Politics

Garrison Nelson: Jim Jeffords, reluctant rebel

Sen. James Jeffords, Rep. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Patrick Leahy make their traditional “Milk Toast” to the passage of the Farm Bill and their MILC Program for dairy farmers. Office of Sen. Patrick Leahy photo

Sen. James Jeffords, Rep. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Patrick Leahy make their traditional “Milk Toast” to the passage of the Farm Bill and their MILC Program for dairy farmers. Office of Sen. Patrick Leahy photo

Editor’s note: This piece is by Garrison Nelson, a political science professor at the University of Vermont and the editor and co-editor of the seven volume Committees in the U.S. Congress, 1789-2010 (Congressional Quarterly/SAGE, 1993-2010) and most recently, Pathways to the U.S. Supreme Court : From the Arena to the Monastery (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). His op-ed article, “Jim Jeffords’s Long Goodbye” appeared in The New York Times (May 25, 2001).

Of the many ironies of the full life and lengthy public career of the late U.S. Sen. Jim Jeffords is that this shy, kind and gentle man began his statewide political quest in 1968, one of the most troubling years of the 20th century. This was the year that the bright promise of the 1960s decade that opened with the eloquent and uplifting inaugural address of 43 year-old President John F. Kennedy in January 1961, would end in 1968 with the murders of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in April and U.S. Sen. Bob Kennedy in June and close with the narrow 1968 election of Kennedy’s bitter opponent Richard M. Nixon. It was Nixon’s cynical “Southern strategy” that would take the United States down a path of racial divisiveness and resentful distrust of one another that painfully echoes in today’s news.

U.S. Senate resolution on Jeffords’ death

The year 1968 was momentous for me as well as I was hired at the University of Vermont as a 25-year-old instructor in political science. Moving to Burlington, I first learned of the 34-year-old freshman state Sen. Jim Jeffords who was making his initial sojourn in statewide politics as the Republican nominee for attorney general. Six years had passed since 1962 when the handsome and charismatic Democrat Phil Hoff had upset the political universe by winning election in a state that had not elected a Democratic governor in 106 years. While this would be the last year that Phil would hold statewide office, the impact of his three victories as governor set Vermont on an irrevocable course towards liberalism that persists to this day and one that the 38-year career of Jim Jeffords would affirm.

Sen. Jim Jeffords, R-Vt.

Sen. Jim Jeffords, R-Vt.

The office of Vermont Attorney General had opened when incumbent Republican Jim Oakes, Phil Hoff’s friend, the articulate and judicious liberal George Aiken-style Republican chose to run in the Republican primary against Deane Davis, CEO of Montpelier’s National Life Insurance Co. Jim Oakes would later become a federal appeals court judge and with Hoff, a founder of the Vermont Law School. Deane Davis, a sagacious lawyer, had never run for office before but Vermont’s more traditional pro-business Republicans saw an opening to reclaim the state with the departure of Hoff from the governorship. Davis won the primary over Jim Oakes and the general election over two-term Democratic Lieutenant Gov. Jack Daley,

Nixon’s national victory that year included Vermont and restored Vermont to its former Republican location, the only state in the Union to have recorded 27 consecutive victories for presidential candidates of the same party, 1856-1960. The tumultuous and blood-spattered presidency of LBJ with its legacy of the god-awful Vietnam War and horrendous urban riots had ended and Vermont was eager to expunge the memory of the Johnson presidency.

Jim’s Initial Statewide Win

Joining Davis in victory was James Merrill Jeffords, the young lawyer whose father had served with distinction on the Vermont Supreme Court. With his family legacy and degrees from both Yale and Harvard Law, Jim’s credentials were impeccable. There was little in his background that would foreshadow the profound impact that he would have upon politics in Vermont and the United States.

During his four years as Vermont Attorney General, Jim vigorously enforced the states’ anti-billboard law preserving the state’s majestic views for all of us who are fortunate to live in Vermont and for the multiple thousands of tourists who visit the state every year expressly to see those magnificent landscapes that remain free of visual commercial interruption. But it was his willingness to go after the mega-corporation International Paper Co. across Lake Champlain that would rattle the teeth of Vermont’s pro-business Republican establishment. The lake was being polluted by discharges from IPC’s plant in Ticonderoga, New York, and Jim wanted it stopped. It was a long, expensive and arduous battle, but Jim and his small and determined legal team succeeded, and Lake Champlain remains today the national treasure that provides northern New England with its own west coast.

