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May 18: The Liberal Republican

May 17, 2016

7198893Jacob Javits, the last staunchly liberal Republican senator — he became a Republican in reaction to the corrupt Democratic politics of Tammany Hall — was born to pushcart peddlers on the Lower East Side on this date in 1904. Javits earned a degree in Columbia University night school, and a law degree from NYU in 1926. He served in the U.S. Army’s Chemical Warfare Department during World War II and achieved the rank of lieutenant-colonel. His political career began in the House of Representatives from 1947 to 1954, when he became New York Attorney General. He then served in the Senate for 24 years, beginning in 1957. Javits was decidedly pro-labor and pro-civil rights: he supported Harry Truman’s veto of the Taft-Hartley Bill, which Javits considered anti-union, and he sought unsuccessfully to pass legislation against the poll tax and against segregation in federally housing. Javits also sought to deny funding to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1948. He lined up with Lyndon Johnson on the Great Society programs and on the Vietnam War, but by 1968 Javits was seeking repeal of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, and two years later he was helping to bar funding for U.S. military operations in Cambodia. Javits also supported the 1973 War Powers Act, limiting the ability of a President to make war without Congressional approval; the Erisa Act, which sought to guarantee private pensions; the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities; and the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement, which he helped to shape as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Javits was nevertheless a cautious moderate: “Of course I’m cautious,” he said. “... Look at the interests for which I am trustee. The Jews of America. Republican liberalism. My own career for a quarter of a century. I’ll be the first to confess that I’m cautious.”

“[W]hen scrutiny is lacking, tyranny, corruption and man’s baser qualities have a better chance of entering into the public business of any government.” —Jacob Javits