It's January, 1961. Richard Milhouse Nixon has lost the presidential election by a hair-thin margin and John Fitzgerald Kennedy was taking up residence in the White House. On Capitol Hill Democrats were in firm control of both Houses of Congress, with the 37 Republican senators dwarfed by the 63 Democrat majority.
Over on the House side of the Capitol, there were 263 Democrats and a mere 174 Republicans. As dismal a picture as that was for the GOP, the situation was worsened by the fact that JFK was enormously popular especially among members of the Washington media, so much so that one of his strongest allies in the media appeared willing to turn a blind eye to the barely concealed fact that his wife was sleeping with his pal, the new president.
Making matters worse, the House leadership was in the hands of the formidable Sam Rayburn, a fiercely partisan Democrat while the Senate was ruled by the equally partisan Carl Hayden.
The Democratic majorities in both bodies exhibited a contempt for the Republican minority — the party that was meant to be barely seen and seldom heard.
In today's 111th Congress there are 256 Democrats and 178 Republicans in the House. On the Senate side there are 60 Democrats, including the defecting Arlen Specter and 39 Republicans. One seat in the Senate remains undecided: that of Minnesota.
Unlike the powerful and politically astute Democrat leadership in both Houses, today's Democratic leaders, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, are prone to stepping on their own tongues and often over-reaching in pushing their ultra-liberal agendas.
All in all, things were much worse for Republicans in 1961 than they are now. In spite of the long odds against them, however, the Republican minority refused to lie down and play dead. Led by the pugnacious Charlie Halleck in the House and suave old Ev Dirksen in the Senate, they drew their lines in the sand and let the Democratic majority know that they would have a fight on their hands if they tried to roll over the minority.
Fully aware that they were all but powerless to stop the Democrats from pushing their agenda through, they picked their targets carefully and by their opposition laid the groundwork for future confrontations with the Democrats.
On the House side they re-organized the House Republican Policy Committee, which, despite the fact that the Democrats refused to fund it or even officially recognize that it existed, was able to mobilize the minority to oppose certain Democratic backed pieces of legislation, this pinpointing issues that the GOP could exploit in coming elections.
By using this tool, the Republican minority was able to penetrate the paper curtain erected by the biased media. Hometown newspapers seldom mirrored the political biases of the liberal Washington press corps and they demanded that Capitol Hill reporters cover issues they would have preferred do ignore.
In a successful attempt to force the Capitol Hill press corps to cover the GOP, a joint House/Senate Republican group was formed, the House and Senate leaderships met weekly to discuss issues and the meetings were followed by a press conference featuring the colorful House Leader Halleck and Senate leader Dirksen.
Dubbed the "Ev and Charlie show" it lifted the paper curtain and focused national attention on Republican activities and issues that would otherwise have been ignored by the media.
Another weapon in the small but potent GOP arsenal was the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee originally chaired by Rep. William Miller, later to be Barry Goldwater's running mate and then California's Bob Wilson.
They took aim at the Democrats considered most vulnerable, hitting at them whenever they voted for measures not popular in their districts by rifle shooting press statements to their hometown media.
The Democratic leadership was aghast at the impudence of the despised minority which simply refused to knuckle under. They retaliated but failed to quell the GOP assaults. While they prevailed on many of the issues, the minority made every Democratic victory a costly one.
In short, the vastly outnumbered Republicans kept their party alive and viable at a time when they were considered all but dead by the media. In the end, their courage and initiatives paved the way to the candidacy of Barry Goldwater who in turn paved the way for Ronald Reagan.
The experience of the GOP in 1961 provides a lesson for today's Republican minority — one which they need to learn.
They need to learn how to pick their targets carefully and not scatter their shots at every shocking Democratic proposal, to use every trick in the books to get their message out to the American people and to let their fellow Americans know that if they have anything to say about it, this nation is not about to remake itself into the United Socialist States of America.
It's going to be a tough job, but take it from me — I was there in the midst of it on the Hill in 1961 and while it was difficult being part of the staff of a small minority, it was also a hell of a lot of fun stepping on the majority's toes and watching them wince.
Phil Brennan writes for Newsmax.com. He is editor and publisher of Wednesday on the Web (www.pvbr.com) and was Washington columnist (Cato) for National Review magazine in the 1960s. He is a trustee of the Lincoln Heritage Institute and a member of the Association For Intelligence Officers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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