Sen. Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson without doubt is the most famous native-born son of Everett. He also is the most important Washingtonian politician of the 20th century, serving almost 43 years in Congress as a member of the House and Senate.
A presidential hopeful in 1972 and 1976, Jackson was admired by all segments of the political spectrum. He was credited by conservatives with helping topple communism in the Soviet Union as a tireless supporter of a strong national defense, and lauded by liberals for authoring the National Environmental Policy Act. He never lost a congressional election, and in 1970, when his critics were most caustic in opposition for his support of the war in Vietnam, an astounding 82 percent of the voters re-elected Jackson to the Senate.
The 100th anniversary of Jackson’s birthday provides an opportunity to commemorate his accomplishments. But as with any person, key turning points made a huge difference in how his life turned out. Three examples detail how Jackson’s career might have been significantly different than how we celebrate it today.
One of these decisive moments occurred early in his career. Elected as Snohomish County Prosecutor in 1938, at age 26, Jackson led a vigorous campaign against illegal alcohol sales, prostitution and pinball machines that made cash payoffs. Particularly, the crackdown on pinball machines created animosity toward Jackson. The city of Everett earned $10,000 annually in license fees for the machines and tavern and restaurant owners could earn up to $50 per day — nearly $800 in today’s dollars — on one machine. Jackson insisted that the machines be removed from the county because they constituted gambling devices.
Despite the resistance, the machines were removed.
A month later, in August 1939, Jackson was recommended by the Snohomish County Bar Association to Gov. Clarence Martin as one of three candidates to fill a vacancy as a Superior Court judge. Jackson traveled to Olympia to lobby for the appointment.
While in the governor’s office, Martin phoned Jack Sylvester, Speaker of the House, and let Jackson listen in on the conversation.
Sylvester recommended one of the other candidates.
For six months, Jackson refused to talk to Sylvester. But many years later reminiscing about the incident, Sylvester reminded Jackson how important that decision was: “Scoop, you wouldn’t be in the Senate. You’d be back in Snohomish County with a black robe around you giving decisions on a bunch of drunks.”
First elected to Congress in 1940, Jackson briefly served in the Army in late 1943 until President Franklin Roosevelt ordered congressmen back to Washington.
Two years later, he traveled to Europe as a U.S. conference delegate. He became severely ill in Oslo, Norway, with a temperature of 105, and desperately needed antibiotic medication. Penicillin had been mass-produced during World War II, but none was available in Norway. Jackson in his weakened state was able to contact a distant cousin, Maj. Leslie Johnson, who was stationed in Germany. Johnson was nearly court-martialed for commandeering a plane to transport penicillin to Oslo, but he saved Jackson’s life.
The third key moment in Jackson’s career was John F. Kennedy’s decision to select Sen. Lyndon Johnson to be his running mate in the 1960 presidential election. Jackson wanted that nomination. John Kennedy’s statement that Jackson was the frontrunner, and Robert Kennedy’s comment, “Jackson is my personal choice for the vice presidency, and my brother has the highest regard for Jackson” seemed to cement Jackson’s selection.
On Thursday, July 14, 1960, Jackson had a 15-minute conversation with John Kennedy. Kennedy told Jackson he’d offered the nomination to Lyndon Johnson, who had not yet given his answer. Jackson returned to his hotel to wait to hear if it was Johnson or him. The phone rang. A Kennedy aide called saying no decision had been made. The minutes drifted by. The phone rang again. A boy with the wrong number was trying to contact his girlfriend. Fifteen minutes later a Kennedy staffer called, and indicated the decision would be made shortly. And then, finally, the call from John Kennedy himself. Johnson would be the candidate.
Had Jackson been on the Democratic ticket, he and Kennedy might have lost that 1960 presidential race to Richard Nixon and Henry Cabot Lodge.
The election was razor close, and Kennedy needed Johnson’s Southern supporters. Despite Jackson’s later presidential attempts in 1972 and 1976, 1960 might have been his closest chance for the presidency.
Jackson’s desire for a judgeship in 1939 would have redirected his career. His illness in 1945 almost ended his life. And his thwarted goal of being on 1960 vice-presidential candidate for the Democratic Party perhaps saved Jackson from being a defeated candidate, for the first time in his life.
Or, if elected as Kennedy’s vice president, Jackson might have experienced Johnson’s fate: becoming a president mired in the Vietnam War.
Sen. Jackson’s accomplishments would have been entirely different, but for these three turning points in his career, and so would our commemoration of his life on his 100th birthday.
Dr. Thomas M. Gaskin is retiring in June after 37 years as a history instructor at Everett Community College. He produced the documentary, “One of Ours: Young Scoop Jackson.”