WASHINGTON — Earlier today, before a handful of Senate colleagues, Sen. Jim Jeffords, I-VT, delivered his final speech in Congress, capping a 32-year political career.
Jeffords arguably became best known for his defection from the Republican Party in 2001, temporarily throwing control of the U.S. Senate into the hands of Democrats.
Jeffords, who was first elected to the House in 1974, became a Senator in 1988. He announced his retirement from politics last year, citing health reasons.
Below is the prepared text of his remarks:
As delivered on the Senate floor this morning, followed by tributes from Senate colleagues:
Mr. President, even a diehard Red Sox fan has to give the devil his due. Probably the most moving moment in the history of baseball was when longtime New York Yankees’ is first baseman Lou Gehrig walked on the field to accept the tributes of his fans and teammates. On Independence Day, in 1939, he told the crowd at Yankee Stadium that he considered himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.
I consider myself pretty lucky, too. I was elected to the House of Representatives in 1974. That was not the best year to be a Republican candidate. Out of an enormous freshman class of 92 new members, which included Chris Dodd and Tom Harkin, only 17 of us were Republicans. And as Chuck Grassley and I walked down the aisle of the House, he with crutches and I with a neck brace, one Democrat muttered: “There’s two we almost got.”
Time has now got just about all of us. With my retirement and that of Henry Hyde in the House, Chuck Grassley next year will become the last remaining member of the Republican class of 1974 -- an Iron Horse in his own right.
The silver lining for me in the electoral losses suffered by the Republicans was the chance to land senior positions on the agriculture and education subcommittees that would quickly throw me into the thick of things. Throughout my career in the House, I focused on these two areas.
In 1988, with the retirement of Bob Stafford, I ran for and won a seat in the United States Senate. Senator Stafford was a tough act to follow. He had held just about every office in the state of Vermont, and had an enormous impact on federal policy in education, the environment, and elsewhere.
I was lucky when I got to the Senate that there were openings on both the education and the environment committees. And early on, I learned what the Senate can be at its best. In 1989, Congress was in the midst of reauthorizing the Clean Air Act. Even though I was a freshman, the door was open for anyone who had the time and interest.
As John Chafee, George Mitchell and the rest of us forged a strong renewal of the Clean Air Act, I realized these were the moments I enjoyed most: when smart, committed people worked together to solve tough problems and improve the lot of Americans. Every year since has provided similar moments, from rebuilding our roads to rewriting our food and drug laws.
Probably the biggest and most rewarding challenge for me has been in the area of education. From my first year in the House, when we enacted the Education of the Handicapped Act, to the work that continues today on the Higher Education Act, I’ve tried to do my best to ensure that every child is given the opportunity to reach his or her potential.
There is plenty of work left to be done to reach this goal, and nowhere is that more true than here in the District of Columbia. A decade ago Congress stepped in to try to help the District resolve the problems plaguing its overall budget and its schools in particular, and as chair of the DC appropriations subcommittee, I helped lead the effort.
The city is to be commended for its record of fiscal responsibility in the years since, and I hope the Superintendent, the new Mayor, the Council, and the School Board will be able to make similar progress in improving the city’s school system.
While Vermont has always been home, I have lived in the District of Columbia since coming to Washington. Luckily, I have never lost the ability to be moved by the sight of the Capitol Dome. Its majesty struck me when I first came to Washington, and it still does today.
Under that Dome, and in the buildings around it, work thousands of good people. We are all privileged to work with a whole host of people who get too little recognition -- from the person recording my words, to the people who will put them in the Congressional Record while we sleep -- not always easy tasks in my case.
Ours, too, is not always an easy task. I know it is hard for the public to understand the reality of life in Congress, but the continual travel, the campaigns, and the unpredictable hours of our jobs can take a toll on families.
I have been blessed with two wonderful children, Laura and Leonard; and a feisty, funny, and incredibly strong wife, Liz. They have had to put up with an awful lot over the years so that I could serve Vermont.
Three decades is the blink of an eye to history, but what a tremendous period of change in our country and the world. When I came to Washington, we were only three decades removed from the Second World War. My childhood heroes were the heroes of that war, and it seemed as though every family had a father or a son or an uncle who served and sacrificed in that war.
But when I came to Washington an entirely different war was being waged in Southeast Asia. Vietnam has colored much of our thinking since. Whether Vietnam had too much or too little influence over the ensuing three decades is a much larger debate. But we would be better served in world affairs today by being less haughty and more humble.
I regret that my departure from Congress, like my arrival, finds our country at war. Young and even not-so-young Americans are sacrificing life and limb, while the rest of us are making little or no sacrifice.
It seems to me the very least we should do is pay today for the fiscal costs of our policies. Instead, we are floating IOUs written on our children’s future. This year we have no budget, and we are unwilling even to debate most of our basic spending bills before the November election.
Thirty years from now we could well face the biggest crisis in governance since the Civil War if Congress and the White House do not adopt a more honest approach to governance. The basic compact between generations is being broken. FDR was right to borrow heavily to finance World War Two, but are we justified doing so today?
Earlier this month I was privileged to attend the dedication of a monument in Virginia, commemorating the sacrifice of more than 1,200 men of the Vermont Brigade during the Battle of the Wilderness. The tangled thickets of the 19th Century have given way to mature forests, the individuals are largely forgotten, but our collective memory must endure.
Today, we use blocks of granite to remind us of the sacrifices in the Civil War. In its immediate aftermath, you would think no such reminder would have been needed. But 140 years ago, so the story goes, a northern Congressman literally waved a bloody shirt before his colleagues to inflame them against the South for alleged misdeeds. True patriotism is the incredible bravery of those men whose too-brief lives ended on the Wilderness battlefield. Waving the bloody shirt, then or today, is anything but patriotic.
The beautiful Capitol Dome above us, completed even as the Civil War concluded, should serve to inspire us.
I am an optimist, and have been every day of my life. With Lincoln, I hope that the mystic chords of memory will stretch from every battlefield and patriot grave to the hearts of the living, and that we will soon again be touched by the better angels of our nature.
Mr. President, I wish you and all of my colleagues good luck, and Godspeed.
Posted September 27, 2006