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Working with Scoop: the ups and downs of a political giant

Sen. Henry M. Jackson

A shorter version of this article will appear over Memorial Day weekend in The Seattle Times, which has graciously agreed to publication here. 

The affection that remains for U.S. Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson 30 years after his death is remarkable. His achievements in national and international affairs were outstanding, certainly, but there were other public figures who set high standards for service as well. It is doubtful, though, that any of their memories are accompanied by the degree of fondness held by those who had the privilege of knowing Jackson, who was born 100 years ago on May 31. The devotion that persists has little to do with his political achievements, and everything to do with his personal qualities.

I first met Scoop in 1957 during a visit my wife and I made to D.C.  We had gone by his office to get tickets for the Senate gallery, and duly signed the office guest book. When we returned to the hotel there was a message: "Sen. Jackson would like you to have lunch with him tomorrow in the Senate dining room."  We were stunned. Why us? We later learned that when Scoop ate lunch in the Senate dining room he almost always invited constituents to join him. 

I was blessed to meet Scoop many more times, both as a citizen lobbyist and as a volunteer on his two presidential campaigns. Family meant much to him. He knew my parents, and was pleased that my late brother Eli also frequented his office. Eli attached himself to Dorothy Fosdick’s "bunker" that dealt with national security, the most prestigious activity in Scoop’s realm. I dealt with domestic matters, specifically Indian health, and Scoop’s political campaigns. My "handler" was Denny Miller.

One reason Jackson made me feel so welcome was because I possessed an MD degree. He was awed by doctors and loved talking about medicine. He bragged about his fitness and repeatedly bested me in arm wrestling. Once he took me on a tour of the Senate infirmary, traditionally presided over by navy doctors big on political and low on medical skills.

Having worked as a citizen lobbyist, and on many campaigns over the years, I held a high opinion of my political judgment. And like everyone else who worked on Scoop’s presidential campaigns, had strong opinions about the tactics he should employ. So when his secretary would announce, "Senator Jackson would like to speak with you," I assumed it was campaign advice that he sought. But no, every time Scoop phoned he wanted medical care or advice for someone he was trying to help. "The father of one of my staff member’s had a stroke; would you check to see that he’s getting good rehabilitation care." Or, "the baby of one of my secretaries had a convulsion. Would you talk with her and make sure she has a good pediatrician in DC." And because I was also a friend of Sen. Warren Magnuson, Scoop somehow felt I could influence his health habits. "Can’t you get Maggie to lose some weight?" He was serious!

Jackson built a reputation for being a successful politician because of his overwhelming election victories in Washington State. He did not meet every voter in Washington State, but he sure made the attempt. His biographer, Robert Kauffman, writes that his victories came about not as a result of his policies, but because of the trust and affection voters held for him.

Scoop was the quintessential son of Norwegian immigrants. He worked long hours, and married relatively late at the age of 49. He drove a ’61 Chevy, bought his clothes off the rack at a discount men’s store, didn’t drink except at cocktail parties where he would uncomfortably hold a glass just to seem sociable, and was a great husband and father. No constituent problem was too small to occupy his attention. During the '76 Wisconsin presidential primary, I remember him regularly calling his kids to hear about their days and go over their homework.

For years Jackson maintained a fund for emergency assistance to Everett school children in honor of his older sister, Gertrude. The source of the money was not disclosed until the early '70’s when senators were obliged to report their expenditures. All the money he earned outside his senate salary, such as speaking fees, went into the Gertrude Fund. 

Jackson came to believe that his Washington state popularity could be transformed to the national scene as he doggedly sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972 and 1976. For a whole host of reasons, he never stood a chance. His strategy of personally meeting as many voters as possible was not practical on the national scene. Scoop was incapable of fashioning a message to what voters wanted to hear. He did OK on the wordy Sunday morning television programs, where he could explain his views, but failed with the newer forms of television that were emerging at the time. Adjusting his words to fit a sound bite was an alien concept. 

I recall a 1972 visit with students at the University of Washington passionately opposed to the war in Vietnam. Though characteristically running behind schedule, he sat down with them and engaged in a friendly debate. The students were impressed, as was I. I disagreed with Scoop’s hawkish stance on the Vietnam War, as did many of his closest friends, but our affection for him never wavered.

It is standard operating procedure for politicians to claim credit for measures in which they have had little if any involvement. Scoop, on the other hand, failed to claim credit for measures he was largely responsible for.

Two examples: First, through a spate of historic legislation, Jackson accomplished more to benefit Indians than any politician in American history. Second, his co-sponsorship of Sen. Magnuson’s bill to create the National Health Service Corps was critical for its passage. The law enabled physicians to fulfill their military obligation by serving in urban and rural poverty areas. Jackson’s sponsorship "immunized" the measure from being killed by those who viewed the NHSC as a haven for "draft dodgers."

