McConnell Pays Tribute to Former Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield of Montana

‘In the Mansfield model, serving his caucus meant listening to his members, supporting them in their goals, and helping facilitate the victories his party wanted from out of the spotlight. And he also sought to serve the Senate as a whole. He got things done without blowing up bedrock. He mostly defended the Senate’s idiosyncrasies, traditions, and pace, rather than tearing them down. He erred on the side of empowering his colleagues rather than dominating them.'

WASHINGTON, D.C.U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) delivered the following remarks today on the Senate floor regarding Senate Democratic Leader Mike Mansfield (D-MT), the previously-longest-serving Party Leader in Senate history:

“Last November, my Republican colleagues reelected me to another two-year term serving our Conference as Leader.

“The greatest honor of my career is representing the Commonwealth of Kentucky in this chamber and fighting for my fellow Kentuckians. But the second-greatest honor is the trust that my fellow Republican Senators have placed in me to lead our diverse Conference and help them achieve their goals.

“As I begin my ninth Congress serving my colleagues in this role, I find myself looking back over some of the remarkable statesmen who’ve come before us.

“Designated party floor leaders have been a feature of the Senate for more than a hundred years. And no two have done the job exactly alike.

“Some notable Leaders have built influence through bookish mastery of procedure — such as the Massachusetts Republican Henry Cabot Lodge and the West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd.

“Other Leaders are remembered less for parliamentary wizardry than for tackle football. Joseph Taylor Robinson of Arkansas delivered much of the New Deal through the Senate for F.D.R. — with a lively repertoire that included cutting deals, red-faced rants, pounding his desk, and almost ending up in fisticuffs here on the floor.

“When Robinson died of a heart attack, Roosevelt’s pick to fill the vacancy was the Kentucky Senator Alben Barkley. Even with that endorsement, Barkley only won his first election as Leader by one vote — in part because Senate Democrats worried the President’s handpicked man might have mixed loyalties. But Barkley won his colleagues’ trust. In 1944, when he dramatically resigned during a showdown with the White House over tax policy, his conference re-installed him on a unanimous vote the very next day.

“There was our late friend and colleague Bob Dole of Kansas, a sharp competitor who excelled both at partisan combat and bipartisan compromise — plus a wicked sense of humor.

“The Texas Democrat Lyndon Johnson was a towering interpersonal force and master of relationships. The Ohio Republican Robert Taft had been more introverted and cerebral, a master of policy. But each was a strong force and a powerful thorn in the side of opposite-party Administrations.

“Then there’ve been Leaders who rose to the job through lower-key, behind-the-scenes styles.

“And that, Madam President, is how Senator Michael Joseph Mansfield of Montana became the longest-serving Senate Leader in American history until this morning.


“The highest-ranking federal official Montana has ever produced wasn’t actually born under the Big Sky. When Mike Mansfield’s mother died early, this young son of Irish immigrants was put on a train from New York City to family in Great Falls.

“Though Mansfield would later be famous as a Senate Leader who didn’t bully his colleagues, apparently young Mike first tried a different tack. A brief trial run as a self-appointed schoolyard bully ended when a bigger boy supplied some humility.

“At age 14, standing all of five feet, four inches, he successfully used doctored documents to join the Navy. Soon after, he migrated to the Army instead. And soon after that, the Marines — which took Mansfield to the Philippines and the coast of China.

“Afterwards, back in Montana, Mansfield worked in copper mines as a ‘mucker.’ This was touchy work in a dangerous underground environment, with dynamite everywhere and few exit routes. Eventually Mike left the grueling work to pursue schooling, but not before the mines had taught him enduring lessons about caution and prudence.

“First came college. Then graduate studies, continuing a fascination with Asia.

“But Mike soon exchanged the faculty lounge for elected office. He lost his first race to represent Montana’s First District in 1940, but he won both the primary and the general in 1942 after the incumbent Republican Jeannette Rankin had cast the only vote against war with Japan after Pearl Harbor.

“The war gave Congress’s newest Asia expert immediate relevance. Speaker Sam Rayburn made sure he landed on the Foreign Affairs Committee. NBC invited Congressman Mansfield to deliver a broadcast lecture on events in Asia. Soon the Roosevelt White House named him the President’s personal envoy to wartime China.

“A decade later, five terms in, Representative Mansfield was a trusted foreign policy hand and a proven fighter for Montana. He’d traveled to Asia multiple times. He’d served as a U.N. delegate. President Truman had offered to nominate Mansfield to a State Department job. But Mansfield was eyeing a different promotion. In 1952, he beat Montana’s incumbent Republican Senator by just a few thousand votes and began a Senate tenure that would span nearly a quarter century.


