By Ellen Braunstein, Special to Chicago Jewish News
With an electorate so polarized today, the life and political career of Sidney R. Yates reminds us of a time when being a congressman meant being willing to reach across the aisle and work toward bipartisan solutions.
Yates, a Democrat and one of the longest serving congressman (1948-1999), is the subject of a new book by former staffers, lawyer Michael C. Dorf and Skokie Mayor George Van Dusen. They drew on scores of interviews and had unprecedented access to private papers to illuminate the life of an Illinois political icon who was the son of a Jewish Lithuanian blacksmith.
‘Clear it with Sid!: Sidney R. Yates and Fifty Years of Presidents, Pragmatism and Public Service’ takes an in-depth look at a pre-eminent national figure involved in issues that ranged from the environment and Native American rights to Israel and support for the arts. House Speaker Tip O’Neill advised anyone with controversial legislation to first “Clear it with Sid!”
Yates, who retired at age 91, presented a complicated character to constituents and colleagues alike. Yet his get-it-done approach to legislation allowed him to bridge partisan divides in the often-split House of Representatives. Dorf and Van Dusen offer a rich portrait of a master dealmaker and tireless patriot on a fifty-year journey through postwar American politics.
In their research, Van Dusen and Dorf uncovered “the Yates we know who was a mature, accomplished legislator and the young Yates before we knew him,” said Van Dusen, who was the director of suburban operations for Yates from 1973 until the congressman’s retirement in 1999. “He was always a liberal, always a progressive but he was much more idealistic in his early years.”
“He was a totally different person than the one we thought we knew so well,” said Dorf, who is a practicing lawyer and adjunct professor at the Art Institute of Chicago. He was Yates’ special counsel and campaign chairman in Washington until the congressman’s death in 2000.
In 1962, at the urging of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, a reluctant Yates left the House of Representatives to run for the Senate against Senate Republican Leader Everett Dirksen. He lost that election in part due to the fact that his fellow Democrats President Kennedy and Vice President Johnson actively worked for Dirksen.
Ironically, ten years earlier, Kennedy needed Yates’ support and got it when he ran for the Senate and eked out a win against Henry Cabot Lodge. Yates by then had become a national spokesman for Jewish issues in Congress. Kennedy was losing to Lodge because the Jewish population of Massachusetts saw Kennedy’s father, Joe, as anti-Semitic.
“Yates felt that (Kennedy’s backing of Dirksen) was a betrayal that was incredibly personal to him,” Dorf said. “After that election, he was still a progressive and a liberal but he didn’t do favors for people until they did something for him first. He really lost the idealism about what loyalty is supposed to mean. He’s a harder person when he comes back, but politically he’s the great champion of liberal causes that he had been before.”
Yates was an avowed New Deal liberal throughout this career, Van Dusen said. “The book illustrates his bipartisanship. You can be faithful to your principles and yet engage in bipartisanship to help advance the common good.”
The issues that truly motivated him were the environment, the arts and Israel. Yates was one of the original fighters for the environment. He opposed the new aircraft known as the supersonic transport as a waste of money and a danger to the ozone layer. His bipartisan efforts led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. He was the champion and savior of the National Endowment for the Arts.
He was also the chairman of the unofficial congressional Jewish caucus. The Jewish members would meet and discuss issues pertaining to American Jews and Israel. When the Israeli prime minister would visit Washington, Yates would arrange for him to come by his office and meet with the Jewish delegation for a closed-door discussion of issues pertaining to Israel. He also engaged with presidents Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton on issues regarding Israel and legislation before the Congress.
Yates was also on the commission that led to the founding of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. The street where the museum is located is named for Yates.
Yates also saved the career of Hyman Rickover, the designer of the nation’s first atomic submarine, who was at first refused a promotion to admiral in part because of anti-Semitism in the Navy.
What surprised Van Dusen about Yates “was his capacity to grow. It was 1948. Nobody expected Yates, an assistant attorney general, to win in the old 9th District along the lakefront and the north side of Chicago, which had been a Republican district. But he won the seat and grew from a young legislator elected in close contests to returning by lopsided margins after 1952. His opponents were McCarthyites and Yates had voted against the McCarran Internal Security Act (1950) and other McCarthy legislation. “He had very tough battles that taught him a great deal,” Van Dusen said.
His mentor was Abe Sabbath, the dean of the Jews in Congress and chairman of the House Rules Committee. Sabbath guided Yates in the early part of his career and got him a seat on the House Appropriations Committee.
When Yates retired in 1999, House Majority Leader Dick Armey said he would miss Yates and that he enjoyed their time of disagreements. “He made a point of saying, ‘You were always civil, you’re always a gentleman and I will miss you very much as a friend,’” Dorf said.
“What we illustrate in the book is that this was an era when you could get things done and I guess the question we ask is can we return or is that something that’s gone by never to return,” Van Dusen said.
The authors will speak at Temple Emanuel, 5959 N. Sheridan Road, Chicago, at 7 p.m. on July 16; and at Max and Benny’s, 461 Waukegan Road, Northbrook, at 7 p.m. on July 22. For a complete calendar, email VanDusen@skokie.org.