Andy Jacobs Jr., this year's NUVO Cultural Vision Awards honoree for Lifetime Achievement, loves telling stories. The man who served 15 terms as congressman from Indianapolis' 10th District in Washington, D.C., also has a gift for friendship that transcends political differences. There's a craggy smile on his face as he tells about his regular flights home from the nation's capital with his local counterpart, Republican Dan Burton.
"We almost always flew together," Jacobs recalls, "USAir had enough sense of humor that they always seated us across the aisle from one another on the airplane. One day, we were tooling along, coming back to Indianapolis, and I said, "Danny, behold this airliner. There's a left wing and there's a right wing. But most of the people are in the middle."
Throughout his public life, Jacobs has stood for what might be called the principled center. Characterizing himself as "an intellectual optimist and an emotional pessimist," he refers to Woodrow Wilson in articulating his political credo: "Woodrow Wilson said he could never tell whether a piece of legislation was liberal or conservative," Jacobs says, "but he could usually tell if it was right or wrong. That's the approach I'd like to see the Congress take."
Jacobs entered public life when he was elected to the Indiana General Assembly in 1958. Before that he served as a police officer in the Marion County Sheriff's Department (a job that enabled him to work his way through law school) and as a combat infantryman in the Marines. He served in Korea, where he was wounded, sustaining a 10 percent disability. In 1964, the high water mark of this country's civil rights movement, Jacobs was elected to his first term in the United States House of Representatives. He was appointed to the House Judiciary Committee and rose to the occasion by helping to write the historic 1965 Voting Rights Act. Then, in 1969, in his own profile in courage, Jacobs led the House in an all-night debate on the war in Vietnam.
The Washington Post singled out this moment as the first serious congressional discussion on Vietnam policy. Jacobs also became the first representative from Indianapolis during the 20th century to serve on the influential House Ways and Means Committee, where he chaired subcommittees on health and Social Security.
Throughout his career in Washington, Jacobs refused financial contributions from Political Action Committees (PACs) - a policy of extraordinary integrity in a town beset by lobbyists with ready checkbooks and skyrocketing campaign costs. He believes that money from special interests has seriously corrupted the American political process. "As long as we don't have publicly financed campaigns, the Revolutionary War was a waste of time," Jacobs says, "because it was fought, as I understand it, against the concept of taxation without representation. When the lobbyists own the government you can't say that the people being taxed are very well represented."
Jacobs disputes the idea, put forward by some, that special interest contributions to political campaigns represent a form of free speech. "If money talks, they reason, it's entitled to First Amendment privilege," he says. "You have to make the First Amendment clear enough even for Supreme Court justices to understand that it means speech, not the expenditure of sufficient money for television time to drown out free speech on the other side."
Early in his career, Jacobs was moved by a book by Charles Silberman, Crisis in Black and White. He became convinced that the only way for this country to address the seemingly intractable problem of poverty was through the creation and support of comprehensive cognitive preschool programs. "Some people think that the answer to crime is nothing more than the brute force to beat back the savage element amongst us. Well, uneasy is the head on which rides that kind of thinking. Security - the best kind of security - is kids who say "yes sir" and "yes ma'am" and do their civic duties. That can happen."
Jacobs refers to a headline in the morning paper about a shop owner who was shot and killed. "For God's sake, the lack of humanity of it," Jacobs says, hanging his head. "What would have happened if the person who killed him had a little different upbringing. Everybody says as the twig is bent so grows the tree. Hardly anybody thinks that's a practical problem. We should drop everything and do the cognitive preschool program. That's the Defense Department for any danger we really face."
Jacobs effortlessly peppers his conversation with quotes from thinkers high and low, from Somerset Maughm to Lenny Bruce. While saying he thinks the city should be embarrassed that Martin Luther King Jr. Street stops at 38th, where it becomes Michigan Road, he quickly adds, "That's about the only thing I'm not too happy about."
"I'm just passionately in love with Indianapolis," says Jacobs, who was born, at home, on East Market Street, just blocks from where the City-County Building stands today. When asked what it is about this place that holds him he replies, "I am pleased by small things. People here have a sense of humor. And people who have senses of humor are kind."