Some public figures are all charm and good humor to the outside world and pure hell to work for. Jacob Javits was neither. He was pompous, aggressive, brilliant and, as a legislator, effective, but he could never have been called charismatic or a master of the one- liner. But his staff saw a different, softer side in his relations with us, and over time most of us moved from regarding him with awe and respect to feelings of warmth and affection. He was far more sentimental and caring than one would have suspected, and that was reflected in his attitudes toward the country, his family and to those of us who worked for him.
Deep down, the senator was unabashedly patriotic. Perhaps because he himself had experienced both poverty and prejudice, he had tremendous faith in the system's ability to deliver on the Constitution's promise of justice and equality. Minorities and women always had prominent roles on his staff. In the late '50s, inspired by newspaper accounts of a young economist, paralyzed from the chest down, who climbed the Washington Monument on crutches to call attention to his job search, Javits immediately hired the man. We all had to produce and to work terribly hard, but that's what mattered to him, not race, sex or handicap. And if things didn't always work that way in the rest of the world, it was not a sign that the country's values were wrong, only that they weren't being honored. He had a difficult time with both Vietnam and Watergate, especially when staffers questioned the motives of government leaders rather than their policies, because his inclination was always to give the benefit of the doubt to the country's leaders. We were never allowed to voice personal criticism of a president -- or even another senator -- in his presence; his respect for those offices overcame his personal disagreements with the men who held them and the positions they took.
The Javitses family life was always the subject of rumor and gossip, and though it was not easy for him to be constantly traveling from one city to another, he never complained. He believed his wife was a beautiful, talented woman -- sort of a star in New York -- and he said he understood perfectly why she wanted to live there. He couldn't do enough for his children, and was on the shuttle at least three nights during the week so he could see them, even for an hour at the end of the day. I remember his flying to New York one morning at 6 a.m. to have breakfast with a 9-year-old daughter who was leaving for camp, and returning on the 9 a.m. plane to make a committee meeting on the Voting Rights Act.
We were something of a family to him, too. In fact, whenever he spoke to more than six or eight staffers at a time, he addressed us as "children." He was delighted when, as happened half a dozen times, one staff member married another. He thought all our babies charming and our parents wise and made a great fuss when we brought them to the office. All three of my sons were born while I was working for him, and he was perfectly agreeable -- this was as early as 1968 -- to my working a three-day week so I could spend more time with them. He praised good work, shared the credit more than most and always apologized if he decided, on second thought, that his criticism or annoyance had been unreasonable.
Old Javits staffers are great for reunions, and we have had two since he left the Senate. On his 80th birthday almost two years ago, he spoke movingly of his satisfaction at having lived so long. By then, bound to a wheelchair and hooked up to a respirator, he had no strength to shake hands but he could kiss each of us, and he did. We regaled him and each other with old war stories -- tales of his running to six committee meetings in one morning, telling Cabinet members to make it short because he didn't have much time, and refusing to sleep overnight in any town smaller than Buffalo. But it was an earlier reunion that comes to mind today, one that took place a year after he left the Senate. About a hundred of us had come, some from as far away as California, and he rose painfully from his wheelchair to speak to us. "You are my legacy to the next century," he said, "and after I'm gone I want you to do three things for the old man. Love your country. Don't be afraid to stick your neck out. And take a chance on the young, as I once took a chance on each of you."