The 1972 Loss

Vermont’s pro-business Republicans were unhappy with Jim and they were not pleased when he chose to run for governor following Deane Davis’ retirement in 1972. Davis had been an effective governor, and not as conservative as many liberals feared but following in the two-term tradition of his Republican predecessors he stepped aside.

The pro-business wing of the GOP settled on a candidate. It would be Luther (Fred) Hackett, a very successful insurance executive from Burlington. Fred Hackett, like Davis had never run for public office before and would be challenging Jim Jeffords who had won re-election easily in 1970 over the Democratic candidate Tom Salmon from Bellows Falls. Knowing that Jim Jeffords’ popularity and visibility dwarfed that of Fred Hackett, the pro-business Republicans realized that a healthy expenditure of money would be necessary to overcome Jeffords in the upcoming September primary. At the time, Vermont had a $6,000 limit on campaign expenditures in primaries but no limit on general election expenses.

It was the 1970 U.S. Senate race between ex-Gov. Hoff and two-term incumbent Republican Winston Prouty of Newport that changed the game. In a race with major national implications, President Nixon came to Vermont to campaign for Prouty and hundreds of thousands of out-of-state dollars were spent by both sides for non-stop political advertising. This was the new reality and many Vermonters were deeply bothered by it. I was a member of a task force created by the Vermont Ecumenical Council to reform the legislation. We were pleased that Republicans joined us in this effort. The solution was to expand the primary limit to $40,000 and to impose a similar limit on the general election. It would cover both campaign staffing and advertising. Now the traditional wing had the freedom to spend enough to block Jim Jeffords.

It was an unnecessarily bitter contest that surprised many of us because we saw both Jim and Fred as estimable people, but campaigns take on unfortunate qualities pushed by campaign staff if not by the candidates themselves. The new primary limit worked as intended and Fred Hackett won the primary over a financially depleted Jim Jeffords. It was a hollow victory because a number of Jeffords loyalists were embittered by how Jim was treated and chose to vote for Democratic nominee Tom Salmon, who Jim had defeated two years earlier. But the new general election limit included staff and Fred’s staff costs prevented him from spending money on advertising to offset the defections. The Jeffords defectors carried the day. Democrat Tom Salmon was elected governor in spite of President Nixon’s 49-state landslide that had lodged Vermont once again in the Republican presidential column for the 29th time in the previous 30 elections.

The 1972 Nixon landslide was created by a series of duplicitous and illegal actions that would lead to his forced resignation in August 1974. Most Vermonters were pleased by Nixon’s departure but the state’s political landscape was about to change dramatically.

1974: Changing the Congressional Guard

U.S. Sen. George Aiken of Putney, the nation’s longest-serving Republican senator, would turn 84 this year and after 34 years in the Senate, he chose to retire. He had run unopposed six years earlier and his 1968 campaign expenditures of less than $20 added to the Aiken legend. The Republican nominee was two-term incumbent at-large U.S. Rep. Dick Mallary of Fairlee and it was expected that Gov. Tom Salmon would be the Democratic nominee, but Salmon was reluctant to challenge Aiken before the announced retirement and he only had one year in office, so he did not have much of a record to run on at that point. The 33-year-old Chittenden County State’s Attorney Patrick J. Leahy was less reluctant and he announced his candidacy before Aiken’s formal retirement notification troubling some Aiken loyalists.

Jim’s Comeback

With Mallary’s departure from the House, that at-large seat was open and Jim Jeffords sought to make a comeback. Jim ran against two more conservative Republicans, state Sen. Madeline Harwood and Lt. Gov. John S. Burgess and their splitting of the vote helped Jim get the nomination. Jim would run against Burlington Mayor Frank Cain, who won the Democratic primary. But while Pat Leahy was an eager combatant in the Senate race, Frank Cain was a reluctant one in the House race. The prospect of relocating a family with 10 children to a pricey Washington, D.C., home may have contributed to his reluctance. At the Ramada Inn on election night 1974, Patrick Leahy was jubilant at his victory and Frank Cain seemed relieved by his defeat.