“From his freshman seat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Mansfield spent the 1950s as the Senate’s most frequent traveler to the increasingly pivotal region of Indochina — what we’d soon be calling Vietnam.

“Even during the Republican Eisenhower Administration, the Montana Democrat had great influence. He was an early voice calling for more and faster shipments of military aid to the anti-Communist cause. And at least one historian argues that without Mansfield’s personal intervention, the U.S. might well have pulled the plug on supporting Diem and conceded Vietnam to the Communists as early as the mid-1950s, avoiding the entire war.

“It took Senator Mansfield’s colleagues little time to identify another use for these diplomatic talents, closer to home.

“After the previous Democratic Whip, Earle Clements of Kentucky, narrowly lost reelection in 1956, Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson needed a new number-two. He eventually turned to the respected first-termer from Montana. Mansfield later remembered, ‘Lyndon insisted I had to take it because I was the least objectionable to most of the Democratic Senators… it was not a flattering argument, but after several meetings, I finally lost my resolve against becoming Whip.’

“Now, L.B.J. was not looking to devolve any real power to his lieutenant. The record suggests that Johnson’s famous pitbull staffer Bobby Baker did more threatening, horse-trading, and whipping of Senators than did Mansfield. Mostly the Senator kept investing in his twin passions: Montana and Asia. But his colleagues grew in appreciation for the traits that Mansfield offered the caucus that L.B.J. didn’t: A calm presence; a collaborative style; a listening ear.

“When Mansfield’s colleagues Kennedy and Johnson won the 1960 election, both J.F.K. and L.B.J. wanted Mansfield for Leader. But there was drama right from the start.

“Johnson insisted that Senate Democrats begin the new Congress by voting on a resolution to let him chair the Democratic Caucus, as if he’d never left. Well, the debate was unexpectedly fierce. The ‘no’ vote was surprisingly large. Even though the resolution carried, the episode was a clear rebuke. L.B.J.’s former colleagues wanted to turn the page.

“Mike Mansfield would be Leader not just in name, but in reality.


“The shift from a boisterous, high-drama Leader to a lower-key, more businesslike floor manager rippled across the institution.

“Johnson had deliberately run a melodramatic and unpredictable Senate. Mansfield set out making things more predictable and formal. Instead of surprise late-night sessions and unpredictable recesses, Senators got a set schedule. Instead of micromanaging, the Majority Leader was laissez-faire.

“President Kennedy’s cabinet quickly learned they could meet with Majority Leader Mansfield all they liked, but he wouldn’t get ahead of his members. He’d listen politely and refer them to the appropriate chairman.

“When snafus stalled the Senate floor, Mansfield’s first problem-solving tactic was to try simply doing nothing. One biographer marvels at Mansfield’s ‘awesome, monumental, fearsome, incredible patience.’ He would sit ‘stiffly erect at his desk on the Senate floor… hour after hour, and sometimes day after day.’

“Leader Mansfield prioritized treating members equally. Apparently he never even took a position in the races that determined his own Whip. In one small but telling touch, Mansfield made sure the Senate’s only two women members, Margaret Chase Smith and Maureen Neuberger, got a pair of plum offices that shared a private restroom.

“In the Mansfield Senate, proceedings became more orderly and less theatrical. Crucial work migrated out of hallway confrontations and hideaway handshakes and into hearing rooms and committee offices. The Senate was less defined by top-down dramatics than by bills and priorities percolating upward. A diligent, low-key leadership style from a serious, diligent, low-key person. As one historian puts it, this ‘insistence on being last rather than first, the servant and not the suzerain of the Senate, fitted his personality like a comfortable suit.’

“Now, not all Senators welcomed the change. Especially during the Kennedy years, when some of his party’s bold priorities stalled under filibusters, some of Mansfield’s own members openly criticized him and his comparatively hands-off approach.

“Mansfield stood firm. He prepared a defiant speech, doubling down on his faith in an orderly process and collegial Senate. Remarkably, literally minutes before this big speech was minutes to be announced, President Kennedy was shot in Dallas. Mansfield’s remarks ended up slid into the Record with little fanfare.

“Of course, thereafter, a variety of factors made the Johnson presidency a fruitful time for major legislation — from the Civil Rights Act to the Voting Rights Act to Medicare and the rest of the Great Society. And Mansfield’s Senates remained productive. Later, the Nixon Administration and Democrats in Congress passed a thick stack of bipartisan policies.

