My Declaration of Independence

My Declaration of Independence

by James M. Jeffords



Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780743228428
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 11/19/2001
Pages: 144
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.30(h) x 0.67(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One: Obscure Senator, Small State

I must have walked the corridors of National Airport, now named Reagan National, seven or eight hundred times heading home to Vermont. Though people may imagine the life of a Senator as somewhat distant and glorious, for much of our lives we are first cousins of the traveling salesman. Marriages fail, children suffer, and friends are lost. If this time my mood was on the gloomy side, it was because I had just left a meeting where I had very likely lost a few more friends. It was easily the toughest meeting of the thousands I have had during my three decades in politics.

I was heading for Burlington, Vermont, the trip I had made so many times before, but tonight's eight o'clock flight was anything but routine. Although I had yet to fully appreciate this fact, the people at the airline had, and I had been steered by the airline's personnel to a VIP lounge just beyond the security checkpoint.

It seemed like the first half hour in days that I had a chance to catch my breath. The morning papers scattered about the room had given the story of my considering leaving front-page coverage with photos. The television was running the story almost constantly. Even the business news gave it play, attributing some of the movement in the stock market to speculation about my pending announcement.

My press secretary, Erik Smulson, had been so deluged by phone calls from reporters and producers that this was his first chance to see what was going on around us. Like me, he was amazed by the wall-to-wall coverage. Erik's job had been transformed over the past few days from trying to generate news to trying to contain it at somemanageable level.

As the flight's departure time neared, we left the lounge and headed down the corridor to Gate 35A, the low-tech launching pad for the jets and prop planes headed for the small cities of the East Coast. I soon realized why the airline staff had intervened. A hundred yards away, dozens of reporters had staked out the little gate, with TV cameras and microphones pointed my way. This was not going to be another milk run to Burlington.

Before I reached the press, I got my first taste that my deliberations had pierced the veil of public indifference that often attends what Congress does or does not do. On both sides of the broad aisle, passengers awaiting their flight stood on their chairs and started cheering and applauding, while others pushed forward to shake my hand. This for someone who a few days before may have ranked about 99th on the U.S. Senate celebrity scale.

People don't much care what Congress does, and in a democracy, that can be a very good thing. There are, and should be, more important things in people's lives than who a Senator from a small state might be, or what he might do. But here were scores of people who not only recognized me but also approved of what they thought I would be doing the next day in Vermont, who literally wanted to reach out and touch me. It was extraordinary that the glare of media attention in just a few days had thrust me before people's eyes in a way that was flattering but not entirely comfortable. How had what I thought or done to that point so touched these people?

After running the press gauntlet, something I had some practice in after the past few days, my wife Liz, Erik, my chief of staff, Susan Russ, and I rode a shuttle bus out across the tarmac to the plane.

I had tried throughout the past few days to keep a level head about me, but my family and staff took no chances. Lest I had invested too much meaning into the reception I had just received, Susan pointed out that the people cheering me were waiting for a plane to Boston, hardly a political cross section of the country.

Our plane was a small jet, three seats across, which was a blessing for the Vermont delegation in Congress compared to the small props connecting through Pittsburgh or LaGuardia that used to be our only alternative. The flight usually had a Vermont flavor -- a few students from the University, an engineer from IBM, a state employee or two heading home from a conference in Washington, sometimes even Ben or Jerry. It is pretty common to know a few people on the trip; such is the size of my state.

But tonight the press had commandeered it. Within a few minutes of announcing at midday that I would travel to Vermont to make a statement the next day, the seats were sold out (which is not saying all that much, I suppose). UVM may have been represented on the flight, but so were the network news shows, newspapers from London, Dallas, Los Angeles, and Tokyo, and camera crews from who knows where.

But it was not all strangers. The father of my former state director was on the flight, though I have to admit it was awkward seeing him. His daughter had left my office and with my support had won a job in the new Bush Administration, as head of the Vermont-New Hampshire USDA Rural Development office. Hers is one of a handful of jobs in a state that a Senator can have a role in filling when the President is from the same party. She is immensely qualified and a good Republican, but who could know her fate at that point? Would my candidates for the Vermont U.S. Attorney, U.S. Marshal, and Farm Service Agency Director jobs be at risk as well? Yet more people whose lives my decision would touch.

My wife Liz, one of the people most affected, was seated next to me on the plane. While normally as voluble as I am quiet, she had little to say as we settled in for the flight. Over the past week, we had said about all there was to say on the topic of my party affiliation.

Liz is an independent soul, but she has to be labeled a liberal. How else do you describe someone who was an early supporter of Reverend Jesse Jackson's bid for the presidency, and who put up a yard sign for the Democrat running for Governor the same year I was running as a Republican for the U.S. Senate?