Sen. Robert Stafford (left), Rep. James Jeffords (center) and Sen. Patrick Leahy meet boys state representatives in 1975. Office of Sen. Patrick Leahy photo

Sen. Robert Stafford (left), Rep. James Jeffords (center) and Sen. Patrick Leahy meet boys state representatives in 1975. Office of Sen. Patrick Leahy photo

Both U.S. Rep. Jim Jeffords and U.S. Sen. Pat Leahy began their congressional careers on the same day, Jan. 3, 1975. They would serve in the Capitol coterminously for the next 32 years. It was anticipated that Jim would challenge Pat in the 1980 election but an unexpected development occurred from an unlikely source. Republican U.S. Sen. Bob Stafford of Rutland, Jim’s home county, extended a helping hand to Sen. Leahy and his young staff. Patrick had never served as a legislator, and Bob who had been Vermont’s governor, a House member for nine years, and a senator since 1969, was a well-trained legislator.

I was a part-time staffer in the Leahy office at the time while on my first sabbatical and a Guest Scholar at the Brookings Institution. The Leahy office was far more interesting than Brookings so I spent much more time on Capitol Hill than on Massachusetts Avenue. I could not believe how extraordinarily cooperative the Stafford office was to us. I was introduced to the Legislative Counsel’s Office and received the names and phone numbers of key staff members on Senate committees and at the Congressional Research Service (CRS). Bob Stafford wanted Pat Leahy to succeed, feeling that Vermonters benefit from bipartisanship.

1976: Stafford’s Victory

The Leahy-Stafford friendship was put to the test in 1976 when two-term Gov. Tom Salmon sought to challenge Bob Stafford’s re-election. Tom had survived a difficult primary when Scott Skinner of VPIRG, the Ralph Nader–inspired Vermont Public Interest Research Group, gained the votes of multiple Republicans who crossed into Vermont’s open Democratic primary to undermine Salmon’s candidacy. Tom won the Senate nomination and anticipated that Pat Leahy would join him on the campaign stump against Bob Stafford. Tom apparently believed that his stepping aside in 1974 had opened the door for Pat’s election and wished that the favor would be repaid. It appeared to those of us who watched their interaction that Pat let Tom know that he would vote for him but that he would not actively campaign against Bob Stafford.

In spite of the fact that Tom Salmon would later head up Green Mountain Power and become president of the University of Vermont, the elusive Senate seat led to tension between the two that never fully subsided. Bob Stafford was re-elected and many believed that he would retire at the end of this second full term in 1982 thereby opening the seat for Jim.

1980: Presidential Primaries

Unlike neighboring New Hampshire, Vermont’s presidential primaries are most often ignored, but in 1980 major candidates from both parties put Vermont into play. On the Democratic side, U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy had chosen to challenge the renomination of President Jimmy Carter whose faltering presidency had jeopardized continued Democratic control of both houses of Congress. With private polls indicating a likely Kennedy defeat in New Hampshire’s all-important “first-in-the nation” primary, the Kennedy people sought to use the Vermont “beauty contest” primary the following week to counter the anticipated New Hampshire defeat. They were not comparable events. New Hampshire’s primary selected convention delegates; Vermont’s primary was only advisory with delegates selected later at the state conventions. Kennedy’s Vermont primary defeat mirrored New Hampshire’s with even lower numbers.

John Anderson’s Candidacy

The 1980 Republican primary was open. Former Ambassador George H.W. Bush had won the Iowa caucus and ex-Gov. Ronald Reagan of California had won the New Hampshire primary. Other candidates allied themselves with Vermont politicians. Gov. Dick Snelling yoked himself to Tennessee U.S. Sen. Howard W. Baker while Jim Jeffords supported the candidacy of Illinois moderate Republican John B. Anderson. Reagan was victorious and Baker ended his candidacy but John Anderson almost knocked off Reagan with Jeffords’ support. Yet again Jim had defied the party’s establishment.

