Longest-Serving Senate Majority Leader Dies at 98


Mike Mansfield, the longest-serving Senate majority leader, who shepherded landmark legislation in the 1960s and ‘70s on issues from civil rights to political reform and set a standard for civility in a lawmaking arena now often consumed by partisan vitriol, died Friday. He was 98.

Mansfield, who underwent surgery on Sept. 7 to have a pacemaker implanted, died at Walter Reed Army Hospital, said Charles Ferris, his attorney and onetime Senate aide.

After he left the Senate in 1977, Mansfield was named U.S. ambassador to Japan and wielded significant influence in Tokyo for more than 11 years as the emissary of presidents of both major parties. No one before or since has served longer in that important post.


But it was his 34 years in Congress, including 24 in the Senate, that secured the Montana Democrat a place in 20th-century political history. In 16 years as Senate majority leader, from President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961 to President Gerald R. Ford’s exit in 1977, Mansfield guided a remarkably productive upper house of Congress during a turbulent political era.

The nation in that time made war on poverty, put men on the moon and, belatedly, embraced civil rights a century after the emancipation of slaves. It also confronted the failure of the Vietnam War, Cold War crises and the Watergate political scandal.

Mansfield was a pivotal figure through those years in part because he--unlike so many leading politicians then and now--was content to share or even cede the legislative stage.

Many historians regard Mansfield as the antithesis of the majority leader who preceded him, Lyndon B. Johnson. Johnson as the Senate leader and then as president was a personality who dominated the legislative agenda; Mansfield was a self-effacing figure whose stated goal was simply to let the Senate work its will.

Most senators, jealous of their prerogatives as members of one of the world’s most exclusive political clubs, prefer the Mansfield model.

As news of his death was reported Friday, tributes to his leadership poured in.

In a written statement, President Bush noted Mansfield’s passing “with sadness” and said that his “legacy of service to the United States will continue.”


Bush also directed that U.S. flags be flown at half-staff at the White House and all public buildings and military posts on the day Mansfield is buried. Funeral arrangements remained incomplete Friday night.

The senator who succeeded Mansfield as majority leader, Democrat Robert Byrd of West Virginia, said, “Mike Mansfield’s leadership efforts emphasized cooperation, honor and fairness, and were marked by personal conviction and a loyalty to lasting principles.”

“He was a wise, decent and endlessly patient man who believed deeply in the ability of free people to govern themselves wisely,” Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-South Dakota) said in a statement. “It’s no coincidence that the Mansfield years remain among the most civil, and the most productive, in the Senate’s history.”

“We have had few like him, but then with the good Lord’s help, it only takes a few,” Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) remarked in a statement.

Mansfield’s Senate career linked generations. He served with men such as Democrat Johnson and Republican Robert A. Taft of Ohio, two of the ablest legislators in the years following World War II. And he served with many prominent current senators, such as Democrats Byrd and Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Republicans Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and Ted Stevens of Alaska.

Leading Without Lording Over GOP

Viewed in the context of today’s Senate, where Republicans and Democrats are nearly evenly matched and duel for any edge, it is difficult to imagine how a senator could lead a 2-to-1 majority without lording it over the other party.


Yet that is what Mansfield did when the Senate made history in 1964 by breaking through a Southern-led filibuster to pass the Civil Rights Act. In fact, the majority leader let his Republican counterpart, Minority Leader Everett M. Dirksen of Illinois, grab the spotlight that year as Congress struggled to respond to upheaval in the South caused by the civil rights movement.

Mansfield knew that with his own party split along ideological lines between Northerners who favored civil rights and Southerners opposed to them, he would need Republican help to get anything accomplished.

Eventually, Dirksen delivered 27 of the 33 Republican senators on a vote to cut off a Southern filibuster against civil rights legislation that had dragged on for more than 500 hours over several weeks. They were joined by 44 of Mansfield’s 67 Democrats. The tally of 71 votes for cloture--a legislative device to cut off filibusters, rarely used at the time--was four votes more than the 67 then required.

