1932 was a tough year for the Republicans. Hoover only won six states in his bid for reelection, the GOP took massive losses in the House, and lost the Senate. This, however, was the start of the career of one of the GOP’s most prominent politicians of the 20th century. Everett Dirksen (1896-1969) of Illinois had toppled the Republican incumbent in the primary and went on to win the election. Although initially more conciliatory than many other Republicans to the New Deal as he voted for the Agricultural Adjustment Act and the National Industrial Recovery Act, his opposition grew with time, especially after the 1938 midterms, and had always stood as a staunch foe of the notion that government should run any sort of industry. Dirksen explained his support of some of these measures thusly, “Those days of 1932 and 1933 were troublous and beset with difficulty. Insofar as conviction permitted, one was expected to adjourn all partisanship and participate in the common enterprise of lifting the Nation from its despondency” (Dirksen). He also in retrospect concluded that, “the New Deal was long on reform, much longer on relief, yet very short on actual recovery and restoration of normal conditions” and was disturbed by the level of power being vested in the presidency and its potential for erosion of freedom, asking “Will the American system of living, which rests upon the morals of individualism, become the victim of a pious collectivism and will freedom be just a word or a way of life?” (Dirksen) As an Illinois Republican, it practically goes without saying he was a non-interventionist before World War II…and he was one of the more effective ones given his study of the rules of the House. Dirksen stood, with the support of the Chicago Tribune fully behind him, against the repeal of the Neutrality Acts, against the peacetime draft, and against Lend-Lease. Although he voted for enacting wartime price controls, he was one of the leaders of the pushback against it, particularly with his pushing for amendments requiring that people enacting price controls have five years experience in the field they were imposing such controls and to permit judicial review of price control edicts. Dirksen was so known that Union for Democratic Action, the left-wing predecessor to Americans for Democratic Action, identified him as one of the foremost conservative legislative obstructionists.
Everett Dirksen took a primarily right course on domestic policy but voted for the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan (although he would regret the latter). In 1948, he chose to retire from the House as he was facing an eye problem so serious that doctors recommended it be removed. Dirksen refused to do so, opting for treatment and rest. After 10 months of this he was able to recover most of the vision in his eye, and opted to jump back into politics.
The 1946 election was mistaken by many Republicans to have been a referendum on New Deal liberalism, when it was largely a reaction to postwar adjustment issues, especially meat shortages caused by price controls. However, the 1950 election was the ideological election conservatives had wanted the 1946 election to be. Although Republicans didn’t win back either chamber, the victories were very ideologically clear, and the case study for this was certainly Dirksen’s race against Democratic Majority Leader Scott Lucas. Lucas stood firmly with Truman and with his domestic policies while Dirksen was a staunch critic and called the Marshall Plan “Operation Rathole”. He also got some help on the campaign trail from Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose influence, although often cited for this election, is perhaps overstated. Lucas counterattacked by having his staff produce a report, titled “The Diary of a Chameleon”, which found that Dirksen had “changed his position on military preparedness 31 times, on isolationism 62 times, and on farm policy 70 times” (Dirksen). However, Dirksen was a smooth political operator and instead of denying the charge, he embraced and defended his record. Dirksen ultimately toppled the Majority Leader for reelection, a repudiation of Truman and the Fair Deal by Illinois voters.
As a senator, Dirksen would develop a reputation as politically savvy, a flamboyant figure who loved the spotlight, and for delivering over-the-top oration, which gained him the nickname “The Wizard of Ooze”. In 1952, he backed Senator Robert Taft (R-Ohio) for president, and criticized Eisenhower supporters at the Republican National Convention. Specifically, he pointed his finger at Thomas E. Dewey and warned him to not lead the GOP down the road of defeat again through his support of Eisenhower. However, this time the moderates did win the election as Eisenhower was a formidable candidate. Dirksen was initially hesitant to aid in the moderation of Eisenhower and often butted heads with him in foreign policy, but events would develop that made Dirksen a valuable player in Washington politics. Robert Taft died in 1953, and his successor, William F. Knowland of California, proved a weak leader and regularly was outmaneuvered by his Democratic counterpart, Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas. Additionally, Dirksen’s friend and ally Joseph McCarthy was censured in 1954 resulting in the loss of his influence, and Illinois’ leading journalistic voice of conservatism, Colonel Robert R. McCormick, died in 1955. This opened the door to Dirksen becoming more accommodating to the Eisenhower Administration, which needed him as a point man in the Senate. Dirksen’s support of the Eisenhower Administration on foreign policy grew and his Taft-style conservatism softened.
