Everett Mckinley Dirksen

views updated May 23 2018

Everett Mckinley Dirksen

Everett McKinley Dirksen (1896-1969) served as a Republican congressman and senator from Illinois for over three decades.

Everett McKinley Dirksen was born in Pekin, Illinois, on January 4, 1896, the son of Johann and Antje Dirksen who had immigrated from the Ostfriesland district of Germany in 1866. Dirksen and his twin, Thomas Reed, were named after prominent Republicans. The father died in their youth, and their mother supported her family on a small farm she purchased just inside the city limits of what was commonly referred to as "Beantown." Strong Calvinists, the family belonged to the Second Reformed Church. His mother encouraged his interest in reading, and he was the only one of her children who finished high school.

He considered becoming a teacher, actor, or lawyer and attended the University of Minnesota for three and one-half years studying liberal arts and law. He quit the university, in part because of the scorn heaped on German-Americans, to join the army to prove his Americanism during World War I. Trained at Camp Custer in Battle Creek, Michigan, Dirksen served in France and rose to the rank of second lieutenant. Forced to abandon his plans to finish his education at the university because of his mother's illness, he had several jobs but finally went into business with his brother in a wholesale bakery, which prospered. Active in local civic theater he met and married Louella Carver in 1927, and they had one daughter, Joy, who married Howard Baker.

Active in local politics, Dirksen decided he should act to combat the effects of the Depression and ran unsuccessfully against the local Republican congressman William Hull in 1930. Two years later he won the nomination and, cleverly eschewing any association with the Herbert Hoover administration, won despite the Franklin D. Roosevelt landslide.

From the outset of his career in the House of Representatives Everett Dirksen exhibited certain characteristics which would dominate his government career. He was pragmatic rather than doctrinaire, studied each piece of legislation carefully, worked hard, attended both committee and congressional sessions, and was a good speaker. For example, he voted with much of the New Deal to bring the country out of the Depression, supporting the banking acts of 1933 and 1935, federal emergency relief, the Agricultural Adjustment Act, the National Industrial Recovery Act; social security, the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act, and the Civilian Conservation Corps. In foreign policy matters, however, he was an avowed isolationist and opposed all legislation which might lead to war until September 18, 1941, when he made a dramatic about-face and called for complete support for the Roosevelt foreign policy and unity to defeat the Nazis.

For 16 years Dirksen was easily reelected to the House of Representatives. Sought as a political speaker, he also headed the Republican National Congressional Committee from 1938 through 1946. Throughout World War II, he supported the movement towards international cooperation after the war and worked to help pass the Fulbright Resolution. He served on the Post War Advisory Council of the Republican Party which met at Mackinac Island, Michigan, in the summer of 1943. Both the resolution and the council called for participation in an international peace-keeping organization after the war. He voted for the Legislative Reorganization bill in 1946. While in Congress Dirksen finished his law degree at George Washington University in the evenings and was active in the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, Eagles, Elks, Moose, Masons, and Shriners.

In mid-1943 he caught the presidential bug and, after 31 House members signed Illinois Congressman Leslie Arends' petition to nominate Dirksen on the GOP ticket, he formally announced his candidacy on December 2, 1943. He failed to form a political alliance with Governor Earl Warren of California and tried to secure the vice presidential nomination with New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey. However, that nomination went to Governor John Bricker of Ohio. An early advocate of economic aid to war-torn Europe, Dirksen advocated bipartisan foreign policy and voted for most of the Harry S. Truman policies, including aid to Greece and Turkey and the Marshall Plan; but he voted against nearly all of Truman's domestic legislation.

His physician in 1948 diagnosed blurred vision as cancerous and recommended surgery, which Dirksen rejected. Instead, he announced that he would not seek reelection. Retiring briefly for rest to a Chesapeake Bay cottage where his eyesight improved, he decided to oppose his old friend Senator Scott Lucas in the 1950 general election. After a campaign in which both sides engaged in highly questionable practices and aided by a scandal in the Cook County sheriff's race, Dirksen defeated the Democratic majority leader by slightly less than 300,000 votes to become the junior senator from Illinois.

Upon entering the Senate in 1950, Dirksen became a close ally of Senator Robert Taft of Ohio, attracted by his isolationist stance in foreign affairs and his conservative opposition to the Truman Fair Deal; he also became a firm supporter of Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin.

