The D.C. Bar will be closed for the holidays December 24–January 1
 

Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: The Cliché Expert Testifies About the Law

From Washington Lawyer, June 2011

By Jacob A. Stein

spectator

Frank Sullivan’s essays appeared in the New Yorker in the 1930s and 40s. He interviewed a Mr. Arbuthnot who was the expert on the subject of political cliché. Here is a sample of his expert testimony, circa 1946.

Q. Mr. Arbuthnot, I hear that you have become a campaign orator in addition to being the expert on the political cliché.
A. Well, sir, it is not my wont to brag, but I believe I may say with all due modesty that I can point with pride and view with alarm as sententiously and bombastically as any senator who ever thrust one arm in his frock coat, and with the other called upon high heaven to witness the perfidy of the Other Party.

Q. Mr. Arbuthnot, perhaps you’ll tell us just what kind of leader the hour calls for?
A. A leader who will lead this country out of the wilderness, eliminate waste and extravagance in government, do away with red tape and bureaucratic inefficiency, solve the problem of unemployment, improve living conditions, develop purchasing power, raise the standard of living, provide better housing, and insure national defense by building a navy and air force second to none.

Q. What has the Other Party proved?
A. It is spending vast sums of the taxpayers’ money.

Q. For what?
A. To build up a huge political machine. It has aroused class hatred. Fellow Americans, in this solemn hour, when the sacred institutions of democracy are challenged on every side and the world is rent by strife, I charge the Other Party with having betrayed the pee-pul of these Yew-nited States.

Q. What about the farmer?
A. The farmer must have relief.

Q. What kind of relief?
A. Farm relief. Labor must have the right to organize. Economy must be the watchword. Mounting deficits must cease; so must these raids on the public treasury. I view with alarm the huge and unwarranted increase in our national debt. Generations yet unborn! Those who would undermine our sacred institutions! Bore from within! Freedom of speech! Monroe Doctrine! I call upon every patriotic American—

The other day I happened to meet Mr. Arbuthnot walking along Connecticut Avenue. He told me he was not only an expert on political clichés, he was also the expert on lawyer clichés.

We took a bench in Dupont Circle Park, and I conducted a direct examination of him. Here are my notes:

Q. What can you tell me about our profession?
A. With all their faults, we stack up well against those in every other occupation or profession. We are better to work with or play with or fight with or drink with than most other varieties of mankind.

Q. Please continue.
A. We lawyers are always curious, always inquisitive, always picking up odds and ends for our patchwork minds, since there is no knowing when and where they may fit into some corner and we know life practically. A bookish man should always have them to converse with. A talented lawyer, if he has any talents at all, is the best companion in the world.

Q. What about clients?
A. We spend a considerable part of our lives doing distasteful things for disagreeable people who must be satisfied against an impossible time limit and with hourly interruptions from other disagreeable people who want to derail the train; and for his blood, sweat, and tears, he receives in the end a few unkind words to the effect that it might have been done better, and a protest at the size of the fee.

Q. Can you describe your own career in a few clichés?
A. I will confess that from the beginning to what appears to be the end of my years at the bar, I loved the profession with all the ardor and intensity that the jealous mistress, the law, could ever exact. But it was demanding. The lawyer’s vacation is the space between the question put to a witness and his answer.

Q. Who was the best lawyer you ever knew?
A. John W. Davis. I knew him years ago when he was known as the lawyer’s lawyer. Mr. Davis wrote a poem filled with clichés, a poem I envy. I shall recite it for you and that will conclude this very pleasant direct examination.

The lawyer’s a man of sorrow, and acquainted with grief;
Among all the sinners, he’s considered the chief.
His friends all admire him when he conquers for them;
When he chances to lose, they’re quick to condemn.
They say, “Ah! He is bought!” if he loses a case;
They say, “Ah! He is crooked!” if he wins in the race.
If he charges big fees, they say he’s a grafter;
If he charges small fees, “He’s not worth going after.”
If he joins the church, “it’s for an effect;”
If he doesn’t join, “He’s as wicked as heck.”
But here is one fact we all must admit:
When we get into trouble, our lawyer is IT.

He stood up, bowed, tipped his hat, and continued up Connecticut Avenue.

Reach Jacob A. Stein at jstein@steinmitchell.