When Reagan’s nomination was secure and John Anderson chose to run as an independent, there was debate among the Republicans whether or not Jim would be included on the convention delegation in Detroit. Jim was included but left before Reagan’s acceptance speech. It was yet another of Jim’s declarations of independence to borrow the title of his book.

The 1980 Non-Challenge

National Republicans were eager for Jim to challenge Leahy’s re-election in 1980 but the state’s leading agricultural lobby, the milk producers, wanted to keep Jim on the House Agriculture Committee and Patrick on the Senate Agriculture Committee. Bob Stafford who was fond of both men did not wish to see this contest. Statehouse legend has it that Gov. Dick Snelling, who had vice presidential aspirations as Howard Baker’s running mate that year, pressured Bob Stafford to nudge Jeffords into the race. Apparently Stafford was displeased and reminded Snelling that, “I started in Vermont politics while you were in knee pants in Pennsylvania.”

Consequently, Leahy ran against insurance Commissioner Stewart Ledbetter Sr. in 1980 winning an extraordinarily close contest in the face of an overwhelming Reagan victory over President Jimmy Carter. Leahy and Colorado’s Gary Hart were the beneficiaries of John Anderson’s strong third party showing in both states and were able to survive while 12 Democratic Senate seats were lost.

Reagan’s coattails gave Republicans control of the Senate for the first time since Ike’s victory in 1952. Bob Stafford was no longer the ranking minority member on the Environment and Public Works Committee. He was now the chair of the committee and chose to change his mind about a 1982 retirement instead deciding to stay until 1988. Jeffords was disappointed and Bob told Patrick that every time Jim shook Bob’s hand, “he felt my pulse.”

Opposed Reagan Tax Cut

The House remained Democratic after the election but 50+ southern Democratic conservatives, led by Phil Gramm and Charlie Stenholm of Texas formed the Conservative Democratic Forum, popularly known as “the Boll Weevils.” They broke with Democratic Speaker Tip O’Neill and gave President Reagan a number of legislative victories, most notably on the 1981 tax cut that cut income taxes by 25 percent. With all but one of the 190+ Republicans joined by the 50+ Boll Weevils, Reagan got his tax cut passed. The lone Republican dissenter was Jim Jeffords, who believed that cutting taxes — a favorite theme of “supply-siders” – would lead to greater deficits. Jim was right but an angry Reagan administration chose not to issue White House passes to the Jeffords office.

Lola Aiken and Vermont's then-congressional delegation pose at the dedication of the George Aiken Wilderness Area in October 1984. From left, Sen. Patrick Leahy, Rep. James Jeffords and Sen. Robert Stafford. Photo courtesy of Sen. Leahy's office

Lola Aiken and Vermont’s then-congressional delegation pose at the dedication of the George Aiken Wilderness Area in October 1984. From left, Sen. Patrick Leahy, Rep. James Jeffords and Sen. Robert Stafford. Photo courtesy of Sen. Leahy’s office

House Republicans, led by Bob Michel of Illinois, virtually ostracized Jim and prevented him from becoming the ranking member on Agriculture by moving Ed Madigan of Illinois from Budget to Agriculture. Jim at that point thought about another run for governor in 1982. Dick Snelling was finishing his third and presumably last term in office and Lieutenant Gov. Madeleine Kunin was already seen as the Democratic candidate. Pro-business Republicans were horrified by a choice between these two liberals. Spurred by editorials in the Burlington Free Press supporting a fourth term for Snelling, Jim backed off and waited for 1988.

Gypsy Moths

Jim spent the Reagan years along with Jim Leach of Iowa as a leader of a group of 20 Northern moderate House Republicans who called themselves the “Gypsy Moths” as they sought to counter the Boll Weevils and slow the Reagan agenda. Jim disagreed with most Reagan legislative initiatives and found himself listed often as the Republican House member with the lowest presidential support scores as calculated by Congressional Quarterly. He remained on the two committees upon which he started — Agriculture and Education and Labor — while other less senior Republicans moved on to more prestigious assignments on the Way and Means, Rules, and Appropriations committees. He had been marginalized by the House Republican leaders who also wished that Jim would leave the House for the Senate.