Dirksen strongly backed the Eisenhower Administration’s civil rights proposals and regularly sided with the president’s vetoes, and was a logical choice for official leadership. In 1959, he ran for Minority Leader to replace the outgoing William F. Knowland of California and defeated the significantly more liberal John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky for the post in a close race. Dirksen would prove a far more effective leader than his predecessor and used his skill of wheeling and dealing along with mastery of the Senate rules to his advantage.
Dirksen As Leader
In 1961, Dirksen and House Minority Leader Halleck had a regular press conference on Meet the Press officially titled the “Republican Congressional Leadership Statement” in which they would criticize and respond to the Kennedy Administration’s initiatives. This was compared to a vaudeville act by political commentators given the contrast between Dirksen’s folksy manner and Halleck’s rough and easily angered persona and was universally called the “Ev and Charlie Show”. Although Halleck, true to his nature, was peeved at being made a joke, Dirksen loved it and urged reporters to compare them to other “great duos” in America, including “corned beef and cabbage” and “ham and eggs” (U.S. Senate). When Halleck lost the House leadership contest in 1964, it became the “Ev and Jerry Show”, but Gerald Ford wasn’t easily angered, thus the comedic value of the program declined.
As Senate Minority Leader, Dirksen commanded an unusual amount of power given his party’s decided minority status during his entire time as leader. He was a uniting figure in the party who was often able to appeal to the conservative and liberal wings. Dirksen’s man with the liberals was Minority Whip Thomas Kuchel of California and his man on the right was ultra-conservative Roman Hruska of Nebraska. He was also often able to win over Southern Democrats, many of whom agreed with him more than JFK and LBJ, thus keeping the Conservative Coalition a formidable force and often requiring Democratic presidents to negotiate with him. However, Dirksen was not necessarily an obstructionist…he could also be accommodating to the Democratic administrations of the 1960s. In 1963, for instance, Dirksen was crucial in winning over many Republicans in support of the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which banned atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. He was on genuinely friendly terms with President Lyndon B. Johnson…both men shared a love for the political process…and bourbon after work. This relationship played a major role in producing the major civil rights legislation of the era. Dirksen was sure that the 1964 act wasn’t too hard on business to win over the votes of some reluctant conservatives yet aimed to make the measure strong enough so that it would command a consensus level of support. Unlike Johnson, who was a relatively new civil rights supporter, Dirksen had supported civil rights legislation such as anti-lynching and anti-poll tax bills since the 1930s. 73% of the Senate ultimately voted for the act, including all but six Republicans. He would again be of great assistance in the passage of the Voting Rights Act, and Dirksen would get all but two Senate Republicans to vote for it.
Dirksen largely opposed the Great Society, including its “War on Poverty” legislation, rent supplements, and its high domestic spending. However, he backed the Social Security amendments that included Medicare and Medicaid (which he had previously voted against) and supported the Appalachian Regional Development Act. He also took the lead, as I have written about before, in trying to pass constitutional amendments on school prayer and legislative reapportionment, both staunchly opposed by liberals but had most Republicans in support. Dirksen also was able to kill an effort backed by the Johnson Administration to repeal the “right to work” section of the Taft-Hartley Act. Dirksen was initially opposed to fair housing legislation and in 1966 he played a leading role in killing such legislation. However, in 1968 he worked out a compromise measure with Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.) and Senator Walter Mondale (D-Minn.) that passed in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
Dirksen was a hawk on the Vietnam War and wanted a stronger war effort than Johnson was employing, and offered counsel and support to the president in these times. In 1968, President Johnson, in one of his daily calls with the Senate Minority Leader, accused Nixon’s operatives of treason, and Dirksen agrees:
President Johnson: I want to talk to you as a friend, and very confidentially, because I think that we’re skirting on dangerous ground. I thought I ought to give you the facts, and you ought to pass them on if you choose. If you don’t, why, then I will a little later.
President Johnson: [with Dirksen assenting] Both Thieu and Ky stressed on us the importance of a minimum delay [between a bombing pause and the opening of peace negotiations]. Then we got some of our friends involved, some of it your old China [Lobby] crowd.
Here’s the latest information we’ve got: the agent says that they’ve just talked to the boss [Nixon] in New Mexico, and that he says that you must hold out, that . . . Just hold on until after the election.
Now, we know what Thieu is saying to ‘em out there. We’re pretty well informed on both ends.
President Johnson: Now, I’m reading their hand, Everett. I don’t want to get this in the campaign.
Dirksen: That’s right.
