Everett McKinley Dirksen (January 4, 1896 - September 7, 1969) was a Republican U.S. Congressman and Senator from Illinois. As Republican Senate leader he played a highly visible role in the politics of the 1960s. He helped pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He later offered his support for the Open Housing Act of 1968, another landmark piece of Civil Rights legislation. He was one of the Senate's strongest supporters of the Vietnam War.
Dirksen was born to German immigrant parents in Pekin, Illinois - a suburb of Peoria, Illinois and about 120 miles southwest of Chicago, Illinois - where he grew up on a small farm. He dropped out of the University of Minnesota to serve in the Army during World War I. His political career began in 1927, when he was elected to the Pekin city council.
After an unsuccessful first run for the House of Representatives in 1929, he was elected to that body in 1932. His support for many New Deal programs marked him as a liberal Republican. 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 served until 1946 when he left due to a series of medical problems.
After recovering, he was elected to the Senate in 1950 when he unseated Senate Majority Leader Scott Lucas in a bitter contest. In the 1950 campaign, Dirksen heavily relied upon the support of Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy to gain a narrow victory. Dirksen became a staunch ally of McCarthy, but tried and failed to get him to apologize to stave off censure in 1954. Dirksen voted not to censure him, but privately conceded that McCarthy "had lost his senses". Dirksen's canny political skill, rumpled appearance, and convincing, if sometimes flowery, overblown oratory (he was hence dubbed by his critics "the Wizard of Ooze") made his national reputation.
In 1959 he was elected to Minority Leader of the Senate, defeating Kentucky's more liberal Senator, John Sherman Cooper, by a vote of 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 following cancer surgery on September 7, 1969 at Walter Reed Hospital, Washington, DC. Along with Charles Halleck and later Gerald Ford (the Republican Minority Leaders of the House), Dirksen was the official voice of the Republican party during most of the 1960s, and was often featured on television news. His 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 Dwight D. Eisenhower and Democratic President John F. Kennedy. He was a leading "hawk" on Vietnam-- a position he held well before Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson decided to escalate the war. Dirsken 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 advisors 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 awhile and see what we do. Even though it costs us $1.5 million a day.
As Johnson followed Dirksen's recommendations and escalated the war, Dirksen gave him strong public support, as well as strong support inside the Republican caucus, even as some Republicans advised him that it would be to the party 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."
On March 22, 1966, Dirksen introduced a Constitutional amendment that would permit public school administrators to provide for organized prayer by students. This amendment was seen by many to violate the principle of separation of church and state, and was defeated in the Senate with only 49 affirmative votes, falling short of the 67 votes required for a Constitutional amendment.
He is most often remembered for the quip: "A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon, you're talking real money". He made similar remarks but probably not that exact one. (See wikiquotes of Everett Dirksen.)
Dirksen was also legendary for his fondness for the marigold. When political discussions became tense, Dirksen would lighten the atmosphere by taking up his perennial campaign to have the marigold named the national flower. Although unsuccessful at that, in 1972 his home town of Pekin started holding an annual Marigold Festival in his memory, and now considers itself the Marigold Capital of the World.
He recorded four albums in his resonant bass voice one of which, Gallant Men, won a Grammy Award for Best Documentary Recording in 1968. Dirksen made TV guest appearances such as What's My Line, The Hollywood Palace and The Red Skelton Show.
In 1972, one of the Senate's buildings was renamed the Dirksen Senate Office Building in his honor.
Dirksen's daughter, Joy, was the first wife of Senator Howard Baker of Tennessee.
At the vote for cloture on the filibuster against the Civil Rights Act, Dirksen had this to say
"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."