Elected to the Senate

In 1988 Bob Stafford formally retired from the Senate. Like Jim, Bob had tangled with the more conservative members of his party and lost his post as Secretary of the Senate Republican Conference to the more conservative Clifford Hansen of Wyoming in 1977. When Jim became the Republican Senate candidate, his House seat opened up for the first time in 14 years. It was in that 1988 House contest that ex-Lieutenant Gov. Peter Smith would finish ahead of Burlington Mayor Bernie Sanders and Statehouse Democratic leader Paul Poirier. Jim ran against well-regarded Burlington lawyer Bill Gray, who had played a major role in Patrick’s overwhelming Senate re-election in 1986 over former Gov. Dick Snelling. Jim defeated Bill Gray to begin his 18-year Senate career.

Earlier in 1988, Jim had campaigned for Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole’s nomination over Reagan’s Vice President George H.W. Bush. While Bush was nominated and elected president in 1988, Bob Dole welcomed Jim’s arrival in the Senate with open arms. Jim was far better treated by the Senate Republicans than by the House Republicans. His most memorable challenge to the G.H.W. Bush administration was as one of only two Republican votes against the Supreme Court nomination of the barely qualified Clarence Thomas in 1991, much as Bob Stafford was one of only six Republicans to vote against Reagan nominee, the ultra-conservative Robert Bork in 1987. Bork was blocked; Thomas was not and remains on the court today.

In a surprisingly close contest, Jim defeated state Sen. Jan Backus by nine points in his 1994 re-election bid. Having run statewide every two years since 1968, many observers felt that Jim’s six-year term may have led to some campaign lethargy as early polls indicated that the race might be closer than anticipated. One of the more interesting sidelights to that campaign was the arrival in town of Mary Beth Cahill, a key operative from Emily’s List that supports feminist candidates throughout the country. After listening to both candidates, Ms. Cahill concluded that American feminism was safe with Jim Jeffords and Jan Backus was not funded. Jim recovered in time and began his second term serving with a Democratic president of whom he was very fond – Bill Clinton.

Clinton Years

Arkansas’ Democratic Gov. Bill Clinton defeated President George H.W. Bush in 1992 and reached out to Jim calling Jim “his favorite Republican senator” in a Rolling Stone interview. Supported by both Senate Republican leader Dole and Clinton, these were the congressional years which had to be Jim’s happiest and most productive. Working on environmental legislation, funding support for the arts and humanities, and with liberal Democratic icon Ted Kennedy on health legislation, Jim was extraordinarily effective. Ted and Jim renamed the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources to the more broadly based Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (HELP). Jim’s effectiveness continued even when Bob Dole resigned the Senate to become the Republican presidential nominee in 1996. The new Republican leader, Trent Lott of Mississippi, was far more conservative than Dole but he sought Jim’s support and the two of them organized a barbershop quartet known as “The Singing Senators” that included John Ashcroft of Missouri and Larry Craig of Idaho, as well as Jim and Trent. Apart from their rendition of “Elvira,” their singing was more humored than well-regarded. Each of the other three ended their careers on sour notes.

Sens. Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Jim Jeffords of Vermont at a Pentagon press briefing in 2000.  Photo by Linda D. Kozaryn/American Forces Press Service http://www.defense.gov/specials/childcare/modelfornation.html

Sens. Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Jim Jeffords of Vermont at a Pentagon press briefing in 2000. Photo by Linda D. Kozaryn/American Forces Press Service http://www.defense.gov/specials/childcare/modelfornation.html

Ashcroft was defeated by a dead man in 2000 — Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan who died in a plane crash days before the election. Lott was asked to give up his leadership post in 2002 when he contended that the nation would have been better served if segregationist U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond had won the 1948 presidential election and not Harry Truman. Craig finished his Senate term in 2009 but his career was tarnished when his 2007 “wide stance” defense of an alleged gay pickup in an airport men’s room went public.

Votes against Impeachment

Jim’s challenges to Republican leadership were on display once again in 1999. Late in 1998 and close to adjournment, House Republicans impeached President Bill Clinton on perjury and obstruction of justice in the Monica Lewinsky affair. Since impeachment is only an indictment, removal from office requires a conviction vote from two-thirds of the Senate. In the 102nd Congress, there were 55 Republicans and 45 Democrats. To remove Clinton, all 55 Republicans needed to vote together and be joined by 12 Democrats.

