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Pvt. Mike Mansfield: Just One Marine in Arlington Cemetery

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Of all the chiseled stones standing silent watch over us in these uncivil and dangerous political times, this Memorial Day consider one modest white-marble slab on a green hillside at Arlington National Cemetery:

Michael Joseph Mansfield


U.S. Marine Corps

Mar 16 1903

Oct 5 2001

Private Mansfield fell not in battle like so many Americans, nor did he endure combat's scars. He lived to know his grandchildren and died at 98 in Walter Reed Army Medical Center. In these MySpace and "American Idol" days, he ordered that his headstone in Arlington disclose no more personal glory than that honor shared by millions of Americans in holding the lowest rank in the United States Marine Corps.

Not that he was America's ambassador to Japan.

Not that he was a United States senator from his beloved Montana.

Not that he was our longest serving majority leader of the Senate through unpopular wars, terrorism, battles for equality, American rivers catching on fire, filibusters and financial furies, mushroom cloud nightmares, clashes of church and state, guns and taxes, and the crimes of Watergate.

He preferred to be called Mike, worked as a mucker in the mines of Montana, a job that is as it sounds, and what's tragic this Memorial Day is how at the end of his life, he saw America's democracy that he'd fought to conduct in a civil and respectful fashion morph into sound-bite nastiness, TV-shouted slogans, Internet smears, and blind faith ideology tempered by gotcha & gimme narcissistic power grabs.

As a young aide to his Senate colleague from Montana, Lee Metcalf, I got to see Mike in action. Those memories plus stories from Senate staffers and former Washington Post reporter Don Oberdorfer's great Mansfield biography convince me that the betrayed savvy and sensibilities of this lone U.S. Marine are what our politics need on Memorial Day 2010.

Politics cupped this son of immigrants before he realized it. He did time in juvie, dropped out of school to serve in the Army, Navy and finally his beloved Marines, all before he was of legal voting age. After the Marines showed him Asia, Mike worked as a laborer in the mines of Butte, Mont., during our Roaring Twenties, when Butte meant big money and big politics, from bombings of union halls to birthing both the Hearst publishing empire as fictionalized in the movie "Citizen Kane" and American hardboiled fiction as personified by Dashiell Hammett, who worked Montana's mean streets as a Pinkerton detective and turned down the murder contract on a left-wing labor leader later lynched in Butte.

Mike breathed politics like he breathed lung-burning dust in deep shafts, where he learned the miners' mantra that became the political metaphor for his 34 years in Congress, extending from Harry Truman to Jimmy Carter, and for Mike's eight years as ambassador to Japan for both that left-wing peanut farmer president and right-wing movie star President Ronald Reagan.

America's wealth must be worked, whether it's the wealth of freedom or the wealth of gold. For deep-shaft miners, that means blasting ore free from the hard rock of planet Earth. Too much explosive power and the mine collapses on top of you. Too little and the blast hides what you seek under the rubble of half-hearted effort. And if you're careless -- BOOM!

So Butte's miners taught Mike a live-or-die mantra: "Tap 'er light."

Tap 'er light is how Mike managed the politics of America when we managed to have politics that worked for America.

What got him out of the mines to a career in politics was love.

A schoolmarm named Maureen looked at this scrawny uneducated ex-Marine miner, saw something more and loved him to his bones. They married and she helped him get a university degree. He planned on being a public school teacher. But the Ku Klux Klan exerted political pressure and stopped him from getting such jobs to keep a Catholic Irishman from polluting the minds of American children. The Klan probably came to regret that victory because instead of a local teacher, Mike became a university history professor who got elected to Congress, survived Communist smears from Sen. Joe McCarthy, and then as majority leader of the United States Senate, helped engineer the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Mike beat filibusters designed to defeat the Civil Rights Act -- often by members of his own Democratic Party -- without backstabbing, name-calling, or self-congratulation. He told his colleagues that he wished America had settled its civil rights issues before he became a senator, "ut . . . great public issues are not subject to our personal timetables. . . . They emerge in their own way and in their own time."

Mike tapped 'er light as majority leader. When he caught a Democratic colleague breaking a promise to a Republican, Mike used the rules of the Senate to give the Republican his promised fair shot. Mike insisted that senators act like they belonged to "the world's greatest deliberative body."

He would have been appalled by now-White House aide and ex-Democratic Congressman Rahm Emanuel supposedly sending a dead fish to a pollster, just as Mike was no doubt horrified by Vice President ####### Cheney telling a U.S. senator in the supposedly hallowed halls of Congress to "f--- yourself."

Mike's insistence on decency and modesty was the opposite of naïveté. He came from an American time and place where politics meant meanness, corruption and murder. Seeing how that "worked," Mike reasoned that fairness and respect are the best tactics and strategies to make democracy feasible, to get wealth worth having out of the mess we call politics. You have to tap 'er light lest politics and government explode in your face or bury you in darkness.

Watergate is the best example of Mike's sophisticated fairness trumping No Mercy Politics. He insisted on a special Senate committee to investigate the unfolding sins of the Nixon era, insisted that neither Nixon fans nor Nixon haters be allowed to serve on that committee. Because of Mike's strategic decision to make the Senate investigation open, fair and bipartisan, the country supported a constitutional political process that, for the first time in history, forced a crook out of the White House.