During the 1976 Massachusetts primary, Jackson was being pummeled by liberals for his stance against mandatory school busing. (That he turned out to be prescient, is besides the point.) In the midst of the campaign, Forrest Gerard, his staff member for Indian affairs, and I pleaded with him to talk about these two measures in the hope of disarming some liberal voters. He did not do it in Massachusetts or anywhere else. Why not? I think because he thought it would be pandering. There was also the division of responsibilities between the Washington senators. Later, when I again pushed him to talk about the NHSC, he told me he deferred to Magnuson on health issues.  

Speaking of Maggie, despite the two Washington senators having such disparate personalities, they remained deeply loyal to each other. Jackson loved to mingle with people; Magnuson was shy. He was also the more realistic politician. Though dubious about Scoop's chances of success, he served as titular chairman for the two presidential campaigns. Towards the discouraging end of the ‘76 campaign, Maggie asked me, "Do you know how much Scoop is spending for every voter in Pennsylvania?" I forget the figure, but it was way too much for a campaign that had long been doomed. I asked, "have you told Scoop what you think?"  He looked at me as if I were nuts. "Of course not; when Scoop asks me to do something, I do it."

An example of the quixotic nature of Jackson’s presidential quests was in February 1972, when 95 of his supporters in a chartered plane descended into snowy Wisconsin. A more diverse group could not be imagined: local politicians, business and labor leaders, Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish clergy, blacks, Hispanics, and Indians, professors and students, and a couple of doctors like me. We paid our own ways. Quixotic because plans were vague and direction was nil — upon arrival at the Milwaukee airport we were given a supply of pamphlets and "released" to find and lobby our local counterparts.

My charge was to go to Madison, stay at the house of a University of Wisconsin faculty member who Scoop had met several years previously, and campaign in the western part of the state.

Campaigning for Scoop Jackson in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1972 was like campaigning for Benjamin Netanyahu in present day Cairo. So I concentrated on smaller towns. My tactic was to try and garner free publicity from local newspapers and radio stations. I had some success because I had a gimmick. At the time I was president of the National Sudden Infant Death Syndrome Foundation. The editors were not impressed by a doctor from Seattle doing political campaigning, but they were hooked by a story about SIDS. I made a deal: "I’ll talk about SIDS, if you also allow me to talk about Sen. Jackson." When I returned to Milwaukee two weeks later for the return flight home, my fellow volunteers were impressed with the media attention I had garnered.

In 1976 I returned to Wisconsin for another shot. This time Scoop was a stronger candidate, and his campaign was somewhat better organized. But my assignment was equally preposterous: "You are in charge of Jackson’s campaign for northwest Wisconsin." So off I headed northwest from my base in Madison, up through Eau Clare, all the way to Superior on the Minnesota border. I had scant success; neither did Senator Jackson.

I should mention the schism that existed in both presidential campaigns between the Jackson volunteers and the paid staff. We, who had abiding allegiance to Scoop, were contemptuous of the big-name mercenaries who were brought in to run the two campaigns. We considered them both incompetent, and of questionable loyalty. In retrospect, conflict between volunteers and paid staff exists in all political campaigns, and because Scoop was destined to lose anyhow, the schism made little difference.

The 1976 Democratic convention was the first one to be put on for show purposes only. Nevertheless, I was delighted to attend as a Jackson delegate. The most excitement in the Washington delegation was over who would grab the front row seats in order to be seen on TV by the folks back home. Then there was one more piece of excitement: the roll call vote. Though Scoop loathed Jimmy Carter (“I can’t stand guys who wear religion on their sleeves”), his convention delegates were instructed to vote for Carter to provide a semblance of unanimity. The final vote was: Carter-36, Udall-11, Brown-3, Church-2, and Jackson-1.

How did the one vote for Jackson come about? Because I wanted the real results of the race to be posted on the scoreboard. When Denny Miller learned what I was about to do, he pulled me out of my seat into the aisle and went into a tirade. I asked Scoop the next morning if he minded. He laughed and said, "Of course not."

Both the political and personal aspects of Jackson’s life were fittingly displayed at his funeral on Sept. 7, 1983. On one hand the most powerful collection of political personages ever to appear in Washington state descended in 3 airplanes into Paine Field, and proceeded in a motorcade to the First Presbyterian Church. The 140 person delegation for the invitation-only service was headed by Vice President George W. Bush, and included Chief Justice Warren Burger, and over half the members of the U.S. Senate. 

On the previous evening, more than 2,000 Everett citizens jammed the Civic Auditorium for a public service. Most touching to me were the crowds lining the streets of the funeral procession, many with tears in their eyes, paying respects to their beloved native son. The police and firefighters of Everett, standing at attention, filled two blocks outside the church. Scoop would have loved the booming 21 gun salute as he was laid to rest high on a hill overlooking the Snohomish River Valley.

Scoop's public service accomplishments were outstanding. His attributes as a human being were even more extraordinary.

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