• Jeffords: Who's running the show?
     | July 16,2006

    Sen. James Jeffords listens to Gov. James Douglas deliver his State of the State address at the Statehouse in January.

    WASHINGTON - Sen. James Jeffords this week is expected to introduce the last major piece of legislation in his 40-year political career.

    The bill, if it becomes law, would slash America's greenhouse gas emissions by more than half over the next 50 years, making it one of the most aggressive environmental measures in recent history.

    But when he introduces the legislation into the Congressional Record, he will do so with remarks prepared by his speech writers about a bill written, researched and crafted by two key policy advisers, and he will probably not answer reporters' questions about it without an aide by his side. Short of suggesting to a longtime aide that "we should do something about global warming," Jeffords had little direct involvement in the bill, the aide said.

    In fact, very little in the 71-year-old senator's public life since announcing his retirement more than a year ago has been unscripted, and access to Jeffords has been strictly controlled.

    Longtime political observers say that his staff has largely protected him from the media because of an unspecified health problem that has affected his memory. That medical condition they say has impinged on his ability to make speeches, write legislation and even appear on the Senate floor without significant support from his staff.

    Over two days at the end of last month, a reporter was refused an interview with the senator about his career, despite having traveled to Washington expressly for that purpose. Requests for an interview with the senator on the global warming bill or on his years of public service were declined at least a half-dozen times by his press secretary and chief of staff.

    And that's the way his staff - many of whom have been with him for decades - wants it as Jeffords ticks off the final months of his third and last term as Vermont's junior senator.

    "It's time for him to enjoy his victory lap," William Kurtz, Jefford's chief of staff for the last two years, said in an interview just outside Jeffords' office on the fourth floor of the Dirksen Senate Office Building. "He's just not prepared to do any interviews about his legacy right now."

    The lack of access to a sitting senator is, according to political observers, not in itself all that unusual. What is uncommon, however, is the extent to which Jeffords doesn't - or can't because of his failing memory - interact with the media or public without the assistance of his staff.

    "Access is variable depending on the senator," said Michael Birkner, a history professor at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania who has also covered national politics as a journalist. "But if you're representing a state the size of Vermont, it doesn't make sense. He's representing the state. It's his job to talk to the media" as a proxy for Vermonters.

    The exact nature of Jeffords' illness so far remains undisclosed. The senator's office has said only that Jeffords is taking medication for his memory problems and that he has slowed down in recent years. Last week, his press secretary, Diane Derby, again declined to make Jeffords available for an interview.

    Those who have observed him suggest that he has changed, particularly in the last 18 months or so. "I'm really reluctant to engage in speculation about his medical condition," said Marselis Parsons, the longtime news director of WCAX-TV in Burlington who has covered Jeffords for decades. "But it's clear that he is not doing well."

    Jeffords is by no means the oldest member of the Senate - that distinction rests with 88-year-old West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd. Indeed, the average age in the Senate - just north of 60 - is the oldest it's ever been, according to the Library of Congress. And Jeffords is not the only member of Congress whose staff sets up walls when the member's health is failing.

    Both Jesse Helms, who left the Senate after decades of service, and Strom Thurmond, who turned 100 before he retired in 2003, were rarely seen without aides at their sides in their final months in office.

    "The Senate is an aging place," said Birkner.

    'My memory fails me on occasion'

    Jeffords has never been the flashiest politician, longtime political observers say, but the level to which he has retreated behind his staff of nearly 40 people here and at home increased precipitously after he announced last April that he wasn't going to seek a fourth term.

    At the time, he read a prepared speech in a hotel ballroom in South Burlington and declined to take questions from reporters. The announcement came after months of personal promises from him that he intended to seek another term and after he had raised nearly $5 million - most of it from out-of-state Democrats rewarding him for leaving the Republican Party in 2001.

    Many in the state's political and media circles openly speculated about Jeffords' apparent failing health for a year or so before he finally said he would call it quits on a career that started in the Statehouse in 1966.

    The only public comments he's made about his health came during his retirement announcement, when he said, "There have been questions about my health, and that is a factor as well. I am feeling the aches and pains that come when you reach 70. My memory fails me on occasion."

    The speculation about his health was punctuated by a CNN report that same day about Jeffords appearing in the House of Representatives looking confused. Aides escorted him out of the chamber.

    Some suggest Jeffords' staff has circled around him because of his failing health, a suggestion not entirely rebuffed by Kurtz and others. However, they insist that they want Jeffords to be able to bow out of politics on his own terms, and insist that he still is very much minding the political store.

    "He's the captain, and the captain's never given me an unlawful order," Kurtz said. "Are his days a little shorter than they used to be? Of course, if we don't have votes, he's going home for dinner. But he's still very much in charge. With this staff, if they believe that it has become the chief of staff's show, they wouldn't put up with that for one minute."

