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'Fresh Air' Remembers Former Vermont Sen. James Jeffords


This is FRESH AIR.


SINGING SENATORS: (Singing) God bless America, land that I love. Stand beside her and guide her through the night with the light from above. From the mountains to the prairies, to the...

GROSS: That's the former Singing Senators. John Ashcroft, Trent Lott, Larry Craig and Jim Jeffords. Jeffords died yesterday at the age of 80. He ceased being in harmony with his fellow Republicans when he defected from the party in May of 2001 to become an Independent and caucus with Democrats. The Senate had been divided 50-50 so his defection gave Democrats the edge.

Jeffords was a moderate Republican who was elected as Congressman from Vermont in 1974 and elected to the Senate in 1988, serving for 18 years before retiring. He strongly disagreed with President George W. Bush on tax and spending issues. When he announced his decision to leave the Republican Party in May 2001, he said, increasingly I find myself in disagreement with my party. I understand that many people are more conservative than I am and they form the Republican Party. Given the changing nature of the national party, it has become a struggle for our leaders to deal with me and for me to deal with them.

In December of 2001, Jeffords told me about how he analyzed the situation before making his decision.

JIM JEFFORDS: A very unusual situation had occurred in our country. For the first time since the 1880s, we had an even balance in the Senate. But that gives the power to any one senator to change that balance of power, one way or the other by just walking across the aisle. In fact, I made that statement and it got picked up - which I wished I'd delayed it perhaps - but that indicated to me that, you ought to seriously consider whether or not you should switch parties because right now the moderates are dead. They might just as well have stayed home. And I felt that it was important to change that balance. But just as importantly, I also understood that if I didn't do it - if you have power to do something and then you analyze it and say, I've got the power and then you say, I'm not going to do it, I don't want to do it, I don't have the courage to do it, whatever - then you're responsible for everything that follows from that. And under the circumstances we have today, with things like missile defense systems and all, going forward, and billions of dollars and all those things, then the thought of improving funding for education and all would be gone. And so I just said, well, there's only one thing I can do. It's got to be changed. I can change it and I will change it.

GROSS: Are you usually given to that kind of grand gesture?

JEFFORDS: Well, I am when it's necessary. I have entered public life not to be a public servant, but to get things done and to take opportunities when they're available to change things to my design - and hopefully enough would agree with me - to make things better in this nation. And the top concern I have from the years I've been here is education.

GROSS: Of course, the Republicans wanted to prevent you from switching teams. What did Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott try to do to keep you from defecting?

JEFFORDS: Well, they had a hard time trying to figure out just what to do. They just tried to play it tough and indicate that I would pay dearly if I did such a thing and - but of course, it was kind of counterintuitive because if they didn't have me in there they'd be having a tough time doing anything to me.

But the pressure was very severe, as to, how could you possibly do this - one person, do you think you can accept the responsibility of changing parties and change the whole government? This would be the first time in - ever - that outside of an election that the power of a nation was changed and you know, that's a pretty solid thing to look at and to decide to do. Well, so were not the consequences at the failure to do it.

GROSS: Now, you used to sing with John Ashcroft in the Singing Senators group.

JEFFORDS: Yes, that was fun. I sang...

GROSS: When did you stop? Go ahead.

JEFFORDS: ...No, we formed that. In fact, I sort of was the starter of it, way back. When we went to a birthday party and we all started harmonizing, I thought it sounded pretty good. Somebody - I think my publicity man - decided, why not bring in Roll Call?

So Roll Call came, took our pictures singing "Happy Birthday" to Mark Hatfield and it was on the front page of Roll Call and then the next thing we know, we got a call from the Kennedy Center that a group wanted us to come to the Kennedy Center. And then CSPAN picked it up and then CNN picked up and ran it, and next thing we knew, we were on the "Today Show," and we were off.

It was kind of a meteoric beginning and it was unfortunately, the travesty that occurred that when I decided that I wasn't going to support Larry Craig and was going to vote for his opponent, all of a sudden the Singing Senators were no more.

GROSS: Because you were breaking rank?


GROSS: And because you were voting against one of the singers (Laughter).

JEFFORDS: I was voting against one of the singers who had an important position and that was the end of it. I didn't know it at the time, in fact I had to chase him around - because we also had grouped with The Oak Ridge Boys; that had given us a little bit of a momentum and some justification for singing. And that proved to be wonderful. We sang with them several times; had wonderful times doing that. And then all of a sudden, I heard they were in town at the inauguration and I was looking around for them, and my office kept asking about where they were and we got double-talk all the time. Finally walked into a reception with my daughter-in-law and there they were, three of them singing with The Oak Ridge Boys. Well, she told me, you get down there and you jump right up on that stage. And so I did and I went up on the stage and all the three Oaks came over and surrounded me and hugged me and we had a great time singing. I saw three very forlorn faces in the background, not anticipating that I was going to find them - but it was kind of a high point.

GROSS: Former Senator Jim Jeffords, recorded in December, 2001. He died yesterday at the age of 80. Here's another recording he made as a member of the Singing Senators.


SENATORS: (Singing) This is my country, land of my birth. This is my country, grandest on Earth. I pledge thee my allegiance, America the bold. For this is my country, to have and to hold.

You're a grand old flag, you're a high-flying flag and forever in peace may you wave...

GROSS: If you're going on vacation and are looking for a book to read, I have a suggestion - "The Great Gatsby." It's a great book, it's short and I'm soon going to talk about it on our show with our book critic, Maureen Corrigan. She's written a new book called "So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came To Be And Why It Endures."

The interview will be more fun if you've recently read "Gatsby." You have some time; our interview will be one day during the week of September 7, the week Maureen's book is published. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.