FARMINGTON — Chris O’Brien has long been intrigued by former U.S. Sen. Bourke Hickenlooper.

Hickenlooper, a Republican senator from Iowa, supported the Civil Rights Act of 1957, but then opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The former was under the Republican Eisenhower administration; the latter two, under Democratic President Lyndon Johnson.

O’Brien, a history professor at the University of Maine at Farmington, has long wondered whether that contradiction was a party position or an actual principled stand — and if it was a principled stand, what the thinking was behind it.

And how the whole thing was sold to his constituents.

Now, O’Brien has the means to find out. He was recently awarded funding to uncover Hickenlooper’s motives by the Hoover Presidential Foundation. The grant will allow O’Brien to research Hickenlooper, the 29th governor of Iowa and a four-term senator, from 1945 to 1969.

The Hoover Presidential Foundation, in West Branch, Iowa, is a nonprofit support group for the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library. The award allows O’Brien to go to the library to study Hickenlooper.

“Hickenlooper was in the Senate for two votes that matter to me,” O’Brien said. “He was in support of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 under a Republican administration and he’s a Republican.”

Hickenlooper then opposed to the two landmark Johnson administration bills.

O’Brien has wondered how Hickenlooper sold the reasoning for his vote to the local press and what that looked like.

“How do you go home to Iowa and say, ‘I’m opposed to voting rights for minorities in the South — for black people in the South,’ and how do you make that pitch?”

O’Brien said he’d like to think there was a principled stand, but if one existed it would be a “problematic but principled” stand “or it might just be partisan hackery.”

O’Brien said the people at the Hoover Library seemed to think the latter might be the case.

Understanding Hickenlooper’s stance is more than just a history riddle. It also affects understanding today’s politics.

O’Brien said Hickenlooper usually was opposed to the federal government expanding in any way. Voting rights traditionally had been the domain of states, and states traditionally have used control over voting rights to keep certain people away from the polls, “to implement laws that made it nearly impossible for people to exercise their right to vote.”

“That’s problematic for me in a democracy,” O’Brien said. “And it’s problematic that you could go home to Iowa and say the most important thing is that states get to control who gets to vote so they can decide who does not get to vote.”

O’Brien said that part was what drew him into the Hickenlooper story.

“I was looking at modern politics and at restrictions of voting rights that are happening around the country now and wondering if we weren’t heading back to something that I knew more about in the past — and not a pretty era in American history,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien said pushes for voter identification and limiting voter registration hours or means of voting are examples of modern restrictions, though he doesn’t think these measures are all being pushed for nefarious means.

“But for me there was a resonance with a pretty ugly time,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien said the trend concerned him, adding, “This is a way of me looking at the past and looking at the present at the same time.”

O’Brien said he is able to complete his work with the help of undergraduate research assistants and said, laughing, “Everything that I do has research assistants doing the heavy lifting while I get to do all the cool stuff and go to the archives and the libraries.” O’Brien, joking, said his assistants make him look like he’s working much harder than he is.

He said his assistants would pore over information and tell him how much it sounds like today.

“So, it’s a history project, it really is, and what I’m interested in is that moment and Midwestern politics, where a transformation is underway — and the transformation is the one you and I live with, which is the realignment of the political parties.

“In the 1930s, 1940s and into the 1950s, there was no sense that the conservatives were in the Republican party and only in the Republican party,” O’Brien said. “There were conservatives in the Republican party; there were conservatives in the Democratic party. We just live in a different era.

“We’ve moved from the 1950s from the ideas of parties that are coalition parties — what’s usually called big-tent parties, with lots of disagreements, to ideology parties where there are fewer internal disagreements.”

He used the modern ideal of conservatism as an analogy, looking at the differences among candidates and prospective candidates in the next presidential election, noting a varied array that includes Rand Paul and Jeb Bush.

“Every study says the Democrats are more liberal, or progressive, and the Republicans are more conservative than they had been in the past,” O’Brien said. “The parties are more polarized than they have been in the past. So this is a transitional moment where Northern conservatives and Southern conservatives are lining up over an issue.”

O’Brien said he doesn’t think Hickenlooper was opposed to voting rights for black citizens, but that his belief in state’s rights would not allow him to concede control by federal law.

“He was a really hard-core state’s rights — this is the business of the states.”

O’Brien said party dynamics of the time for both Republicans and Democrats make it difficult to determine whether Hickenlooper was just playing the party line.

“When I look at those votes, there are Republicans who helped carry those votes (for civil rights). There were not enough Democratic votes, because you know the South is going to vote against it,” O’Brien said.

He said neither the Voting Rights Act nor the Civil Rights Act would have passed without Republican support.

O’Brien said those votes were passed by more progressive voters from both parties, aided by President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. O’Brien said Kennedy’s association with the civil rights movement helped wavering voters decide and brought them to the polls.

“But Hickenlooper’s not one of them,” he said.

Douglas McIntire — 861-9252

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Twitter: @CD_McIntire