Friday, May 25, 2001 By PAT WILLIAMS for the Missoulian
Jim Jeffords doesn't abide bullies. He is a gentle, quiet fellow who is impossible to push around. You know the type: resolute, patient, purposeful. Up here in these northern-latitude, long-wintered states, we find such people. They have a special way of leaning into the wind.
Before Jeffords became a U.S. senator in 1990, he and I served together in the U.S. House, and were colleagues on the Education and Labor Committee. He came to Montana for meetings in the late 1980s, and in the '90s I went to his state of Vermont for a hearing. I believe our friendship has to do with where we are from rather than our politics. Vermont and Montana are both northern states sharing the beauty of bountiful lakes, rivers and mountains. Our states are lightly populated with folks scrambling to make a living.
I once remarked to a crowd in Burlington, Vt., that their Congressman Jeffords reminded me of some Montanans I knew; quiet fellows who stand with their hands pushed deep into their pockets, looking you straight in the eye and truly listening. Hearing that, Jeffords flashed an embarrassed smile and said to his constituents, "Pat is from Montana. I've been there - you would like Montana."
Jeffords was elected to Congress in 1974 as a moderate - a kind of Dwight Eisenhower, Nelson Rockefeller Republican. He deplored the take-no-prisoners, angry politics of the Newt Gingrich era. He understands the dangers of the conspiratorial anti-government anger of the Far Right. He rejects the hubris and arrogance of today's GOP majority. He is particularly put off by those who are confrontational, and that includes President George W. Bush. Jeffords is too polite to say it, so the Republican stalwart John McCain said it for him: "The Bush White House and Republican operatives were abusive of Jim Jeffords. It's time for my party to grow up."
President Bush talks a good game of conciliation and moderation, but Sen. Jeffords is a case study in the reality of the Bush approach. The White House tried to muscle Jeffords into abandoning his moderate policies toward the environment, education, taxes and health care. Jeffords is no Democrat, but he is a genuine progressive who knows who he is and where he stands.
The bullying tactics of this White House have gone, until now, almost unnoticed. Bush has not only given the thumbs-up to these efforts, but he also has personally engaged in them.
During his first three months in office, Bush visited more than two dozen states in an all-out effort to pass his $1.6 trillion tax proposal. More than occasionally his tactics were, at best, less than sophisticated and, at worst, rude. In South Dakota, the president did not even invite Sen. Tom Daschle, now the majority leader, to join him on the platform. Bush would not go to Arizona until he knew that Sen. John McCain was out of the country. During stops in Georgia and Nebraska, he purposely embarrassed the Democratic senators of those states: Sens. Max Cleland and Ben Nelson.
During the president's stop in Billings, he did the same thing to Sen. Max Baucus, who had graciously joined the president on the platform. Bush invited former governor and now Washington, D.C., lobbyist Marc Racicot to the platform and then, speaking into the microphone, Bush actually turned to Racicot and publicly asked him to run for office. Bush knew full well that the Racicot opponent would be Baucus.
Capitol Hill has been abuzz with similar stories. Is this president just inexperienced, or, due to having received fewer votes than Al Gore, is he still staggering and trying to find his footing? Perhaps Bush is a right-winger unwilling to accept moderation. Maybe Bush, like too many of his Texas allies, is simply a bully. If so, in Jim Jeffords he certainly picked on the wrong guy.
Pat Williams, a former Democratic congressman, is a senior fellow at the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West and a Missoulian columnist.