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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 675

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This is the grave of Jacob Javits.

Born on the Lower East Side in 1904, Javits grew up in the Jewish tenements of that time and place. They were a poor family with lots of children. His mother sold things out of a pushcart on the street and he helped her out after school. But he was a brilliant student. He finished high school as valedictorian, graduating in 1920. He graduated from Columbia in 1923 despite mostly going to night school so he could work during the day. He then finished at NYU Law in 1926. His older brother was already a successful lawyer so they founded Javits & Javits, working primarily in bankruptcy law and minority stockholder cases.

Javits got involved in politics at a young age. His father a ward heeler for Tammany Hall, but his son was pretty disgusted by the corruption he saw in the political machine. So he became an active Republican in those days when a Republican meant you could elect Fiorello LaGuardia as mayor. He was a rising insider in the New York Republican Party by the late 1930s. In World War II, he became an officer in the Army’s Chemical Warfare Department, where he reached the rank of lieutenant colonel by the end of the war.

After World War II, Javits decided to try electoral politics for himself. He became the chief researcher for Jonah Goldstein’s Republican candidate for mayor in 1945. Goldstein lost, but Javits was such a hard worker than the Republican bosses began to think he might have success. Indeed he did. In 1946, he ran for a congressional seat on the Upper West Side that the Democrats had held since 1923. And he won.

Now, Javits was a Republican. And that meant something that was a cousin to what it means today. But to be a New York City Republican in 1947 meant you were still probably very liberal. And in fact, Javits has been rated as the single most liberal Republican in his time in Congress, which lasted until 1954. He was often at odds with his own party. An ally of Joe McCarthy this was not. In fact, one rating has him as the single most liberal Republican in Congress since 1937. This meant opposing Taft-Hartley. It meant being for the prohibition of the poll tax. It meant sponsoring a bill to bar segregation in public housing. It meant openly opposing the existence of HUAC and cutting off its funding. Javits’ main home in Congress was on the Foreign Relations Committee, where he was a big supporter of the Marshall Plan and Israel.

In 1954, Javits left Congress when he defeated Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jr. for New York’s Attorney General. He pushed for a healthcare program for public sector employees and anti-racist legislation at the state level. But he also had his eyes on a bigger prize. In 1956, he ran for Senate. He had a tough opponent–Robert Wagner, Jr., whose father of course was one of the most powerful senators of the 20th century and who was a popular mayor of New York. But he beat him 53-47 and became, not surprisingly, the Senate’s most liberal Republican. While a pretty significant supporter of anti-communist foreign policy, even when that did some very, very bad things, domestically he was among the most liberal senators.

Javits was a big Senate supporter of all civil rights legislation and of Thurgood Marshall’s Supreme Court nomination. He promoted the Great Society and refused to support Barry Goldwater in 1964. He appointed the first Black page in Senate history in 1965. He also attempted to intervene when Georgia denied Julian Bond his seat in the state’s House based on his views on Vietnam. While Javits strongly disagreed with Bond’s Vietnam views at that time, he said it was outrageous to deny someone a seat based on opposition to war. He was the key senator behind the creation of the National Endowment of the Arts. You can imagine how much Republican leaders loved all this. He was also a very typical brusque New Yorker, which meant he definitely did not fit in with the southern Democrat dominated social scene in Washington.

Javits was an early supporter of the Vietnam War. He did turn on that by 1967, but Wayne Morse he was not on foreign policy issues. He was a pretty typical Cold War liberal, regardless of party. However, he did vote for the Cooper-Church Amendment in 1970 that ended funding for U.S. troops in Cambodia and voted to repeat the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. But he was fairly supportive of Nixon and was only a very late convert to the position that Nixon should resign. He justified this based on his belief that Nixon was innocent until proven guilty, which, well…..

Javits’ reticence on Watergate nearly cost him reelection in 1974 and he won a squeaker over Ramsey Clark. In his last term, he really turned his focus to the Middle East and was a major player in Jimmy Carter’s work to bring Israel and Egypt together in what became the Camp David Accords.

In 1979, Javits was diagnosed with ALS. But he still wanted to be in the Senate. The growing conservatism of New York Republicans also wanted to get rid of him. So Al D’Amato decided to challenge Javits for the primary and defeated him on his way to being elected to the Senate, where he would be a toad. Javits did not give up easily. He ran a third party campaign when he lost the primary and became the Liberal Party nominee. Like most third party runs, this was a terrible idea. He won 11 percent of the vote, but this was mostly taken from Democrats. D’Amato won his election over Elizabeth Holtzman by all of 0.1% thanks to Javits. Sigh.

Despite his ALS diagnosis, Javits managed to live for quite a long time. He did not die until 1986, at the age of 81, and that of a heart attack. He was by that time confined to a wheelchair without the ability to write and could barely speak on his own, though he wasn’t completely silent yet. He spent those last years lobbying for greater federal support for care of the terminally ill.

Jacob Javits is buried in Linden Hill Jewish Cemetery, Queens, New York.

Javits was elected to the Senate in 1956. If you would like this series to visit other new senators elected that year, you can donate to covered the required expenses here. John Carroll, who served a term from Colorado before losing reelection in 1962, is in Denver. Thruston Morton, who served two terms from Kentucky after winning an upset election as a Republican that year, is in Louisville. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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