The Dirksen Center houses the papers, photographs, and memorabilia of former Senate Minority Leader Everett McKinley Dirksen, former House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel, and former Congressman Harold H. Velde. The Center's holdings also include over 70 other, mostly small collections, and more than 200 accessions. In September 2003, Congressman Ray LaHood selected The Center to be the repository for his papers, which will remain closed to researchers at this time.
Nicole Mellow, a PhD candidate at the University of Texas at Austin, describes her use of The Center's historical materials in the posting below. Nicole recieved a Congressional Research Award in 2001 to assist in her research.
Report on Use of Dirksen Congressional Center Research Grant
Nicole Mellow, April 2002
With the generous financial support of The Dirksen Congressional Center, I was able to spend a week gathering valuable information from the Center's archival holdings. My research at The Center focused primarily on the papers of Robert H. Michel, a Republican leader in the House of Representatives until 1994, and to a lesser extent, on the papers of Senator Everett Dirksen. Both sets of papers provided valuable material for my dissertation, which focuses on explaining the reemergence of congressional party conflict in the 1970s.
The central claim of my dissertation is that a geographical restructuring of the party system is responsible for much of the recent growth in partisanship and conflict. I focus much of my analysis on how party leaders responded to and facilitated changes in the industry, demography, and social structure of each region and the impact that this had on each party's electoral fortunes. The Center's collections were wonderful in this regard, because they provided a window into the thinking and strategizing of key Republican leaders over time. In some instances, the geographic logic of party strategies and/or policy goals was explicit; in other instances, they were implicit; and sometimes, geography was simply not a part of the equation.
Much of what was most instructive for me was contained in the Leadership Series of the Michel collection. This series contains documents from Michel's service first as Republican Whip and then as Minority Leader. Communications between party leaders, notes on strategy meetings, exchanges between party leaders and supportive interest groups, and documents from leaders to rank-and-file members provide evidence for the ways in which the party sought to regain majority status in the House. This includes both an attention to the electoral map, an awareness of what issues could help (or hurt) the party, and an increasingly sophisticated internal structure to generate ever-greater levels of unity and coordination within the party. I was surprised to learn from these files that Republican leaders believed that the party benefited from "process complaints." Letters between party leaders suggest that they believed the party would be unified and would gain electoral advantage by demonstrating the ways in which Democratic control of the House was used to unfairly disadvantage them. The document, "A Blueprint for Leadership," from the spring of 1993, shows the culmination of efforts of a party on the verge of recapturing the House. (One of the other interesting developments to track in these papers is the rise of Newt Gingrich within the party and the contrast this presents to Michel's leadership style, particularly in the early years.)
Also of use were files from the Legislative Series in the Michel collection. Much of my dissertation focuses on specific policy areas, and there is valuable information in these files on individual policy arenas. For example, one policy area that I focus on is trade, and the Shelly White files contain information on efforts to secure passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993. Also well-documented are the areas of welfare reform, budget concerns, and campaign reform as well as information on the "October Surprise."
Finally, the Speech and Trip files of the Michel papers also proved to be very useful to me. From these I was able to get a sense of how Michel pitched the Republican message to different audiences. In speaking to the Republican Western States Conference in 1981, for example, Michel stressed to audience members that the West was the new growth region of the Republican party and pointed to the ways in which the party and the region shared similar ideologies and values.
My dissertation concentrates on activity in the House of Representatives and thus most of my time was spent with the Michel papers. However, I also gained useful general material from the Dirsken papers. In this collection, I concentrated on transcripts, statements, and press releases from the Joint Senate-House Republican Leadership (the Republican Congressional Leadership Files). These files from the 1960s help to illustrate the extent to which the Republican leadership was intent on nurturing its ties to primarily Southern Democrats (the Conservative Coalition). Also clear from these files is how the leadership perceived issues such as civil rights and the growth of the federal government, both in terms of Republican party philosophy and electoral consequences.My research at the Dirksen Center provided me with a wealth of material for my dissertation, the value of which I have been discovering over time. Much of this material provides concrete pieces of evidence or data with which I can support, nuance, and sometimes modify my argument. Yet I also believe that this is an instance in which the sum is as great (maybe greater) than the parts. By tracing, in-depth, the developments in these papers of the Republican congressional leadership, I have been able to develop a more fuller and well-rounded sense of the party and its members as they evolved over time.