Minority Power: Jacob K. Javits: 1904-1986

Jacob K. Javits: 1904-1986

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He never tired of describing the circumstances of his birth--in a tenement on New York City's Lower East Side--as "the urban equivalent of being born in a log cabin." Like many other second-generation Americans, Jacob Koppel Javits was impelled by his humble origins into a life of public service that carried him from his ghetto "log cabin" to the halls of legislative power. Few made the journey with more confidence and gusto, and fewer still left behind a legacy of greater political achievement. When he died last week at 81, of complications from a degenerative nerve and muscle disease known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Javits had influenced as much important legislation as virtually any Republican to serve in the U.S. Senate in modern times.

Javits was one of the last of the now vanishing breed of liberal Republicans. His minority status within his party prevented him from ever attaining a place inside its congressional leadership, and possibly from becoming the first Jewish candidate for Vice President, an honor he openly sought before the 1968 election. Through force of intellect and formidable work habits, however, the quintessential outsider became, in his words, a "man of the Senate" who won the respect of political supporters and detractors alike. Said Ronald Reagan last week: "Especially in foreign relations--his chief abiding interest--Senator Javits served our country with tremendous insight and skill."

Javits' father, a onetime Talmudic scholar from the Ukraine, worked as a janitor. He was also a ward heeler for the Tammany Hall Democratic machine, an unsavory sideline that later helped drive the son to the Republicans. After working his way through Columbia University and New York University School of Law, Jack Javits joined a law firm started by his older brother Ben. During World War II he received a commission with the Army's chemical-warfare department, emerging with the rank of lieutenant colonel and an offer from the impotent Manhattan G.O.P. to run for Congress in 1946 from New York City's heavily Jewish--and Democratic--Upper West Side. Javits won, and remained a Congressman for four terms.

After winning statewide office as New York Attorney General in 1954, Javits bid for the Senate seat of the retiring Herbert Lehman and carried the state against New York City Mayor Robert Wagner by 460,000 votes in 1956. His welcome in the Senate, whose clubby atmosphere then included more than a whiff of anti-Semitism, was less than warm. "When I rose to speak in those early days, the whole chamber was still," he later recalled. "Still and cold."

That reception did not prevent Javits from plunging ahead. During a typical session, he would serve on as many as five committees and nine subcommittees. Because of his minority-party status, his name was never attached to major legislation. However, he played a key role through the years on bills concerning civil rights, labor, business and the role of Congress, including the War Powers Act of 1973, which restricts the presidential conduct of hostilities. He was especially proud of a measure aimed at protecting the fiscal integrity of private pension funds, which passed in 1974 after he had pushed it for seven years.

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