More bashful than bold, Senator James M. Jeffords of Vermont seemed an unlikely figure to set off a political storm. But he nevertheless sent Washington into a frenzy in 2001 when he became an independent and handed control of the Senate to the Democrats for a season.
His time in the spotlight has come and gone. The Republicans are back in the majority and likely planning some sweet revenge. And Jeffords is still trying to explain himself. “An Independent Man,” written with Yvonne Daley and Howard Coffin, stretches back across Jeffords’s life as he goes searching for the seeds of his late-career rebellion.
He finds signs everywhere that he might one day become an apostate, even in his attraction to the fiery Liz Daley, who was to become his wife. “Liz and I were often on opposite sides of the political spectrum,” he writes. She was “anything but conservative on all manner of things, from labor issues to American foreign policy.” Almost immediately after winning a State Senate seat in 1966, he falls out of step, casting a deciding committee vote in favor of a Democratic governor’s proposal that would make the Vermont income tax more progressive. “I look back from the vantage of four decades,” he says, ”and see that the pattern had begun.”
He catalogs every run-in. He is stunned to discover the party establishment fighting against him when he enters the primary for governor after four years as attorney general. It was the one race he lost. He comes back to win election to Congress in 1974 and the differences multiply. He supports John Anderson over Ronald Reagan in the 1980 Republican primaries. He is the lone House Republican to vote against Reagan’s 1981 tax cut. He opposes Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court. He nearly falls off a couch when he realizes that Newt Gingrich will be House speaker. He votes against convicting Bill Clinton on articles of impeachment.
There are certainly interesting insider moments, like the tale of Clinton trying to explain himself by talking at length about Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” when Jeffords and Senator Joseph Lieberman quietly warn him to be apologetic once the Senate acquits him.
Still, one longs for a more thoughtful discussion of ideology and political ideas, of why, beyond habit, Jeffords stayed a Republican for so long and how he rationalized his repeated disagreements with the party. Maybe he just avoided thinking through such issues until the Bush administration’s refusal to hear his pleas for more money to educate disabled students drove him to become an independent. “Indeed, Republicanism was so integral to my understanding of politics that I had little choice,” he says at one point. “My father’s family had been steadily Republican for generations, and their affiliation with the Grand Old Party had served them well.”
Yet this is still an extraordinary book because of Jeffords’s surprising and touching candor about the strains a political life places on families. No campaign-book treacle here. Jeffords’s uncomfortable distance from his father, the chief justice of the Vermont Supreme Court, whom he variously describes as unhuggable, formal and absent — “even on the weekend, he was often away from the house” — becomes a defining motif that affects his own later life and his ability to show emotion. Jeffords was soon largely repeating the pattern, obsessed with work and campaigning and oblivious when his wife starts taking too many painkillers and drinking too much after her sister and father die. They separated in 1978, divorced and, in 1986, remarried. “Was I a cad?” he asks. “I don’t think so. Like so many men in America, I was playing a role and expecting my wife to play hers. The fact that Liz couldn’t or wouldn’t accept that this was to be her life was beyond me.”
In the end, the Senator tells far more about decades of personal anguish than about the political pain of being a maverick.