Everett McKinley Dirksen (January 4, 1896 – September 7, 1969) was an American politician of the Republican Party. He represented Illinois in the United States House of Representatives and the United States Senate. As Senate Minority Leader from 1959 to 1969, he played a highly visible and key role in the politics of the 1960s. He helped write and pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Civil Rights Act of 1968, both landmark pieces of legislation during the Civil Rights Movement. He was also one of the Senate's strongest supporters of the Vietnam War. A talented orator with a florid style and a notably rich baritone voice, his flamboyant speeches caused his detractors to refer to him as "The Wizard of Ooze".
Born in Pekin, Illinois, Dirksen served as an artillery officer during World War I and opened a bakery after the war. After serving on the Pekin City Council, he won election to the House of Representatives in 1932. In the House, he was considered a moderate and supported much of the New Deal; he became more conservative and isolationist over time, but reversed himself to support US involvement in World War II. He won election to the Senate in 1950, unseating Senate Majority Leader Scott W. Lucas. In the Senate, he favored conservative economic policies and supported the internationalism of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Dirksen succeeded William F. Knowland as Senate Minority Leader after the latter declined to seek re-election in 1958.
As the Senate Minority Leader, Dirksen emerged as a prominent national figure of the Republican Party during the 1960s. He developed a good working relationship with Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield and supported President Lyndon B. Johnson's handling of the Vietnam War. He helped break the Southern filibuster of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. While still serving as Senate Minority Leader, Dirksen died in 1969.
Dirksen was born in Pekin, Illinois, a small city near Peoria, He was the son of German immigrants from East Frisia (Ostfrieslan), Antje (Conrady) born in Loquard, and Johann Friedrich Dirksen, born in Jennelt. Everett's parents gave him the middle name "McKinley" for President William McKinley. He had a fraternal twin, Thomas Reed Dirksen (named for Thomas B. Reed), and another brother, Benjamin, named for President Benjamin Harrison. Johann and Antje Dirksen spoke a Low German dialect at home, and taught German to their children, but Johann had lived in the United States long enough to become politically aware; the names of all three boys were a nod to his Republican Party leanings. Johann Dirksen, who worked at the Pekin Wagon Works as a design painter in addition to farming, had a debilitating stroke when Everett Dirksen was five years old, and he died when Everett Dirksen was nine. He had been Antje's second husband; with her first husband, Beren Ailts (d. 1890), she was the mother of two sons, Everett Dirksen's half brothers Thomas and Henry.
Dirksen grew up on a farm managed by his mother on Pekin's outskirts, in a neighborhood called Bonchefiddle, Low German for "Beantown", because frugal immigrants grew beans for the family dinner table in their front yards instead of decorative flowers. He attended the local schools, graduated from Pekin High School in 1913 as the class salutatorian, and helped support the family by working at a Pekin corn refining factory. A visit to the Minnesota home of one of his half brothers led to Dirksen's attendance at the University of Minnesota. He was a pre-law student from 1914 to 1917, and paid his tuition by working in the classified advertising department at the Minneapolis Tribune, and as a door-to-door magazine and book salesman, an attorney's assistant, and a clerk in a railroad freight office. While attending college, Dirksen participated in the Student Army Training Corps, and attained the rank of major in the school's corps of cadets. He also gained his first political experience by giving local and on-campus speeches in support of Republican nominee Charles Evans Hughes during the 1916 campaign for president.
At the start of World War I, Benjamin Dirksen was medically unfit for military service, and Thomas was married. With the Dirksens under local scrutiny because of their German heritage—Dirksen's mother refused to take down a living room photo of Kaiser Wilhelm II, as demanded by a self-appointed Pekin "loyalty commission", on the grounds that "it's a free country"—it fell to Everett Dirksen to demonstrate the family's patriotism by serving in uniform.
Dirksen dropped out of college to enlist in the United States Army. On January 4, 1917—his twenty-first birthday—Dirksen joined the Army. He completed his initial training in field artillery at Camp Custer, Michigan, performed duty with his unit at Camp Jackson, South Carolina, and attained the rank of sergeant. Dirksen went to France in 1918, and attended the artillery school and officer training at Saumur. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant, and assigned to the 328th Field Artillery Regiment, a unit of the 85th Division. Dirksen was trained as an aerial observer, and conducted target acquisition and assessment of field artillery bombardments in the Saint-Mihiel sector as a member of the 328th Field Artillery's 13th and 19th Balloon Companies. He later performed the same duty for the 69th Balloon Company, a unit of the IV Corps. He subsequently served in the Intelligence staff section (G-2) of the IV Corps headquarters. Dirksen performed post-war occupation duty with IV Corps in Germany until mid-1919. Offered the opportunity to remain with the Army of Occupation because of his fluency in German, Dirksen declined, received his discharge, and returned to Pekin.