In 1952 Dirksen made the two most memorable speeches of the GOP convention: in the first he accused Governor Thomas E. Dewey of taking "us down the path of defeat" in 1944 and 1948, and in the other he formally (but unsuccessfully) placed the name of Senator Taft in nomination. However, Dirksen the eternal pragmatist soon made peace with Dwight D. (Ike) Eisenhower, the successful nominee, and campaigned vigorously for the ticket. Although loyal to both Taft and McCarthy until their deaths, Dirksen gradually gravitated to Ike and became by 1955 one of his strongest allies in the Senate.

Vigorously endorsed by Eisenhower for reelection in 1956, Dirksen won and replaced William Knowland as Republican minority leader in 1958. Dirksen fought hard for Ike's legislative program and championed the cause of civil rights, Irish self-determination (with Sen. John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts), the state of Israel, equal rights for women, and, eventually, under Ike's persuasion, the St. Lawrence Seaway. He also voted for federal aid to education, increased social security benefits, and minimum wage levels and embraced Eisenhower's notion of modern Republicanism.

Dirksen got on particularly well with Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, who genuinely liked the Illinois senator, paid ample homage to his enormous ego, and needed his legislative support. His assistance was indispensable to the passage of the United Nations bond issue of 1962, the nuclear test-ban treaty, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As he said at the time, quoting Victor Hugo, "Stronger than all the armies is an idea whose time has come." With the advent of the Richard M. Nixon presidency in 1969, Dirksen found his status considerably diminished. Beset by multiple illnesses, he died in Washington on September 7, 1969.

Further Reading

Everett McKinley Dirksen is listed in Political Profiles for the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon years and in the Biographical Directory of Congress. Dirksen wrote numerous plays and six novels, none of which were published. His speeches are in the Congressional Record. An outstanding biography of the Illinois legislator has been written by Edward L. Schapsmeier and Frederick H. Schapsmeier, entitled Dirksen of Illinois: Senatorial Statesman (1985). Background material is readily available in American Epoch (1980) by Arthur S. Link and William B. Catton; in Stephen E. Ambrose, Eisenhower (1983-1984), and in Lawrence S. Wittner, Cold War America (1974).

Additional Sources

Schapsmeier, Edward L., Dirksen of Illinois: senatorial statesman, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985. □

Dirksen, Everett McKinley

views updated May 14 2018

DIRKSEN, Everett McKinley

(b. 4 January 1896 in Pekin, Illinois; d. 7 September 1969 in Washington, D.C.), member of the U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. senator, and recording artist famed for his public speaking, who was vital to the passage of the United Nations bond issue of 1962, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the financing of America's space program.

Dirksen's parents were German immigrants to the United States who settled in Pekin, Illinois. His father, Johann Frederick Dirksen, was a painter and home decorator who was paralyzed by a stroke when Dirksen was five years old; he lingered for four years and died on 15 April 1905. Dirksen's mother, Antje (Conrady) Dirksen, was a farmer, supporting Dirksen and his twin brother after their father's death. When he was eleven months old, Dirksen's parents gave him the middle name of McKinley in honor of America's president at the time.

Dirksen graduated from Pekin High School in 1913 and took a night job at a corn refining factory. In 1914 he entered the University of Minnesota, paying for school with various jobs. By the time of America's entry into World War I in 1917, Dirksen was studying in the university's law school, perhaps six months away from his undergraduate degree, but he enlisted in the U.S. Army in April 1917, and in January 1918 he was shipped to France. After training in artillery school in Saumer, he was commissioned a second lieutenant and assigned to balloon duty as a spotter. After the armistice he was first assigned to serve in Germany, but he ended up being shipped all over Europe for various duties.

After his discharge in 1919 Dirksen tried to run his own business, then worked from 1922 to 1925 for Cook Dredging Company. In 1927 he won election to the part-time post of finance commissioner for Pekin, serving into 1931. He married Louella Carver in 1927. They had one daughter, Danice Joy, who in 1951 married Howard H. Baker, Jr., eventual Republican majority leader of the U.S. Senate and then President Ronald Reagan's chief of staff. In April 1930 Dirksen lost a campaign to become a member of the House of Representatives, but he ran again, winning as a Republican in 1932. He became known as a conservative Republican serving a conservative district, and he opposed President Franklin D. Roosevelt's economic policies, but he surprised some by declaring his support for Roosevelt on foreign affairs, especially in the years just before America entered World War II. In 1936, while serving in the House, he completed his law degree.

