Former Sen. Alan Dixon’s Memoir Provides Unvarnished Story

Posted September 23, 2013 at 3:27pm

Let me mention a fellow who used to be in the Senate. Alan Dixon is his name, but people call him Al the Pal. The Senate may never have seen a more practiced backslapper and glad-hander, and that’s saying something. Al was turfed out of office by his own Democratic Party in 1992. He spent 40 years winning elections, but he sure didn’t see that one coming.

Now, Al has written a book. Never let it be said that a man is more thoughtful and articulate in print than he is in real life. And while we’re never letting things be said, never let it be said that a man late in life grasps the opportunity of hindsight to weigh the events of his younger self. But I digress. There will be time to do that later. Suffice it to say Al doesn’t do introspection. Al does extroversion. He does it in person and now he does it on the page.

Al’s book is “The Gentleman From Illinois: Stories From Forty Years of Elective Public Service” and the title isn’t kidding. He’s got stories all right. Many barely have beginnings and some don’t have points, but they all come to an end, or at least Al stops telling them. More importantly, the stories have characters. Good, salt-of-the-earth people, even if some of them did wind up behind bars. Al lived by the old maxim that politics is about people and he writes by the same maxim. Imagine a guy who works the Rotary Clubs and church socials of Illinois for decades. That guy keeps a trunk full of yarns, knows the value of name dropping, and calibrates the self-deprecation to keep the car salesmen and beer distributors nodding approvingly. That’s Al.

Making Connections

That Al placed a lot of importance on personal connections was obvious even when he was a kid, growing up on Wabash Avenue in Belleville, Ill. That’s St. Louis Cardinals territory. Cards great Enos Slaughter co-owned a jewelry store in the very same building where Al had an office. I’ll add only that Slaughter used to hang out at Tony Bonnelle’s Italian restaurant a few blocks away and now I’ll return to the point. When Oliver Muser, Al’s favorite teacher, explained that Hitler was killing the Jews in Europe, Al’s at a loss because he didn’t know any Jews.

Al would be the first to admit he’s a people person. Events don’t happen unless they arrive with a smile and a handshake and maybe a willingness to share a cold beer. Civil rights, Vietnam, the Cold War, Pearl Harbor, culture wars, inflation, unemployment? Faceless and nameless and so barely worth a mention.

If Al wasn’t born with the skill, he learned quickly to get along with all kinds. He didn’t rely on intermediaries, just as he doesn’t allow proofreaders or editors to get between him and readers of this book. Non sequiturs, mixed metaphors, inexplicable exclamations and unintentionally droll observations are pure Al. As comedians say, it’s Al in the raw. Unlinked from anything that comes before or after, his sentences become sparkling gems of revelation. Dwell on them for a moment and let Al Dixon take shape.

“When I was secretary of state, I was in charge of the issuance of auto license plates. One of the remarkable facts about people is that many enjoy low-number plates or any type of vanity plate.”

“It’s funny about the things one remembers when one thinks back. Grandpa shaved with a straight razor. As for grandma, she made the best damn brownies I’d ever eaten.”

“Memories of 1980 invariably involve the acid rain issue, the fate of Illinois coal, and Paul Simon’s re-election issue.”

“I want Dan Quayle to know I speak well of him. And, I’d sure like to have his golf swing.”

“This impasse will not prevail.”

The Slaughter-jewelry story-Tony Bonnelle’s is practically “War and Peace” in its complexity. It’s just one of the many examples of Dixon’s writing making multiple connections that keep going.

Downright Dixonian

Dixonian should enter the vocabulary. And besides, Illinois politics is about connections, not literary merit. The local string pullers found 21-year-old Al and slated him to run for police magistrate on the winning Better Belleville ticket. He never looked back. Like Bryce Harper stretching a single into a double, Al stretched that first job into a career home run that carried him through the state legislature and then to statewide office and finally 12 years in the Senate. As Al might say, or rather exclaim, that’s good hitting for a man whose first love is golf!

Not that Al’s love of people blinded him to moral quandary. As police magistrate in Belleville, for example, he discovered that he didn’t get paid unless he found the defendant guilty and assessed a fine. Actually, in Al’s telling, it was more of a financial quandary but he did at least point out the problem to the city council. And 13 years later, state legislator Al helped overhaul the judicial system.

Being from Illinois, Al knew some operators. It’s a state, after all, where politicians really do have convictions. He also knew a disturbing number of people who killed themselves. But Al wouldn’t be Al if he was the type to succumb to melancholy. The arena of public service calls for a smile and congenital optimism. Armed with both, Al moves up the ladder and, in 1980, into the U.S. Senate.

True to form, Al’s personality made him many friends in the Senate: Robert C. Byrd, Jennings Randolph, Christopher J. Dodd, George Mitchell, David Pryor, Charles Percy, Barry Goldwater, Trent Lott, John Danforth, Howard Baker, Dan Quayle, Daniel K. Inouye, Thomas Eagleton, Sam Nunn, Jesse Helms. Remarkable men, all of them, for one reason or another. Not Howard Metzenbaum, though. Al never cared much for Metz, as he says.

“Generally speaking, my political career was built on goodwill and accommodation,” Al says. And so, when Al’s good will and accommodation bring him to vote to confirm Clarence Thomas for a seat on the Supreme Court, his luck runs out and his party chooses Carol Moseley Braun to run for Al’s seat. Al goes home to southern Illinois.

And that’s what happened to Al.

Randolph Walerius is an analyst for the CQ Roll Call Washington Securities Briefing.