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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. Photographs, index.


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" (p.497).

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.