After graduation Pickle worked for the National Youth Administration (NYA) as an area supervisor and NYA district director in Austin and corresponded with newly elected congressman and former NYA director Lyndon Johnson. The two finally met when Johnson summoned Pickle to Washington, D.C., to discuss a proposed highway project from the Highland Lakes to Austin. From this point on, Pickle became one of Johnson's closest associates. Later in life Pickle considered Johnson and Connally the two men who had had the greatest impact on his political career.
In 1942 Pickle married Ella "Sugar" Nora Critz, daughter of Judge Richard Critz, and then enlisted in the navy for three and a half years of service during World War II. He served in the South Pacific as a gunnery officer on the USS St. Louis, which was torpedoed, and the USS Miami. The navy discharged him as a lieutenant senior grade in September 1945. When he returned to Austin, he joined radio station KTBC, which was owned by Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson. Pickle joined other Johnson supporters at the station, including Connally, Ed Syers, Edward Aubrey Clark, Walter Jenkins, J.C. Kellam, Sherman Birdwell, and others with whom he would forge lifetime friendships and working relationships. He went on to co-found radio station KVET. In 1949 Pickle became a partner in the Syers-Pickle and Winn advertising firm in Austin.
During the 1950s Pickle became embroiled in the struggle between the liberal and conservative wings of the Texas Democratic party. Pickle sided with conservative governor Allen Shivers against his more liberal challenger Ralph Yarborough. Working for Shivers's reelection in 1954, Pickle's advertising firm produced one of the first negative television advertisements in American history, The Port Arthur Story, which was a turning point in the closely contested election. Pickle later denied his direct involvement, saying the ad "left a bad taste in my mouth," and once elected to public office said that "I never ran another negative, misleading campaign ad." Pickle worked with Johnson and Sam Rayburn to maintain control over the party during the tumultuous 1950s. Governor Price Daniel appointed Pickle as a board member of the Texas Employment Commission. In 1952 Pickle lost his wife Sugar to breast cancer. He married Beryl Bolton McCarroll in 1960.
In 1963 Tenth District Congressman Homer Thornberry resigned to accept an appointment by President John Kennedy to the Federal bench. With Vice President Lyndon Johnson's support, Pickle won the special election only days after President Kennedy was shot in Dallas. In the aftermath of the Kennedy Assassination, Pickle was sworn in on Christmas Eve 1963. Congressman Pickle cast his first vote that same day for the sale of wheat to Russia. When Congress convened in 1964 it faced a volatile issue in the Civil Rights Act. Pickle was one of five southern Democrats in Congress to vote for the historic legislation, and President Johnson called after the vote to congratulate his protégé. Pickle later described the vote as the most difficult one he ever made. Throughout the next few years, Pickle consistently voted for Johnson's Great Society programs.
Pickle became a member of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee in 1975. As his seniority and knowledge increased, Pickle worked long hours on tax reform, health care, welfare, and Social Security legislation. He worked to broaden the student loan program to ensure more citizens could obtain financial support for higher education. He became a leading advocate for federal funding for scientific and energy research, especially at the University of Texas. He also worked to establish federal support for rural water systems. In 1979 he became chairman of the Social Security subcommittee. As chairman, he became an outspoken leader in the fight to preserve the solvency of the nation's largest federal program. "We raised the rates, we cut out some of the welfare, we extended the benefits. We did a lot of things," Pickle remarked after passage of the landmark Social Security Reform Bill of 1983. He also preserved Social Security benefits for people with disabilities after thousands had lost their disability benefits during the Reagan administration.
As a senior member of the Ways and Means Committee, Pickle challenged many of the nation's largest corporations and religious organizations and fought for more scrutiny of tax-exempt organizations. He confronted American businesses for under funding pension funds. The Pension Reform Act of 1994 provided for more disclosure and more stringent requirements for privately funded programs that disallowed excessive bonuses, equipment, and other provisions to protect employee-funded programs.
During his more than thirty years in the Congress, Pickle's popularity increased steadily. His special chili, served on Independence Day or San Jacinto Day, became a favorite of his Congressional colleagues. He seldom faced serious opposition, and in the few elections in which he was challenged he handily defeated both Democratic and Republican opponents. He continued his support for research and development and assistance to technology companies who found a home in his Central Texas district. In 1994 the University of Texas System Board of Regents renamed the Balcones Research Center in Austin the J.J. Pickle Research Campus for his longtime support of the university and scientific research. A major scholarship fund in Pickle's name was established at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, and a chair in the UT government department was named in his honor. The J.J. "Jake" Pickle Federal Building was named in his honor in Austin. Pickle ended his long career in public office when he announced that he would not seek reelection in 1994.
Pickle and his wife retired to Austin where he remained active in civic and university affairs. He frequently ate lunch at Luby's Cafeteria and participated in the Founders Lions Club of Austin. In 1997 he and his daughter Peggy Pickle published Jake, an autobiography. He died at his Austin home on June 18, 2005, of lymphoma and prostate cancer. Pickle is buried in the State Cemetery in Austin.
30° 15.933, -097° 43.637
Texas State Cemetery