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In Memoriam: Charles O. Jones

Chuck helped us understand the promise and limits of power in the U.S. constitutional system.

Photo courtesy of University of Wisconsin – Madison

Political scientists lost a giant last week with the death of Charles O. Jones, known affectionately to his colleagues and students as Chuck. He was a towering figure (literally and figuratively) in the study of American politics – a cherished mentor and teacher, disciplinary leader, and colleague with a quick wit and folksy demeanor. 

We asked a group of scholars to contribute remembrances, and we invite others to leave their own memories or links to other obituaries in the comments section at the end of this piece. 

I will start with my own recollections.

Chuck Jones’s career spanned decades and numerous universities – starting at Wellesley College and ending at the University of Virginia and the University of Wisconsin – alongside years as my colleague in (what was then called) the Governmental Studies Program at The Brookings Institution. In recognition of his outstanding scholarly contributions, political scientists in 1989 elected him as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Chuck was first and foremost a scholar of the American separation of powers system. He encouraged colleagues – especially younger scholars – to resist the temptation to burrow down into the study of just a single institution. Instead, Jones paved the way for the study of institutions in context, as he did in his seminal book, The Presidency in a Separated System. He also called on political scientists to move beyond the study of institutional arrangements and political behavior to probe the centrality of lawmaking to democratic governance – what he termed the “core decision-making process of a democratic state.” If we draw our research topics too narrowly, Jones warned, we would fail to explain the most basic feature of democratic life. 

At the same time, Chuck made seminal contributions to our understanding of parties and leadership in Congress. He was the first to offer a book-length treatment of the minority party in the House and Senate. And in 1968, he penned one of the most impactful and enduring studies of House party speakers, ”Joseph G. Cannon and Howard W. Smith: An Essay on the Limits of Leadership in the House of Representatives.” He argued that House party leaders must build and maintain what he called their “procedural majority” – the coalition necessary for maintaining control of the business of the House. House leaders, Jones warned, “must take care not to lose touch with any sizeable segment of their procedural majorities” – a prescient (if unheeded) warning to the most recent House speaker. 

Chuck served the political science discipline in many other ways – including as president of the American Political Science Association in 1993-1994, in addition to earlier stints as APSA’s treasurer and vice president. He led the Midwest Political Science Association and chaired University of Michigan’s Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research. He edited the American Political Science Review (the discipline’s flagship journal) and served as a coeditor of Legislative Studies Quarterly (the top journal for legislative scholars). 

As a teacher, Chuck mentored dozens of PhD students and provided support and guidance to innumerable junior faculty. Always a kind-hearted colleague, he combined sage advice and good wit. As he once advised his PhD student, Katie Dunn Tenpas, before her first conference presentation, “If you can’t be good, be brief!” That was Chuck in a nutshell: Sharp, funny, and ever a mentor and role model for future generations of political scientists.

We share our deep sympathies with his family and friends and are saddened to lose him. 

Mark Rozell, Dean, Schar School of Policy and Government, George Mason University:

Chuck Jones was the mentor of my undergraduate adviser, James Fleming. I studied Chuck’s works on Congress and on the public policy process and decided to pursue a PhD in political science under his guidance, rather than go to law school. My high expectations entering graduate school were never disappointed. Chuck was a model scholar – an intellectual powerhouse and yet always humble and kind. 

I recall after his retirement from teaching that some of Chuck’s former graduate students discussed holding an appreciation dinner for him at APSA. Word got around and the dinner group grew and grew. Former students traveled long distances just to attend this dinner. Everyone that night took turns speaking about what Chuck’s mentorship and friendship meant to them – just one measure of Chuck’s impact on his students and our affection for him. 

We stayed in touch, became friends. My wife and I had wonderful visits with Chuck and Vera at their Wintergreen home. After years of immersing myself in his scholarship, I had an especially excited feeling when several years ago he showed me a draft of his latest manuscript – his memoirs! What a remarkable life. 

Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, visiting fellow in governance studies and director of the Katzmann Initiative, The Brookings Institution

I was fortunate to have crossed paths with Chuck Jones in the fall of 1987 (my first semester of graduate school), in what was, unbeknownst to me, his final semester teaching at the University of Virginia. His seminar on Congress was my favorite class – challenging, interesting, and sprinkled with occasional laughter due to his wonderful sense of humor. It was clear that while he took the subject of Congress seriously, he did not take himself too seriously – note the title of his autobiography, Now That’s Funny. 

