Everett Dirksen and His Presidents: How a Senate Giant Shaped American Politics

Article excerpt

Everett Dirksen and His Presidents: How a Senate Giant Shaped American Politics. By Byron C. Hulsey. (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2000. Pp. X, 342. Illus.., notes, Bib., index. Cloth, $35.00)

In the book's title, the author, a teacher of history at the University of Virginia, tips his hand on the approach to this study of the famous Illinois senator. The spotlight is on Dirksen; presidents and others in the performance are bit players. From high school days on, as the author records in this well-researched book, the future senator liked the theater. He became a major actor in the world's most famous theater, the United States Senate.

While the book provides a slightly-tilted Dirksen orientation of history, it does disclose blemishes as well as growth in understanding on the part of Dirksen. From Mississippi he wrote to his new wife Louella-a great asset politically to Everett-that if you "take away the Jews and the niggers ...I would have to fry [my] own eggs for breakfast." The author of that line later played a key role in passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Dirksen grew up in Pekin, Illinois, where the Ku Klux Klan operated the local newspaper, the Pekin Daily Times. The newspaper regularly printed editorials and articles strongly favoring the Klan and hostile to African-Americans, immigrants, Catholics and Jews.

Yet this man from Pekin, who started out opposing civil rights legislation, switched and in the final debate with Senator Richard Russell of Georgia called it "a moral issue". Dirksen's Illinois senate colleague, Paul Douglas, did more to promote the civil rights cause and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 than anyone in the nation other than Martin Luther King Jr. and Lyndon Johnson, yet a convert to the cause from Pekin, where the newspaper once ran an editorial under the title, "White Supremacy, Now and Forever," ended up playing a key role in its passage and getting much more publicity on it than Senator Douglas. …