Everett McKinley Dirksen (1896-1969) served as a Republican congressman and senator from Illinois for over three decades.
Everett McKinley Dirksen was born in Pekin, Illinois, on January 4, 1896, the son of Johann and Antje Dirksen who had immigrated from the Ostfriesland district of Germany in 1866. Dirksen and his twin, Thomas Reed, were named after prominent Republicans. The father died in their youth, and their mother supported her family on a small farm she purchased just inside the city limits of what was commonly referred to as "Beantown." Strong Calvinists, the family belonged to the Second Reformed Church. His mother encouraged his interest in reading, and he was the only one of her children who finished high school.
He considered becoming a teacher, actor, or lawyer and attended the University of Minnesota for three and one-half years studying liberal arts and law. He quit the university, in part because of the scorn heaped on German-Americans, to join the army to prove his Americanism during World War I. Trained at Camp Custer in Battle Creek, Michigan, Dirksen served in France and rose to the rank of second lieutenant. Forced to abandon his plans to finish his education at the university because of his mother's illness, he had several jobs but finally went into business with his brother in a wholesale bakery, which prospered. Active in local civic theater he met and married Louella Carver in 1927, and they had one daughter, Joy, who married Howard Baker.
Active in local politics, Dirksen decided he should act to combat the effects of the Depression and ran unsuccessfully against the local Republican congressman William Hull in 1930. Two years later he won the nomination and, cleverly eschewing any association with the Herbert Hoover administration, won despite the Franklin D. Roosevelt landslide.
From the outset of his career in the House of Representatives Everett Dirksen exhibited certain characteristics which would dominate his government career. He was pragmatic rather than doctrinaire, studied each piece of legislation carefully, worked hard, attended both committee and congressional sessions, and was a good speaker. For example, he voted with much of the New Deal to bring the country out of the Depression, supporting the banking acts of 1933 and 1935, federal emergency relief, the Agricultural Adjustment Act, the National Industrial Recovery Act; social security, the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act, and the Civilian Conservation Corps. In foreign policy matters, however, he was an avowed isolationist and opposed all legislation which might lead to war until September 18, 1941, when he made a dramatic about-face and called for complete support for the Roosevelt foreign policy and unity to defeat the Nazis.
For 16 years Dirksen was easily reelected to the House of Representatives. Sought as a political speaker, he also headed the Republican National Congressional Committee from 1938 through 1946. Throughout World War II, he supported the movement towards international cooperation after the war and worked to help pass the Fulbright Resolution. He served on the Post War Advisory Council of the Republican Party which met at Mackinac Island, Michigan, in the summer of 1943. Both the resolution and the council called for participation in an international peace-keeping organization after the war. He voted for the Legislative Reorganization bill in 1946. While in Congress Dirksen finished his law degree at George Washington University in the evenings and was active in the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, Eagles, Elks, Moose, Masons, and Shriners.
In mid-1943 he caught the presidential bug and, after 31 House members signed Illinois Congressman Leslie Arends' petition to nominate Dirksen on the GOP ticket, he formally announced his candidacy on December 2, 1943. He failed to form a political alliance with Governor Earl Warren of California and tried to secure the vice presidential nomination with New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey. However, that nomination went to Governor John Bricker of Ohio. An early advocate of economic aid to war-torn Europe, Dirksen advocated bipartisan foreign policy and voted for most of the Harry S. Truman policies, including aid to Greece and Turkey and the Marshall Plan; but he voted against nearly all of Truman's domestic legislation.
His physician in 1948 diagnosed blurred vision as cancerous and recommended surgery, which Dirksen rejected. Instead, he announced that he would not seek reelection. Retiring briefly for rest to a Chesapeake Bay cottage where his eyesight improved, he decided to oppose his old friend Senator Scott Lucas in the 1950 general election. After a campaign in which both sides engaged in highly questionable practices and aided by a scandal in the Cook County sheriff's race, Dirksen defeated the Democratic majority leader by slightly less than 300,000 votes to become the junior senator from Illinois.
Upon entering the Senate in 1950, Dirksen became a close ally of Senator Robert Taft of Ohio, attracted by his isolationist stance in foreign affairs and his conservative opposition to the Truman Fair Deal; he also became a firm supporter of Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin.
In 1952 Dirksen made the two most memorable speeches of the GOP convention: in the first he accused Governor Thomas E. Dewey of taking "us down the path of defeat" in 1944 and 1948, and in the other he formally (but unsuccessfully) placed the name of Senator Taft in nomination. However, Dirksen the eternal pragmatist soon made peace with Dwight D. (Ike) Eisenhower, the successful nominee, and campaigned vigorously for the ticket. Although loyal to both Taft and McCarthy until their deaths, Dirksen gradually gravitated to Ike and became by 1955 one of his strongest allies in the Senate.
Vigorously endorsed by Eisenhower for reelection in 1956, Dirksen won and replaced William Knowland as Republican minority leader in 1958. Dirksen fought hard for Ike's legislative program and championed the cause of civil rights, Irish self-determination (with Sen. John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts), the state of Israel, equal rights for women, and, eventually, under Ike's persuasion, the St. Lawrence Seaway. He also voted for federal aid to education, increased social security benefits, and minimum wage levels and embraced Eisenhower's notion of modern Republicanism.
Dirksen got on particularly well with Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, who genuinely liked the Illinois senator, paid ample homage to his enormous ego, and needed his legislative support. His assistance was indispensable to the passage of the United Nations bond issue of 1962, the nuclear test-ban treaty, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As he said at the time, quoting Victor Hugo, "Stronger than all the armies is an idea whose time has come." With the advent of the Richard M. Nixon presidency in 1969, Dirksen found his status considerably diminished. Beset by multiple illnesses, he died in Washington on September 7, 1969.
Everett McKinley Dirksen is listed in Political Profiles for the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon years and in the Biographical Directory of Congress. Dirksen wrote numerous plays and six novels, none of which were published. His speeches are in the Congressional Record. An outstanding biography of the Illinois legislator has been written by Edward L. Schapsmeier and Frederick H. Schapsmeier, entitled Dirksen of Illinois: Senatorial Statesman (1985). Background material is readily available in American Epoch (1980) by Arthur S. Link and William B. Catton; in Stephen E. Ambrose, Eisenhower (1983-1984), and in Lawrence S. Wittner, Cold War America (1974).
Schapsmeier, Edward L., Dirksen of Illinois: senatorial statesman, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985. □