He was a member of the Reformed Church in America, founded in the 18th century by Dutch immigrants.
After the war, Dirksen invested money in an electric washing machine business, but it failed, after which he joined his brothers in running the Dirksen Brothers Bakery. He expressed his artistic side by writing a number of unpublished short stories, as well as plays with former classmate Hubert Ropp. In addition, Dirksen was active in the American Legion, and appearances on its behalf gave him the opportunity to hone his public speaking skills.
His political career began in 1926, when he was elected to the nonpartisan Pekin City Council. He placed first in field of eight candidates vying for four seats. At the time, the top votegetter also received appointment as the city's commissioner of accounts and finance, and Dirksen held both posts from 1927 to 1931.
Dirksen was a Freemason and was a member of Pekin Lodge #29 in Pekin. In 1954, he was Grand Orator of the Grand Lodge of Illinois. He was honored with the 33rd degree in 1954.
After losing in the 1930 Republican primary to represent Illinois's 16th congressional district, Dirksen won the nomination and the congressional seat in 1932 and was re-elected seven times. His support for many New Deal programs initially marked him as a moderate, pragmatic Republican, though over time he became increasingly conservative and isolationist. During World War II, he lobbied successfully for an expansion of congressional staff resources to eliminate the practice under which House and Senate committees borrowed executive branch personnel to accomplish legislative work. He reversed his isolationist stance to support the war effort, but also secured the passage of an amendment to the Lend Lease Act by introducing it while 65 of the House's Democrats were at a luncheon. It provided that the Senate and the House could, by a simple majority in a concurrent resolution, revoke the war powers granted to the President.
Dirksen's penchant for changing his mind was noted by the Chicago Sun-Times, which once noted that he had changed his mind 62 times on foreign policy matters, 31 times on military affairs, and 70 times on agricultural policies.
Dirksen studied law privately in Washington, D.C. after he was elected to Congress. He was admitted to the District of Columbia Bar in 1936 and the bar of Illinois in 1937.
In December 1943, Dirksen announced that he would be a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 1944. He stated that a coalition of midwestern Republican representatives had urged him to run and that his campaign was serious. However, press pundits had assumed that the candidacy was a vehicle to siphon support away from the campaign of Wendell Willkie, whose reputation as a maverick and staunch internationalist had earned him the hatred of many Republican Party regulars, especially in the Midwest. Dirksen's presidential campaign was apparently still alive on the eve of the 1944 convention, as Time speculated that he was running for vice-president. Dirksen received no votes for either office from delegates at the convention.
Dirksen continued to be re-elected. In 1947, he began to experience trouble in his right eye, which was diagnosed as chorioretinitis. Despite a number of physicians (including one from Johns Hopkins University) recommending that the eye be removed, Dirksen chose treatment and rest; he recovered most of the sight in the afflicted eye. In 1948, he declined to run for re-election because of his ailment. He returned to politics two years later and was elected to the U.S. Senate.
Dirksen was elected as senator in 1950, when he unseated Senate Majority Leader Scott W. Lucas. In the campaign, the support of Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy helped Dirksen gain a narrow victory. As an ally of McCarthy, Dirksen tried but failed to get him to apologize for his misdeeds to stave off his censure in 1954, which Dirksen voted against. Dirksen's canny political skill, rumpled appearance, and convincing if sometimes flowery overblown oratory (which made his critics call him "the Wizard of Ooze") earned him a prominent national reputation.
In 1952, Dirksen supported the presidential candidacy of fellow Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio, the longtime leader of the Republican party's conservative wing. At the national party convention, Dirksen gave a speech attacking New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey, a liberal Republican and the leading supporter of General Dwight Eisenhower, the commander of the Allied forces in Europe in World War II and Taft's opponent for the Republican presidential nomination. During his speech, Dirksen pointed at Dewey on the convention floor and shouted, "Don't take us down the path to defeat again," a reference to Dewey's presidential defeats in 1944 and 1948. His speech was met by cheers from conservative delegates and loud boos from pro-Eisenhower delegates. After Eisenhower won the nomination, Dirksen then supported him.
