Mike Mansfield

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Michael Joseph Mansfield, politician and diplomat: born New York 16 March 1903; Representative for Montana 1942-52; Senator for Montana 1952-77; Senate Majority Leader 1961-77; US Ambassador to Japan 1977-89; married 1932 Maureen Hayes (died 2000; one daughter); died Washington, DC 5 October 2001.

Mike Mansfield stands among the giants of the US Congress of the second half of the 20th century.

Not only was he the longest serving Senate majority leader in modern American history; he also – despite an unassuming and quiet manner – was the one who arguably left a greater mark upon that body than any before or since. If that were not enough, at an age when most men would settle back after a life well filled, he embarked on a new, highly successful career, representing his country abroad in one of its most important and demanding diplomatic postings, as ambassador to Japan.

Quite why a happily employed professor in Latin American and Far Eastern history at a university in the deepest American west should end up spending almost half a century in public life is a small mystery of its own. Maybe it was Mansfield's ancestry, as a son of Irish immigrants, that prompted the step: "There's a little bit of political blood in all the Irish," he was fond of saying.

But a less "Irish" politician could scarcely be imagined. Not for him glad-handing exuberance. He was a gentle, rather scholarly man, criticised if anything for excessive passivity. His habits were modest, his speaking style even more so. He never had a press spokesman; his news conferences were mostly a monosyllabic torrent of Yeps, Nopes, and Can't says. But few people on Capitol Hill were more widely esteemed. Mansfield had the priceless knack of winning – and keeping – everyone's trust.

In part, this reflected an extraordinary range of experience accumulated before he even set foot in Washington, DC. Mansfield was born in New York, but after his mother died he was sent 2,500 miles west to Great Falls, Montana to be brought up by an aunt and uncle, and worked as a clerk in a grocery store. By the time he was 15, he had dropped out of school, lied about his age and enlisted in the navy to fight in the First World War. After the war he joined the Marines (this time legitimately) and spent two years in the Far East.

Back in Montana in 1922, he worked in a copper mine, before enrolling – at the urging of his future wife Maureen – in the Montana School of Mines. "She put some sense into me," he recounted later. "She literally forced a drop-out to go to school and make something of myself, and I did." After graduating, he took a masters' degree and in 1937 became a professor at the University of Montana at Missoula in Latin American and Far Eastern history.

But the political bug had bitten. In 1942 he won election as Democratic congressman for western Montana. In 1952 he was elected to the Senate, where he became first deputy leader, and then majority leader in 1961, when Lyndon Johnson moved to the Vice-Presidency.

Mansfield's modus operandi could not have been more different from Johnson's. Where Johnson bullied, arm-twisted and cajoled, Mansfield sought to reconcile. He led the Senate during some of America's most turbulent years: through the civil rights debate, the race riots and the assassinations of two Kennedys and Martin Luther King, then Vietnam and Watergate.

He prevented a fractious and riven Democratic majority from coming asunder, and retained the respect of Republicans as well. His illustrious contemporary Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois once said he would "go anywhere to campaign for the Republican party, even the moon – but please not Montana".

Vietnam was Mansfield's greatest abiding regret. He was an early, passionate and by his own standards eloquent critic of the war. But even though he could not stop "this grotesque mistake", he avoided a full-scale breach with Johnson. Mansfield was an early advocate of national health insurance, and played a leading role in pushing through Johnson's civil rights programme and in the legislation which lowered the US voting age to 18. Over Watergate too, Mansfield's low-key, non-confrontational style was invaluable, at a moment of acute political divisions.

If Mansfield had a supremely diplomatic touch at the pinnacle of domestic politics, that quality served him even better in one of the most senior, and sensitive, US postings abroad, that of Ambassador to Japan from 1977 onwards.

He held the job for an astounding 12 years, appointed to it by the Democrat Jimmy Carter, but kept on by Ronald Reagan throughout his two terms in the White House. Though appearances might have suggested otherwise, the man from Montana was particularly well- suited to the job. He knew Asia well, having served in China and the Philippines in the Marine Corps and then having specialised in Far Eastern history at the University of Montana.

Two years after entering Congress, Mansfield was despatched by President F.D. Roosevelt on a confidential fact-finding mission to China, and when Japan surrendered in 1945, provided a crucial piece of advice to President Harry S. Truman, that Japan be allowed to keep its emperor. The concession contributed much to the surprisingly smooth course of post-war relations between the two countries.

More than three decades later Mansfield was back in Toyko, as perhaps the most successful envoy ever sent there by Washington. Back home some accused him of "going native", but his prestige and calm judgement were hugely valuable at a time when Japan's seemingly irresistible economic rise was causing increasing disquiet and resentment in the United States.

Mansfield's age, the wealth of his contacts in the US establishment, not to mention his sensitivity to Japanese social and cultural habits – all lent him an aura in Toyko approaching veneration. "Omono taishi", they called him, or "big name ambassador". As one Japanese official said later, "He could have run for Prime Minister and won."

Only in 1989 did he retire and even then kept up his interest in the region, as a consultant for the Wall Street investment firm Goldman Sachs. In recognition of his services, political and diplomatic, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian honour.

But it is on Capitol Hill that Mansfield will be best remembered, as the man who changed – insofar as it is possible entirely to change them – the ingrained ways of the Senate. Under his stewardship, the self-styled "greatest deliberative body on earth" became a little more democratic.

He was the first majority leader to delegate real authority to committee chairmen; under him, a club hitherto dominated by a few older members started to treat its younger entrants as grown-ups. All fitted with the ancient Chinese maxim that he delighted in quoting: "A leader is best when people hardly know he exists." That was Mansfield's style. It is his most intangible, but perhaps his most enduring legacy.

Rupert Cornwell