen turned to a stack of materials he had brought to the hearing and announced, "Well, we've been considering legislation in the Judiciary Committee that has a bearing on legislation, particularly as it affects the Northwestern Railway. I have here a history of the Northwestern Railway, which I want to place in the record, if the chairman will permit." He then proceeded to read until noon, when the bell rang and the committee had to adjourn for the opening of the legislative day. Ultimately, Dirksen's tactics resulted in a bill that Eisenhower described as a "definite improvement on the legislation previously existing."(4)

Oratorical prowess, an unquenchable work ethic, and knowledge of the rules are not enough to make a master legislator. Dirksen's flexibility, combined with a conscious ambiguity, were even more important factors. More than any other quality he possessed, this trait was learned over time, and represented in the end a great departure from his early days in the United States Senate when he postured, fumed, and blustered against the New Deal and global containment with no great effect. Ideological elasticity is currently out of fashion in today's politics, but Dirksen never apologized for his bobbing and weaving. He once explained "I am a man of principle, and one of my principles is flexibility." Although some interested parties remain critical of Dirksen's inconsistencies, his son-in-law Howard Baker has a different take. "Virtually every idea he held," Baker has recently written, "he held tentatively. The world would be better off if more people did that these days."(5) Dirksen's discomfort with a rigid set of ideas was a function of his awareness that changing times and dangerous conditions require pragmatic cooperation with the other side of the aisle. As Minority Leader he sensed intuitively that his first obligation was to ensure that the Senate functioned smoothly as a governing institution, not that it screech to a halt for mere ideological posturing.

Dirksen's unparalleled importance as a legislator arose in the 1960s from an apparent paradox. Even though he represented just 33 Republicans against 67 Democrats, Dirksen played the critical role in the civil rights debates. Southern Democrats were unalterably opposed to any significant legislation, and Democratic President Lyndon Johnson was forced to reach across the aisle to gain Dirksen's support as the administration sought to de-segregate public facilities in the South and guarantee the right of all Americans to vote. Johnson minced no words when it came to appreciating Dirksen's importance in the field of civil rights. Johnson told the NAACP's Roy Wilkins, "You're gonna have to persuade Dirksen why this is in the interests of the Republican party….I'm a Democrat, but if a fella will stand up and fight with you, you can cross party lines." Dirksen refused to make an early commitment to the legislation, and his indecisiveness heightened his importance on Capitol Hill. After Democratic whip Hubert Humphrey, who was in charge of the bill on the floor, went on Meet the Press and praised Dirksen's patriotism, Johnson called to congratulate him: "Boy, that was right. You're doing just right now. You just keep at that. Don't let those bomb throwers…talk you out of seeing Dirksen. You drink with Dirksen! You talk to Dirksen! You listen to Dirksen!" He advised Humphrey that "Ev is a proud man. So don't pull any damned protocol. You go see him. And don't forget that Dirksen loves to bend at the elbow. I want you to drink with him till he agrees to vote for cloture and deliver me two Republicans from the mountain states." Though he drank himself "damned near blind," Humphrey kept after him and later claimed, "I would have kissed Dirksen's ass on the Capitol steps."(6) Can you imagine a Democrat saying that about a Republican today? Imagine Tom Daschle and trent Lott on the steps of Capitol Hill! In the all-important area of civil rights, Dirksen enjoyed unparalleled prestige in the Washington establishment.

Dirksen's oratorical prowess, his tireless work ethic, his flexibility, and his deliberate ambiguity were critical, but taken together, still not enough to make him a master legislator. The last variable under Dirksen's control was his understanding of human relationships, in particular his fondness for his colleagues and his uncanny appreciation of the motivations of the men and women around him. In this regard, though they employed radically different styles, Dirksen and his Democratic counterpart Lyndon Johnson had much in common. Dirksen and Johnson interacted daily, both on and off of the Senate floor, as the two were responsible for scheduling the legislative agenda and pursuing the interests of their parties. Johnson's legislative assistant George Reedy told me that the encounters were often unplanned and rarely formal. In fact, the two politicos so understood each other that nods, snorts, and grunts often composed the whole of their conversations. As Reedy recalled, "One of the characteristics of a really good rather than merely capable politician is their capacity to come up with large-scale, complex plans without one single word on paper and practically nothing spoken except 'hello.' It's quite an act, and that's one act at which Dirksen and Johnson were masters."(7)

trust was at the center of Dirksen's treatment of his colleagues. His word was his bond. In all of my research, I never uncovered a single significant instance where Dirksen promised a colleague a vote he did not deliver or failed to follow through on an endeavor he had begun with a fellow senator. Dirksen also possessed the rare but all-important ability to disagree without being disagreeable. When he was fighting Kennedy on the 1959 labor bill and reading the history of the Northwestern Railroad into the record, an eyewitness observer noted that "Kennedy was laughing and everyone was broken up. It was just preposterous business." Dirksen knew by instinct that in American politics an enemy today can be your friend tomorrow. Jack Valenti, who was an aide to President Johnson, remembered that Dirksen would call the White House and ask about Johnson. Then he would ask Valenti to relay a message: "Tell him I'm going to sort of cut him up a little bit on the floor tomorrow." After his floor speech, he would call back: "I'd like to see the boss." Valenti recalled that Dirksen knew to arrive through the Diplomatic Reception Room so the Washington press corps would not know that he was making yet another call at the White House. Valenti described the atmosphere at those meetings: "Sometimes they would have a drink together. They would sit and chew the fat, reminisce, tell stories, laugh, and really enjoy themselves. Then they would sit down about half an hour after they arrived and really begin to parley."(8)