In the instant and sometimes inaccurate analysis that characterized much of the coverage of my decision, Liz was rumored by some to have been the catalyst for my switch, when in fact the opposite was true. She thought it was a bad idea, said so repeatedly and in very unvarnished terms, but gave me tremendous support once she realized my decision was close to being made. She is not one to stand meekly by her man. But I think she realized the anguish I was enduring and wanted me to do what I thought was right.

It may be hard to understand if you are fed a steady diet of caricatures, but the Senate consists of real people, many of whom have personalities as magnetic as their political views can be repellent. I thought Liz would be the last to place much stock in the relationships you can develop in Washington. I traveled home to Vermont almost every weekend. She chose to spend most of her time there, leaving our home on the back side of Killington Mountain only once or twice a year to visit Washington, D.C. But she found, as I did, that political views do not always provide a window on someone's personality. Senator Jesse Helms and his wife, Dorothy, would not agree with Liz on many issues, but they are two of the nicest people you could ever meet.

Is it possible to divorce political views from your opinion of a person? I think so, and I could not function in the Senate otherwise. How corrosive it would be to constantly recalibrate your approach to an individual based on whether you agreed or disagreed on the last vote.

A conservative Republican lobbyist who once spent much of a weekend with Liz and me remarked of her afterward that he had never so thoroughly enjoyed a person with whom he so completely disagreed. My response was "Me, too." It got a good laugh, but in fact Liz and my views are not that far apart, and on the issue of my switch we had made our peace. I had explained to Liz again and again why I was thinking of casting off my Republican label. But she couldn't shake the hurt it would cause our friends, whom she was fond of despite being political opposites.

She also questioned why I would make such a decision so late in my career and whether it would overshadow all else. Neither of us could know how the public, and particularly Vermonters, would receive it. Would I be seen in a harsh light, as petulant or prideful, or could people come to understand my reasoning? What kind of repercussions would flow from it? And as Liz knew better than anyone else, rocky relations with the Republican Party were nothing new; indeed, they have characterized my entire political career in Vermont and Washington, D.C. We had coped with it for thirty years. Why now?

The explanations I had given her were much the same as those I had provided in my meeting a few hours earlier in the Capitol.

At the behest of John Warner, the senior Senator from Virginia and the picture of a southern gentleman, I had joined a small group of Senators in the Vice President's Room, a small, ornate ceremonial office off the floor of the Senate chamber, just before leaving for the airport. John is a tremendously decent and honorable man, and it is almost impossible to say no to him. The room is controlled by the President of the Senate -- the role assigned by the Constitution to the Vice President of the United States, Dick Cheney. It had become familiar surroundings over the past few weeks.

Though I agreed to join my colleagues, I knew it would be miserable. How do you explain abandoning your allegiance to the Republican Party to a group of people that will be hurt both personally and professionally?

One of the people in the room, Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, came to the Congress with me in January of 1975. The two of us washed up into the House of Representatives in the midst of the Democratic tidal wave caused by Watergate. Voters elected 75 Democrats that fall, and only 17 Republicans. Thanks to my two terms as an active Attorney General in Vermont, I had eked out a narrow 53 percent victory.

Chuck was hobbling around on crutches from a sports injury, and I wore a neck brace from being rear-ended in my car in the last weeks of the campaign. As we walked down the center aisle of the House, probably still more than a little amazed at our surroundings, one Democratic wag remarked, "There's two we almost got."

Chuck and I served on the House Agriculture Committee for years, and he preceded me to the U.S. Senate in 1981. He had slowly worked his way up the seniority ladder so that finally, in January 2001, he became the chairman of a major committee, the powerful Senate Committee on Finance, for the first time in his congressional career.

As we sat in the Vice President's Room, the question Chuck and everyone asked was "How could you do this to us?" They would lose the power some of them had acquired only a few months prior. And while the power of a chairmanship in an evenly divided Senate is far from absolute, it is still considerable. With it, they had hoped to advance the causes and dreams that were as important to them as mine to me.

By the end of the meeting I had tears in my eyes, as did many of the Senators sitting around me. It was gut-wrenching trying to explain what impelled me to think of leaving the party, handing control of the Senate to the Democrats and wresting it from my friends and colleagues. By the time I left the meeting, I had agreed to rethink whether I really could decide the course of the Senate by myself. It was the first time in the past ten days that I had genuine second thoughts.

I sat on the plane, inches from Liz, but entirely alone. How could I arrogate to myself this power, when I had been elected by fewer than 200,000 people in Vermont? How could I exact such a price from my friends? I turned these questions over again and again in my head as we made the 90-minute flight to Vermont. There were no easy answers.

But I knew that if I went ahead, I would have to deliver the speech of my life the next morning. So I worked on the speech draft, reading and rereading the text, adding a few words here, marking for a break there.