    Kurtz was defensive when it was suggested that he and the rest of Jeffords' staff might be wielding more influence than the man elected by Vermonters. "Look, I can tell you that we always have a sense of what our direction is," he said. "That's our job."

    On script and away from the press

    To be sure, Jeffords does not spend all of his time holed up in his offices. One day late last month before meeting with a lobbyist from the United States Public Interest Research Group, he delivered a speech on the floor of the Senate denouncing the proposed flag-burning amendment. It was a brief appearance - and it was fully scripted. He delivered his remarks - his gaze was fixed firmly on the camera, his only real audience in the otherwise empty chamber - then sat down for a few minutes with an aide. Then he left the floor.

    After that, he met with Peter Clavelle, the former mayor of Burlington, who is now a lobbyist. "They warned me you were here," Clavelle said with a laugh to this reporter who was walking toward the senator's office after the floor speech. "They said, 'Be careful.'"

    Jeffords met with representatives from the National Commission on Energy Policy, with interns from Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski's office who wanted to take pictures with as many senators as they could, and with others. The next day, he had an 8 a.m. breakfast with golf legend Jack Nicklaus, then made brief remarks at an Environment and Public Works Committee hearing called by the Republican chairman, Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma.

    At the hearing, he was guided into his chair by an aide, and again read prepared remarks. The edges of the speech bristled against the microphone each time Jeffords read from it. He rarely looked up from the speech. When he was finished, the aide helped him leave the room, so he could head to a closed-door session of the Finance Committee.

    Later in the day, he appeared at the Congressional Arts Competition reception, an event that he started 25 years ago to protest cuts in arts funding proposed by former President Ronald Reagan.

    "He's maintaining a busy schedule," said Derby, his press secretary. And, by all accounts, it is the type of schedule he has kept for months and expects to keep until he officially retires at the end of the year.

    Many in the state's media have been trying to gain access to Jeffords on a number of issues ever since he announced his retirement; most, with rare exceptions, have been frustrated.

    Vermont Public Radio last month ran a story detailing how, despite repeated attempts, Jeffords was kept from the media. Even outside the Senate chamber, an aide brushed aside questions and shuttled Jeffords away.

    Parsons, the longtime news director of WCAX-TV, said he and his staff have noticed a change in the way Jeffords deals with the media.

    "Clearly, there has been a change in the senator's conduct," Parsons said in a recent interview. "Everybody who sees him, from the governor to the press to everyone on down, have told me they have seen a change in his conduct. I haven't even seen him in months. I like him personally as a friend, and I respect what he has done. But he doesn't talk to me anymore."

    Jeffords has never been overtly eloquent, Parsons said - an observation all too readily seconded by members of the senator's staff - but he used to pick up the phone and talk at a moment's notice.

    "We always used to laugh about how such a short period of time would elapse between when we asked him to, say, talk about Afghanistan, and he would carry on a discussion of almost anything," Parsons said. "You could ask him about the weather, and pretty soon he'd be talking about Mars and space exploration. He's always had eclectic interests, and he was always approachable."

    Parsons recalled a time 10 years ago when he was taking care of his own father in a Rutland nursing home. He said Jeffords showed up one night, alone, to take care of ailing friends.

    "He didn't have an entourage, he didn't seek any attention," Parsons said.

    'Is the health issue a smokescreen?'

    But Jeffords still is maintaining a full schedule, one that will not be interrupted by reporters seeking to take significant chunks of his time.

    "I think even though Senator Jeffords is retiring, he still has a job to do, and if he doesn't want to do those kinds of interviews, he doesn't have to," Kurtz said. "I don't think anyone would say that he's not doing a good job."

    Judging by the reactions he still gets at home, Kurtz is probably right. During Montpelier's Independence Day parade, for example, Jeffords received the longest and loudest receptions given to any politician.

    "I watched the reactions of the crowds at three different locations, and at every one, Jim Jeffords got the loudest applause," said Christopher Graff, the former longtime Associated Press correspondent in Vermont who has covered Jeffords' entire Washington career. "I think it was touching and overwhelming, and I think that the people of Vermont still have such affection for him and are happy that he is still representing us in the U.S. Senate."

    The reception on the streets of the capital is reminiscent of the two standing ovations state lawmakers gave Jeffords in January during Gov. James Douglas' state-of-the-state speech.

    Graff is one journalist who believes Jeffords has earned the right to be a little closed-mouthed at this point in his career.

    "When you know you've run your last campaign, and you know you're not ready to talk about your legacy, it certainly is within your purview not to," Graff said. "He's still in the middle of doing a job right now."

    And that means he still is accountable to the people he represents, including reporters, said Birkner, the Gettysburg College professor.