The Senate debated the Clinton case for two full months while most of America supported Clinton as he scored the highest Gallup Poll approval ratings of his presidency. However, while 50 of 55 Republicans voted to convict on the first article and 45 of 55 on the second article, none of the 45 Democrats voted against Clinton. Republicans lost by 17 votes on the first article and 22 on the second one. Five Republicans refused to convict Clinton on either charge and Jim was one of them. He was joined by Maine’s two senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, Rhode Island’s John Chafee and Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter. It was obvious from the start that this would be the outcome, but Senate Republicans wasted two months in 1999 in an effort to emasculate Bill Clinton’s last two years.

2001: Power-Sharing

The 2000 election led to a backlash and Senate Republicans lost five seats leaving the Senate evenly divided 50-50. This was only the second time that the Senate had split evenly and the first was more than 120 years earlier. The two parties agreed to a “power-sharing” arrangement with the majority determined by the party of the vice president. From Jan. 3, 2001, to Jan. 20, 2001, Democrat Al Gore was vice president and after January 20, 2001, Republican Dick Cheney was vice president. Each Senate committee would have an equal number of Republican and Democratic members and an equal number of staff assistants. Republicans would technically chair all the committees. The agreement would end once one of the parties had a majority. Democrats went along with this arrangement believing that South Carolina Republican Strom Thurmond, then on the edge of 100, would retire and shift control to them.

In spite of the fact that Vice President Al Gore Jr. had received more popular votes than Texas Gov. George W. Bush and that Bush’s Electoral College tally of 271 votes was only one more than the minimum number required for election, new President Bush believed that he had a popular mandate to do what Republicans love to do – cut taxes. The $236 billion surplus that Bill Clinton had left to the Bush administration was to be cut along with an additional $1.4 trillion in further cuts including a number in Jim’s programs for special education. With only 50 Republicans in the Senate, any GOP defector could stop the cuts and as a member of the prestigious tax-writing Senate Finance Committee, Jim had that power.

He had just been re-elected to his third term over State Auditor of Accounts Ed Flanagan and would not face re-election for another five years. Jim made it clear as he had in 1981 that tax cuts produce deficits. Deficits followed the Reagan cuts and would again with the Bush II cuts. The White House backed off its initial request for cuts and restored some monies for Jim’s programs. But junior White House staffers with too much power too early in their lives sought to bully Jim. They did this by denying him access to a White House reception for Michele Forman, a social studies teacher from Middlebury Union High School who had been selected as the National Teacher of the Year. It was far from the last straw for Jim but it was yet another indicator of how tone deaf the Bush White House was in its dealings with him.

Jim Jeffords Makes History

Sen. James Jeffords memoir. Simon & Schuster (2003)

Sen. James Jeffords memoir. Simon & Schuster (2003)

Realizing that there was no point in trying to work with the Bush II White House or with Trent Lott’s hard core of conservative Republicans; Jim chose to leave the Senate Republicans in late May and to caucus with the Democrats. However, he would do so as an independent not as a Democrat. But the shift gave Democrats a 50 to 49 seat edge and majority control of the Senate. Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter would become a Democrat in 2009 but that was a step that lifelong Republican Jim Jeffords did not take.

The Senate was in upheaval. It now meant that the Democrats would gain a majority of seats on all of the committees and take over all of the Senate chairmanships, as well as replacing a substantial number of Republican staffers with Democratic ones. While many Republican senators were infuriated with Jim, Chuck Grassley of Iowa remained loyal to Jim in spite of the change. Newsweek featured Jim on its cover and I was besieged with over 40 requests for interviews about Jim. Even though I was living in Massachusetts at the time, I tried to accommodate them all. However, when one New York radio reporter asked. “Isn’t he somewhat of a publicity hound?” I replied, “He has been in Congress for 27 years and now you have heard of him. Publicity hounds don’t wait that long” and hung up.