Mike employed no press secretary, frustrated reporters with one word answers, avoided claiming credit.

After a September 1962 congressional leadership breakfast at the White House, parading outside to the microphones for a classic meet the press/get some glory moment came Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson, Sens. Hubert H. Humphrey and George Smathers, plus Speaker John McCormack, Reps. Carl Albert and Hale Boggs. Mike dodged that photo op. A candid photo caught his back as he hurried away. President John F. Kennedy heard about the incident, had that picture blown up, autographed it: "To Mike, who knows when to stay and when to go."

Name one politician today who would pass up a chance to blather on TV.

Those were not simpler times. Environmental crises. Wall Street shenanigans. Unpopular wars. Mike's tenure as Senate majority leader had them all. He stood in the rubble of a terrorist bombing in the U.S. Capitol and still fought for curbs on the CIA and FBI. He watched big money buy elections, yet forbid his own campaign fundraisers from accepting dollars from his multimillionaire friend -- who was supposedly the inspiration for the James Bond character Goldfinger -- because Mike wanted no hint of impropriety.

True, he came from a small population state and possessed an uncanny ability to remember names, which helped him stay popular, but he worked it. In 1970, a posse of ultra-conservative groups, Republicans and gun fanatics put up posters in his home state saying: "For the price of a box of ammunition we can retire Mike Mansfield." Mike didn't back down from his gun-control stances. He won that election and, even today, running from his Arlington grave, he'd probably beat any live candidate in Montana.

The dead haunted Mike. Dead peasant soldiers, not unlike himself, whom he saw floating in China's Pei-ho river while he was serving with the Marines. The dead vaporized in the atomic-bombed ruins of Hiroshima he flew over as an inspecting congressman. The number of KIA Americans in Vietnam, written on a recipe card Mike carried in his black-suit pocket, a card he kept updating during that 10,000-day war.

What only came to light seven years ago in Oberdorfer's biography is how hard Mike fought -- first with JFK, then with LBJ and Nixon -- to end the war that he called "a tragic waste," submitting dozens of private reports to those presidents detailing how and why America's effort was doomed. This former history professor argued against the inertia of yesterday's policies and the idea that America shouldn't or couldn't change course. Each of the presidents Mike counseled about Vietnam would admit he made sense -- then press on with the war. None of them wanted to be the president to say enough before reality overran Gerald Ford in 1975.

Mike, private, USMC -- Semper fi -- who valued patriotism and supporting his government, muted his opposition to Vietnam and endured scathing criticism from the anti-war lobby. He told biographer Oberdorfer that he was "walking a tightrope." Wondered if he could have found a better way to oppose the war. Finally he said, "Let history speak for itself."

He was a complex man who wore black suits and drank instant coffee. His staff often found him sitting in his office alone -- thinking, actually thinking, as he smoked a pipe. He loved to read. Favored politics championed by the Reagan-quoted Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, who preached subtly, instead of Machiavelli's knife. He met regularly with Senate Republicans, listened far more than he talked, gave his word and kept it. He refused to let a senator whose wife and daughter died in a car crash resign, and then kept that grieving man diverted with work and unprecedented mentoring. Now that senator is Vice President Joe Biden. Mike out-thought and out-strategized Harvard minds with his University of Montana and Marine Corps education. As U.S. ambassador, he apologized for a 1981 American military accident by publicly bowing to Japan's foreign minister -- and with that one act of humility preserved both America's honor and a key political alliance. Mike believed that all Americans have a civic duty to act civilly.

Today on a quiet green hillside in Arlington cemetery lies Pvt. Mike Mansfield, United States Marine Corps, who once said, "When I'm gone, I want to be forgotten." Mike's stone has the name of his beloved Maureen carved on its back and she lies there with him.

And those gravestones, all those thousands of gravestones that stand watch with Mike's slab, they see a Washington where money rules politics. They see our TV airwaves and this magic Internet crackle with pundits for whom name-calling, snappy one-liners and smears disguised as questions substitute for journalism and reasoned debate. The gravestones of Arlington see Photogenic Faces cheerlead hatred and fear and hollow catch-phrases in the hopes of riding those loosed horses through our cities and towns to their own glory, regardless of what gets trampled under the hooves. The gravestones of Arlington see an America where out-shouting your opponent is considered better than out-performing him, where being famous is more rewarded than being of service, where being right matters only if you get all of the credit and none of the blame.

This Memorial Day at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington Cemetery and in ceremonies all across America, a bugler will blow "Taps," that mournful melody played over so many -- so many -- flag-draped coffins from sea to shining sea. The buglers blow "Taps" for all those who wear America's uniforms -- sometimes with sacrifices that lead to wounded lives or graves with headstones always carved by politics.

This Memorial Day, when you hear "Taps," think of one lone Marine private on watch at Arlington. For one moment, for just one heartbeat, remember his mantra, his plea, his benediction and farewell, his proven successful political strategy to win a better tomorrow and save us from bloody explosions or being trapped by darkness in this mine shaft called politics where we all must live:

Tap 'er light.


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