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Journal of Political Ecology:
Case Studies in History and Society
VOLUME 5 (1998)
A Rage for Justice:
The Passion and Politics of Phillip Burton, by John Jacobs. Berkeley
and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995. xxvii, 578 pp.
Reviewed by Richard E. DeLeon, Professor and Chair, Political Science Department, San Francisco State University.
This political biography of the
late Rep. Phillip Burton is a masterful study of how one man's political
genius and passionate liberalism shaped history by producing landmark
legislation in the areas of labor law, civil rights, welfare reform, and
environmental protection. Phillip Burton was arguably this country's most
important and influential liberal politician during the 1970s. Yet outside
his home base in the San Francisco Bay Area his political career and legislative
triumphs have gone unheralded. In this welcome book, Jacobs vividly reconstructs
Burton's political life and illuminates it for all to see.
Over the course of his eight years
in the California legislature (1957-1964) and nineteen years in the U.S.
House of Representatives (1965-1983), Burton played a pivotal role in
passing laws that increased welfare benefits for needy families, raised
the minimum wage, protected the health and safety of coal miners, and
preserved more of America's wilderness "than every Congress and president
before him combined" (p. xx). In his effort to "explain the
man in his full political dimension and make as explicit as possible how
he did what he did," (p. xiv) Jacobs conducted an exhaustive review
of Burton's personal papers and nearly 400 interviews with people who
knew him, including 47 members or former members of Congress and four
Democratic House Speakers. This tremendous investigative effort gave Jacobs
access to many different memories of what transpired behind the scenes
in the cloakrooms of Congress and in the war rooms of Burton's various
political campaigns. It also allowed Jacobs to capture and bottle in his
book some of the sound and fury of Burton's volatile personality and muscular
vocabulary. This was a man who, at the height of his powers, claimed that
he could "round up 110 votes to have dog shit declared the national
food" (p.449). By the time readers have made their way to that quote
near the end of the book, the language will seem vintage Burton and the
boast entirely credible.
Jacobs views Burton as a "quintessentially
political animal" (p. xxiv) who loved power and hyperactively devoted
almost all of his waking hours to grabbing it, keeping it, and using it
in the cause of social justice. Burton, writes Jacobs, "had no other
interests outside of politics--no children, no recreation, no downtime.
He never cared about money. He had no interest in friends, other than
as allies or a means to his political ends. And he certainly did not care
whether people liked him" (p. 100). Jacobs's unsentimental portrait
of Burton's rather truncated private life reveals that he was often abrasive,
personally obnoxious, and sometimes abusive even to his friends. Those
same unpleasant character traits became formidable weapons, however, when
Burton unleashed them on his political enemies to "terrorize the
bastards" (p. 500) and produce legislative results. The tools Burton
used so skillfully in his approach to policy making and political persuasion
were "terror, intimidation, the brute exercise of power, and total
mastery of technical detail, all on behalf of labor, minorities, the poor,
and the environment" (p. xxi).
Jacobs's chapters on the politics
behind Burton's environmental legislation will be of particular interest
to JPE readers. Chapter 10 shows how Burton leveraged his seat on the
House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs into a position of national
leadership over this policy domain, starting with his bill creating the
Bay Area's Golden Gate National Recreation Area in 1972. Chapter 15 describes
how Burton expanded Redwoods National Park in 1978 by crafting legislation
that won the support of both timber industry workers and environmentalists.
At a time when the practice of politics as the art of the possible was
still possible, bedfellows like these did not seem so strange. Indeed,
throughout his book, Jacobs provides many examples of Burton's success
in building "improbable coalitions" (p. xxii) (tree-huggers
and lumberjacks, Asians and African Americans, cops and gays) to keep
himself in power and to back his legislation. In Chapter 16, Jacobs's
documents detail how Burton put together the omnibus bill that became
the National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978. As Jacobs notes admiringly,
Burton's cumulative impact on the environment was truly extraordinary.
"His legislation," Jacobs writes, "preserved nearly 5 percent
of California's landmass" and, if the Alaska Lands bill is included--in
which he played a significant, though not decisive, role "nearly
10 percent of the entire landmass of the United States" (p. 352).
Writing about an era in which globalization
was just beginning to accelerate, Jacobs offers no evidence that Burton
was trying to send a message to the world through his aggressive environmentalism.
It was victory enough for him to persuade his fellow citizens to preserve
what was left of America's rapidly dwindling wilderness and to protect
it from wholesale exploitation and unregulated private development. Absent
Burton's political leadership and legislative achievements years earlier,
however, it is doubtful the US could now claim any moral authority or
credibility in demanding that other nations follow its example. If Burton
had failed, simply put, there would be no example to follow.
One reason Burton succeeded, Jacobs
points out, is that his left-liberal constituency in San Francisco backed
his legislative agenda and repeatedly voted for his re-election, typically
by very wide margins. Burton's district "liberated him," Jacobs
writes, because it did not constrain his votes and was "so supportive
that it permitted Burton to devote his full attention to national and
internal House politics" (p. 256). All politics is local, it is said,
but San Francisco's politics were magnified and writ large on the national
scene through Philip Burton's leadership, lust for power, and passion
for social justice. "Never before," Jacobs contends, "had
anyone of the left combined Burton's ideological commitment, love of combat,
and operational ability to get things done" (p. 323). Over time,
however, Burton became estranged from his local constituency. The year
before his death he had to wage the political battle of his life just
to get re-elected.
Another key to Burton's phenomenal
success as a legislator was his appetite for information and his memory
for details. In what Jacobs describes as a lifelong pattern, Burton "mastered
a subject and then dominated any situation he could anticipate by knowing
more about the politics--and the policy--than anyone else in the room"
(p. 102). He knew his own bills by heart and studied his colleagues' bills
until he knew more about their legislation than they did. Burton's superior
knowledge and command of details gave him enormous power. In a chapter
entitled "Park Barrel," for example, Jacobs describes how Burton
assembled the many pieces of his omnibus parks bill of 1978 by drawing
upon his encyclopedic knowledge of America's parks, forests, lakes, rivers,
trails, and wilderness areas--information computed not only in units of
acres and miles but critically in terms of location and impacts on his
colleagues' congressional districts. Jacobs also shows how Burton used
his detailed knowledge of voting patterns and demographic trends to gerrymander
legislative district lines to achieve maximum partisan advantage. Quipping
that his odd-shaped boundary maps were his "contribution to modern
art" (p. 435), he used them as a tool to choose the constituencies
that would later choose him and his liberal allies for seats of power.
In his epilogue, Jacobs writes that
at the time of Phillip Burton's death in 1983 "history was unalterably
moving away from him" (p.496) under the leadership of Ronald Reagan
and conservative Republicans. Had he lived, Jacobs argues, Burton "would
have had to play defense constantly" (p.496) to beat back slashing
attacks on the welfare state and to protect the constituencies he had
devoted his life to serving. Clinton's election in 1992 did little to
reverse the course of that history, according to Jacobs. He imagines that
Burton would have felt estranged from a Democratic President "who
governed as a moderate and who sometimes seemed not to know what he really
believed" (p.496). Phillip Burton's death, Jacobs concludes, "marked
the end of an epoch, the exhaustion of a major strain of American liberalism"
For those who have forgotten what effective political leadership looks like and what it really means to be a liberal, Phillip Burton's life offers many lessons. And for those who care about the needs of society's have-nots and the preservation of America's wilderness, it is a life worth remembering.