MY DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE
by James M. Jeffords
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
No matter what happens, there will always be a certain portion of the population that views Senator James Jeffords as a traitor to his party. At the same time, there will always be a certain percentage of the population that views him as a hero for changing his party affiliation from Republican to Independent in May, 2001. In My Declaration of Independence, Jeffords provides a first person account of his reasons for making the change and the arguments on both sides. While Jeffords doesn't answer all the questions a reader might have about his decision, he does provide a look at the way Senatorial politics works and the difficulty of his decision.
Although Jeffords gives an indication that he has long felt as if he was an outsider in the Republican Party, he doesn't go into much detail except to note that this feeling became more pervasive when the Republicans managed to gain control of both houses of Congress and the Presidency. At that point, he began to increasingly view himself as someone who was outside the mainstream of the party and who would be viewed as a spoiler rather than an ally. Although Jeffords tries to avoid pointing fingers, certain names keep coming up as important in his decision.
Jeffords's main interest is in education reform, particularly with regards to special needs children. Throughout the short book, he discusses the fact that the Federal government still hasn't made good on a quarter-century old pledge to provide funding. In his efforts to ensure that this pledge would be made good, Jeffords found himself trying to make a deal with his good friend, Trent Lott, and Pete Domenici. Despite several meetings, Jeffords increasingly came to the opinion that they were trying to soothe him with empty words and gestures. He realized that he would not be able to get his view of the education bill passed with the Senate made up the way it was in early 2001.
Another stumbling block was President Bush, although in many ways to a lesser extent since Jeffords did not have as close a contact with Bush. Throughout the 2000 Presidential campaign, Jeffords, a moderate Republican, believed that Bush would rule in a conciliatory manner. By April, 2001, he began to feel that Bush was as divisive as Bill Clinton had been. Despite this, Jeffords has praise for Bush, pointing out that although their views of how to fix the educational system differ, Bush was adamant in his belief that the educational system needed to be changed.
When discussing the advise he received from numerous people, Jeffords seems evasive. Many of these conversations are clearly of a private nature, and Jeffords does not feel he has the right to divulge what was said. This is admirable, but it does leave the reader wondering what, exactly the arguments made were. What is a little disheartening, although not surprising, is the small number of Senators, from either party, who argued for Jeffords to make a decision which would not adversely effect their party. He notes that Phil Gramm noted that if he were in the same position, he might make the same choice (Gramm began as a Democrat before changing parties). Lincoln Chafee, another moderate Republican, gave Jeffords his support and Ted Stevens noted that Jeffords's ultimate decision would not effect their friendship.
Jeffords clearly believes that he owes the country an explanation for his decision. This book outlines many of his reasons for making that decision, as well as some of the reasons he considered remaining with the Republican Party. Written in the months immediately following his switch, Jeffords is only afforded a short period of hindsight to decide whether his decision was the "correct" one, although at the time of the writing, he clearly felt that he had done the right thing and his electorate supported his decision. Perhaps his more lengthy, more traditional autobiography due next year will discuss the aftermath of his decision even more, but My Declaration of Independence is an important book and will serve until such a time.
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