Senator to remember

When asked by journalists how he would like to be remembered, however, Mansfield responded, “When I’m gone, I want to be forgotten.”

It is a not the kind of response you’d normally hear from a former U.S. senator or really anyone.  Certainly most of us want to be remembered for something, whether we were a U.S. senator or not.

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To a certain extent, Mike Mansfield’s wish has come true.  If you mention his name to people these days, many do not recognize it.  Also, Mansfield’s humility and political style probably don’t help to preserve his legacy in this age of chest-thumping and scorched-earth political partisanship. 

Mansfield rose to become Senate Majority Leader after Lyndon Johnson, who had been Majority Leader, resigned from the Senate to become vice president.  It is hard to imagine two personalities or leadership styles that could be more different.

Whereas Johnson browbeat, cajoled and twisted arms, Mansfield was quiet, introverted and supremely respectful of his Senate colleagues.  His leadership style, however, won him the respect and admiration of senators on both sides of the aisle.

His leadership style was also effective.  Under Mansfield’s leadership, the U.S. Senate was extraordinarily productive.  It passed some of the most controversial—yet important—legislation of the 20th Century, including Medicare, the Civil Rights Act and the Clean Air Act.   He remains the longest serving Majority Leader in U.S. history.

Mansfield is famous for his frequent use of the greeting “Tap’er light.”  He had been a copper miner in Montana after returning from military service in World War I.  “Tap’er light” was a greeting used by miners that he adopted.  It originated from the caution of using dynamite underground, where death by fire or falling earth was a constant worry.  Mansfield used this greeting throughout his life and its meaning shaped his approach towards politics.

After retiring from the U.S. Senate, Mansfield carried his humility with him to Japan, where he served as ambassador from 1977-1988.  He had a lifelong interest in Asian affairs, first sparked during his military service and continued during his work on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  President Carter nominated him to be envoy to Japan, and President Reagan re-nominated him.   Carter and Reagan didn’t agree on much—but they agreed that Mike Mansfield was a great envoy to Japan.

Mansfield’s name is still held in high regard in Japan, even though his post ended well over two decades ago.  What is he remembered for most?  Probably the daily humility that he demonstrated in his habit of serving coffee to all his visitors.  For the Japanese who are accustomed to rigid hierarchy, to be personally served coffee by the U.S. ambassador—even if it was just Taster’s Choice instant coffee—was astounding.   That simple act of day-in-day-out humbleness probably won Mansfield more respect than anything else.  It is a reminder that small acts of humility can have a big, long-lasting impact.

Many of our nationally elected leaders would do well to emulate the values and leadership example of Mike Mansfield.  In the U.S. Capitol, there is a room named for Mansfield, with his portrait hanging.  There stands the towering Mansfield: tall, slender, with his trademark pipe in his hand.  These days the Mansfield Room would be a good place for members of the Senate and House to spend a few minutes of reflective quiet time.   If a bit of Mike Mansfield rubbed off on them, it would be good for our nation.

Mike Mansfield took his humility all the way to his grave—literally.  Despite his many accomplishments, his small gravestone in Arlington National Cemetery simply shows his name, dates of birth and death, and the following inscription: “Pvt. US Marine Corps.”  No mention of being a U.S. senator.  No mention of being the longest serving U.S. Senate Majority Leader in history.  No mention of being a U.S. ambassador.

Although Mike Mansfield wished to be forgotten, it is the one wish that we as Americans shouldn’t grant him.  His values and approach to politics in this time of divisive partisanship need to be remembered now, as much as ever.   

Boling is deputy executive director of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation, which the U.S. Congress created to honor Mike Mansfield by continuing his efforts to promote U.S.-Asia cooperation.