A Life in Politics

Javits: The Autobiography of a Public Man.
by Jacob K. Javits, With Rafael Steinberg.
Houghton Mifflin. 527 pp. $16.95.

Jacob K. Javits served longer in the United States Senate than any other Senator from New York State. One of his proudest moments, he tells us, was the day he surpassed the record of Robert F. Wagner, Sr. “My Senate colleagues voted a resolution of commendation, the Mayor of New York City, Ed Koch, issued a proclamation of ‘public tribute,’ and the press was in constant attendance.”

For someone born on the Lower East Side, and whose father was a janitor, it is a record to be proud of. But after the initial chapters of this book, the story does not make a very interesting or revealing autobiography. The years of struggle and arrival involve the reader—and perhaps the writer—more than the years of accomplishment and service. I count no fewer than eight-and-a-half chapters devoted to Javits’s political campaigns, or to the maneuvering behind his decisions to run for office, against, generously, twelve devoted to his work in office, as Congressman and Senator. The former are vivid, with Javits seeming to remember every nuance of campaigns now twenty-five years old; the latter seem—well, perfunctory.

Javits was involved in most of the major issues of policy that arose in the Senate during his long service. There are chapters here on health, on public support of the arts, on civil rights, on labor legislation, on pension reform, on the New York City financial crisis of 1975, on international questions, and more than one on the Middle East. In all these areas Javits played a role, both in proposing legislation and in working with fellow Senators and other political leaders. But little new light is thrown on the development of policy in these areas. The discussion of his career has the character of a summary of events being spearheaded by others, with interventions by Javits that were rarely decisive.

This is not to speak against Javits’s commitment or his effectiveness; it is only to acknowledge his situation as a member of the minority party in the Senate, and of, the small liberal wing of that party to boot. (He might finally have taken over as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee when Republicans became the majority in 1980, but he was defeated in his last campaign.) And yet one suspects there are interesting things Javits could have told were he so inclined. During his term as a Republican Senator from New York, there were Republican Presidents for twelve years. He must have had enormous influence in one key area: appointing federal judges, federal prosecutors, and circuit-court judges in New York State. He was, after all, a lawyer, and had practiced in New York, and his brother still ran his old law firm. One wonders how he exercised his influence here, and with what effect. There is not a hint in this book.

Javits seems to have worked out for himself a position in which he was, for thirty years or more, impregnable: a Jewish liberal Republican, a strong supporter of Israel, running often with the backing of the Liberal party, in a state with a large Jewish electorate which has never been very committed to party loyalty as such. The Jews of New York have voted too often over the years for the Socialists, the American Labor party, or the Liberal party to feel that their dominant Democratic inclinations should prevail against the right man, if he is a liberal. And thus Republicans are elected to state and city office more frequently than any simple poll of party identification would suggest. And so with Javits: as a candidate he could not lose, even if as a legislator and policy-maker he inevitably played a fairly modest role.

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Javits makes very little of his Jewishness, and of how it affected his career, for good or ill. Over and over he tells us he did not encounter anti-Semitism, or, if he did, that he resolutely ignored it. He did cultivate the interests that affected Jewish voters, and was occasionally able to depict an opponent as insufficiently committed to Israel. But he says very little about the ethnic aspect of New York State politics in general, though here too there must be a great deal he could tell us.

Perhaps his discretion on this point has something to do with the fact that, despite his lengthy career and all the honors he has earned, he remains an anomalous figure in New York politics: a Republican appealing to Jews, a strong liberal appealing to conservative upstate voters. During the last, disastrous campaign of 1980, Governor Carey referred to Javits’s seat as “the Jewish seat,” but he was speaking of the Democratic primary, and suggesting that it was natural for the “Jewish seat,” if there was one, to be held by a Democrat.

Javits’s discretion extends to other figures in New York and national politics. Governor Rockefeller gets a full portrait, as does Thomas E. Dewey, but Herbert Lehman, whom Javits succeeded, and Daniel P. Moynihan, with whom he served in the Senate for his last two years, make no appearances. Nor do we find any reflections on politics in general or on how policy-making has changed during the last thirty years.

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The most interesting chapters in the book concern the story of Javits’s rise, and his campaigns, particularly the last. Certainly there is enough here to occasion thought on what may be happening politically in New York and the United States. His opponent in the Republican primary, Alfonse D’Amato, was unknown in the state. “By the end of the primary campaign,” Javits writes “I had been endorsed by almost all the trade unions, by the Times, the Post, the Daily News, the Buffalo Courier-Express, . . . and by many radio and television stations. . . . Former President Gerald Ford appeared in New York . . . to endorse me, . . . nine republican Senators . . . campaigned for me. D’Amato had been endorsed by all the ultra-conservative organizations, including the National Rifle Associations. . . .”

What then could have happened to defeat Javits? He refers to an error—announcing too late that he would run (but he was truly undecided); and to another error—putting too much campaign money into telephone banks, not enough into television. Though he does not place much emphasis on the issues of his age and health, they were of course factors as well. But is there nothing else to say? Has a change occurred in the electorate? In the issues that influence it? In the structure of the Republican party? The role of the mass media? Is there a new conservatism?

There has to be a better story in Jacob Javits’s long career in public office than the one he has chosen to tell us. One hopes his papers will soon be made available to researchers and historians who can investigate fully this career and its significance.

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