Texas Rep. J.J. Pickle Dies; Led Social Security Reform

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 20, 2005

J. J. Pickle, 91, a retired Texas congressman who held the House seat once occupied by Lyndon B. Johnson and who became the senior Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee during his 31 years in Congress, died June 18 at his home in Austin. His daughter, Peggy Pickle, said the cause of death was lymphoma.

Known simply as Jake, Mr. Pickle took his seat as representative of the 10th Congressional District in December 1963, just in time to cast a vote in favor of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. One of only seven southern representatives to vote for the momentous legislation, he was pretty sure that his vote guaranteed that his tenure in Washington would be brief.

After casting his vote, he got a call at 2 in the morning from his mentor, President Johnson, who told him that he was proud of his old friend for voting his conscience. The call lifted Mr. Pickle's spirits, although representing relatively liberal Austin, home of the University of Texas, and the Texas Hill Country, he really had little to worry about. He considered that vote the proudest moment of his political career.

He believed that his most significant accomplishment as a lawmaker was the 1983 Social Security reform bill, which he helped pass as chairman of the Social Security subcommittee. The legislation eased Social Security's financial problems by raising the age for full benefits from 65 to 67 in the year 2000.

A garrulous, good-natured man who handed out tiny plastic pickles whenever he campaigned, Mr. Pickle had a rural Texan's way with a story, and his political cohorts often had "Jake stories" of their own to tell. "He had the ability to bring people together, and at this particular time in our political history, it's a talent we most admire," said former Texas governor Ann Richards.

James Jarrell Pickle was born in the small West Texas town of Roscoe. He grew up in Big Spring and several other West Texas towns and got his start in politics when he arrived at the University of Texas at Austin in 1932. He ran for student body president and defeated a future Texas congressman, Bob Eckhardt, with campaign help from a future Texas governor, John Connally. He graduated from the University of Texas in 1938.

It was Connally, working as an aide to Johnson, who offered Mr. Pickle a job as director of the National Youth Administration district with the same boundaries as Johnson's congressional district. Connally also introduced the young Mr. Pickle to his boss, the man who would play a decisive role in molding Mr. Pickle's political career. Until the end of his life, Mr. Pickle called himself "a Johnson boy."

He joined Johnson's reelection campaign in 1941 and afterward helped Lady Bird Johnson run the congressional office.

In 1942, Mr. Pickle enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served as a gunnery officer aboard the USS St. Louis and the USS Miami, surviving three torpedo attacks. He returned to Austin in 1945 and with Connally and eight other veterans -- and with Johnson's assistance -- established the city's third radio station, KVET. He was in the advertising and public relations business from 1946 to 1956. From 1957 to 1960, he served as director of the Texas State Democratic Executive Committee.

In 1963, he was elected to the House of Representatives in a special election to fill a seat vacated when U.S. Rep. Homer Thornberry resigned to become a federal judge. He was reelected 15 times and retired Jan. 3, 1995.

In addition to his work on Social Security reform, Mr. Pickle used his chairmanship of the Ways and Means oversight subcommittee to investigate television evangelists and public charities. He also used his political clout to help transform Austin into a southwestern Silicon Valley.

In "Jake," a 1977 book he wrote with his daughter, he said: "Other than the long commute to and from Washington and, starting in the 1980s, the increasing partisanship of Congress, there was little I didn't like about being Congressman Pickle."

"He was a natural politician," his daughter said. "He loved to go to Luby's Cafeteria [in Austin] because he got to go down the line shaking people's hands."

His phone number was always listed, and, as Peggy Pickle recalled, he took calls at home late into the night. "He believed that if you were a public official, you had to be accountable, and you had to be reachable," she said.

Mr. Pickle's first wife, Ella Noa "Sugar" Pickle, died in 1952.

Survivors include his wife of 44 years, Beryl Pickle of Austin; his daughter from his first marriage, of Austin; two stepsons from his second marriage, Richard T. McCarroll of Austin and Graham McCarroll of Houston; six grandchildren; four great-granddaughters; a brother; and a sister.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company