Mark Shields: Remark prompts defense of Sen. Mansfield

Mark Shields

William McGurn is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal who, according to his company bio, “writes speeches for CEO Rupert Murdoch. Previously he served as chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush.” McGurn is, from all indications, quite a smart man, but he recently wrote something both ignorant and mean-spirited that I cannot let go uncorrected.

In this piece, McGurn urged Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., to challenge his own party’s dominant foreign policy and to follow the example of Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson, a Democrat who — while championing civil rights, labor rights and the environment in Congress — was an unreconstructed Cold War hawk who opposed detente. But after saluting Jackson’s legacy, McGurn took a cheap shot at the man who was Jackson’s Senate majority leader and dismissively questioned: “Anyone remember Mike Mansfield?”

Let me tell you what David Broder, the most respected of political reporters, wrote in 1999 after spending a couple of hours with the then-96-year-old: “I had lunch last week with the man I think may be the greatest living American. He is Mike Mansfield, the former Senate majority leader and ambassador to Japan.”

Here’s the case for remembering. At the age of 14 — long before he would ever become a college professor of Asian history at the University of Montana and serve for 34 years in the U.S. House and Senate — Mansfield ran away from his motherless home and, with a forged baptismal certificate, enlisted in the Navy during World War I. He made three crossings of the Atlantic before his age was discovered and he was discharged. Next Mansfield joined the Army, and after completing his enlistment, he joined the Marine Corps, which kept its promise by sending him to China. Before he was even old enough to vote, Mansfield personally had more honorable discharges from the U.S. military (three) than do all the 2016 Republican presidential candidates (two).

As majority leader, at a time when getting 67 votes was required to end a Senate filibuster, Mansfield was able to pass — with bipartisan support — civil rights laws, Medicare, Medicaid, the Limited Test Ban Treaty and the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age to 18. A man whose word was truly his bond, Mansfield, always giving the credit and the spotlight to others, created a Senate of equals.

But history hung on the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — which would federally guarantee the vote to black Americans in the states that had been part of the Confederacy and which Senate opponents filibustered for five weeks. Every day, after strategy sessions in the office of Republican leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois, the press would interview the pro-Voting Rights Act senators, led by Dirksen, who loved the microphone and the spotlight as much as Mansfield avoided them.

After a couple of weeks, Mansfield’s chief counsel, Charlie Ferris, reported that a Democratic senator, upset that Dirksen and the Republicans were hogging press coverage, had asked that at least half the senators’ meetings be held in Mansfield’s office. Mansfield’s response: “Charlie, last year (1964), the Republican Party drifted far from the mainstream during the presidential election. (Presidential nominee Barry Goldwater had voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the Senate.) If the public can see the Republican leader each day reporting on the progress of what will hopefully be the most significant civil rights legislation ever, it will be very beneficial for the country to grasp that this bill was being drafted by both parties even in an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress.” Character.

Long after having served longer as Senate majority leader (16 years) and ambassador to Japan (eight years) than any other Americans, Mike Mansfield died at 98. At Arlington National Cemetery, you can find his plain headstone with the dates March 16, 1903, and Oct. 5, 2001, and this: “Michael Joseph Mansfield, Pvt. U.S. Marine Corps.” We remember.

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