Graff: Jeffords changed everything but himself

by Chris Graff On Monday, June 4, 2001 US Senator Jim Jeffords walked out of his DC office holding a fresh-off-the-press copy of Newsweek magazine with his photo on the cover and the headline “Mr Jeffords Blows Up Washington.”

He grinned at me and asked, “Can you believe it?”

I could not.

Jim Jeffords, one of the most unassuming members of the US House and US Senate, had done what no one had ever done, switching the majority power in the Senate outside of an election.

Throughout his office were signs of the seismic shift Jeffords had caused. Flowers filled the reception area, and interns and staff members were sorting boxes of mail piled in conference rooms into those messages supporting Jeffords’ decision and those opposing it. As a further sign of the tumult he had unleashed, a team of Capitol police provided security in light of the death threats against the senator.

History books a century from now will include a mention of Jeffords’ declaration of independence; presidential scholars will write about and hold symposiums on how President George W Bush mishandled Jeffords in those first six months of 2001 and they will discuss the consequence of what outgoing Majority Leader Trent Lott called “a coup of one.”

Here in Vermont, Jeffords will be noted as the last of the top elected officials to come from that era when everyone was Republican. But he could not stay the course. In the span of 40 years Jeffords did not change. His party did.

For me, though, the Jeffords legacy is wrapped up in his unending optimism, his conviction that he could make the world a better place. He went to Washington in 1975 much like the character Jefferson Smith in Mr Smith Goes To Washington, and remarkably, he maintained that idealism and optimism throughout his entire career. The president and White House staff had heard the rumors that Jeffords might switch parties, but no one thought them credible because they doubted any senator would make such a bold move.

Jeffords proved them wrong and showed the nation the power of one.

So much of Jim Jeffords’ story came before 2001. His decision to leave the Republican Party placed him in the national spotlight at that moment in time. But for those of us who followed his career, there are hundreds of Jim Jeffords’ stories, dating back decades.

When he arrived in DC as a congressman-elect he had personal and campaign debt and so decided to live in the RV travel camper that he had used to tour the state during the 1974 campaign. He rented a site behind a Holiday Inn in College Park, Maryland, and took a public bus back and forth to the Capitol.

Over the years Jeffords gained a reputation as a person who did his homework and understood the inner workings of the legislative process, with his signature issues being agriculture, education and the environment. He gradually acquired the reputation of a maverick, both for his willingness to challenge the Republican leadership and for his involvement with an eclectic array of issues and people.

One such example was his role in bringing Soviet dissidents to this country. His interest was sparked by an article he read in 1976 that said Alexandr Solzhensitsyn wanted to emigrate to the United States and was possibly interested in relocating to Vermont. Jeffords jumped at the mention of his state and somehow managed to get a letter, in Russian, to Solzhensitsyn, who replied he would love to settle in the state. Jeffords later shared a bottle of excellent Russian vodka with the author on his first night in his new home.

Anyone looking for the seeds that would lead to Jeffords’ 2001 decision to abandon the Republican Party could easily find them 20 years before – when Ronald Reagan became president. At issue were the budget and tax cuts that were at the heart of Reagan’s agenda. The president courted a group of conservative Democrats who came to be known as the Boll Weevils. Jeffords decided to counter with a group of moderate Republicans who were dubbed the Gypsy Moths.

The White House was furious, with one official dubbing their move a “counter-coup.” That official directed his ire at Jeffords, canceling a perk accorded every other member of the House, that of being able to give visiting constituents tour passes for the White House. Jeffords opposed the president’s three-year tax cut, the only Republican in the House to do so.

In the Senate he opposed the 1991 nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court and later the GOP’s 1994 Contract With America. Later still, he looked like a turncoat for favoring President Bill Clinton’s 1993 healthcare reform proposal, the only Republican to serve as a co-sponsor. Clinton once famously called Jeffords his favorite Republican senator, although the president joked in 1998 that, “I used to refer to Senator Jeffords as my favorite Republican, and then I was informed that I had endangered his committee chairmanship – and his physical well being – so I never do that anymore.”

Senator Edward Kennedy, the liberal lion of the Senate, worked closely with Jeffords on health care reform and even came to his assistance in Jeffords’ 1994 re-election campaign, when Vermont Democrats condemned him as ineffective.

Although Jeffords so enjoyed the label of a maverick, he really did not want to leave the Republican Party. It was a tough call. Lost in all of the legend and lore of the switch was that the issue that finally caused him to leave was special education, which was Jeffords’ hallmark.

At the heart of the disagreement with the White House was George W Bush ‘s signature tax cut and budget. Jeffords was seeking very simply that the federal government had to meet its commitment to pay its share of special education costs, a commitment that dated back to Jeffords’ first days in the House in 1975.

In a 50-50 Senate the White House gambled that Jeffords would not leave the party. But they didn’t know Jim Jeffords, who could negotiate with the best of them, but had a backbone of pure principle.

When Jeffords announced his switch in Burlington I saw tears in his eyes, once when supporters began chanting their thanks and later when he discussed the pain his decision would bring to his GOP colleagues.

But he never wavered: “In order to best represent my state of Vermont, my own conscience and principles that I have stood for my whole life, I will leave the Republican Party and become an independent.”

The power of one.

Chris Graff, a former Vermont bureau chief of The Associated Press and host of VPT's Vermont This Week, is now vice president for communications at National Life Group. He is author of, Dateline Vermont: Covering and uncovering the newsworthy stories that shaped a state - and influenced a nation.

STORY:Senator James Jeffords dies at 80 in Washington, D.C.