My critics are right about one thing. I am not God's gift to oratory. I envy those of my colleagues who could talk a dog off a meat wagon. But that's not me. The Vermont Owner's Manual, by Frank Bryan and Bill Mares is a small humor book on Vermont that tries to explain the state to natives and newcomers alike. In its section on which laws are to be taken seriously and which are not, it describes a twenty-minute high school graduation speech by our governor as a misdemeanor, and the same by me as a felony.

Fortunately Vermont is a small enough place that people can know you for your deeds as well as your words. You can still engage in retail politics, walking down Main Street, working the crowds at the county fairs, and greeting people outside the plant gate. At one point a question on a political survey showed that a third of the voters had met me or attended a meeting I had spoken at. (I'm hoping they are not the third that consistently voted against me.) It is also a state that is fiercely independent. While there is no party registration, polls show about half the state's voters consider themselves independents, with the remainder splitting their allegiances between the two major parties.

The more I went over the speech, the more I thought about the reasoning behind it. Just as my colleagues couldn't understand how I could go ahead and switch, I couldn't understand how I could stay a Republican.

The budget and tax battles of the spring had brought home to me how wide a gulf had come to separate me from national Republican orthodoxy. While I thought we should use much of the surplus for addressing pressing domestic spending needs, such as education and child care and health care, few of my Republican colleagues saw these as high priorities. This view was based on their belief that the best government is the least government, and that as many surplus dollars as possible should be returned to the taxpayer.

I understand that view, but do not subscribe to it. It seems to me that a healthy skepticism of government ought to be leavened with an appreciation for what it can do and for what people cannot do for themselves. As Franklin Roosevelt once remarked, "Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference."

Low-wage and even middle-class working parents simply cannot afford decent child care, yet research is making it abundantly clear that these early years in a child's life are both critical and largely irretrievable. Every other industrialized nation fully furnishes such care as part of the public school system. In our country, state and local governments are forced to bear ever larger costs for educating our children with special needs because the federal government has never made good on its promise to fund 40 percent of the costs of special education. And without a prodigious investment of additional funds, we will never help the more than 40 million Americans who lack health insurance.

This is an argument I can make to my constituents in Vermont and the vast majority will agree that we should invest more in our children, even if it means forgoing a share of a tax cut. Indeed, it is exactly the argument I made to Vermont voters in the fall of 2000 when I ran for reelection and won close to two-thirds of their votes. But for many of my Republican colleagues in Washington, this argument makes no sense. Throughout the spring, as I voiced my concerns in Republican meetings, I met with rolled eyes of disbelief more often than nodding heads of agreement.

I was a tangle of emotions on the flight home to Vermont. The tug of war between my allegiance to my friends in the Senate and remaining true to my own beliefs yielded no clear victor. I was beat, my emotions were still raw, and my thoughts were still somewhat unsettled.

But as the plane began its descent above the Champlain Valley into the familiar hills of Vermont, I knew the next day I would break with the party I had supported throughout my adult life. My first allegiance had to be not to my colleagues, but to my constituents and my conscience. The makeup of the Senate is not created by national referendum, but by thirty-three or so individual races in very different states every two years. As I had made clear in my Senate campaign six years before, my contract was not with America, but with Vermont.

I had tried to effect change within the party. I had tried to accommodate my beliefs to the party as a whole. I had tried to be fair to those with whom I had formed friendships over the decades. And I had tried to balance my decision against the impact it would have on my colleagues, my family, and my staff, many of whom would soon be thrown out of work. But in the end, I had to be true to what I thought was right, and leave the consequences to sort themselves out in the days ahead.

Copyright © 2001 by James M. Jeffords

Table of Contents

I. Obscure Senator, Small State

II. Point of No Return

III. A Short Walk Across the Aisle

IV. Coup of One

V. My Declaration

VI. Afterword


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My Declaration of Independence 2.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
JBD1 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Since I'm probably one of five people who was pleased by Jeffords' party-switch in 2001, I really enjoyed this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is written by someone who says he cares about the environment. Yet, why would anyone who cared about the environment kill so many trees to publish a poorly written story that gives no insight into Washington. The book only seems to reinforce that politicians are nothing more than petty, self centered and incompetent. The book also does say that you can not trust a politician by his label. Jeffords says how every dollar in the tax cut was a dollar out of education. Yet, like his other diatribes he neglects the facts that the US spends more on education than anyother country. Making special ed funding an entitlement would give reason for the teachers unions to label almost every child to be special ed. What Jeffords did not reveal is that he is in bed with the teachers. He is a tool for the inadequate teachers along with dairy farmers. This book was rather disappointing. Why would anyone want to read a speach that was probably written by someone else and that was poorly delivered. (I am a Vermonter, I would know). I was also disappointed because the book tried to compare Jeffords to fighting for our ideals. After 9-11, I am appalled that he would think that he was anything comparable to the heroes of this country. This book also is disappointing because he should have just said this switch was all about me and it was my choice and i have to live with it. Do not hide behind noble values which this book reveals you do not have.