    "He still ought to be frequently in contact," he said. "Sure, staffs play varying roles, and some senators can make a lot more out of the job. And while Jeffords is much more of a guy who blends into the wallpaper, he still needs to be accessible. I know that people who have health problems don't like to advertise them, but is the health issue a smokescreen for not doing his job? The stiff arm they used to block him was not a good move."

    Out of trouble

    Jeffords "is definitely not a show horse," said University of Vermont political science professor Garrison Nelson. "He had been in Congress for 26 years before announcing his switch from the Republican Party, and, all of a sudden, it was like, 'Who is this great man of mystery?'"

    U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Democrat who is a frequent guest on the Sunday political chat shows, is the showier of the two Vermont senators. He is more likely to be quoted in the New York Times or the Washington Post than he is at home, and always seems to take time to meet with reporters. His staff keeps him from reporters seemingly at their own peril. Not so Jeffords' staff.

    Nelson said he believes access to Jeffords has been restricted because of his illness. "His health has taken a turn for the worse, and his staff is very loyal to him," he said. "It's been difficult for them to function in this way, to sort of have to shield him from enquiring eyes."

    But he's always had a staff to remove him from sticky political situations when he ventures away from his prepared remarks.

    During the Clinton impeachment scandal, for instance, he took a significant amount of heat from women's groups and sexual assault victims when he suggested that some of the president's accusers were obviously making up stories because they waited too long to report the allegations. He had to retract that statement.

    And before that, he defended the actions of former Sen. Robert Packwood of Oregon, who left the Senate in disgrace amid allegations that he had groped and sexually assaulted young women in Senate elevators and elsewhere.

    Jeffords stunned women's advocates in 1993 when he said, "a kiss was just a kiss," in a discussion of Packwood's improprieties on a Burlington radio station. According to published reports, he had to admit that he had "made a bad mistake."

    "Jim is kind of a good old boy in that regard," Nelson said. "You know, I always used to refer to him as the Jimmy Stewart of Vermont politics. He has a Harvard degree, but he's always an 'aw-shucks' kind of guy."

    Nelson said he wouldn't be surprised if one of the other reasons for keeping Jeffords more out of the media and public light is that there are political forces who would like nothing more than to have him step down so that Douglas - a longtime friend of Jeffords who was hurt by the senator's leap from the GOP, a move that sent the Senate into the hands of the Democrats for almost two years - could appoint his replacement.

    "It must be painful for Jim to have to operate in a diminished capacity," Nelson said. "It must be embarrassing for a guy who has been a public servant for more than half his life in politics to not be able to function nearly as well as he could earlier, but he must really want to serve out the term to which he was elected. And he knows that the moment he steps down, the seat goes back to the GOP."

    Who's running the show?

    Kurtz likes to talk about Jeffords' office as a business.

    And, in a sense, it is. The CEO's pay - at about $170,000 - isn't really all that noteworthy, but the whole enterprise employs 39 people and consumes more than $2.5 million in taxpayer funding.

    But it differs from a business in one fundamental way - there are 620,000 shareholders: the citizens of Vermont.

    And at the same time that Jeffords' staff was blocking access to reporters, they were granting audiences with everyday Vermonters, lobbyists and others.

    During an hour-plus interview with Kurtz, a steady stream of people came in and out of Jeffords' spacious office.

    "We always make time for Vermonters," Derby said. "He still has a very full schedule."

    One of those who called on Jeffords was Emily Figdor, the clean air and energy advocate for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. She is a strong supporter of Jeffords' soon-to-be-introduced greenhouse reduction bill, and she was in his office for about 20 minutes or so, accompanied by longtime aide Kenneth Connolly, the minority staff director on the Committee on Environment and Public Works.

    "There has been nobody better on the environment than Sen. Jeffords for the last five and a half years," she said. "This bill is really the next logical step for the senator, because he knows that global warming is by all means one of the biggest challenges we are going to face in the coming years."

    Asked whether Jeffords was engaged, she said, "Yes," but she admitted that he seemed more interested in the interns from Vermont that she brought with her. "Hearing about the enthusiasm from these young people clearly put the light in his eyes," she said.

    Connolly admits he is the primary author of the bill, and acknowledges the work the staff does on Jeffords' behalf. Like a majority of Jeffords' staff, he has been with the senator for a long time.

    "We were on a trip to Costa Rica, and it was eye-opening to us," Connolly said of a recent conference on climate change he attended with Jeffords. "He told me to do something on this, and that was what got the ball rolling."

    How far that ball - a significant piece of legislation that is sure to face opposition from the GOP and the Bush administration - will roll depends chiefly on people other than the senator.

    For Jeffords, his lifelong devotion to the environment and his decades of service on Capitol Hill will count for something. But he will have very little to do with where the ball ultimately lands. The job of keeping it in play will be left to his staff - and to those who take their place in January.

    Contact Darren Allen at darren.allen@timesargus.com

    MORE IN News
    More Articles
    • VIDEOS
    • PHOTOS