“Some critics of Mansfield argue that the Majority Leader was not the direct driving force behind these accomplishments; that he contented himself with the modest task of keeping the Senate machinery oiled, while other people with stronger and clearer visions championed particular outcomes.

“But it’s worth noting Mansfield himself would have seen that statement as a badge of honor. And really, the caricature of a totally hands-off, almost agnostic Leader is just not accurate. Mansfield was a canny strategist who knew how to rally his Conference. He knew when to go to battle, and when to coordinate with his counterpart Everett Dirksen. In short, he knew how to work the Senate.

“Even when a supermajority of Senators stood ready to pass the Civil Rights Act in early 1964, it took Mansfield’s personal field generalship to get it done. On the front end, his crafty moves kept the bill from dying an early death in Senator Eastland’s hostile Judiciary Committee; on the back end, they stopped the final filibuster; and in between, thwarted all the creative stall tactics without blowing up the institution.

“But it’s certainly true that, overall, Mansfield did not view — and did not treat — the Senate as a mere means to policy ends he favored. Yes, the former history teacher was a Democrat who did want particular results, and he often got them. But he seems to have felt the most valuable end was the institution of the Senate itself — its processes and debates, its traditions and structures, and all 100 of its members.

“He saw his job as facilitating the Senate as a whole working its will — not just him working his.

“Again, this unusually neutral style came with costs. For example, L.B.J. was convinced Mansfield could have jammed through the Civil Rights Act earlier if he’d played harder ball with the Southerners. Earlier, J.F.K. had grown exasperated with his friend’s patient handling of Dirksen while Republicans slow-walked Kennedy’s Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

“But take note: in both cases, the priorities did eventually pass. And they probably became law with broader and deeper support because Mansfield allowed members more time, space, and face-saving.


“With regard to Asia, even when Mansfield’s historic run in the Senate finally ended, his service on the international stage did not.

“Shortly after he departed this chamber, President Carter nominated him to be our Ambassador to Japan. His performance was so strong that President Reagan asked him to stay on. He served in that role for 11 years — from longest-serving Senate Leader to longest-serving Japan ambassador.

“Mansfield’s decades of work on Asia could fill a separate speech. But it’s worth noting one time where his approach to the job of Leader directly shaped his work in the region.

“I mentioned how some historians see Mansfield’s aggressive emphasis on Vietnam during the Eisenhower period a key tipping point toward eventual war. But as early as 1962, Mansfield’s learned perspective had him deeply worried about the direction of our involvement in Vietnam. Where he had spent the ‘50s lobbying for more and faster aid, he spent the ‘60s sounding alarms.

“But while there were some public statements, Mansfield remained measured and discreet, and reserved his sharpest warnings for a long string of private memorandums that he sent the White House. Some historians feel Mansfield should have engineered a more public, more dramatic break with the Johnson Administration if he was so certain we were marching into quagmire. Some Democratic Senators were publicly assailing Johnson’s Vietnam policies. But Majority Leader Mansfield decided against making a high-profile public break with a President of his own party on foreign policy.


“Clearly, Mike Mansfield was a complex and fascinating Senate Leader for reasons far beyond longevity.

“This scholarly Montanan was not an exciting idealist who transformed our national discourse, nor a policy entrepreneur who brought to the Leader’s role his own sweeping wish list of federal programs.

“Mansfield made a huge impact through a different road: by viewing the role of Leader as serving others.

“Well, that and the fact that he always enjoyed big, stable majorities for his side — often well in excess of 60 votes!

“In the Mansfield model, serving his caucus meant listening to his members, supporting them in their goals, and helping facilitate the victories his party wanted from out of the spotlight. And he also sought to serve the Senate as a whole. He got things done without blowing up bedrock. He mostly defended the Senate’s idiosyncrasies, traditions, and pace, rather than tearing them down. He erred on the side of empowering his colleagues rather than dominating them.

“Prudence over performativity. Discussion over dictatorship. And a winning record on his party’s key priorities without attacking the institution to do it.

“A quintessentially Senatorial record… from one of the quintessential Senate characters in our history.

“What a path — from mucking in the Butte copper mines to serving 16 years as Senate Leader and advising nine consecutive Presidents as a seasoned statesman. And what a testament to our great country that such a path was possible.

“It’s been my honor to remember my distinguished predecessor this afternoon.”


Related Issues: Tributes, History