Former New York Sen. Jacob K. Javits, an apostle of progressive Republicanism for more than three decades and widely regarded in his time as one of the most brilliant people in Congress, died Friday night in West Palm Beach, Fla., after a lengthy illness. He was 81.
Javits, who lost his Senate seat in the conservative tidal wave of 1980, had suffered since 1979 from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a progressive muscle and nerve disorder also known as Lou Gehrig's disease that reduced him from a human dynamo to a wheelchair-bound invalid.
He died at Good Samaritan Hospital in West Palm Beach after being brought in earlier in the day, a nursing supervisor said.
Javits was remembered Friday night by political colleagues as a tough and courageous fighter who, in President Reagan's words, "was known for his intellect, for his integrity, for his dedication."
"Especially in foreign relations--his chief abiding interest--Sen. Javits served our country with tremendous insight and skill, proving a staunch advocate of freedom around the world, and a particular friend of the brave state of Israel," Reagan said in a statement released by the White House.
"He was a truly great American leader, courageous, committed, compassionate," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said of his close friend. "To the very end, he taught us with his own inspiring example to care about those less fortunate than ourselves."
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) called Javits "one of the greatest intellects ever to serve in the U.S. Senate."
"Perhaps his greatest contribution to us was his demonstration of courage in refusing to surrender to his illness," said New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo.
Before his illness, Javits usually worked 16 to 18 hours a day after several sets of tennis or a strenuous workout in one of the congressional gyms. When he finally went home at night, he nearly always took a stack of paper work with him.
"Idle time is something he never learned to live with," John Trubin, Javits' former law partner, best friend and campaign manager, said of him. "He had an agenda for everything--even relaxation. He wasn't a guy who could sit around and schmooze (a Yiddish word for idle chatter)."
With his penchant for constant involvement, Javits made himself an expert on practically every major issue before Congress, from civil rights to foreign policy, from high finance to labor relations.
"Just name any important, significant area and Sen. Javits was a leading expert in it," Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.) said.
It was not uncommon for Javits to pop in and out of half a dozen Senate hearings in a single morning, pausing long enough to pepper a witness with a few tough questions after getting a quick briefing from an aide monitoring the proceeding. If television cameras or a lot of reporters were present, Javits lingered a bit longer than otherwise.
Although Javits' compulsive work style undoubtedly benefited his career, it did not help his married life. He was always sensitive about his marriage because his wife, Marion, refused to live in Washington. Marion Javits, who was 20 years younger than her husband, was interested in the theater and the arts and found Washington "dull." She and the couple's three children once briefly tried life in the capital, but it did not work out.
"Javits was at the office from 8 in the morning until 11 at night so she just gave up," said Patricia Shakow, a Washington lawyer-journalist who worked for Javits for years.
Jacob Koppel Javits was born in a tenement on Manhattan's Lower East Side on May 18, 1904, one of two sons of impoverished Jewish immigrant parents. He later called his birthplace the "urban counterpart to a log cabin--a janitor's flat in a tenement."
His father, who died when Javits was 14, got a basement flat free because he was the janitor. His mother, who was illiterate until she was 55, helped out by peddling household goods from a pushcart. Javits later credited his fondness for public speaking to his days as a youngster helping his mother hawk chinaware.
"I never felt the least embarrassment or shyness about getting up in front of a crowd, even a hostile political one," Javits wrote in his memoirs, published in 1981. "Public speaking is enjoyable for me, often exhilarating--something like the thrill a poet or a painter or a composer gets when his work is well done."
It was a characteristic remark. Humility was not among Javits' virtues. Although articulate and a skilled debater, he was no spellbinder as a public speaker. He had a patronizing style of speaking that frequently annoyed his Senate colleagues.
Yet even his critics, of whom there were many, agreed that Javits was a remarkably skilled and innovative legislator who had a talent for compromising diverse viewpoints.
"There isn't another colleague of ours who has left his imprimatur on more pieces of legislation than Jack Javits," said Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), who served on two committees with Javits.