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Everett Dirksen : biography

January 4, 1896 - September 7, 1969

Everett McKinley Dirksen (January 4, 1896 – September 7, 1969) was an American politician of the Republican Party. He represented Illinois in the U.S. House of Representatives (1933–1949) and U.S. Senate (1951–1969). As Senate Minority Leader for a decade, he played a highly visible and key role in the politics of the 1960s, including helping to write and pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Open Housing Act of 1968, both landmarks of civil rights legislation. He was also one of the Senate's strongest supporters of the Vietnam War and was known as "The Wizard of Ooze" for his oratorical style.


In August 1969, Dirksen was found to have an asymptomatic peripherally-located mass in the upper lobe of the right lung, detected on chest x-rays. He entered Walter Reed Army Hospital for surgery, which was undertaken on September 2. A right upper lobectomy was performed successfully for what proved to be a lung cancer (adenocarcinoma). Mr. Dirksen initially did well postoperatively, but thereafter developed progressive complications that eventuated in bronchopneumonia. He suffered a cardiopulmonary arrest and died on September 7, 1969, at age 73.

In 1972, one of the Senate's buildings was renamed the Dirksen Senate Office Building in his honor. The federal courthouse/building of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois is also named for him.

U.S. Senator, 1950–1969

After recovering from his health problems, Dirksen was elected to the Senate in 1950 when he unseated Senate Majority Leader Scott Lucas. In the campaign, the support of Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy helped Dirksen to gain a narrow victory. Dirksen became an ally of McCarthy and tried but failed to get him to apologize for his misdeeds to stave off censure in 1954. Dirksen voted not to censure him. 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") gave him a prominent national reputation.

In 1952, Dirksen was a supporter of the presidential candidacy of fellow Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio, the longtime leader of Republican conservatives. Dirksen garnered attention at the convention when he gave a speech attacking New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey, a liberal Republican and the leading supporter of Taft's opponent for the Republican presidential nomination, General Dwight Eisenhower. During the speech, Dirksen pointed at Dewey on the convention floor and shouted, "Don't take us down the path to defeat again," a reference to Dewey's presidential defeats in 1944 and 1948. His speech was met by cheers from conservative delegates and loud boos from pro-Eisenhower delegates. Still, Eisenhower defeated Taft for the nomination; Dirksen then supported Eisenhower's candidacy.

In 1959, he was elected Minority Leader of the Senate, defeating Kentucky's more liberal Senator, John Sherman Cooper, by a vote of 20 to 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 in Washington, D.C.

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 he was often featured on television news programs. On several occasions during this period, political cartoonist Herblock depicted Dirksen and Halleck as vaudeville song-and-dance men, wearing identical elaborate costumes and performing an act called "The Ev and Charlie Show".

Dirksen's 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 the issue of the Vietnam War — a position he held well before Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson decided to escalate the war. Dirksen said in February 1964: [Dietz p 59]

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