In 1959, he was elected Senate Minority Leader, defeating Kentucky's more liberal senator, John Sherman Cooper, 20-14. Dirksen successfully united the various factions of the Republican Party by granting younger Republicans more representation in the Senate leadership and better committee appointments. He held the position of Senate Minority Leader until his death.
Along with Charles Halleck and later, Gerald Ford, his contemporaries as House Minority Leaders, Dirksen was the official voice of the Republican Party during most of the 1960s. He discussed politics on television news programs. On several occasions, political cartoonist Herblock depicted Dirksen and Halleck as vaudeville song-and-dance men, wearing identical elaborate costumes and performing an act called "The Ev and Charlie Show."
Dirksen's voting record was consistently conservative on economic issues. He developed a good rapport with the Senate's majority leaders, Lyndon B. Johnson and Mike Mansfield. On foreign policy he reversed his early isolationism to support the internationalism of Republican President Eisenhower and Democratic President John F. Kennedy. He was a leading "hawk" on the issue of the Vietnam War, a position he held well before President Johnson decided to escalate the war.
Dirksen said in February 1964:
First I agree that obviously we cannot retreat from our position in Vietnam. I have been out there three times, once as something of an emissary for then President Eisenhower. I took a good look at it. It is a difficult situation, to say the least. But we are in to the tune of some $350 million. I think the last figure I have seen indicates that we have over 15,500 military out there, ostensibly as advisers and that sort of thing. We are not supposed to have combatant troops, even though we were not signatories to the treaty that was signed at Geneva when finally they got that whole business out of the fire. But we are going to have to muddle through for a while and see what we do. Even though it costs us $1.5 million a day.
As Johnson followed the recommendations and escalated the war, Dirksen gave him strong support in public and inside the Republican caucus. Some Republicans advised him that it would be to the party's advantage to oppose Johnson. Ford commented, "I strongly felt that although I agreed with the goals of the Johnson administration in Vietnam, I vigorously criticized their prosecution of the war. Now, Dirksen never took that same hard-line position that I took."
In 1964, as Southern Democratic Senators staged a filibuster, which ran 54 days to block passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Dirksen, Thomas Kuchel (R-CA), Hubert Humphrey (D-MN), and Mike Mansfield (D-MT) introduced a substitute bill that they hoped would attract enough swing votes to end the filibuster. It was weaker than the House version, on the government's power to regulate the conduct of private business, but it was not so weak it would cause the House to reconsider the legislation. Also, the Department of Justice said the Mansfield-Dirksen Amendment would not prevent effective enforcement. However, Senator Richard Russell, Jr. (D-GA) refused to allow a vote on the amendment. Finally, Senator Thruston Morton (R-KY) proposed an amendment that guaranteed jury trials in all criminal contempt cases except voting rights. It was approved on June 9, and Humphrey made a deal with three Republicans to substitute it for the Mansfield-Dirksen Amendment in exchange for their supporting cloture on the filibuster. Thus, after 57 days of filibuster, the substitute bill passed in the Senate, and the House–Senate conference committee agreed to adopt the Senate version of the bill.
At that cloture vote, Dirksen said: "Victor Hugo wrote in his diary substantially this sentiment: 'Stronger than all the armies is an idea whose time has come.' The time has come for equality of opportunity in sharing of government, in education, and in employment. It must not be stayed or denied."
On March 22, 1966, Dirksen introduced a constitutional amendment to permit public school administrators providing for organized prayer by students; the introduction was in response to Engel v. Vitale, which struck down the practice. Considered by opponents to violate the principle of separation of church and state, the amendment was defeated in the Senate and gained only 49 affirmative votes, far short of the 67 votes a constitutional amendment needs for passage. Dirksen was a firm opponent of the doctrine of one man, one vote on the grounds that large cities (such as Chicago in Dirksen's home state of Illinois) could render rural residents of a state powerless in their state governments; after the Warren Court imposed one-man-one-vote on all state legislative houses in Reynolds v. Sims, he led an effort to convene an Article V convention for an amendment to the Constitution that would allow for legislative districts of unequal population. Dirksen died before enough states passed resolutions for the convention, by which point the court-ordered re-engineered legislatures began repealing their predecessors' resolutions.
Dirksen is noted as saying, "A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon, you're talking real money." Although there is no direct record of the remark, he is believed to have made it during an appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Dirksen is also quoted as having said, "The mind is no match with the heart in persuasion; constitutionality is no match with compassion." (See wikiquotes of Everett Dirksen.)