Dirksen (and President Johnson) got credit for a dramatic win. But Mansfield and the country got a groundbreaking new law. The act, which gave the federal government broad powers to combat discrimination in employment, voting and the use of public facilities, was the most important development in civil rights since the Reconstruction era after the Civil War. It was followed in 1965 by the landmark Voting Rights Act, which sought to guarantee equal political standing for black Americans and other members of racial and ethnic minorities.

Equality was Mansfield’s mantra in the Senate. In an interview in December 2000, shortly after an election that produced the Senate’s first 50-50 partisan split, Mansfield offered his take on power-sharing.

“My belief was that all senators were equal--the newest, the oldest or the most important committee chairman,” Mansfield said. “A senator was a senator, whether they were Republicans or Democrats. They came to believe I meant it, and I did.”


On his relations with Dirksen, Mansfield said: “The cards were always on the table. Always. We trusted one another. I spent more time in Dirksen’s office than he did in mine. I was after the votes.” He was also on cordial terms with the Republican who succeeded Dirksen as minority leader, Pennsylvania’s Hugh Scott.

Relations between leaders of the two parties in the years since Mansfield left the Senate have not always been so warm.

Nowadays, when the Senate is in session, Republicans meet every Tuesday over lunch in a walnut-paneled chamber just off the Senate floor, S-207, known as the Mansfield Room. There, a life-sized portrait of the lanky Mansfield, arms folded, pipe in hand, casts a sidelong glance over GOP senators as they plot strategy behind closed doors. Democrats hold similar talks in the nearby LBJ Room. Usually, senators emerge from these meetings to confront gaggles of television and print reporters. Many then criticize members of the other party. That was not Mansfield’s style.

Public Restraint, Behind-Scenes Clout

When the Montanan was majority leader, he was famed for his aversion to what a later generation would call “sound bites.” He would frequently respond to questions with a simple “yep” or “nope.” Reporters gravitated to other senators who were happy to provide quotes.

But Mansfield’s public restraint belied his influence behind the scenes. Senators and presidents from both parties respected him as a straight shooter. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson sent him to Indochina on fact-finding missions. Mansfield advised both, in confidential reports released years later, to curb U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

Mansfield did vote in 1964 for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which Johnson later used to deploy U.S. troops in Vietnam. But Mansfield later said he was deceived by the administration. He went on to become one of the war’s most persistent critics--and a major headache for Johnson.


In one icy White House meeting, Johnson assailed Mansfield’s position on Vietnam and expressed disappointment that he was not receiving better support in the Senate from “my majority leader.”

According to biographer Francis R. Valeo, his longtime aide, Mansfield retorted: “Mr. President, I’m not your majority leader. I’m the Senate’s majority leader.”

In 1972, Mansfield asked Sen. Sam J. Ervin (D-N.C.) to head a special panel that would become famous for its probe of a politically motivated break-in at the Watergate Hotel. In 1974, as the scandal was closing in on President Richard M. Nixon and the White House was pleading for an end to the probe, Mansfield insisted that congressional inquiries would forge ahead. But he said Nixon should be given every opportunity to defend himself.

James Reston, a columnist for the New York Times, wrote at the time that Mansfield was a crucial player because “his colleagues in both parties and in both houses believe in him. . . . So he has the power, even though he doesn’t want it, maybe because he doesn’t want it.”

Rare Lie to Get Into Navy

Born Michael Joseph Mansfield in New York City on March 16, 1903, the son of poor Irish immigrants, Mansfield always went by “Mike.” His mother died when he was 3; his father, a hotel porter, sent him and two sisters to live with an aunt and uncle in Great Falls, Mont.

Mansfield quit school before finishing the eighth grade and in 1917, at 14, he left home to join the Navy. He had to lie about his age, a rare instance when he was known to have deliberately stretched the truth. He stayed in the Navy 19 months, then enlisted in the Army for a year. After that, he put in two years with the Marine Corps, which sent him to Shanghai. That engendered what was to become a lifelong interest in Asia.


