Advise and Dissent: Memoirs of South Dakota and the US Senate

By James Abourezk. Lawrence Hill Books, 1989. 267 pp. List: $18.95. AET: $14.95 for one, $18.95 for two.

Reviewed by Andrew I. Killgore

A few years ago Senator James Abourezk, author of Advise and Dissent, was invited by friends to lunch at a private Washington club. “No,” he said, “let’s go to a restaurant.”

Abourezk’s answer reflects a deeply felt aversion to symbols of privilege. From what does this attitude, still at the center of his being, stem? Because his father had prospered while others were stuck in poverty? Because of the misery he saw among the Indians in his native South Dakota? Because their misery is caused, as he clearly believes, from an uncaring white establishment? Perhaps all of these, and something else unseen.

The American-born son of Lebanese immigrants who started from scratch in the grimy poverty of Indian country, the young Abourezk casually participated in the general negative stereotyping of Indians. When a friend cautioned that Abourezk’s own actions might be contributing to the Indians’ problems, Jim, as the ex-Senator is called by almost everyone both in South Dakota and his present hometown of Washington, DC, began to see the establishment in a new light, as a system benefiting insiders at the expense of those on the outside.

The young Abourezk was “unstructured,” but definitely in possession of a mind of his own. He was not close to his father, already a middle-aged man when Jim was born. A hitch in the Navy ran against his independent grain. He was a musician, a bartender and at times a bouncer with the quick wit to employ brains rather than muscle to subdue inebriated toughs.

Most of his tales from South Dakota are delightfully comical, at least on the obvious level. At another level there is a poignance about them, stemming from the bleak prospects of very, very poor people struggling to improve their lot.

One day the Abourezk who had never quite found himself met an idealistic physician who helped change his life. From wide reading and frequent long conversations with cultivated Dr. Joseph Studeberg, Jim entered a larger world and discovered to his apparent surprise that he had the brains to move easily upward within it.

With an explosion of energy he earned an engineering degree, practiced the profession and found it unsatisfying. Then on to a law degree and a successful practice, but still not at ease in the South Dakota lawyer’s role.

Seeking fulfillment in politics, he tried for election to Attorney General, only to lose. But with a never-say-die spirit he entered the 1970 race for Congress, a venture viewed with very little enthusiasm by his wife, Mary. To the surprise of both of them, he became Congressman Abourezk. A true raconteur’s stories of how he won demonstrate his wit and shrewdness.

Hardly had he taken the oath of office, however, than the young Representative decided to run for the Senate. That august body seemed to promise a stronger platform and a bigger “megaphone” for getting his views across. He ran in 1972, won, and became a hero to Arab Americans, the Indians and eventually to the underprivileged as a whole.

To Senator Abourezk’s chagrin, idealism and impatience with a ponderous system was not welcome in the Senate. He found painfully depressing the banality of self-seeking in “the world’s most exclusive club.” There he repeatedly saw an advancement of the common good taking second place to grabbing money from special interests to get reelected. Nevertheless, he succeeded in helping the Indians and in rallying opposition to the Vietnam war.

Two years before his term expired, he knew he would not seek re-election. His basic “handicap” was high ideals, not by itself altogether debilitating. But his unshakable unwillingness to abandon them diminished his zest for the job, no matter how much he enjoyed going head to head against the special interests. One, to employ his own description, was the “vicious” pro-Israel lobby, so uniquely powerful that in Washington it is referred to simply as “The Lobby.”

The Abourezk who comes alive in the pages of Advise and Dissent is not some single-minded warrior humorlessly clinging to his preconceptions. Rather, he is a blithe spirit, full of jokes and droll stories and sticking by his ideals. Out of Congress since 1980, that is still the extroverted Jim Abourezk that his myriad friends know and enjoy. The introspective, determinedly idealistic persona is carefully concealed from public view. Any private doubts about his uncompromising adherence to principle over personal advantage never surface, if indeed they are there at all.

In and out of elective politics, Senator Abourezk’s irreverent portraits of the great and famous are a joy to read. His comments about some of the household names on Capital Hill can be biting, even cutting, but never mean-spirited. And many of his tales from his Congressional days are hilariously funny.

Immediately after leaving the Senate, Jim Abourezk established the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), easily the largest national Arab-American membership organization. ADC, which he still chairs, effectively fights negative anti-Arab stereotyping. Before he came along, the Israel Lobby had, almost unnoticed, turned this Arab-bashing into an art form. He also continues to stand up for American Indians, for the weak and the powerless, He gives every bit of support he can to the persecuted Palestinians, and strongly supports a two-state solution which will give Palestinians national rights in their own land. ADC and Jim Abourezk are now highly respected fixtures on the Washington scene.

Advise and Dissent is the inspiring success story of a Lebanese immigrant’s son who went from modest circumstances to the heights of the United States Senate. Even more, it is an inspiring example of one who, repeatedly, put principle before politics, and even relinquished his seat in that great body as a matter of principle. Not, however, before he lost his wife of 29 years, who returned home because she simply could not abide Washington. Whatever the other costs may have been, Abourezk keeps them to himself. He describes his public pursuit of a private dream with so many wry and witty tales that readers will find it impossible to put this book down before it is finished, or out of mind for long after that.


Andrew I. Killgore, a former ambassador to Qatar, is the publisher of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.


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