- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 19, 2000

In his book, "Everett Dirksen and his Presidents," Byron C. Hulsey has brought back to life one of the most colorful, effective and distinctive personalities ever to sit in the U.S. Senate. In an age when style trumps substance and so much of politics has become nasty, partisan and personal, Dirksen would be out of place.

The politics of personal destruction was just not his style. As President Richard Nixon noted in his eulogy to him, Dirksen could distinguish between opponents and enemies. He was ever mindful that today's adversaries could become tomorrow's allies.

Mr. Hulsey demonstrates that as a legislative leader, Dirksen was Lyndon Johnson's equal in his ability to manipulate others through careful displays of anger, flattery, cajolery and threats. After engaging in a "heated go" on the Senate floor, the two would often retreat to the privacy of one of their offices to work things out over a drink.

During Johnson's presidency, the "suprapartisan" politics he and Dirksen practiced, Mr. Hulsey says, reached its apex. That was back when national party leaders hammered out mutually agreeable arrangements behind closed doors, quid pro quo. To make deals they struck stick, each side would offer "cover" to the other by reining in dissenters on their side of the aisle.

Vietnam hastened the end of that kind of politics as usual. As Mr. Hulsey explains, with Dirksen defending Johnson's policies against attacks from Democratic "doves," the "out party" forfeited its historical obligation both to oppose and to offer alternative strategies. It also stopped more "hawkish" views from being debated when the war was still deemed "winnable."

Social unrest in the 1960s, an increasingly assertive press, and what Mr. Hulsey calls the "politics of resentment" of the Nixon era also played their part in undoing suprapartisanship. Nevertheless, as might be said in the world of the theater, for which Dirksen showed such a flair, "it had a long run." And none performed better at it than Everett McKinley Dirksen.

In his 18 years in the Senate, 10 as minority leader, Dirksen emerged through his rumpled appearance, baritone voice, quick wit and capacity to attract attention the Republican on Capitol Hill best known to the American public. Through his mastery of the legislative machinery and skills in the back room, he also became the senator with whom presidents of both parties most wanted to do business.

Some, including his fellow "conservatives" whom he purportedly led, thought him too willing to abandon principle in pursuit of "what would pass." Others marveled at the speed with which he could reverse himself on issues. Sen. John Kennedy and Sen. George Smathers joked that Dirksen had given the best speech in support of Marshall Plan assistance, while serving in the House, and the best speech against it, when he went to the Senate.

Dwight Eisenhower got it right when he said Dirksen was "kind of subtle about things." Throughout the 1950s, Dirksen prodded his party to the center, rallying behind Eisenhower's internationalist and interventionist foreign policy and acceptance of New Deal programs. That was where he knew the country to be and he stood determined to prevent his party from drifting too far away from the national consensus. In the 1960s, Dirksen veered back to his conservative roots, convinced that social unrest, rising crime and increased permissiveness were unraveling the social fabric.

Dirksen's view of America consisted of the small-town values he learned growing up in Pekin, Ill., at the turn of the 20th century. Among those were the power of faith and the importance of hard work and fair play. He worked to overturn Supreme Court rulings mandating legislative reapportionment and outlawing school prayer because he saw them as threats to the world he knew.

Sensing he had a special role to play as an inheritor of Abraham Lincoln's congressional seat and as a leader of his party, Dirksen never wavered in his commitment to civil rights. Upset over Eisenhower's willingness to compromise away provisions of the 1957 Civil Rights Act and at Lyndon Johnson's endeavors supported by organized labor to weaken it further, Dirksen declared, "It is not going to be stopped. It may be stopped now, but it will roll … we are dealing with human beings …"

Seven years later, Dirksen made it "roll." In response to his careful prodding and shrewd negotiating, 27 out of 33 Senate Republicans voted for the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a higher percentage than that of their Democratic counterparts. Among the Democratic naysayers were "liberals" J. William Fulbright and Albert Gore Sr. and "constitutional authorities" Sam Ervin and Robert Byrd.

One laments that a figure as pivotal to the politics of the mid-20th century as Dirksen has received so little attention among historians. Until a fuller account of his life appears, Mr. Hulsey's book will fill a glaring void.

Alvin Felzenberg is a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

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