(b. Pekin, Illinois, 4 Jan. 1896; d. Washington, DC, 7 Sept. 1969)
US; Member of the US House of Representatives 1933–48, US Senator 1950–69 Dirksen's parents were German and he grew up in an Illinois farming community. Although enrolled at the University of Minnesota, Dirksen left before finishing his degree, but he later obtained a law degree through night school. After a brief spell in the army in the First World War, Dirksen went into business in Illinois, eventually starting with his brothers a successful bakery. In 1927 he was elected City Commissioner of Finance and developed political ambitions. In 1932 he successfully ran for the House of Representatives having dislodged the incumbent Republican in the primary. In Congress he carefully steered a line between rejecting the New Deal measures of F. D. Roosevelt and over-enthusiastic endorsement of them. Initially an isolationist, he became more of an internationalist as the Second World War progressed, though he remained suspicious of foreign aid and international entanglements. Illness forced Dirksen to retire at the end of 1948 but he returned to the Congress in 1950 as a Senator.
In the early 1950s Dirksen's loyalty was to Robert Taft, whom he supported for the presidential nomination in 1952, and it was not until after Eisenhower's re-election in 1956 that Dirksen closed the gap between himself and the Republican president. In 1959 Dirksen was elected Republican leader of the Senate and thereafter tried to adopt a national rather than purely partisan perspective. He exercised a powerful influence, often in support of measures sought by Democratic presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Party unity was always a major consideration for Dirksen and he rallied the party behind Goldwater in 1964 and Nixon in 1968.
A shrewd tactician and a good committee man, Dirksen was sometimes mocked for his tendency to change his mind on crucial issues, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (he initially opposed it and then urged support of it). He was also criticized for lacking vision and, as the 1960s progressed, his influence declined and he became increasingly out of touch with the younger more liberal elements in his party. Despite periods of illness, his death was unexpected and he was succeeded as Republican Senate leader by the moderate Hugh Scott.