In 1948 Dirksen retired from the House because of a serious eye disease, but he recovered in time to run for the U.S. Senate in 1950. He defeated the incumbent, Scott W. Lucas, and quickly gained a reputation as a fine orator for his speeches. He also won political friends by lending his powerful, Shakespearean voice to their campaigns. In 1957 Dirksen became the Senate's minority whip. He used his powers of persuasion and his skills at the give-and-take of political dealing to keep the Republican senators united. In 1959 he became the minority leader, a position he used with surprising power. He had a close relationship with President Eisenhower but also with the Democrats John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. When Kennedy, a fellow senator, was elected president in 1960, Dirksen was the only senator who continued to call him "Jack" rather than "Mr. President"; Kennedy liked it that way and called Dirksen "Ev." The two men worked well together, and Dirksen's influence was critical to passing some of the most important legislation of the Kennedy administration. Though it was often difficult, he persuaded enough Republican senators to vote for legislation the White House wanted that the United Nations was saved from bankruptcy and Kennedy's aspirations for the American space program, including spy satellites, were passed.

Even so, not all was happy between Dirksen and Kennedy. The president had promised during his campaign that civil rights legislation would be a high priority of his administration. When no civil rights legislation came to Congress from the White House, Dirksen and his fellow Republicans introduced a bill of their own in 1961. Some observers thought Dirksen was trying to embarrass Kennedy, but during the 1950s Dirksen had supported civil rights bills. His efforts in 1961 were consistent with his views; the Democrats voted the bill down. Even as he was supporting Kennedy's foreign policy by helping find votes to implement the Peace Corps and support the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty negotiated by Kennedy, Dirksen opposed many of Kennedy's domestic policies, including anything that appeared to increase the size of the federal government's bureaucracy.

When Kennedy was assassinated and Johnson became president, Dirksen maintained his friendly relations with the White House. Linchpins to Johnson's vision of the Great Society in which no one went hungry or was poor were two bills, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Both were opposed by Democrats from the American South ("Dixiecrats"), who saw the federal government trying to intrude on affairs best left to the individual states. Dirksen rounded up enough Republican votes to help pass the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Dirksen had, in the 1950s, supported a civil rights bill that would have outlawed abuses of citizens' right to vote. Again, even though some Republicans thought he was selling out to the Democrat Johnson, his support of the Voting Rights Act was in keeping with his long-held views. His speeches in favor of the legislation helped it pass.

During the mid-1960s Dirksen recorded four spoken-word albums in his fine voice; Gallant Men: Stories of American Adventure (1963) not only sold 500,000 copies but won a Grammy award. He did this while suffering from lung cancer. In the Senate he tried to cut down the cost of Johnson's Great Society programs, and he feared that the welfare program proposed by Johnson would make people permanently dependent on government money. On the other hand he supported Johnson's conduct of the war in Vietnam; Dirksen saw this as a moral issue, even though he risked losing votes in his 1968 reelection bid. He was reelected nevertheless, and in spite of being afflicted with several illnesses, he remained an effective leader until his September 1969 death in Walter Reed Hospital after an operation for lung cancer. He rested in state in the Capitol Dome and then was buried in the Garden of Devotion in Glendale Memorial Cemetery in Pekin.

Dirksen was one of the greatest speakers the U.S. Senate has known, and his ability to turn hostility into merriment with one of his rambling anecdotes helped save legislation. He was famous for changing his mind on issues; he explained that as he learned more about an issue, he might learn that his old views were in error, so he would change his mind. Critics, however, said that he changed his mind according to the political favors he might receive in return. In any case, his work in the 1960s helped change America.

Dirksen's papers are in the Everett McKinley Dirksen Congressional Leadership Center in Pekin, Illinois. About half of Neil MacNeil's Dirksen: Portrait of a Public Man (1970) is devoted to the 1960s, the decade in which Dirksen made his biggest mark on history. Another reference is Edward L. Schapsmeier and Frederick H. Schapsmeier, Dirksen of Illinois (1985). In Current Biography Yearbook (1957), the article on Dirksen provides details of his life before he went into politics and some of his achievements before the mid-1950s. Edward L. Schapsmeier, "Dirksen, Everett McKinley" in American National Biography (1999), emphasizes Dirksen's career in the 1960s. His widow, Louella Dirksen, wrote a personal memoir, The Honorable Mr. Marigold (1972), with Norma Lee Browning. An obituary is in the New York Times (8 Sept. 1969).

Kirk H. Beetz

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