“Advise & Dissent” By James G. Abourezk
Reviewed by Bob Norberg
If you missed Jim Abourezk’s autobiography the first time around (1989), opportunity knocks with the reissue of “Advise & Dissent.” This is not the usual Preening Party we are accustomed to from men who have held positions of power and cherry pick only triumphal moments for their memoirs. At the outset, we find him as a headstrong youth who joins his peers in flinging slurs at the Indians in their community, and as a rebellious 16-year-old high school senior whose parents throw him out of the house when he is expelled from school for tying a teacher to a radiator.
What follows is a tumultuous ride from tiny Wood, South Dakota, to the House and Senate, and to “face time” with international figures that most politicians would hide from, let alone seek out, such as Fidel Castro and Yasir Arafat. Post-Senate, Abourezk went to Iran twice for behind-the-scenes negotiations for the release of the American hostages seized in the takeover of our embassy in Teheran in 1979.
Abourezk would become a fierce populist, a staunch defender of Indian rights, an acerbic critic of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, and a proponent of cultural awareness and diplomacy over belligerency and force of arms. Before he had any idea he was destined for politics, he had worked as a bartender, bouncer, cook, 21 dealer, judo instructor (he learned judo serving in the U.S. Navy), farm hand, and store clerk. His early education in the coarser side of life began in a Wood saloon known as the “Bloody Bucket,” where, he writes, “I became accustomed to the … unventilated, malodorous smell of urine and rancid beer.”
It was in Winner, South Dakota, where Abourezk, now bartending, married and the father of two, chose Joseph Studenberg as the family physician. The doctor saw more in Jim Abourezk than a lifetime of Bloody Buckets and introduced him to radical ideas and liberal publications, including I. F. Stone’s Weekly and The Nation. (Years later in Washington, D.C., I. F. Stone would ask Abourezk how he came to his liberalism. Upon hearing that his own publication played a role, Stone was surprised, remembering that he had only two subscribers in all of South Dakota.)
In 1957, at age 26, Abourezk took the first step into the vision that Dr. Studenberg had for him, enrolling in college for a degree in engineering. When he graduated, he found jobs in that field to be both scarce and unsatisfying and, in 1963, he entered the University of South Dakota’s law school on borrowed money. He founded a Young Democrats group on campus and, as a volunteer in county politics, began building his political skills. “I issued press releases to the wire services, wrote letters to the editor … and ran local campaigns,” he writes. “Being a Democrat in an overwhelmingly Republican state had the disadvantage of making me an automatic underdog, but it was a role that I relished. … I became permanently hooked on politics.”
He lost his first bid for public office, a run for state attorney general in 1968, but when the incumbent in the state’s Second District retired in 1970, Abourezk eked out a primary win and then scored an upset in the general election, helped in no small part by the arrival of hundreds of college students from around the country who had learned of his opposition to the Viet Nam war and wanted to work in his campaign. He joined the House of Representatives in 1970, and moved to a Senate seat in 1972. The son of immigrants who had come to America from a village in Lebanon, he became the first Arab-American to serve in the Senate.
Abourezk did not succumb to the seduction of the office, although, as he notes, “The U.S. Senate is one place in the world that allows a poor boy to live as though he were a millionaire. Where else are your doors opened for you, is your travel all over the world provided free of charge, can you meet with world leaders who would otherwise never let you into their countries, have your bad jokes laughed at, and your boring speeches applauded. It’s the ultimate place to have one’s ego massaged, over and over.”
A year into his term, he decided he would not seek re-election, enabling him to devote full time to carrying out the actual responsibilities of the position and serve his constituents rather than raising money and obligating himself to special interests. He mastered arcane Senate rules, played hard ball with President Carter (trying to derail natural gas deregulation by withholding until the last possible minute the deciding 67th vote on Carter’s treaty giving the Panama Canal to Panama), and fought for legislation that would predicate U.S. funding for foreign countries on the human rights record of the recipients.
Abourezk visited Cuba in 1975, two years before it was legal for Americans to do so, and was introduced to workers in a Havana cigar factory to a smattering of applause at being announced as an American Senator but nonetheless a friend of Cuba, and to a thunderous ovation at being informed he was a personal friend of Yasir Arafat. For more than four hours, he and Fidel Castro conversed side by side in an open Jeep, Castro at the wheel, bodyguards following in vehicles close behind. The discussion was wide-ranging: the Middle East, American Indians, the breeding of Holstein dairy cattle, and the numerous CIA attempts on Castro’s life. While not concerned about the spying the U.S. did with its over-flights, Castro told Abourezk he wished they would stop doing it at night when people were sleeping.
