The Magazine

The Last Good Democrat

The life and times of Scoop Jackson

Oct 2, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 03 • By ELLIOTT ABRAMS
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Henry M. Jackson

A Life in Politics

by Robert G. Kaufman

University of Washington Press, 576 pp., $ 30

Even the greatest senators -- Clay, Calhoun, Webster, La Follette, Taft -- rarely grip the country's imagination the way presidents and generals do. When legislators do change the course of events, the drama is usually lost to our collective memory. Thousands of members of Congress have come and gone over the years, their individual achievements hidden in committee reports, private compromises, amendments pushed through or blocked, and innumerable, unnoticed meetings.

Henry M. Jackson, congressman and senator from 1941 until his death in 1983, achieved far greater renown than most legislators, ran for president in 1972 and 1976, and was for much of the 1970s and 1980s one of the most powerful men in America. Yet his extraordinary record in public life is in danger of being forgotten -- particularly his long struggles during the Cold War, which are often misclassified (when they are remembered at all) merely as examples of "hard-line foreign policy."

Jackson has long needed a sympathetic biographer to chronicle his amazing life story, and the new biography by Robert G. Kaufman, Henry M. Jackson: A Life in Politics, is cause for celebration. "Scoop" Jackson, the son of Norwegian immigrants, was an entirely self-made man, that true American phenomenon: no money, no connections; nothing but talent and determination that raised him from his home in Everett, Washington, to national power. When he arrived at Union Station in 1941, the youngest member of the House at age twenty-eight, he had never been to Washington, D.C., before and had to ask a cab driver to find the Capitol for him. His unfamiliarity with the city -- and the city's unfamiliarity with him -- did not last long.

He had the most successful political career in the history of Washington state, never losing there. In the fall of 1938, at the age of twenty-six, he won his first election, to the public prosecutor's office. By 1940, he was running for the congressional seat in Washington's Second District, which he won six times before his successful Senate run in 1952. His subsequent campaign totals are astonishing: He was reelected to the Senate with 67 percent of the vote in 1958, 72 percent in 1964, 82 percent in 1970, 72 percent in 1976, and 69 percent in 1982, his final campaign.

Jackson was a kind of missionary, who emerged from the American provinces and was never fully acculturated by the national elites among whom he spent his adult life. His duty, as he saw it, was to learn and to teach the lessons of world politics in his lifetime -- and the most important lesson, he thought, was the necessity for the great democracies to practice the kind of foreign policy that Kaufman correctly describes as "moral realism." Jackson had entered Congress steeped in the isolationism popular in his district, but World War II changed his views. Seeing Buchenwald eleven days after its liberation, he learned something about barbarism and why it must be resisted by force of arms. He visited his ancestral Norway after its liberation from the Nazis, and ever after he insisted that there is sometimes no substitute for military power. From then on, Jackson demanded, as Kaufman describes it, "a synthesis of power and principle" that included "vigilant containment" and an insistence on infusing "American foreign policy with greater moral clarity and confidence about U.S. virtues and our adversaries' vices."

By 1949 he was playing a role in national security policy. And Jackson's influence over the decades was matched only by his foresight, beginning with his argument in favor of building the H-bomb rather than relying on Stalin's forbearance. This was the first entry in an extraordinarily prescient record on foreign policy:

* He was a key figure in the creation of a Navy powered by nuclear reactors and a submarine fleet armed with nuclear missiles.

* As early as his trip to the USSR in 1956, he understood that the Soviets would, as he put it, act like a "hotel burglar," trying any doors that were open but passing those that were locked. He explained in a 1957 speech that "the essence of the Soviet dilemma [is that] the Kremlin must grant some freedom in order to maintain technological growth but allowing freedom undermines Communist ideology and discipline" -- a view later embraced by George Shultz and Ronald Reagan.