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The gentleman from Montana

Senator Mansfield: he Extraordinary Life of a Great American Statesman and Diplomat, Don Oberdorfer, Smithsonian Books: 596 pp., $35

March 07, 2004|Andrew H. Malcolm | Andrew H. Malcolm is a member of the Times Editorial Board.

The first time I ever encountered Mike Mansfield, the legendary Senate majority leader and new U.S. ambassador to Japan, was at the ceremonial conclusion in Tokyo of a delicate round of U.S.-Japan trade talks in the '70s. As a journalist bored by the rituals of formality, I watched both sides exchange phony smiles and handshakes for cameras. Suddenly Mansfield, whom I was eager to meet, motioned to a side door. In an embassy hallway, he said without introduction or hesitancy, "Come with me."

We entered a tiny room. There, obediently waiting, were two of the highest members of the Carter administration, officials being hunted by every reporter in Japan at that moment for a status report on the bilateral trade crisis. They were bound for the airport and Washington when Mansfield stopped them.

"This fellow you can trust," Mansfield said, guiding me forward. "Tell him how things are going." For 45 minutes, as their motorcade crept through Tokyo traffic, the officials followed the lower-ranked ambassador's orders in minute detail and provided much exclusive background news for the next day's New York Times.

This was, I later realized, classic Mike Mansfield: the savvy political veteran from Montana who, without seeming to, methodically steered the U.S. Senate through the tumultuous years of the Great Society, the Vietnam War and Watergate. Here he was now efficiently getting the Carter administration's trade message out through his superiors without a news free-for-all, without delaying the plane and without his fingerprints anywhere on the incident. All this while earning the gratitude of his bosses and one reporter and still making it on time to a quiet dinner with Maureen, his beloved wife.

There were aspects many never saw to the humble, unassuming orphan from Big Sky Country who lived a Horatio Alger life that spanned 97% of the 20th century, ranging from orphan to hobo to Marine to copper miner to college professor to senator to presidential confidant to diplomatic emissary throughout Asia during four wars.

Sadly, we shall not see his like again. Thank goodness we have Don Oberdorfer, a veteran diplomatic correspondent who deals in facts and details, not hoopla, throughout "Senator Mansfield: The Extraordinary Life of a Great American Statesman and Diplomat."

In a real way, Mansfield was likely the last of a historic breed of dignified statesmen who could disagree without being disrespectful because some things called duty, responsibility and nation were more important than passing partisan advantage and nine seconds on the nightly news. As difficult as genuine dignity is to imagine in public affairs today, Mansfield's life is worth understanding as the often unsavory modern spectacles play out on Capitol Hill among a new breed of operatives in prepackaged political dramas and canned partisanship. These folks measure success less in agreements and improved American lives and more in blow-dried seconds of TV exposure, hitting their assigned speaking points like actors hitting their marks and lines onstage.

An alert 99 when he died in 2001, the Mansfield in Oberdorfer's enlightening book was well known but rarely understood, a gaunt down-to-earth man who could be soft-spoken or unspoken, then when asked could ad-lib in private to a president a most cogent, powerful argument against prolonging the Vietnam War. Amazingly, he would not leak such effrontery to reporters. He puzzled presidents of both parties. But they listened and invited him back for more.

Mansfield was a self-effacing loner who cherished consensus, reminding some of Gary Cooper, another tall Montanan, whose "yups" and "nopes" radiated an impressive inner strength and simplicity. "I confess freely to a lack of glamor," the senator once said. He never seemed to seek power, prestige or respect and, therefore, reaped it all the more from fellow legislators, world leaders and regular Montanans, who still call him Mike. Only one man's statue stands in the state's newly restored Capitol, Mike Mansfield's. He never worked in that building.

Mansfield played quiet, behind-the-scenes, clause-by-clause roles in the legislation and diplomacy of nine presidents, from Franklin D. Roosevelt through Ronald Reagan, several times rejecting pleas to stand for vice president. Yet even in his 90s, upon unexpectedly encountering me after 14 years, he could inquire by name after an adopted daughter. "She should be going to college about now," the senator said, puffing on his ubiquitous pipe packed with Prince Albert tobacco. "Yes, sir," I replied, astounded. "She started last month." The senator smiled slightly as if to confirm the father's recollection.

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