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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, December 1999 , pages 53, 60

In Memoriam

Senator John H. Chafee (1922-1999)

By Richard H. Curtiss

Seventy-seven-year-old Sen. John Chafee of Rhode Island, described by The New York Times as “the last of the Rockefeller Republicans,” died Oct. 24 in a Washington, DC hospital, after becoming ill earlier in the day at his McLean, Virginia home. As a liberal Republican, the overwhelming respect in which he was held by Republicans and Democrats alike was reflected in the obituary columns of leading American newspapers and the comments of his Senate colleagues from both sides of the aisle. Journalists used the story of his accomplishments, and frustrations, as a metaphor for the increasing polarization of the two major parties in the United States, where, in this writer’s opinion, there are fewer and fewer voices like Chafee’s from “the sensible center.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, nothing at all was written about Chafee’s Middle East voting record in the Senate, which motivated a major, expensive, and ultimately unsuccessful campaign by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Israel’s Washington, DC lobby, to defeat him in the 1988 senatorial election. Under AIPAC direction, deceptively named pro-Israeli political action committees (PACs) poured $241,000 into the campaign coffers of his challenger, Rhode Island Lt. Gov. Richard Licht, a former United Jewish Appeal fund-raiser.

But Chafee won in a close election, won again in 1994, and refused to let his 1988 political “near death” experience affect his voting patterns. In September 1998 this magazine’s congressional correspondent, Shirl McArthur, placed Chafee among only six senators in the magazine’s “Hall of Fame” for not supporting any of 10 pro-Israel Senate resolutions or letters during the year.

A New York Times obituary by former foreign correspondent Adam Clymer described Chafee as “an increasingly isolated voice of internationalism and bipartisanship in his party.” Washington Post writer Helen Dewar called Chafee “a gentle but stubborn champion of moderation in an increasingly polarized Senate and one of Congress’s leading environmentalists” and “a Yankee blue-blood with an unassuming manner [who was] a three term-governor and secretary of the Navy before being elected to the Senate in 1976.”

In a separate Washington Post obituary Adam Bernstein wrote: “Among the measures Senator Chafee fostered while in the minority were the Clean Water Act of 1986, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 and amendments to the Clean Air Act of 1990. Senator Chafee supported issues as varied as the North American Free Trade Agreement and the right to an abortion. In recent weeks he was in favor of debating on the Senate floor the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty [which was] killed largely by more conservative Republicans in the Senate.”

At the time of his death Chafee was working with middle-of-the-road Democrats to find an affordable compromise to broaden health care coverage and serving as chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. In 1990, however, he had lost his position as chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, his party’s third-highest leadership post, by one vote to Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi.

In a column about Chafee’s death entitled “The Class of His Party,” David Broder, one of Washington’s leading political writers, cited that leadership shift to illustrate the realignment underway in U.S. domestic politics. “Chafee was an embodiment of the Yankee Protestant commercial aristocracy,” Broder wrote, “a scion of one of Rhode Island’s first families, but a man of such engaging openness that he was cherished by the working class, Roman Catholic, immigrant and overwhelmingly Democratic constituents who repeatedly chose him as their governor and senator...

“Once [Chafee’s peers] were a familiar type in their native Northeast and in Midwestern and Western states, where their families settled in the great westward migration,” Broder continued. “They gave a distinctly human and politically progressive cast to the national Republican Party at a time when it was increasingly being seen as the instrument of a more hard-edged conservatism, rooted in the South. When the Senate Republican Conference in 1990 ousted Chafee from its chairmanship...on a 22-21 vote in favor of Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, it marked a shift of direction that was later confirmed by the elevation of Newt Gingrich of Georgia to the House speakership and Mississippi’s Trent Lott to the Senate majority leadership...[But] such a man [as Chafee] is not easily cast aside, and Chafee labored until his death to accomplish national goals in the Senate.”

Unfortunately the contrast in the old and new Senate Republican leadership is reflected in the contributions they receive from AIPAC-controlled PACs. As of 1996 pro-Israel PACs had given $25,500 to Cochran, $62,700 to Lott, and $109,474 to Gingrich. But Chafee had accepted nothing from this second-most powerful special interest lobby in the U.S., whose animosity toward him made national news in 1988.

