Jim Jeffords: Hero or Opportunist?

By Frank Bryan

May 2002


Last year Jim Jeffords rebelled against his party and was cloaked a hero of the independent, free-thinkers that are part of the Vermont tradition.


Now a year later we will be hearing much speculation on the influences Jeffords made on national policy.


There are, however, other interesting questions.  Questions having to do with history and tradition.


First, how will history judge Jeffords? Senator Jeffords was raised privileged, his father the Chief Justice of the Vermont Supreme Court. His marriage to the Republican Party was one of class convenience arranged in the 1960’s. Doors were opened for him in a way they were never opened for Philip Hoff or Bernie Sanders or nearly any other politician of his era. These doors were opened by Republicans. Yet the first time he was denied an opportunity he wanted (the Republican nomination for governor in 1972) he did not take it well. In fact he acted like a spoiled child. George Bush Jr. did not end Jeffords’ marriage to the GOP. Jim ended it himself in 1972. But he refused to leave the house.


Vermonters don’t know these things. We don’t even want to know them!


But Jim knows them. And history will tell.


I look at Jeffords now and see a certain sadness – like a partner that stayed in a bad marriage for years bickering with a political party he didn’t even like. He finally left that marriage when the opportunity arose to do his party the greatest possible harm. Moreover, there was an immensely attractive, seductive, new partner waiting for him in the form of his own committee chairmanship, the romance of national attention earlier undreamed of, and most of all the adoration of a state that likes independents, liberals and Democrats and doesn’t like conservatives and oil men from Texas!


History will not be as kind to Jeffords as we have been. I think he will leave politics a lonely man.


Second.  What about us? What about our legacy “Don’t mess with Vermont” say the bumper stickers. We recast Jeffords in the image of ourselves – rugged individualism born on America’s northern frontier of long ago. Jeffords went along with it, of course.


But Vermont is as much about community as it is about individualism. Our state motto is Freedom and Unity.


Like frontier persons everywhere we appreciate togetherness and the tolerance born of shared fate. Rather than act of defiant individualism consider Jeffords’ act as Jon Margolis described it in the Wall Street Journal. It was, he wrote, “evidence of the persistence of an old tradition and of how much he and Vermont still depend on it … an attitude that cherishes restraint, civility, tolerance, and compromise…”


A longing for this Vermont tradition (the tradition of unity), which is so lacking in Washington on both sides of the isle, is the context in which I would prefer to interpret Jeffords’ behavior.


It is difficult to imagine Jeffords getting less mileage out of George Bush Jr. than he did from the far more conservative (and far less personally engaging) Republican president, Ronald Reagan. His policy excuses (from education to agriculture) for divorcing the party in 2001 simply don’t wash.


But by the year 2000 Jim Jeffords was much older and he was tired and he was sick of the game. He longed to set himself right with his world. He longed to leave and go home.


There are much worse longings than these.


Senator Jeffords. Hero or opportunist? Probably a little of both. Somewhere in the middle. And that is where Senator Jeffords likes to be.