Later, hoping to nudge the U.S. toward normalizing relations with Cuba, he recruited a 10-member basketball team from the University of South Dakota and South Dakota State, chartered a DC-9 for the trip from Washington to Havana, and filled it with the team, college officials, some South Dakota constituents, and journalists. At the welcoming banquet, Abourezk began his remarks by saying, “This is the largest group of Americans to gather in Cuba since the Bay of Pigs invasion.” The audience responded with laughter, but the expatriate Cuban community in Miami was not amused.
Abourezk’s enduring legacy is the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), which he founded in 1980 to address the widespread disparagement of Arabs and Americans of Arab descent across the media spectrum and in political discourse. Fresh in Abourezk’s mind was the entrapment scheme initiated in 1978 by the FBI, which code-named the operation “Abscam” because the central figure was a fake Arab sheikh who had $400,000 in taxpayers’ money to pay off public officials promising to do him favors. (The 2013 movie “American Hustle” is a largely fictional account of the sting.)
“After the scandal broke in the press,” writes Abourezk, “FBI Director William Webster was asked why the agent had been dressed as an Arab. He responded that it was necessary to choose some ethnic group that the public would believe was capable of bribing congressmen. And yet, no Arab or Arab-American had ever been even accused of bribing an American politician. There had been, of course lots of publicity about Koreans, Wasps, Jews and members of other ethnic groups convicted of bribery, but not about Arabs. Why Webster … felt it was necessary to use any ethnic group is a mystery …”
ADC’s phenomenal growth in its early years was due in large part to Abourezk’s visiting city after city–never drawing a salary for his work–to give speeches and urge the formation of city and state chapters, creating an organization that continues to inspire activism because of its grass roots nature. Before ADC, “Israel Firsters” were largely unchecked as they played a zero sum game with propaganda that pumped up Israel while portraying Arabs in the worst possible light. ADC’s potential was obviously seen as a threat to those accustomed to a monopoly in manipulating public opinion about Arabs. As Abourezk notes:
“In 1985, what the FBI described as a ‘Jewish extremist group’ attached a bomb to the door of ADC’s office in Santa Ana, California, which killed Alex Odeh, ADC’s West Coast organizer. Before that, the same extremist group attempted to bomb ADC’s Boston office … seriously injuring two Boston policemen who were attempting to dismantle it. … I was notified in 1987 by the FBI that, during the course of investigating Odeh’s assassination, they had uncovered a plot on my life by the same Jewish extremist group.”
Today, through the efforts of ADC and Dr. Jack Shaheen, the foremost authority on Arab stereotyping, the portrayals of Arabs on TV, in movies and the media at large have improved to the point where it is startling to recall that 30 years ago politicians frequently returned campaign checks from Americans with Arab-sounding names–often making sure that the rebuff was public knowledge. Abourezk himself had a donation returned in 1986 by Joe Kennedy, the son of Bobby Kennedy, who was running for the House of Representatives from Massachusetts. Joe later apologized in public at the 1989 ADC annual conference.
In Chapter Nine, “Somebody Out There Hates Me,” Abourezk demonstrates the power of the pro-Israel lobby by describing how President Gerald Ford was thrown under the bus by Congress in 1975 after threatening a “reassessment” of America’s policy toward Israel if it refused to enter negotiations for peace with Arab countries. “Reassessment,” writes Abourezk, meant “that our arms shipments to Israel would be stopped until it came around to our way of thinking.”
The Lobby, in a scenario repeated time and again over the years despite our $3-billion in annual aid to Israel, orchestrated a letter that 76 Senators signed, forcing Ford to back down. (Little seems to have changed in how Israel can humiliate a sitting President by turning to Congress. In 2011, Israeli Prime Minister gave a public Middle East history lesson to President Obama, wagging his finger in the President’s face, then received 29 standing ovations from both sides of the aisle as he addressed a joint session of Congress–ovations, noted columnist Tom Friedman, that were bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.)
AMEU has recruited a number of its Link authors as a result of their papers or presentations at ADC events, including Jack Shaheen (“The Arab Stereotype on Television,” 1980, “The Comic Book Arab,” 1991), Dan McGowan, (“Deir Yassin Remembered,” 1996), Kathy Kelly (“The Children of Iraq,” 1997, “Collateral Damage,” 2007) and Arab-American comedian Maysoon Zayid (“Mirror, Mirror,” 2012).
“Advise & Dissent” was endorsed enthusiastically by Gore Vidal, who called it “an object lesson for politicians of both today and tomorrow, who believe–wrongly–that they must sell their principles in order to be elected. Abourezk shows them how to stand for something, to be both principled and elected.” Ralph Nader describes the book as “earthy, poignant, witty and forthright.” To borrow from Peter Finley Dunne, Jim Abourezk has set a high bar in a lifetime of “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.”
Advise & Dissent: Memoirs of an Ex-Senator, by James G. Abourezk, 275 pp., softcover. First published in 1989, republished in 2013 by University of Nebraska Press with epilogue and a new foreword by Fred Harris. Available through AMEU.