Humor was just as important to him as his incredible work ethic, his love of family, and nature. He moved to the University of Wisconsin, but continued to advise and invited me to do research for him while he was at The Brookings Institution. I learned so much from his painstaking and systematic data collection and his determination to think beyond the specific topic at hand. Studying the presidency did not occur in a bubble, but rather one needed to appreciate the context in which the president operated, what occurred before, and the role of other political institutions. I am eternally grateful for his mentorship. It was clear that whether he was the editor of APSR or the president of APSA, he found time for his cadre of UVA grad students.

Russell L. Riley, White Burkett Miller Center Professor of Ethics and Institutions, University of Virginia

Charles O. Jones rose to prominence in political science as an expert on the U.S. Congress – the subject he first taught me at the University of Virginia. But over time he expanded the scope of his influence and became perhaps the nation’s preeminent student of Washington’s political institutions. His books on the logic of our constitutional system are at once illuminating and accessible, and will no doubt be long cited for the light they shed on how our national government functions (or doesn’t). But I actually believe Chuck’s best work lies elsewhere. 

For nearly 20 years I had the privilege of sitting next to him for hundreds of hours recording confidential oral history interviews with former White House officials, conducted to create a spoken archive about what life is like behind the closed doors of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. These interviews – most now available for reading online – not only capture for all time the inner history of the modern White House. They also preserve in amber the unparalleled brilliance of a master craftsman at work. 

Chuck’s time as an oral history interviewer put on full display the range of his remarkable talents. He instantly established good rapport with sometimes-nervous interviewees because of his easygoing table-side manner, his empathy with those living a political life, and his wicked situational wit. Laughter is a magical asset in an interview and Chuck had a bottomless well of anecdotes from the worlds of academia and politics to help put our guests at ease. He also was a terrific listener. Chuck brought neither political nor scholarly agendas into the interview room, recognizing that our job was to get our subjects to talk about themselves, not to display our own pet theories or partisan prejudices.

He had an unmatched ability to connect the real world of politics – the low-to-the-ground business of winning votes or prevailing in elections – to the philosophical interests of the scholar, and so was brilliant at posing questions that tied the mundane to the profound. And, at the end of this process, when the interviews were available for use, he knew how to turn the information culled from them into first-rate interpretations. His book on Jimmy Carter, The Trusteeship Presidency, by one assessment “contributed to the rehabilitation of a president who had been all but left for dead after the election of 1980.” I doubt he ever voted for Carter, but he was able to explain better than most who did what Carter intended to achieve in the White House and how he expected to do it.

One of the saddest days of my career came, then, when Chuck reported that he was no longer up for making the trip from Wintergreen to Charlottesville to serve as an interviewer. I last went to see him on a beautiful fall day in 2023, when he proudly insisted on escorting me and my wife around the trails he and his Vera were forging on a high wooded acre next to their residence. He was, at 92, spry as a mountain goat, stepping confidently over roots and rocks between the mountain laurel to show off the paths they were cutting. 

That is the Chuck Jones I will always remember: forever adept at fashioning an efficient passage through a forbidding thicket – whether in the Blue Ridge Mountains or in explaining the halls of power in Washington.

Dan Palazzolo, professor of political science, University of Richmond

I went to the University of Virginia to study Congress with Chuck Jones and experienced his unique blend of professionalism, high standards, candor, humor, brilliance, discipline, and moral sense. His seminar on Congress with a particular emphasis on leadership laid the foundation for my dissertation and a good deal of my research. Chuck also led me to a close relationship with my good friend and co-author Randy Strahan.

I appreciate the tributes to Chuck’s contribution to the discipline and to our understanding of Congress, the presidency, and the separated system. Most of all, I am deeply grateful for a long and wonderful relationship with Chuck and his wife Vera. Indeed, the word “wonderful” stands out most when I think of Chuck. He was a wonderful husband, father and grandfather, a wonderful teacher, mentor and scholar, and a wonderful colleague, friend, and human being.

Editors’ note: This post was updated on Jan. 24, 2024 with Dan Palazzolo’s entry.