Almost as important in his dealings with others was the concept of sacrifice. When Dirksen was elected minority leader in 1959, he broke with precedent and pledged that he would place every Republican senator on at least one major committee. Of course this meant that Dirksen played an important role in dispensing plum committee slots, but, more to the point, his GOP colleagues praised him for sharing the spotlight on Capitol Hill. When John Tower was elected to the Senate in 1962, Dirksen sacrificed his own seat on the Banking and Currency Committee and gave it to the ever-grateful Texan who had run his campaign as a fiscal conservative.(9) In Tower, Dirksen had a life-long friend who never forgot his mentor's beneficence.

Dirksen possessed five traits (oratorical prowess, herculean work habits, knowledge of the rules, a deliberate flexibility, and an unparalleled command of human relationships) that helped him become a master legislator. But like all historical actors, Dirksen was also subject to a future that he could not control. He was extraordinarily lucky. He succeeded the unpleasant and cantankerous William Knowland, a Californian crumudgeon who alienated Eisenhower and irritated most of his Republican colleagues. Whether Dirksen's colleagues agreed with his politics or not, they were pleased to be rid of Knowland, and therefore gave Dirksen some space and goodwill to chart his own course on Capitol Hill. Dirksen was also fortunate that Eisenhower did not freeze the Illinoisian out of the establishment as a result of his early grandstanding against the general's political career.(10) Most important of all, Dirksen profited from and contributed to a unique political culture, a Washington milieu that I call suprapartisanship.

Launched by Eisenhower and conservative Democrats in the 1950s in the wake of Cold War crises, suprapartisanship was consolidated in the Kennedy years and peaked in the 1960s when President Johnson reached out to Dirksen and other Republicans at the height of the civil rights crisis. Suprapartisanship placed a premium on human relationships bound by trust, and flourished in an era in which the media was a less aggressive and less intrusive player in Washington politics. As a political culture, suprapartisanship had legislative effects. Deep in Dirksen's Capitol Hill office sat the Twilight Lodge, his fully stocked bar that he opened up at the close of every day for his Republican colleagues, their favorite Democratic counterparts, and trusted members of the national media. Similar to Sam Rayburn's Board of Education, the Twilight Lodge sported a clock with every hour replaced with the number five, so that it was always time for a drink. Make no mistake: important, albeit informal, business was carried out in the Twilight Lodge. When Justice Department officials and legislative assistants were crafting the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Dirksen insisted that they hang around his office until the close of the legislative day so that they might have time to share a drink with suspicious senators and lobby them about the progress of the bill.(11)

Of course leaders from both parties had their partisan causes to serve, but during times of national crisis, Republicans and Democrats, for good and ill, gathered behind closed doors and pursued their shared understanding of the national interest. In short, suprapartisanship, a culture that Dirksen profited from and contributed to, enabled the Illinois leader to be a master legislator even when his party was so vastly outnumbered in the Senate.

As a result of Vietnam, urban riots, and Watergate, suprapartisanship fell apart in the late 1960s and early 1970s and was replaced by a more acrimonious and contentious political culture that welcomed differences, capitalized on discord, and deemed national consensus an unrealized and foolhardy dream of the broken past. Legislative mastery is much more complicated today than in Dirksen's era. Interest groups have flourished, and a jaundiced media launches expose after expose detailing the sordid and corrupt behavior of our public servants. Loyalty to the system, the establishment, and the administration has become a relic of the past. Those who work at the highest level are expected to sell their stories to the highest bidder long before the president has concluded his time in office. Lobbyists and political consultants are more influential than ever, and most would prefer that the politician/client defend his or her selfish interest and frame the hot-button issues in incendiary press conferences and with negative television ads than pursue the common good.

Senate culture has changed as well. Most experts interviewed for this book point to a decline in the human relationships that have made the Senate the world's most deliberative legislative body; a few senators privately admit that their lives are lonelier than they could have ever expected.(12) Dirksen's successors have not replaced the famed Twilight Lodge, and opportunities for fellowship and camaraderie on Capitol Hill are more scant today than ever. Except for party caucus luncheons, the weekly Senate Prayer Breakfast, and roll-call votes on the Senate floor, there are precious few chances for members to engage each other in off-the-record conversations.

