A different take on Mike Mansfield

Don Oberdorfer has written one of those rare biographies of a familiar public figure that sheds important new light on his subject — in this case, the late Mike Mansfield, one of the most important and respected Americans of the 20th century.

It’s not surprising that a different Mansfield emerges from Oberdorfer’s book than the one who died two years ago at the age of 98 after 34 years in Congress, including a record-breaking 16 years as Senate majority leader before retiring in 1976. This was followed by almost 12 years as U.S. ambassador to Japan under Presidents Carter and Reagan, and a dozen more as a Washington-based adviser on China for Goldman Sachs.

Famed for his terse “yup” and “nope” responses to reporters’ questions, the taciturn Montana Democrat was notoriously resistant to talking about himself. “When I’m gone, I want to be forgotten,” he invariably told those — including this reviewer — who implored him to write his memoirs or cooperate in an oral history project or biography.

But Oberdorfer persisted, and Mansfield basically agreed not to stand in his way. Oberdorfer, a former Washington Post reporter and author of four previous books, including two about Mansfield’s favorite subject, Asia, persuaded Mansfield to share his lifelong diaries and his voluminous archives at the University of Montana, and to sit down for 32 interviews in the last three years of his life.

And what a remarkable life it was. Born in New York City to Irish immigrants, he and two sisters were sent to live with an uncle in Great Falls, Mont., after their mother died. He ran away from home and joined the Navy before his 15th birthday by falsifying his age, and served in all three military services before he was out of his teens.

Most important, the Marines sent him to China, which sparked a lifelong interest in East Asia. He returned to Montana and worked for 10 years as a copper miner in Butte, where he met his wife, Maureen, who steered him away from the brutal mining life to the university, a professorship in Asian history and, ultimately, a life of public service.

While Oberdorfer’s brilliant book gives Mansfield his due, it also disproves his widely held image as a kind of laconic, pipe-smoking Gary Cooper who was devoid of ambition and above partisan politics, and was beloved by all as he ran the Senate with an egalitarian hand.

Indeed, Mansfield was, at least in the early years of his public life, as ambitious as any young gunslinger out to make a name for himself. He also wasn’t above padding his r