Republican senators were livid with what they considered an I'm-holier-than-the-GOP-Party speech Jeffords gave at his Vermont press conference last Friday. "Republicans are not going to want to work with him because he's a traitor to their party," a senior GOP aide whispered to me. "They're going to work with other moderate Democrats who are decent brokers. Today, Senator Jeffords is in the spotlight. Tomorrow he will be insignificant."
Within a nanosecond after Jeffords stepped off the podium in Vermont, GOP operatives began fertilizing the media with what they claimed was the real reason Jeffords deserted: He worried that 98-year-old South Carolina Republican Strom Thurmond wouldn't make it to the end of his term in 2002 and the state's Democratic governor would appoint someone from his party to fill the vacancy giving Tom Daschle the majority leader's job. Jeffords wanted to cut a deal to get a chairmanship on the Democratic side before that happened.
I caught up with Jeffords for an exclusive interview last Friday morning after he announced his switch. He had finally had a good night's sleep for the first time in a week and felt revived. I asked why he had left the party and I confronted him with the reasons Republicans were now spreading. Here's what Jeffords said:
TIME: What were the philosophical problems you were having with the Republican Party?
Jeffords: This has been going on ever since I've been in Congress. I've been trying to press upon the presidents whether it was Ronald Reagan or George Bush Sr. that you've got to listen to the moderates. You just have to understand that the bulk of the people of this nation are in the middle of the political spectrum, not at the fringes. If you don't get that message, then the party is just not going to be able to lead.
This time, I was having real problems with the Republican leadership. I made my strong statement on the budget. But they just weren't recognizing where the real needs of the nation were. Finally, it just got to the point where I just couldn't feel that there was anything I could do to change things other than to switch sides.
It's tough being a moderate in the Republican Party.
In your 26 years in Congress, you've had to suffer a lot of arm-twisting and cold shoulders. When did it start to wear on you?
I guess it was on the education bill and in the budget process. The last couple of months just brought everything into focus. Things were not going the way I felt strongly that they ought to go. I just finally said the only way I can make a real statement here is to switch parties.
The Wednesday afternoon meeting last week that you had with a group of Republican senators who were trying to talk you out of leaving was a very emotional one. Describe your feelings coming out of that.
I was so saddened. That's the worst emotional experience I've been through. These are all wonderful friends of mine. They were frustrated as I had been over the years, but they nevertheless wanted to stay with the party. Not only that, many of them knew they had positions of leadership and strength and I would be destroying that. It was tearful on both sides. But I just felt so strongly that a message had to be given. And if I didn't do it now, then when would I ever do it.
When you flew to Vermont on Wednesday after that meeting, a lot of the Republicans in that room had the impression that you were going to think about it over the weekend.
I did think about it all the way up to Vermont. I couldn't ignore the emotions. I thought about it. But I've been trying to get them to think about it for twenty years. I made some improvements in the policy with Reagan and with George Bush Sr. But I just realized that I couldn't back off. I had to make that statement.
Republicans are now saying this was a coldly calculated move on your part to get a committee chairmanship from the Democrats before Sen. Strom Thurmond died and the other side took control of the chamber.
I understand and I expect that's going to happen. They're going to try to spin it the best way they can to make me look bad. It's sad when they do that, but that's understandable. I expect those things will happen. That's natural politics