Senators more often than not blame the media, but much of the responsibility lies with the neverending need to raise more money for the next campaign. Washington is more than ever a transient town. When Congress is in session, money-hungry senators expect to leave for their states on Thursday evening and not return until Monday afternoon. By contrast, Dirksen and his colleagues spent most of their time in Washington and entertained each other on the weekend. Relationships today are thinner and more transparent, largely because senators do not know each other. Senators from both sides of the aisle sadly but not surprisingly reported a "bonding experience" during President Bill Clinton's impeachment trial. Until then, they had not sat and listened to one another as a complete legislative body in a media-free environment.(13)

The relentless need to raise more money calls into question the vitality of democracy in today's America. At the very least, the constant coming and going and the endless posturing have created a poor working environment for deliberative legislation. Dirksen hammered out most of his deals during face-to-face confrontations with his colleagues. Today, as Rowland Evans Jr. argues, too many senators too often fail to master the critical details in pending legislation. "Well," Evans imagines one senator telling another, "I'll have Harry look at it and why don't you tell your guy to call Harry."(14) Some of you, I am sure, are not displeased that writing laws is more difficult now than in Dirksen's day. While I in no way yearn for a return to the establishment politics of the 1950s and 1960s, I do fervently hope that there are enough eager, willing, and able men and women to overcome the fractured state of our political institutions in the face of whatever our next national crisis might be.


1. David Halberstam, The Powers That Be (New York: Knopf, 1979), p. 387.
2. For Dirksen's time in the family barn, see "Everett Dirksen's Washington," Remarks and Releases, January 22, 1968, Everett M. Dirksen Center (EMDC); for "bigworditis," see Frank H. Mackaman's introduction to Dirksen's Education of a Senator (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998), p. xiii.
3. For "semi-insomniac," see author's interview with Howard Baker, August 9, 1999; for "screen porch," and "anybody in the Senate," see author's interview with Robert Novak, August 4, 1999; for "Dirksen reading his bills," see "Roundtable of Participants in the Passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964," This Constitution, 19 (Fall 1991), p. 35.
4. For "know the rules," see Neil MacNeil's Dirksen: Portrait of a Public Man (New York: World Publishing Company, 1971) pp. 41, 51-52; for a general history of the labor bill, see R. Alton Lee's Eisenhower and Landrum-Griffin: A Study in Labor Management Politics (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990); for "if the chairman will permit," see Stewart E. McClure's oral history, no. 3, Senate Historical Office; for "definite improvement," see Eisenhower's The White House Years: Waging Peace, 1956-1961 (Garden City: Doubleday, 1965), p. 329.
5. For "one of my principles is flexibility," see Jean E. Torcum, "Leadership: The Role and Style of Everett Dirksen," in To Be a Congressman: The Promise and the Power, Sven Groennings and Jonathan P. Hawley, editors (Washington, DC: Acropolis Books, 1973), p. 217; for "he held tentatively," see Howard Baker's forward in Dirksen's The Education of a Senator, p. viii.
6. For "I'm a Democrat," see Johnson's conversation with Roy Wilkins, January 6, 1964, Telephone Tapes and transcripts (TTT), WH6401.0618, Lyndon Johnson Library (LBJL); for "You drink with Dirksen!", see Hubert H. Humphrey, oral history no. 1, August 17, 1971, interview by Joe B. Frantz, LBJL; for "two Republicans from the mountain states," see Carl Solberg, Hubert Humphrey: A Biography (New York: W.W. Norton, 1984), p. 224; for "Capitol steps," see Carl T. Rowan, Breaking Barriers: A Memoir (Boston: Little, Brown, 1991), p. 248.
7. Author's interview with George Reedy, July 30, 1998.
8. For "Kennedy was laughing," see McClure's oral history, interview no. 3, Senate Historical Office; for "I'd like to see the boss," see Jack Valenti's oral history, interview no. 5, July 12, 1972, interview by Joe B. Frantz, pp. 10-13, LBJL.
9. Dirksen's 1961 correspondence with John Tower, Alpha File, EMDC.
10. For Eisenhower's impression of Knowland, see, for instance, the President's diary entry for January 10, 1955, reel 5, p. 0759, Diaries of Dwight D. Eisenhower; for Eisenhower's commitment to Dirksen, see, for instance, Ann C. Whitman Diary Series, April 27-28, 1954 (1), Dwight D. Eisenhower Library (DDEL).
11. For information on the Twilight Lodge, see Francis R. Valeo's oral history, interview no. 17, December 11, 1985, pp. 776-777, Senate Historical Office; for the Twilight Lodge and the Voting Rights Bill, see Stephen Horn, "Roundtable of Participants in the Passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964," This Constitution 19 (Fall 1991), p. 36.
12. Author's interview with Harry McPherson, August 26, 1999.
13. Author's interview with David Broder, March 16, 1999.
14. Author's interview with Rowland Evans, Jr., August 5, 1999.