Texas Legends #17: Jake Pickle

On July 9, 1963, President John F. Kennedy nominates Congressman Homer Thornberry of Austin, to a federal judgeship. Thornberry is a protégé of Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, who was his predecessor to the seat. His successor, elected shortly before Christmas, is James Jarrell (“J.J” or “Jake”) Pickle (1913-2005). Pickle was another protégé of Lyndon B. Johnson from the New Deal days when he worked as an area director for the National Youth Administration and straddled between the liberal and conservative wings of the party. In 1954, he worked for the campaign to reelect conservative Governor Allan Shivers over liberal Ralph Yarborough, and his advertising firm released an ad called “The Port Arthur Story”, which told in a slanted manner the story of the 10-month strike by the left-wing Congress of Industrial Organizations in Port Arthur, Texas, which brought about the deterioration of the livelihood of town. It held that Shivers was the hero defending the town while Yarborough was, although not a communist, “in bed” with them. Pickle denied direct involvement with the ad and found it distasteful. While in Congress, he supported most of the Great Society such as the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, but he was not 100%, most notably voting against Medicare in 1965. Pickle made a splash early in his career when he was one of only four Texas House Democrats to vote for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Although this was an act of courage for a representative of Texas at the time and what he regarded as his most difficult vote, his record on civil rights would not always be consistently positive. Pickle voted for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 but did not support fair housing legislation. HIs record during the Johnson years could be characterized as moderately liberal.

A Pickle for Nixon

While Jake Pickle’s record shifted somewhat rightward during the Nixon years, he nonetheless challenged Nixon on multiple fronts. He challenged abusive practices by the IRS and fought his extensive and arguably abusive use of the power of impoundment, which led to Congress crippling that power in 1974. Pickle also was known as a great investigator. According to Burka and Smith (1976), he doggedly pursued investigations into “the 1972 Russian wheat deal boxcar shortage and the Dita Beard ITT scandal”.

The Pickle Brand and Saving Social Security

Pickle gives Coretta Scott King his trademark squeaky toy pickle.

Pickle would establish his own brand in politics, having distributed since he ran for student body president in college “pickle pins”, small pickle-shaped lapel pins (Cox). After being elected to Congress, he would add squeaky rubber toy pickles that he would hand out during campaign season and his Texas Independence Day (March 2) chili was a favorite among colleagues. Indeed, his colleagues found him likeable and enduring. In 1975, Pickle joined the House Ways and Means Committee at the behest of the Texas Congressional delegation, which wanted to block the spot from going to Texas’ most liberal Democrat, Bob Eckhardt, who they considered unfriendly to the oil industry. Four years later became head of its Social Security subcommittee. There, he regarded himself as a foremost defender of Social Security. In 1983, he played his greatest role in Congress when he closely worked with the Reagan Administration to save Social Security from insolvency through raising the payroll tax and increasing the eligibility age for full benefits from 65 to 67, the process starting in 2000. The latter was Pickle’s proposal and saving Social Security he would consider his greatest achievement.

One of Pickle’s “pickle pins”.

The 1980s would see Pickle’s record shift in a bit of a more liberal direction, indicative of the start of the age of increasing partisanship, which we still live in today. His departure from Congress was well-timed; he chose to retire in 1994, the midterm year in which Republicans swept back into the House and Senate. Pickle was overall a moderate, with a lifetime MC-Index score of 40%. His moderate record reflected the character of his district at the time, which although it was staunchly Democratic, there were a lot of liberal voters in Austin and significant enough pockets of conservative voters outside of the city. In 1997, Pickle published with his wife Jake, a recollection of stories from his life and career, with a forward penned by former Governor Ann Richards.


Bartlett, B. (2009, October 9). It’s Time For Deficit Reduction. Forbes.

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Burka, P. & Smith, G. (1976, May). The Best, the Worst, and the Fair-To-Middlin’. Texas Monthly.

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Cox, P.L. (2005, July 14). Pickle, James Jarrell [Jake]. Texas Historical Association.

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Holley, J. (2005, June 20). Texas Rep. J.J.. Pickle Dies. The Washington Post.

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The Port Arthur Story. The Dallas Morning News.

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