AIPAC has long made a custom of publicly targeting one or two prominent members of Congress before each election, generally selected not just because of their voting records but because they appear vulnerable. AIPAC also quietly passes the names of other legislators considered “unfriendly to Israel” to the pro-Israel PACs. That way, if those publicly targeted lose, AIPAC acquires an aura of invincibility. And if the other targets survive, only pro-Israel insiders know that AIPAC tried to beat them.

AIPAC’s 1988 campaign against Chafee initially was one of the quiet ones, based both on his vote with a majority of senators for the sale of AWACs to Saudi Arabia in 1981 and on the fact that his opponent was a former United Jewish Appeal activist. As polls showed Licht gaining, however, AIPAC let political columnists for the Jewish community weeklies know that Chafee had a “poor” record on Israel, meaning he was high on AIPAC’s hit list.

After the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs reported this, some readers called the magazine to say that when they phoned Chafee’s office to say why they were contributing to his campaign, Chafee staffers professed not to know he had been targeted. The information was picked up by “60 Minutes,” America’s most-watched television news program, however, which made the AIPAC effort to defeat Chafee the centerpiece for an unprecedented (before or since) report on Israel’s Washington lobby. However, Chafee declined to be interviewed for the program.

Not to be deterred, Mike Wallace, narrator for the “60 Minutes” segment, waylaid Chafee at a Rhode Island state park celebration and asked, on camera, “Why does the pro-Israel lobby find you so unfriendly?”

Chafee answered, “I’m not going to get into that.”

The program was aired just before election day and Chafee was re-elected. He never agreed to discuss the abrupt shift in the polls after the “60 Minutes” report, but his campaign manager readily agreed that it probably “saved” his candidacy.

Chafee let his actions speak for him when, in 1989, he sponsored a successful amendment to the annual appropriations bill calling upon Israel to reopen Palestinian schools, which Israel had shut down at the beginning of the Palestinian intifada, and not to use access to education for political coercion. The amendment was adopted, both in the House and the Senate.

Predictably, when Chafee next was up for election in 1994, former AIPAC legislative director Douglas Bloomfield, who writes a political column for the Washington Jewish Week and other Jewish periodicals, listed Senator Chafee as “decidedly unfriendly to Israel.” But there was no highly visible AIPAC campaign to beat him. And, in 1999, when Chafee announced that he did not plan to run for re-election the following year, he still held a 63 percent approval rating in Rhode Island, even though he was a Republican senator in a Democratic state. It is expected now that his son, Mayor Lincoln Chafee of Warwick, Rhode Island, may be appointed by Rhode Island’s Republican governor to fill out his father’s term and then will run for election to the seat in 2000.

Like his record on the Middle East, Chafee’s entire career was a testimony to his personal courage and integrity. A student at Yale when World War II broke out, he left his studies to enlist in the U.S. Marines and served in the first great land battle of the Pacific war at Guadalcanal, and again in the bloody Okinawa campaign, receiving a commission as second lieutenant. After the war he returned to Yale and was at Harvard Law School when he was called back into service in 1951 to command a Marine rifle company in Korea.

He was practicing law when he was elected to the Rhode Island State Legislature, where he served for six years before being elected to his first term as governor in 1962. When he lost the governorship in 1968, President Richard Nixon appointed him secretary of the Navy, even though Chafee had supported Nixon’s liberal Republican rival, Nelson Rockefeller, in the 1968 primary campaign.

As Navy secretary, Chafee demonstrated his humane outlook when he refused recommendations of his staff to court martial the commander and the intelligence officer of the USS Pueblo for letting their ship fall into North Korean hands in 1968. After 11 months as prisoners in North Korea, Chafee said, “they have suffered enough.”

Chafee knew something about personal suffering himself. Party activists attributed his defeat in the 1968 gubernatorial race to the fact that he stopped campaigning after the death in a riding accident of his 14-year-old daughter, Tribbie.

He is survived by his wife, Virginia Coates Chafee of McLean, VA and Warwick, RI, four sons and another daughter, and 12 grandchildren. They inherit an illustrious tradition. Similarly, all Americans can take pride in knowing that their country still produces leaders like John Chafee who are willing to stand up for economic and environmental responsibility, social compassion, political freedom, human rights and fair play.

Richard H. Curtiss is the executive editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.