Adams, Brockman (“Brock”)
Adams, Brockman (“Brock”)
(b. 13 January 1927 in Atlanta, Georgia; d. 10 September 2004 in Stevensville, Maryland), member of the U.S. House of Representatives, member of the U.S. Senate, and groundbreaking U.S. secretary of transportation who fought for automobile consumer safety laws and expanded railway transportation.
Adams was the son of Charles Leslie Adams and Vera Eleanor (Beemer) Adams. The family moved west when the father’s clothing business collapsed in the 1920s, and Adams grew up on his grandfather’s farms in Oregon and Iowa. Later, Adams’s father would go into the insurance business. Adams graduated from Broadway High School in Seattle in 1944 and enlisted in the U.S. Navy as an apprentice seaman; he was discharged from the navy in 1946. In the meantime he entered the University of Washington under the navy’s V-12 program and received a BA in economics with honors from the University of Washington in 1949 and an LLB from Harvard University Law School in 1952. Adams married Mary Elizabeth Scott on 16 August 1952; the couple had four children.
While working with Seattle law firms, Adams became campaign manager for longtime friend and the Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy in 1960. In 1961 President Kennedy named Adams as U.S. attorney for the Western District of Washington, and Adams became the chief federal law enforcement officer for the Seattle area. In 1964, with Lyndon Johnson at the head of the Democratic presidential ticket, Adams ran successfully for Congress in Washington’s Seventh District, unseating the Republican incumbent K. William Stinson. He served six terms in the U.S. House of Representatives (1965–1977).
Adams strongly opposed the Vietnam War but favored Great Society initiatives. He opposed the controversial B-1 bomber. A longtime member of the House committee that oversaw the affairs of Washington, D.C., Adams sought home rule for the District of Columbia. The bill, as eventually passed, created a mayor and city council for the district, which had long functioned under close scrutiny from Congress, acting under its Constitutional Article I power to govern the federal capital city. Adams was also appointed to the House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce. Adams espoused (at least at this stage of his career) the view that transportation was more of a public utility than “a purely free-enterprise business.” Thus he helped to create the National Railroad Passenger Act (1970), which set up Amtrak to run most of the nation’s interstate passenger service, creating a few new routes but also ending many passenger trains that had been in operation for most of the century.
During his tenure he lost a fight to give a contract to Seattle-based Lockheed Aircraft Corp. to build a supersonic passenger jet aircraft. He consoled his constituents by getting an extension of unemployment benefits; defeat of the contract cost 7,000 jobs in the Seattle area. Adams also oversaw the reconstruction of the eastern railroad system after the Penn Central Corporation filed for bankruptcy in 1970. He showed an amazing grasp of the complexities of the operation of what was then the largest railroad company in the United States. In 1973 Adams helped to formulate the Consolidated Rail Corporation (Conrail), a corporation created by Congress with federal financial assistance to conserve and operate the assets of the Penn Central Corporation and other failed eastern railroads. In February 1975 Adams became chairman of the House Budget Committee, commanding control of federal expenditures. When the Democratic candidate, Jimmy Carter, was elected president in 1976, Adams immediately signaled Carter that he wished to join the cabinet as secretary of transportation. In December of 1976 he became Carter’s first cabinet nomination.
Adams’s tenure as secretary of transportation (1977–1979) became pivotal. During Adams’s term President Carter tried to distance rail companies, motor carriers, and airlines from federal regulation while strengthening federal control over automobile safety. Carter also signed the Panama Canal Treaty (1977), ending U.S. control over that transportation artery. The Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) began to free railroads and trucking companies from the mass of detailed regulations governing their operation. When Congress passed the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) lost control of domestic routes and rates charged by airlines. This change led eventually to an explosion of small carriers operating at low fares, but critics questioned the safety of the operation of these new airlines. Amtrak was told that it needed to find the money to operate with less federal assistance. (But Adams did back certain capital improvements, and he favored improvements to U.S. mass transit.) Carter’s economic advisers saw a need to let market forces work in the transportation industry rather than to have extensive federal controls of daily operations. Adams wrestled with the perceived need to make Conrail solvent and oversaw continuation of the massive Interstate highway construction program.
On the other hand, Adams appointed Joan Claybrook to oversee automobile safety as head of the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (1977). She had been a member of the staff of the consumer advocate Ralph Nader, and like him she had been highly critical of the failure of American car manufacturers to make safety improvements available on their automobiles even as foreign manufacturers moved to make such features as seat-belts standard equipment. Adams also complained that Detroit car manufacturers had failed to make cars fuel-efficient and that the airlines had been lax in the area of security. He participated in the massive federal loan project to resurrect Chrysler Corporation from bankruptcy.
Adams personally opposed some of the details of President Carter’s programs, particularly concerning airline deregulation. He also believed the Carter administration was falling short on its promises to infuse $10 billion in the area of mass transit. But Carter felt Adams’s associates had gone too far in some of their statements. This friction resulted in Adams’s resignation in July 1979.
Adams returned to the practice of law, first in Washington, D.C., and then in Seattle, awaiting a chance to run for the U.S. Senate. Elected in 1986 in a race against incumbent Slade Gorton III, Adams led the liberal opposition to the first Gulf War and opposed a plan to create the nuclear waste dumping facility at Hanford, Washington. He also proposed the double-hulling of vessels carrying crude oil after the disastrous spill of crude from the Exxon Valdez tanker near Prince William Sound, Alaska, in 1989.
An Episcopalian, Adams was a defender of gay rights and an AIDS activist; one of his daughters supported the lesbian movement in Washington state. After Adams launched a campaign in 1992 for reelection to the Senate, rumors surfaced that he had been inappropriate with a number of women on his staff. It was even suggested that Adams had drugged at least one woman prior to having sex with her. Adams withdrew his election bid. Washington voters ultimately elected Patty Murray, a Washington state senator, to fill his seat. Adams retired quietly to Kent Island, a boating paradise in the middle of Chesapeake Bay.
Adams died at his home on Kent Island of complications from Parkinson’s disease. His remains were cremated.
Adams’s papers are in a collection at the University of Washington library. A profile on Adams is in the New York Times (15 Dec. 1976). An article he authored, “Transportation and Energy,” appeared in the Nation 218, no. 12 (23 Mar. 1974): 364–366. For background on the railroad bankruptcies of the 1960s, see Joseph R. Daughen and Peter Binzen, The Wreck of the Penn Central (1971). Obituaries are in the New York Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer (both 11 Sept. 2004).
John David Healy