They might be giants

A new Scoop Jackson biography reminds us that size matters.

"It is a matter of observation that the stature of the entire human race is becoming smaller."—Pliny the Elder, ca A.D. 79

TWO THOUSAND YEARS later, there is ample evidence for Pliny's observation in American politics. Our presidential election-year debate focused mostly on style, as the candidates competed with kisses and smirks while discussing the minutiae of everyday life and pollsters asked voters which one we'd rather have a beer with. Both candidates stood fully prepared to defend the status quo, preferring stability over innovation. They were comfortable with the dominant force in domestic policy for the last 30 years: the slow, deliberate downsizing of government and expectations. When President Clinton announced, "The era of big government is over," he may as well have added, "Political giants need not apply."

Henry M. Jackson: A Life in Politics

by Robert G. Kaufman University of Washington Press, $30

The ancient Greeks and Romans were predisposed to finding greatness in their gods and heroes; when farmers occasionally uncovered the bones of woolly mammoths or other prehistoric creatures, it was believed that these provided physical confirmation of the old myths. Who could these bones belong to but an Ajax or a Hector? Political biography can be much the same: A scholar sets out to prove that his subject is worthy of his treatment, and, indeed, the very function of such books is to remind us of the heroic scale of the past.

Such biographies and treatments often fall flat, like recent efforts to inflate the reputation of Calvin Coolidge. Or consider Dutch, Edmund Morris' "memoir" of Ronald Reagan in which the biographer, bored and stymied by his subject's air-headed mundanity, attempts to pump up the former president by fictionalizing him, thus literally attempting to shift our way of viewing Reagan from a historical perspective to a mythologic one (Oliver Stone did something similar for Richard Nixon).

But some giants are simply giants—or look like such when compared to today's dwarves. They need no inflation; the simple facts will do. Robert G. Kaufman's new biography of the late Washington senator, Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson, offers us a plain-spoken look at a man who defies mythologizing just as he defied charisma, yet a man who accomplished much more than anyone might have suspected.

IN MANY WAYS, Jackson was the quintessential Washington politician: A square- headed, stubborn Scandinavian from Everett, he lacked color but worked hard. He was clean-living, virtually scandal-free throughout his decades in politics. He wore off-the-rack suits, was a poor public speaker, and came off as a pretty nice, if relentlessly dull, guy.

Nevertheless, in the course of his career, he rose to the top. He was nearly John Kennedy's choice for vice president in 1960 and ran for president himself twice (in '72 and '76). Conservative pundit George Will once called him "the best president we never had." Teamed with Warren G. Magnuson, the two became the most powerful one-two punch in the United States Senate. They ran committees, controlled pork, and set the legislative agenda for more than three decades. They also delivered for their state and the nation. Jackson took the lead on labor, environmental, energy, and defense issues. And he remained fixed in his convictions in a way that seems positively old-fashioned today: Scoop was a man of his word and kept his focus regardless of the political winds. In the late '60s when the Democratic party began moving left on Vietnam, he vocally held to his hawkish beliefs and condemned his party's pacifism. Yet when he was offered cabinet posts by Nixon and Reagan, he declined as a loyal Democrat who fundamentally disagreed with the "states' rights" approach of the Republicans.

In the national mind, Jackson's pro- defense, Cold Warrior persona is what stuck. Long derided as "the senator from Boeing," he was more broadly accused of being chief spokesman for the military-industrial complex. Eugene McCarthy, a political enemy, once said, "If someone told [Henry Jackson] that the Russians had 3,000 cavalry, Henry would say that we are undefended and that we need to build cavalry." Jackson was a vocal and knowledgeable critic of detente who carried a deep and abiding mistrust of the Soviet Union. But unlike many of his conservative counterparts, he didn't let his anticommunism spill over into witch- hunting and paranoia. In fact, Jackson played a role in challenging and bringing down Senator Joseph McCarthy during the Army-McCarthy hearings in the 1950s. (Scoop may have hated communism, but not at the cost of civil liberties and reason.)

Jackson's national political legacy seems to be tied to the term "Jackson Democrat" (later supplanted a bit by "Reagan Democrat"), meaning blue-collar New Dealers who were strong on defense and disliked the "unpatriotic" and leftist leanings of many of their fellow Democrats. However, Jackson might be reassured that a watered-down version of his wing of the party—today called New Democrats—is in control. Certainly, Al Gore, who voted for the Gulf War and has positioned himself as a champion of labor and the environment, frequently echoes Jackson's policies and priorities.

BUT MAJOR DIFFERENCES remain: Scoop steadfastly believed in the positive power of government to right wrongs and provide for the people and wasn't afraid to say so, even when it was politically unpopular. He was not a pol to give in to expedience. In 1976, he bristled against the antigovernment rhetoric of Reagan, Carter, and others. "I don't buy the idea that because something is big, it's bad," he said at the time. How can we provide welfare for those who need it or offer national health coverage (which Scoop believed in) if we don't think big?

Jackson was a politician who wouldn't accept diminished expectations, but already in the 1970s, he was considered something of a political dinosaur. In 2000, after welfare "reform" and the Hillary Clinton health care debacle, such talk is audible at only the margins of his party.

An example of Jackson's thinking big—and acting big—is demonstrated by author Kaufman in his summary of Scoop's accomplishments as head of the Senate Interior Committee between 1964 and 1968—a "towering legacy" in the words of Stewart Udall. In those four years, Jackson pushed through legislation that included the Land Conservation Act of 1964; the Wilderness Act of 1964, which established the National Wilderness system; the National Seashore Bills, which protected shorelines and established numerous national parks; the Water Resources Planning Act of 1965; bills creating Redwood National Park and North Cascades National Park; the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act; and the single largest reclamation project in American history, the Colorado Basin Project Act. In four years, Jackson did a lifetime's worth of work on the environment—and this is only in one of his areas of interest.

Can any one of us today imagine Patty Murray or Slade Gorton or any member our Congressional delegation racking up a similar record? Such scale, such boldness seems to us now like the bones of the ancients—proof that in former times, some were capable of bigger and greater things than we.

But really, what Kaufman's biography offers us is evidence that ambitious politicians with big convictions can do great deeds if they only try. You don't have to have the bones of a giant to act like one.

 
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