Mansfield returned to Montana in 1922 and went to work shoveling copper ore. While working in the mines, Mansfield became engaged to a Butte college student, Maureen Hayes, who persuaded him to resume his education. He earned his high school diploma through a correspondence course, married Maureen and entered what is now the University of Montana.

Over the years, Mansfield often remarked that his wife, to whom he was married for 68 years ending with her death in September 2000, had a profound impact on his life. “The real credit for whatever standing I have in life should be given to my wife, Maureen,” he commented on the floor of the Senate in 1998. “What we did, we did together. In short, I am what I am because of her.”

After earning a master’s degree, Mansfield took a job at the university as an instructor in Far Eastern and Latin American history. The university granted him leave when he was elected to Congress in 1942, and although he never returned, he was later promoted to full professor with lifetime tenure. The school also named a library for Maureen and Mike Mansfield. (He insisted her name go first.)

After an unsuccessful run in 1940 for the U.S. House, Mansfield tried again two years later and won. He was elected to the Senate in 1952 and was repeatedly reelected. Even when Mansfield was majority leader, he put the interests of Montana ahead of almost everything else. He was known to keep Cabinet officers waiting in an outer office while he sipped coffee at a small marble table with a visiting constituent.

In 1957, then-Majority Leader Johnson overwhelmed Mansfield’s demurrals to persuade him to become majority whip, or deputy leader, to succeed a senator who had been defeated for reelection.

Although Mansfield had little to do as whip, the apprenticeship made him a logical choice to become majority leader when Johnson was elected vice president in 1960. Once again Mansfield protested. “I didn’t want the job,” he insisted in an interview years later. “You’ve got to believe that.” But Kennedy persuaded him to take it after two direct appeals. Mansfield was seen as the only Senate Democrat who could keep peace between feuding liberals and conservatives. He was never challenged for reelection as leader. The list of important laws enacted during Mansfield’s leadership is long. Many owed, of course, to Johnson’s prowess at assembling coalitions for such Great Society programs as Medicare and federal education aid.


But Congress also was productive during the Nixon and Ford administrations, passing laws to clean up the nation’s air and water, promote job safety, limit the corrupting influence of campaign contributions and reform federal budgeting. Mansfield also argued for the 26th Amendment, ratified in 1971, which lowered the voting age to 18 at a time when Americans younger than 21 were eligible to fight and die in Vietnam but not to register to vote. A prominent voice in foreign affairs throughout his Senate career, Mansfield was a key supporter of Nixon’s historic trip to Communist China in 1972.

Influenced U.S. Policy on Japan

Named ambassador to Japan in 1977 by President Jimmy Carter, Mansfield argued that the United States should bolster its strength in the Pacific to cope with rising Soviet military power in the region. He also prodded Japan to build up its defenses.

He was one of those rare ambassadors who could pick up the telephone and talk directly with the president or the secretary of state. And he was one of the few who did not clear his speeches with Washington in advance. Under Carter, his mark on U.S. policy toward Japan--strengthening one of the world’s most important bilateral relationships--was indelible. President Ronald Reagan, a Republican, took the unusual step of reappointing the longtime Democratic leader as ambassador in 1981. Only well into Reagan’s second term did his influence appear to wane.

In Japan, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said in a statement Friday: “Former Ambassador Mansfield’s contributions to the friendship between Japan and the United States were great. . . . I offer my heartfelt condolences.”

Mansfield settled in Washington, D.C., after returning from Tokyo and became a senior consultant to Goldman Sachs on Asian affairs. He was also an informal advisor to the Capitol’s club of 100. And he showed up for work every day until near the end of his life.

For years as his wife declined in health, Mansfield would begin every day with a vigorous walk in his neighborhood and then a visit to her in a nursing home. He would go to work and to lunch before going back to the nursing home to sit with his wife and hold her hands, sometimes telling her stories.


In a March 1998 speech to the Senate--one that he had initially prepared for delivery on Nov. 22, 1963, but held after the news of President Kennedy’s assassination--Mansfield quoted from the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu: “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.’ ”