It is important to understand and appreciate the late Scoop Jackson's greatness as a U.S. senator, writes former Senate staffer Ira Shapiro. Jackson combined absolute integrity, deep convictions, great substantive knowledge and a single-minded focus on what he saw to be in the national interest.
NEXT month marks the centennial of the late Sen. Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson’s birth. Nearly 30 years have passed since his sudden death in 1983. Washingtonians under the age of 45 might have a faint recollection of him, or none at all. For older generations, memories may be mixed: a fixture of the U.S. Senate but a lackluster, failed presidential candidate; and, a hawkish neoconservative, often out of step with his state after the most dangerous years of the Cold War had passed.
But in the northwest corner of the second floor of the Russell Senate Office Building, there is a large bronzed bust of Jackson, an honor few senators ever have been bestowed.
At a time of anger and despair about the current dysfunctional Senate, it is important to understand the nature of Scoop Jackson and his undeniable greatness as a senator.
Jackson left a large mark in American political history because he stood for something big. He came to Capitol Hill in 1941 at the age of 28 — the youngest member of the House of Representatives — in the shadow of the war against Hitler’s Germany in Europe and with the likelihood that the United States would soon be involved.
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By the time he reached the Senate in 1953, Jackson was an expert on defense issues, particularly with respect to atomic energy. The Cold War was at its height, and Henry Jackson concluded that the Soviet Union was an “evil empire” long before Ronald Reagan even thought about entering politics.
The United States waged the 45-year Cold War against the Soviet Union through a combination of military and economic might, political alliances and proxy wars, punctuated by periodic efforts to negotiate and ease tensions. Jackson unapologetically championed a strong military, believing that only overwhelming strength could deter the Soviet Union. He had no faith in negotiations, believing the Soviets would violate any agreement that they signed. He had only contempt for those like Sen. J. William Fulbright who blamed the “arrogance of [American] power” for some of the Soviet Union’s conduct.
Jackson built an unparalleled network of expert advisers inside and outside the Senate, including Dorothy Fosdick, the first woman to wield significant influence in U.S. foreign policy. He battled year after year against those who he believed to be naive about Soviet intentions. Although never charismatic, he was legendarily formidable in debate. More than 40 years later, former Oregon Sen. Bob Packwood could recite from memory Jackson’s argument, in a closed Senate debate, demolishing opponents of an anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system.
Presidents came and went, but Jackson and his staff stayed on, exercising enormous power over U.S. defense and foreign policy.
Jackson coupled his commitment to military strength with a ringing affirmation of American ideals, reaching the peak of his power during Richard Nixon’s presidency.
Jackson believed that the Soviet Union posed an ideological challenge to the U.S., as well as a military threat. Nixon, who had risen to prominence as a relentless anti-communist, had decided that the time was right for easing tension with the Soviet Union.
Jackson, unconvinced, found a legislative instrument to stymie the détente policy of Nixon and Henry Kissinger: conditioning trade benefits to the Soviet Union on the right of Soviet Jews to emigrate. In one stroke, Jackson placed human rights at the center of American foreign policy, enraged Soviet leaders and reduced support in the U.S. for arms control.
Kissinger, who once said that dealing with Jackson and his staff made him long for the serenity of the Middle East, ruefully acknowledged that his adversary had stopped détente in its tracks. Jackson had tapped into something deep in the American character: the desire for a moral foreign policy.
Jackson was also a master legislator, able to reach principled compromises to further the national interest. During the late 1970s, as energy dependence became a central concern for America, Jackson was the chairman of the newly formed Senate Energy Committee. Jackson loathed President Jimmy Carter (the feeling was mutual), who had defeated him for the Democratic nomination in 1976. Jackson doubted Carter’s readiness to be president and also disagreed with the thrust of his energy proposals, believing them to be too generous to the oil and gas industries.
Yet, despite all these factors, and even while leading the fight against Carter’s effort to negotiate the SALT II arms-control agreement with the Soviet Union, Jackson worked tirelessly for three long years to produce a national energy policy. He respected the presidency, if not the president, and saw the need to forge compromises between consumer and producer interests, and the various regions of our country.
Every aspect of the energy legislation was fiercely controversial; legislation changing natural gas pricing was so divisive the Senate and the House needed 14 months to reconcile their differences. But in the end, an energy program focused on spurring production, promoting conservation and developing alternative sources of energy emerged, and led to the reduction of oil imports by 50 percent over the next few years.
Henry Jackson combined absolute integrity, deep convictions, great substantive knowledge and a single-minded focus on what he saw to be in the national interest. Many people in politics who vehemently disagreed with his hard-line views toward the Soviet Union still admired him greatly. Republican William Cohen of Maine, shortly after entering the Senate in 1979, captured an important element of Jackson’s greatness:
“He has retained his essential vigor and enthusiasm for the political process. Each day he steps into the arena relatively unscarred and still optimistic that we are masters of our destiny.”
We could use more of Jackson’s indomitable spirit today.
Ira Shapiro, a former Senate staffer and Clinton administration trade ambassador, is author of “The Last Great Senate: Courage and Statesmanship in Times of Crisis.” He practices international trade law in Washington, D.C.