If you watched television news in the sixties, you knew exactly who he was. He was an Illinois Republican, the Minority Leader of the United States Senate, a man with deep crevices in his face, a mop of tousled hair, and a deep and mellifluous voice. Historian Michael Beschloss, who grew up in Dirksen’s home state of Illinois, said he and his brother thought Dirksen sounded like Mr. Ed. (Of course you remember Mr. Ed was a talking horse with his own TV program, 1961 to 1966.)
I loved listening to Dirksen speechify, and that was one of there reasons I sought to add his autograph to my collection. The picture he sent was a somewhat idealized artist’s sketch, but his elegantly old-fashioned fountain pen signature was impressive. Each letter of his name was carefully crafted and it must have taken several seconds to complete the task. I wondered how long it took him to sign his constituent mail each day.
In addition to his stentorian voice, Dirksen played a significant role in U.S. history.
In a college lecture, Beschloss put it this way:
Spring of ’64 Johnson calls up Dirksen and essentially says, “Ev, I need your help on this Civil Rights Bill because the southern Democrats are going to be against it and I need Republican votes.” And he essentially says, not verbatim, but the essence of it is, he says, “Ev, I know you’ve got some doubts, but look at it this way, if this bill passes it’s going to change the country and make history, and if all that happens everyone will give credit to you. And if it happens a 100 years from now the school children of America will know exactly two names, Abraham Lincoln and Everett Dirksen.”
And Dirksen heard that and he liked what he heard, and I think it was not the only reason, but he supported the Civil Rights Bill and it passed, and history was changed.
Fifty years on, Lincoln’s name is still better known than Dirksen’s, at least in Illinois school rooms.
Perhaps Dirksen allowed himself to succumb to the famous Johnson Treatment when he should have been wiser. But surely it’s a good thing he didn’t. Almost certainly, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 could not have been passed without his nonpartisan effort.