In 1978, climaxing more than 15 years of single-minded effort and culminating a life spent slightly inside the fringes of Republican politics, Howard Jarvis performed a sort of political miracle. By a vote of almost 2 to 1, the citizens of California approved his Proposition 13 -- a measure that had failed in earlier elections under slight variations numbered 1, 9 and 14. It's enough to make you start studying numerology.
Proposition 13 approaches the complex problems of tax-reduction with all the subtlety of brain surgery performed with an axe -- but it did have the merit of calling to the attention of our public officials a growing frustration among Americans. The mandate was not detailed, but it could hardly have been clearer. Jarvis sums it up early in his book: "Money is much better off in the hands of the average citizen than it is in the greedy hands of those who live off the public payroll." After this ringing statement, most of the book is an anticlimax.
The basic problem with "I'm Mad As Hell" curiously parallels the governmental problem that has made Jarvis so mad. It is a problem of bloat -- of mistaking bulk for importance. The essentials of what Jarvis has to tell the American people could be condensed into perhaps half a dozen sentences. Allow some space for elaboration, anecdotes, the setting up and knocking down of straw men, and you might have justification for a 20-page book in fairly large print. But even with prices inflated to their present level, you can't sell a 20-page book for $10 -- at least not if it contains only the kind of sloganeering that politicans have trouble giving away free.
Thus it is that, along with an unblushingly partisan statement of his position on taxation, Jarvis gives us an equally partisan account of his adventures in the Republican Party, his opinions on education and the United Nations (both deeply negative), on FDR AND JFK (ditto), and on how badly the American public has misjudged such stalwart leaders as Richard Nixon.
That's still not enough for a book, so for an added attraction we are treated to a lengthy excursion through the life and time of Howard Jarvis. It has been an eventful life, climaxing in the victory for Proposition 13 -- "if I hadn't done it, I don't think anyone else in California would have done it," he says modestly, and he may be right. The victory shot him to a national prominence, and he began to mingle with the movers and shakers -- even Democrats.
But there is something flat about the whole story. Mingling with some of the most powerful and interesting politicians of our time, Jarvis has nothing to offer the reader but banalities.
Recalling his appearance on national television, all he can say is "Imagine, Howard Jarvis from Magna, Utah, being interviewed on 'Meet the Press.'" In the next paragraph, he visits the Lincoln Memorial and his comment is, "I can't describe the sense of awe I felt." He's right; he can't -- and neither, apparently, can his collaborator, Robert Pack. Somehow, the inside story of one of the great, symbolic political battles of our time, as told by the man who was at the center of it, comes out sounding like a play-by-play account of a not very interesting Little League ballgame. Imagine being able to talk to Napoleon after Waterloo and getting from him no comment more meaningful than, "It was very noisy."
The problem is, of course, that Howard Jarvis is no man of letters -- although he made his pile orginally as the publisher of a small-town newspaper (eventually a chain of them) in Utah. He emerges in this self-portrait as essentially a simple man. If he has has any intense interests in life beyond making money and exercising political power, he does not give any details on them.
This might be expected, of course. The drive for Proposition 13, like most major political and social movements, had at its heart a very simple aspiration -- one thinks of the Crusaders storming off to the Middle East shouting, "God wills it." The movement needed a man who was single-minded, adept at tactical details and willing to work hard for a long time before scoring a tangible success. Howard Jarvis was and is such a man, and now we are just beginning to feel the complex working out of his simple idea.
Ultimately, he should have a better biographer than himself; in the right hands, his story could be a great symbolic drama of the middle-American small businessman, his hopes, dreams and aspirations and his ultimate success. If they were still available, either Sinclair Lewis or William Faulkner might do it justice. Jarvis, in comparison, seems closer to the simple-minded success stories of Horatio Alger.