President Johnson: And they oughtn’t to be doing this. This is treason.
Dirksen: I know.
President Johnson: I don’t know whether it’s [Melvin] Laird; I don’t know who it is that is putting it out, but here is the UPI [item number] 48 that came in tonight.
President Johnson: And I’m calling you only after talking to [Dean] Rusk and [Clark] Clifford and all of ‘em, who thought that somebody ought to be notified as to what’s happening.
President Johnson: Now, I can identify ‘em, because I know who’s doing this. I don’t want to identify it. I think it would shock America if a principal candidate was playing with a source like this on a matter this important.
President Johnson: I don’t want to do that.
President Johnson: But if they’re going to put this kind of stuff out, they ought to know that we know what they’re doing. I know who they’re talking to, and I know what they’re saying.
President Johnson: Well, now, what do you think we ought to do about it?
Dirksen: Well, I better get in touch with him, I think, and tell him about it.
President Johnson: I think you better tell him that his people are saying to these folks that they oughtn’t to go through with this meeting [in Paris]. Now, if they don’t go through with the meeting, it’s not going to be me that’s hurt. I think it’s doing to be whoever’s elected.
Dirksen: That’s right.
President Johnson: It may be—my guess—him.
President Johnson: And I think they’re making a very serious mistake, and I don’t want to say this.
President Johnson: And you’re the only one I’m going to say it to.
President Johnson: Now, Everett, I know what happens there. You see what I mean?
Dirksen: I do.
President Johnson: And I’m looking at his hole card.
President Johnson: Now, I don’t want to get in a fight with him there. I think Nixon’s going to be elected.
President Johnson: And I think we ought to have peace, and I’m going to work with him.
Dirksen: That’s right.
President Johnson: I’ve worked with you.
Dirksen: That’s right.
President Johnson: [with Dirksen assenting] But I don’t want these sons of bitches like Laird giving out announcements like this, that Johnson gave them the wrong impression. I gave them the right impression, except I gave it to him decently, when I said that you ought to keep the Mrs. Chennaults and all the rest of ‘em from running around here. Now, you see, I know what Thieu says to his people out there.
Dirksen: Yeah. I haven’t seen Laird.
President Johnson: Well, I don’t know who it is that’s with Nixon. It may be Laird. It may be [Bryce] Harlow. It may be [John] Mitchell. I don’t know who it is.
I know this: that they’re contacting a foreign power in the middle of a war.
Dirksen: That’s a mistake!
President Johnson: And it’s a damn bad mistake.
Dirksen: Oh, it is.
President Johnson: [with Dirksen assenting] And I don’t want to say you, and you’re the only man that I have enough confidence in to tell ‘em. But you better tell ‘em they better quit playing with it. You just tell ‘em that their people are messing around in this thing, and if they don’t want it on the front pages, they better quit it. ” (Johnson)
Dirksen’s Decline and Death
Everett Dirksen had for his adult life been a heavy smoker and drinker, and by the 1960s this was catching up to him and it was apparent to those around him. A reporter once commented that, “His face looks like he slept in it” (Kenworthy). He also developed emphysema and on one occasion coughed so hard he cracked a vertebrae. Dirksen was not long for the world by the time Nixon was inaugurated and his influence declined as Nixon didn’t feel the need to negotiate with him to get things done. He developed lung cancer and died after an operation on September 7, 1969, aged 73. Senator Margaret Chase Smith left a marigold on his coffin…it was what he thought should be the national flower. Today he has a Senate office building named in his honor.
Dirksen was by and large a good representative of the GOP of his time: moderately conservative (MCI: 78%) and often but not always, negotiating with the Democratic majority. He represented a different time in America, one in which the parties were closer to each other ideologically and had divergent wings. Dirksen seemed to just fit where his party was at the time and the mood of the times. The days of friendly negotiation on legislation over bourbon after hours has been dead for some time now, but that’s how postwar politics rolled. Perhaps a Dirksen could be elected today but he would probably be too conservative for Illinois and possibly not conservative enough to be in Republican leadership, but given his flexibility and his ability to wheel and deal, who knows?
Dirksen in Brief. (2018). The Dirksen Congressional Center.
Hill, R. (2016, November 13). Senator Howard Baker: Part IV. Knoxville Focus.
Johnson, R. Did Nixon Commit Treason in 1968? What The New LBJ Tapes Reveal. History News Network.
Kenworthy, E.W. (1969, September 8). Dirksen Dead in Capital at 73. The New York Times.
Mendenhall, S. Everett Dirksen and the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
“The Ev and Charlie Show”. U.S. Senate.