Dirksen was also known for his fondness for the common marigold. When political discussions became tense, he would lighten the atmosphere by taking up his perennial campaign to have the marigold named the national flower, but it never succeeded. In 1972, his hometown of Pekin started holding an annual Marigold Festival in his memory. It now identifies itself as the "Marigold Capital of the World."
Recordings and TV appearances
Dirksen recorded four spoken-word albums. Collaborating with Charles Osgood and composer John Cacavas, he produced a single, "Gallant Men" (1966), released by Capitol Records, speaking his own poem. The same-named album reached #16 on the U.S. Billboard charts and won a Grammy Award for Best Documentary Recording in 1968. On January 7, 1967, Dirksen at 71 years 3 days old became the oldest person to reach the Billboard Hot 100's top 40 when the single reached #33; two weeks later it reached #29, curiously, just ahead of two versions of "Wild Thing" at #30 by William "Bill" Minkin, with the A-side version as by Senator Bobby and the B-side version as by Senator Everett McKinley. Walter Brennan had been the oldest person to reach the Hot 100's top 40 when he did so on 17 November 1962 with "Mama Sang a Song" at age 68. The distinction passed from Dirksen to Moms Mabley with her recording of "Abraham, Martin and John" peaking at #35 on 19 July 1969 when she was 75 years 4 months old. Gordon Sinclair, at the even older age than Dirksen of 73 years 8 months 6 days, eclipsed Dirksen's peak when Sinclair's version of "The Americans" peaked at #24 on 9 February 1974.
Dirksen made TV guest appearances on game and variety shows, such as What's My Line, The Hollywood Palace and The Red Skelton Show. Dirksen made a cameo appearance in the 1969 film The Monitors, a low-budget science-fiction movie in which invading extraterrestrials assert political dominion over the human race. He also appeared in several other movies.
In August 1969, chest x-rays disclosed an asymptomatic peripherally located mass in the upper lobe of the right lung. Dirksen entered Walter Reed Army Hospital for surgery, which was undertaken on September 2. A right upper lobectomy removed what proved to be lung cancer (adenocarcinoma). Mr. Dirksen initially did well, but progressive complications developed into bronchopneumonia. He suffered a cardiopulmonary arrest and died on September 7, 1969, at age 73.
Dirksen lay in state at the United States Capitol rotunda, followed by being buried at Glendale Memorial Gardens in Pekin.
Legacy and honors
- Dirksen was the recipient of honorary degrees (LL.D.) from Hope College, Bradley University, DePaul University, Lincoln Memorial University, Hanover College, Lewis University, and Illinois College
- In 1972, one of the Senate's buildings was renamed the Dirksen Senate Office Building in his honor.
- The federal courthouse/building of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois in Chicago is also named after him.
- A parkway in Springfield, Illinois (bypass for the historic Route 66 through the capital's center) is named in his honor.
- Dirksen Drive, a road in DeBary, Florida is named after him. He was a winter resident in DeBary in his later years.
- Dirksen's statue, originally located adjacent to the Illinois State Capitol and is now in Mineral Springs Park in his hometown of Pekin, Illinois, includes two objects iconically identified with the senator: an oil can and a bunch of marigolds.
- Everett Dirksen was inducted as a Laureate of The Lincoln Academy of Illinois and awarded the Order of Lincoln (the State's highest honor) by the Governor of Illinois in 1966 in the area of Government.
- The Everett McKinley Dirksen Elementary School on 8601 West Foster Avenue in Chicago IL is a magnet school named in his memory along with other public schools in other Illinois townships.
- Dirksen was mentioned in Jeff Greenfield's alternate history book If Kennedy Lived in which in 1964, President John F. Kennedy, having survived his assassination in Dallas the previous year, gathered Senate minority leader Dirksen and others in discussion of selling grain to the Soviet Union.
- The United States Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp in 1981 honoring Dirksen.
- Path to War
Dirksen's widow, Louella, died of cancer on July 16, 1979. Their daughter Joy, the first wife of Senator Howard Baker of Tennessee, died of cancer on April 24, 1993.
- Hulsey, Byron C. Everett Dirksen and His Presidents: How a Senate Giant Shaped American Politics. University Press of Kansas, 2000.
- Rodriguez; Daniel B. and Barry R. Weingast. "The Positive Political Theory of Legislative History: New Perspectives on the 1964 Civil Rights Act and Its Interpretation," University of Pennsylvania Law Review. Volume: 151. Issue: 4. 2003. pp 1417+.
- Schapsmeier Edward L., and Frederick H. Schapsmeier. Dirksen of Illinois. University of Illinois Press, 1985.