'Al the Pal'
Illinois has lost one of its legendary politicians and public servants.
Alan Dixon was retired (involuntarily) from politics in 1992, so it would be no great surprise if many people today are scratching their heads over the praise heaped on the politician who died Sunday at his Fairview Heights home.
But he was once a giant on Illinois' political stage, a Democrat who built his public persona by maintaining good relations with political friends and would-be foes. That bipartisan approach and energetic campaign style took him from the lowly position of police magistrate in his hometown of Belleville to the Illinois Legislature, statewide office and, ultimately, the U.S. Senate, where he served for 12 years. In doing so, he won his famous nickname "Al the Pal" and joined the pantheon of legendary pols, people like Everett Dirksen, Paul Simon, Jim Thompson and Aldai Stevenson II and III
Over a 40-year career, Dixon lost one election, his last, a stunning primary defeat to fellow Democrat Carol Moseley-Braun. Dixon took that setback with his usual grace, retiring from politics as a candidate but continuing to mix public service with a successful law practice at Bryan Cave in St. Louis.
As the years passed, he receded from public view, making a splash from time to time with the publication of his memoir or a news interview. Dixon and his wife spent their winters in Florida, where he played some golf and took walks for exercise.
"Other than that, I don't do much," he said.
But at the beginning, Dixon was a bundle of energy who was perceived as a politician going places. A tail-end member of the World War II generation, he was patient, but tenacious, in his effort to climb the ladder. Dixon genially crossed swords more than once with the late Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, the power broker who personally selected the Democrats' statewide ticket. Once denied an opportunity to run for governor in 1976 by Daley, Dixon used that setback as leverage to win Daley's support that year for a secretary of state run.
His campaign style was gentle. Appearing at the Illini Union during his first campaign for secretary of state, Dixon made a point of telling his audience that his Republican opponent was a nice fellow who, if elected, would do a good job.
After four years as secretary of state, Dixon seized the opportunity to run for the U.S. Senate when Democratic incumbent Adlai Stevenson III decided not to run for re-election. Relying on the political support he had developed over the years and swimming against the political tide, Dixon won easily.
It was a signature victory that demonstrated Dixon's vote-getting skills. Ronald Reagan won the presidency by a landslide in 1980, and so many big-time Democratic incumbents were defeated that Republicans took the Senate. While Reagan easily carried Illinois for the GOP, Dixon survived the GOP wave to win his dream job.
In paying tribute to Dixon, veteran political consultant Thom Serafin recalled him as a "Norman Rockwell Senator" who was devoted to constituent service. But that nostalgic characterization minimizes Dixon's political acumen.
He was a master of building coalitions, devoted to the theory that making friends was the best way to do business. At the same time, no one could sell Dixon short in the policy arena.
He was a liberal Democrat in the mold of President John F. Kennedy — pro-labor, pro-civil rights, pro-defense, anti-communist, anti-tax, anti-big government. Dixon preferred divided government, not one-party government, because it forced Republicans and Democrats to work together.
Dixon's time, however, was different than today. In those days, each party had both liberals and conservatives, and it was easier to reach across the aisle. Being a downstater from Belleville who had to contend with more liberal and more powerful Chicago, he learned early on the value of accommodation.
In his Senate years, Dixon frequently was the bearer of back-channel communications between Republican U.S. Sen. Robert Dole, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and Democratic U.S. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
"What's (Dole) want now?" Dixon would recall Rostenkowski as asking.
"Just a few things, but he'll give you something for them," Dixon would reply.
It was that sort of back-and-forth between the Republican Senate and the Democratic House that helped President Reagan pass the landmark 1986 tax reform act that lowered individual tax rates in exchange for the elimination of a variety of tax breaks.
Today's more politically disciplined parties — liberal Democrats who control the Senate and conservative Republicans who control the House — find that sort of negotiating more difficult because their differences are sharper and the atmosphere more combative.
But it was second nature to Dixon, and that approach served him, his state and his country well.