Guest of honor is a title that was conferred dozens and perhaps hundreds of times upon Mike Mansfield during his long and distinguished career in public service. In a sense, the honorific was an unnecessary one, for Mansfield—Congressman Mansfield, Senator Mansfield, Ambassador Mansfield—was an honored guest almost everywhere he went.
On the evening of Aug. 24, 1967, however, Mansfield was the guest of honor at a private dinner prepared to honor the founding of the lecture series that would bear his name: The Mansfield Endowment of the University of Montana to Establish the Mansfield Lectures in International Relations. Also present among the 15 or so dinner guests at Washington’s Sheraton-Park Hotel that night were Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Illinois Sen. Everett Dirksen, the ambassadors of Libya, Nigeria, Mexico, Ireland and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Lady Bird Johnson, and Mansfield’s fellow Montanans Chet Huntley and then UM President Robert T. Panzer.
Huntley, Dirksen and Humphrey toasted Mansfield in turn, each of them reciting modestly beautiful elegies to the senator that were leavened with gentle humor and firm in their forthright and winningly homespun praise. Huntley invoked the rough-and-tumble spirit of Montana politics in the days of maverick Senator Burton K. Wheeler, noting to the amusement of the guests that “the pre-Mansfield era of Montana political life, I assure you, was high, wide and sometimes not too handsome.”
Dirksen picked up on the note of humor, venturing this: “Montana is the Treasure State. That’s what they call it, and it has at least four treasures—antelopes, copper, dude ranches and Mike Mansfield.” Perhaps feeling the wine a little, Dirksen also waxed literary in praising his fellow Democrat, adding that “He puts Horatio Alger to shame, [and] I read every book that Horatio Alger wrote. A mule boy in a copper mine in Butte. Enlisted in the Navy at age 14, believe it or not. And then a copper miner. And then a professor. And a member of Congress. And a senator. And the majority leader of this Senate ... and if that doesn’t put Horatio Alger to shame, I don’t know what would.”
Humphrey, after trying with mock petulance to steer the conversation away from Montana and onto his home state of Minnesota (though he was actually born in South Dakota), declared that he couldn’t think of anybody as fully deserving of the dinner and its excellent fellowship, calling Mansfield a gentleman, a patriot, and “a man who is a man in every sense of the word.”
But it was the guest of honor who really lit up the room with his words that night. What follows are excerpts from the remarks Mansfield delivered before the guests who had assembled to fête him. Titled “In a Montana Mood,” Mansfield’s speech is an elegy to his home state by a man whose thoughts seldom seemed to leave it for long:
It has been said that the two great loves of my life are the University and the study of foreign affairs. I readily acknowledge a lasting liaison with the first and a deep absorption for the second. The University and foreign affairs are indeed great loves. But, there is another which is greater and comes before both. That is that State of Montana and its people.
For a quarter of a century, Montanans have trusted me, as one of them, to represent their concerns, first in the House and then in the Senate of the United States. I have tried to sustain that trust by following the basic principle: If I do not forget the people of Montana, they will not forget me.
So for a quarter of a century, Montana’s people, regardless of politics, position, power or profession, have come first with me. That is as it always has been. That is as it always will be.
That bond that ties me to Montana is woven of many strands. But before all else, it involves my personal feelings, as a citizen of the state, for its beauty, history and people. For you who are not of Montana, let me try to tell you why the bond is inseparable, insofar as I am concerned. Let me try to explain to you why Montanans who are outside of Montana are always homesick for Montana.
To me, Montana is a symphony.
It is a symphony of color. It is painted by a thousand different plants and shrubs which set the hills ablaze—each with its own kind of inner fire—during spring and summer. Montana is the intense blue of the Big Sky reflected in the deep blue of mountain lakes and the ice-blue of tumbling streams. It is the solid white of billowing clouds and the haze-white of snow on a hundred mountain peaks. It is the infinite themes of green in mile after mile of farm-rich valleys and in millions of acres of forests. ...
Yet, in all this vastness, we are far less than a million people. In short, Montanans have room to live, to breathe and, above all, to think—to think with a breadth of view which goes to the far horizon and beyond. Vast and empty space and high mountains may isolate a population, but they open the minds of a people. The minds of Montana dwell not only upon community and State, but upon the nation and the world and on the essential unity of all. And this sense of unity is buttressed by the harsh uncertainties of an all-powerful environment which has taught us to draw together in a mutual concern for one another and be hospitable to all who come from afar. ...
The lecture series by its very nature turns our attention to the world beyond our borders and to the promise of a fruitful future for Montanans and all Americans. It is good that our attention is so directed provided we are also prepared to look inward and backward and so, remember what it is that we are building upon; and so, try to fill the gaps and to heal the hurts which may have been opened in the process of arriving at where we are. In that way, we shall better tie the past into the present and open wider the horizons of the future. In that way, we shall better bind together, into a greater nation, all who live in a great State and in a blessed land.