By George Will Washington Post Columnist
Originally published Sept. 8, 1983.
Painted on the walls of the Senate reception room are portraits of the five men who were selected by a special committee, a quarter of a century ago, to constitute a kind of Senate hall of fame. The portraits are of Clay, Calhoun, Webster, La Follette and Taft. There is no more space on the walls of that room, but there is a non-functional door. That door should be removed, and the wall filled in, and adorned with a portrait of a sixth senator. A Senate hall of fame without Henry Martin Jackson is as unthinkable as Cooperstown without George Herman Ruth.
A silly person once said that only silly persons have heroes. But only exceptionally small persons will not pay homage to the exceptionally large persons among us. Heroes make vivid the values by which we try to live. I say, unabashedly, and with many others: Henry Jackson was my hero.
Because he was magnificently uninterested in the cosmetics of politics, dull persons considered him unexciting. But discerning persons by the millions recognized that his kind of character is as exciting as it is rare. Persons who, under the pressure of fashion, are as flexible as fly rods found Jackson incomprehensible. They came to the absurd conclusion that he had departed from the liberal tradition.
He was a pioneer of environmentalism. He was the preeminent champion of civil rights. He fought for the full domestic agenda and authored legislation that put teeth into U.S. pronouncements on behalf of Jews and others persecuted by the Soviet regime. And if Jackson’s proposals for substantial force reductions had been adopted, we might have had arms limitation agreements that actually limit arms.
The ironic truth is that Jackson was one of those persons — Felix Frankfurter was another — whose constancy was mistaken for change. He never wavered from his party’s traditional belief that there is no incompatibility between government with a caring face at home and government with a stern face toward adversaries.
Jackson was an anchor against weariness, wishful thinking and apostasy in his party, and his country. He nurtured in this republic something without which no republic can long endure: a sense that problems are tractable. To be in his presence was to experience the wholesome infection of a reviving spirit. This was especially remarkable because he, more than any contemporary, looked unblinkingly at, and spoke uncomfortingly about, the terrors of our time. He taught less clear-sighted, less brave persons how to combine realism and serenity.
He missed the ultimate prize of our politics, perhaps because he lacked the crackling temperament that marks persons who burn on the surface with a hard, gem-like flame. If his political metabolism seemed uncommonly calm, that is because he had the patience of a mature politician — a gift for planning, thirst for detail and a sense of ripeness in issues. He had a flame, but he had depth in which he kept it.
In committees and on the Senate floor, he was a cannon loaded to the muzzle with knowledge born of diligence. His unrivaled effectiveness was a rebuke to the less industrious and a refutation of the theory that in politics fancy footwork is necessary and sufficient.
A legislature is a face-to-face society, where character and moral force tell. What Jackson did in committees and on the floor was awesome. But it was only a small fraction of the work he did during four decades of 18-hour days, working with one member after another, one member at a time, building coalitions of common sense.
I remember a day, nearly a decade ago, when I went panting along in the wake of Jackson on a campaign swing from Washington to Philadelphia to Shreveport and back. When I was decanted from the little plane after midnight, I was a broken shell of my former self. Henry Jackson, twice my age and fresh as a tulip, bounded off into the night.
His legendary energy flowed as much from his spirit as from his physiology. His biography is an essay on the sources of American vitality. He was the son of immigrants, and of the American West. He had the stamina of parents who crossed an ocean and then a continent, and he had the optimism of his region.
For longer than I have been alive, Congress has been embellished by his presence. And for longer than I live, public life shall be enriched by the radiating force of his character. Why? Consider.
If you wonder who real leaders are, find out who has real followers. By real followers I mean persons who follow a leader onto a path of life, who adopt careers where they navigate by stars he has taught them to see. The social geology of this city is layer upon layer of persons pulled into public life by the example of lives worth emulating. Today, in numerous public offices, and in law and journalism, there is a thick layer of Henry Jackson’s men and women.
There are those, and they are legion, who call themselves “Jackson Democrats.” I can say with absolute authority that there is such a thing as a “Jackson Republican.”
Henry Jackson mastered the delicate balance of democracy, the art of being a servant to a vast public without being servile to any part of it. He was the finest public servant I have known.