Burton gives 'political obsession' a good name

September 10, 1995
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us

I had to apologize to John Jacobs when we met for coffee last week to talk about his excellent new book, "A Rage for Justice: The Passion and Politics of Phillip Burton" (University of California Press, $34.95, 1995).

"I don't follow politics," I said. Jacobs, political columnist for McClatchy Newspapers, didn't seem to mind. He said he was aware, as he was writing the book, that it would be read both by political junkies and neophytes like me. The good news is that Jacobs completely succeeded in writing a book that is technically detailed in terms of politics (he makes the concept of reapportionment accessible, even interesting) and also makes Phil Burton come alive. Long before I finished the book I found myself thinking: "Burton was really a neat guy. I wish I'd known him."

Burton also was an alcoholic slob, an ill-mannered, ill-tempered fanatic totally, obsessively committed to promoting liberal causes. And he was very successful, passing a black lung bill that benefited hundreds of thousands of miners and their families (not one of whom lived in his district), passing Supplemental Social Security for the aged, blind and disabled, and creating the extensive national park system enjoyed across America today.

From 1964 to his premature death in 1983 he was the most influential left-liberal in the House, who came within a heartbeat of being one of the most influential politicians in the House, period. Only liquor and his big mouth got in his way. In 1976 he failed by one vote to become House Majority Leader, a position that would have likely led him to become Speaker of the House.

"Challenging Tip O'Neill to a fight killed his chances to be Majority Leader," said Jacobs. Burton and his loyal wife, Sala, were in the cocktail bar at the Beverly Hills Hotel in 1972 having drinks with O'Neill and another couple after a fund-raising dinner. Burton was drunk and profane and when O'Neill asked him to watch his language the congressman jumped up and challenged him to a fight. Sala calmed her husband but it was too late. Burton lost control in front of the wrong man at the wrong time.

This combination of strengths and weaknesses has continued to fascinate people more than a decade after his death.

"I only met him once, briefly, in 1979 or '80" said Jacobs. "But I kept bumping up against his (legislative) work after his death. I found that interesting." One night over dinner a friend asked when Jacobs was going to write Burton's biography.

"God, what a marvelous idea," Jacobs remembered thinking. The project would combine all his interests - history, journalism and politics. He said it took him some time to choreograph the grants he'd need to survive financially and arrange for a six-month leave from his job at the San Francisco Examiner. All told, it took seven years to research and write the book, which included 400 interviews. And in 1993 Jacobs and his family, his wife, Carol, and their two children, moved from Albany to Davis when Jacobs took a job at The Bee.

"Carol and I both said: No more books...at least not for a few more years," said Jacobs.

His first was "Raven: The Untold Story of Jim Jones," written with Tim Reiterman, published in 1982. Jacobs said two books about intensely powerful men is probably enough for the time being.

"What really surprised me as I make initial inquiries about Burton was that he was a towering figure in Washington, D.C., in ways his own constituents had no idea," said Jacobs.

"People couldn't stand up to him. And there are few people in the history of American politics who intimidate from the left," said Jacobs. "Burton was a champion of the dispossessed and the under-represented. He was their advocate." He didn't take money from anyone and died very nearly broke.

"He was an inside guy," said Jacobs. Most politicians are satisfied with making the big speech and grabbing the headline. They don't care if their issue loses. Burton, however, skipped the speeches and the headlines and his issues didn't lose because he worked harder and longer than anyone else. "His anger and rage made him what he was...but at key moments they also overwhelmed him," said Jacobs.

You might say that, politically, Burton gave obsession a good name.

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