Remembering Mike


One of the country's statesmen died Oct. 5, 2001, at the age of 98. Mike Mansfield grew up in Great Falls, Mont., and worked in the copper mines of Butte before launching one of the longest and most distinguished political careers in history. It was punctuated by his staunch opposition to the Vietnam War. Below is a tribute to Mansfield written by former Montana Congressman Pat Williams.

As our U.S. senator, Mike Mansfield brought honor, not pork, to Montana. He did things his way, without reading the opinion polls or worrying about the next election. And when he disagreed with his fellow Montanans about an issue, he let us know. He did that with gun control, advocating for it, voting for it, and willingly explaining his position to us, knowing that at the next election we could bring him home. We never did; instead, we elected him nine consecutive times, with five terms in the House and four in the Senate. We understood that his commitment to right as he saw it was more important than how he voted on some momentary issue.

Was he unique? Yep! Was he different in private than he was in public? Nope!

Mike Mansfield was known for answering many questions with simple one-word "yep" or "nope" answers. They symbolized the man's directness, simplicity and self-effacing manner. He was authentic; one-of-a-kind.

Indeed, there was no one else quite like Mike. He had unquestioned integrity, avoided rancor and anger, and although his 34-year voting record was unquestionably liberal, he was always careful to consider the viewpoint of his policy adversaries. He seemed to have perfect pitch for politics: conservatives believed he was one of them, liberals knew he wasn't. He avoided political party activities and seldom attended national political conventions, believing, prophetically, that they were becoming, even then in the '60s and '70s, anachronistic.

As Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate from 1961 until he left the Congress in 1977, Mike led that body in a way that was inclusive and always oriented toward accomplishment. People respected Mike because they knew he respected them. His sense of timing was elegant. When asked why he was leaving the U.S. Senate, he said simply, "There is a time to stay and a time to go."

Perhaps Mike's most historic accomplishment was his engineering of the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. Mansfield, using Senator Hubert Humphrey as his floor manager, quietly, patiently and determinedly rounded up the votes necessary to break the Southern filibuster, thus clearing the way for the passage of that monumental legislation.

The calm and patient style of the gentleman from Montana also served our nation well during Mike's years as ambassador to Japan. He was unpretentious, informally greeting guests at the U.S. Embassy in his rolled-up sleeves and loosened tie. No one had ever seen an ambassador like Mansfield, and the Japanese loved him. As our nation's longest serving ambassador, Mike took the time to patiently persuade Americans of the need to recognize that our future, economically, lay in looking west to the nations of the Pacific Rim.

During the last few years, Mike and I would write to each other occasionally. His last letter to me was in July. The final sentence is this: "Time is something which you never catch up with but with time it gets up to you."

Tap 'er light, Mike.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Pat Williams