The one perk that Jim insisted upon was that he be allowed to remain a committee chair so he returned the chairmanship of the HELP Committee to Ted Kennedy and took over as chair of Bob Stafford’s old committee of Environment and Public Works. Jim had left the committee in 1993 after serving on it for four years but new Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota convinced Harry Reid of Nevada to step aside as the committee’s ranking Democrat to accommodate Jim’s request. Many of us believed that this switch would bring a screeching halt to President George W. Bush’s aggressive conservative agenda. We were wrong.

9/11

When the 103rd Congress was to resume its business after the August 2001 recess, it was reported that TIME Magazine would focus on the upcoming session and place Jim on its cover. But four sets of Islamic fanatics gained control of four commercial airplanes on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, and the United States and the world would never be the same. The twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., were targeted, but the fourth plane was brought down in a Pennsylvania field by a courageous group of passengers. The cover photo of Jim Jeffords was not printed.

Jeffords

Sen. Jim Jeffords meets Rudolph Guiliani in the week following Sept. 11, 2001.

The major political impact of the 911 attacks was to send G.W. Bush’s desultory presidential approval ratings into the stratosphere of 90 percent approval as Americans rallied behind his presidency. Bush’s mid-year ratings were in the mediocre 50s range for most of the summer and very low for a president’s first year in office. The contentious Supreme Court ruling that awarded Florida’s 25 electoral votes and the presidency to Bush had left him with no opening “honeymoon” that typically greets most new presidents.

The Jeffords switch contributed further to Bush’s difficulties. But in times of major crisis, Americans generally rally around the president with the hope that our “elected king” will navigate us through the crisis. The Jeffords switch was quickly trumped by the sense of national emergency and the Bush II presidency had now been fully legitimized.

The congressional response was to pass the hastily written Patriot Act, with little scrutiny, that would empower the National Security Agency to gain access to people’s phone records and emails. As one observer noted, the act turned “Americans from citizens into suspects.” Its ramifications continue to be felt to the present day. But the Bush administration rode this surge of approval into law and a commitment to wage war against Iraq, a country that provided none of the 19 terrorists who had attacked the United States on Sept. 11. It was Bush’s war of choice and with his approval ratings as high as they were, Congress sadly acceded.

Sen. James Jeffords braves the rain at President George W. Bush's inauguration in January 2001. Photo by Sen. Patrick Leahy

Sen. James Jeffords braves the rain at President George W. Bush’s inauguration in January 2001. Photo by Sen. Patrick Leahy

The Bush popularity surge continued into the 2002 midterm election and Senate Republicans picked up a net gain of two seats — a modest gain but large enough to return control of the Senate to the Republicans. With 51 Republicans, 48 Democrats and the lone independent Jim Jeffords, caucusing with the Democrats, the Senate Republicans and their even more conservative allies in the U.S. House resumed their commitment to the Bush legislative agenda.

Jim remained opposed to most of it but the ideological tilt of Congress and the imposition of serious party discipline had made even small majorities effective in passing laws. Cross-party defections virtually disappeared and intense divisiveness had become the order of the day. For a non-ideologue like Jim Jeffords who had many friends on both sides of the aisle in each chamber of Congress, this was not a happy time. Coupled with the early onset of the mind-robbing horror of Alzheimer’s disease, Jim knew that it was time to go. He had too much self-awareness and personal pride to cling to a Senate seat solely for the purpose of personal prestige. His final address to the Senate was delivered to a partially filled chamber with most Republicans still angry over his 2001 switch that cost them control of the Senate chamber for 19 months. But most visible to Senate watchers was the Republican chair of the Finance Committee, Iowa’s Chuck Grassley, Jim’s old pal and fellow farm state senator.

In retrospect, Jim’s legacy was not one of path-breaking legislation or ringing eloquence or the cut and thrust parrying of floor debate. Jim’s voice seldom filled the Senate chamber. He was not comfortable as a public speaker and eschewed debating political opponents as often as possible. But he worked tirelessly for the people of Vermont and etched yet another name of distinction in Vermont’s remarkable collection of U.S. senators, along with Justin Morrill, Warren Austin, George Aiken and Bob Stafford. Well done, Jim.

Thanks, and rest in peace.

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