For 40 years James Merrill Jeffords was a part of Vermont’s political landscape the way that a gentle slope — a meadow, a stand of woods, a clear-running brook — forms the landscape of the state that he represented. He was not a towering statesman. He was the boy who grew up in an ordinary Rutland neighborhood and turned the virtues of plain speaking, intelligence and hard work into a career that shaped history.
Jeffords died Monday at the age of 80. He retired from the U.S. Senate eight years ago, ending a long career that began with election to the Vermont Senate from Rutland County. He had a gift for politics because he understood the state and he always seemed to be of the state. He described himself as awkward. He was seldom eloquent. But those who worked with him said he was one of the most brilliant members of the Senate.
To remember Jim Jeffords is to remember a time when the Republican Party had room for diverse kinds of Republicans, including those from Vermont. The lineage goes back to Sen. George Aiken, a former governor, and includes former Sens. Ralph Flanders and Robert Stafford and former Govs. Richard Snelling and James Douglas. As state attorney general, U.S. representative and U.S. senator, Jeffords remained liberal on social issues and a champion of education, the environment and the rights of the disabled.
In fact, the lineage goes back even farther, to the founding of the Republican Party, which was the party of Lincoln, of equality under the Constitution and of the creative use of the government to further the welfare of the people.
When he first took his place in Congress in 1974, liberal and moderate Republicans formed an important wing of the party, often referred to as Rockefeller Republicans, after Nelson Rockefeller, the governor of New York, who became vice president in 1974. Over time the conservative revolution set in motion by the candidacy of Barry Goldwater in 1964, and crystallized by the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, shifted the party away from Jeffords and like-minded Republicans. By 2001 Jeffords had concluded that the party had moved so far away from him that he could no longer count himself as a member. That was when he carried out the action for which he is most widely remembered, declaring his independence from the Republican Party and shifting control of the Senate from the Republicans to the Democrats.
Jeffords’ announcement in 2001 at the Radisson Hotel in Burlington drew the satellite trucks and national news presence of a major event. It came only a few months into the presidency of George W. Bush and represented a rebuke of the conservative drift of his party. From then on Jeffords caucused with the Democrats, but out of deference to family tradition, he would always remain an independent. His father, Olin Jeffords, had been chief justice on the Vermont Supreme Court back in the day when Republicans dominated politics in Vermont.
By 2001, Vermont had become one of the most liberal states, and Jeffords’ decision to quit the Republican Party made him a folk hero in Vermont. His decision amplified with gratitude and appreciation the affection Vermonters had felt for him over the years. Disgruntled Republicans dubbed him a traitor, but Jeffords was not one for regrets.
During his years as a Republican Jeffords had often found himself in the awkward position of defending positions that he did not fully support. On numerous issues — education, campaign finance — he sought to craft compromises that would attract Republican support while taking progressive steps forward.
As time went on, fewer Republicans were willing to compromise, and Jeffords was left to decide whether to choose party loyalty or loyalty to his beliefs. In 1981 he was the only Republican in the U.S. House to oppose Reagan’s tax cuts. It was Bush’s opposition to aid for the disabled that persuaded him finally, in 2001, to abandon the GOP altogether.
To recall Jeffords’ career is to invite a kind of political nostalgia. In the first paragraph of his memoir, “An Independent Man,” written with Yvonne Daley and Howard Coffin, Jeffords wrote: “My wife likes to say I was born into an Andy Hardy movie and remained out of step with contemporary times, that there’s something inherently naive about me that keeps me from seeing things as they really are. There’s a lot of truth to that statement, but if I were to pick the movie that feels most emblematic of my life story, I would choose ‘Mister Smith Goes to Washington,’ or some other wholesome film that shows what life was like before we became so obsessed with speed and consumption, a time when your word meant something and people were driven by ethics more than money — or, at least, most people were.”
That’s why Vermonters liked Jim Jeffords. He was not driven by the hunger for money or glory. For him politics was about serving his community, his state and nation. Thus, the restoration of the Paramount Theatre in Rutland owes much to the federal money Jeffords secured. So does the construction of the Amtrak station that bears his name in Rutland.
During his final years in office, observers saw that confusion and loss of memory were overtaking the senator, and after his departure, he quickly faded from public view. Another independent, Bernard Sanders, took Jeffords’ place in the Senate, and Vermont Republicans continue to search for a formula that will allow them to produce more like Jeffords.
But there are few like him. He was the aw-shucks neighbor you might meet at the dump or the hardware store, who happened to be involved in the most complex policy issues of his time — not someone playing the foolish and wasteful games of politics but someone doing the noble work of politics. At the time of his death it is important to remember the singular life that he led and all that it meant for the state and nation he loved.
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