Former New York Sen. Jacob K. Javits, an apostle of progressive Republicanism for more than three decades and widely regarded in his time as one of the most brilliant people in Congress, died Friday night in West Palm Beach, Fla., after a lengthy illness. He was 81.
Javits, who lost his Senate seat in the conservative tidal wave of 1980, had suffered since 1979 from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a progressive muscle and nerve disorder also known as Lou Gehrig's disease that reduced him from a human dynamo to a wheelchair-bound invalid.
He died at Good Samaritan Hospital in West Palm Beach after being brought in earlier in the day, a nursing supervisor said.
Javits was remembered Friday night by political colleagues as a tough and courageous fighter who, in President Reagan's words, "was known for his intellect, for his integrity, for his dedication."
"Especially in foreign relations--his chief abiding interest--Sen. Javits served our country with tremendous insight and skill, proving a staunch advocate of freedom around the world, and a particular friend of the brave state of Israel," Reagan said in a statement released by the White House.
"He was a truly great American leader, courageous, committed, compassionate," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said of his close friend. "To the very end, he taught us with his own inspiring example to care about those less fortunate than ourselves."
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) called Javits "one of the greatest intellects ever to serve in the U.S. Senate."
"Perhaps his greatest contribution to us was his demonstration of courage in refusing to surrender to his illness," said New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo.
Before his illness, Javits usually worked 16 to 18 hours a day after several sets of tennis or a strenuous workout in one of the congressional gyms. When he finally went home at night, he nearly always took a stack of paper work with him.
"Idle time is something he never learned to live with," John Trubin, Javits' former law partner, best friend and campaign manager, said of him. "He had an agenda for everything--even relaxation. He wasn't a guy who could sit around and schmooze (a Yiddish word for idle chatter)."
With his penchant for constant involvement, Javits made himself an expert on practically every major issue before Congress, from civil rights to foreign policy, from high finance to labor relations.
"Just name any important, significant area and Sen. Javits was a leading expert in it," Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.) said.
It was not uncommon for Javits to pop in and out of half a dozen Senate hearings in a single morning, pausing long enough to pepper a witness with a few tough questions after getting a quick briefing from an aide monitoring the proceeding. If television cameras or a lot of reporters were present, Javits lingered a bit longer than otherwise.
Although Javits' compulsive work style undoubtedly benefited his career, it did not help his married life. He was always sensitive about his marriage because his wife, Marion, refused to live in Washington. Marion Javits, who was 20 years younger than her husband, was interested in the theater and the arts and found Washington "dull." She and the couple's three children once briefly tried life in the capital, but it did not work out.
"Javits was at the office from 8 in the morning until 11 at night so she just gave up," said Patricia Shakow, a Washington lawyer-journalist who worked for Javits for years.
Jacob Koppel Javits was born in a tenement on Manhattan's Lower East Side on May 18, 1904, one of two sons of impoverished Jewish immigrant parents. He later called his birthplace the "urban counterpart to a log cabin--a janitor's flat in a tenement."
His father, who died when Javits was 14, got a basement flat free because he was the janitor. His mother, who was illiterate until she was 55, helped out by peddling household goods from a pushcart. Javits later credited his fondness for public speaking to his days as a youngster helping his mother hawk chinaware.
"I never felt the least embarrassment or shyness about getting up in front of a crowd, even a hostile political one," Javits wrote in his memoirs, published in 1981. "Public speaking is enjoyable for me, often exhilarating--something like the thrill a poet or a painter or a composer gets when his work is well done."
It was a characteristic remark. Humility was not among Javits' virtues. Although articulate and a skilled debater, he was no spellbinder as a public speaker. He had a patronizing style of speaking that frequently annoyed his Senate colleagues.
Yet even his critics, of whom there were many, agreed that Javits was a remarkably skilled and innovative legislator who had a talent for compromising diverse viewpoints.
"There isn't another colleague of ours who has left his imprimatur on more pieces of legislation than Jack Javits," said Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), who served on two committees with Javits.
For his escape from poverty, Javits gave almost total credit to his late brother, Benjamin, 10 years his senior, who financed his own way through law school at night by working as a debt collector. Prodded by his brother, the younger Javits followed the same path.
After receiving his law degree, Javits joined his brother in the firm of Javits & Javits, which developed a highly lucrative practice specializing in bankruptcy cases. Both brothers eventually became millionaires.
After serving in World War II as a lieutenant colonel in the Army's chemical warfare service, Javits decided on a political career. That year, 1946, was a good one for Republicans and Javits was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from a normally Democratic district on Manhattan's Upper West Side.
After four House terms, Javits ran for state attorney general in 1954 and defeated one of New York's most famous political names, Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr., son of the late President. Two years later, Javits ran for the Senate and defeated another big Democratic name, Robert F. Wagner Jr., then mayor of New York City.
In the Senate as in the House, Javits was far out of the mainstream of his conservative party.
But Javits found the Senate the ideal forum to expound on subjects about which he felt passionately--defense of Israel, civil rights and the need of more progressives in the Republican Party.
Javits' alienation from his party's conservatives became almost total in 1964 when he refused to support Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) for President. But time mellowed both men and they later became good friends. "One of the nicest things that has happened to me lately is the ripening of my friendship with Barry Goldwater," Javits said in 1980.
Javits' proudest moment came in 1973 when Congress overrode a veto by President Richard M. Nixon and enacted the War Powers Resolution that for the first time restricted a President's authority to send U.S. troops into combat without the consent of Congress. Javits initiated the resolution. In 1980, Javits was defeated for renomination to the Senate by Alfonse M. D'Amato, a conservative. Javits subsequently ran in the general election as the Liberal Party candidate, and D'Amato again won.
Javits insisted the defeat wasn't his biggest disappointment.
"My biggest disappointment was in not having been a candidate for President," he said in an interview with The Times. "The one thing I didn't go for was the gold ring, and I think I could have gone for it. It would have been a historic opportunity." In his memoirs, he seemed more wistful of what might have been had he been reelected.
"After 24 years in the Senate minority, having become the ranking minority member on the Foreign Relations Committee, I was dismissed in the year that my party became the majority in the Senate, when I would have become chairman of the committee--a lifelong dream. I was shown the promised land but was not permitted to enter it."