A Conversation with Leonard H. Marks
(Appeared in Bar Report, June/July 2000)
Leonard H. Marks has had a 57-year legal career in Washington. He founded the law firm Cohn & Marks in 1945, where he still serves as of counsel. In 1965 he was appointed director of the United States Information Agency by President Johnson. A 1938 graduate of the University of Pittsburgh Law School, Marks has served as chair of the International Plenipotentiary Conference on Communications Satellites, chair of the U.S. delegation to the International Telecommunications Conference on High Frequency Broadcasting, and chair of the American Bar Association International Communications Committee. In addition, he is a past president of the Federal Communications Bar Association, a former member of the American Bar Association House of Delegates, a former chair of the State Department’s advisory committee on International Communication and Information Policy, and as founder of the World Affairs Council of Greater Washington and of the International Media Fund. Marks is the father of two sons. He has been married to Dorothy Ames since 1948.
Bar Report: Where did you grow up?
Leonard H. Marks: I was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In those days, Pittsburgh was an environmental disaster. Steel mills dominated the area, and provided the principal employment. I remember my mother used to say that you’d hang your clothes in the yard, and that by nightfall they were full of soot. But that’s the way the city lived. It was the way people got their jobs-so you tolerated it.
BR: What did your father do?
LHM: He was a politician. His only jobs were appointed or elected in law enforcement. We were steeped in political life, both Republican and Democrat during my early days. My mother was a homemaker. She was a wonderful woman who raised three sons, went through the depression, and still managed to see that we all got a good education.
BR: What about your schooling?
LHM: I went to Fifth Avenue High School, where I was president of the student body, and a member of the debate team. I went to the University of Pittsburgh at age 15, standing 5’2", weighing 115 pounds, and carrying a tremendous ambition to be important. I soon learned that Pitt was known for its football team-and that the big men on campus were football players. So I tried out for football.
I was in line behind the 6’3", 250-pound, coal-mining kids from Hazleton and Scranton, Pennsylvania. When it was my turn to be interviewed by then coach Jock Sutherland, he looked at me and said, "You want to play football?" I told him I’d do anything to be on the team. He asked if I was smart. I told him I made all A’s. He said, "Good. You’re on the team." I became a tutor and got to travel with the team to all of the games.
BR: When did law come into the picture?
LHM: I had other ambitions, but my father told me I should become a lawyer because you can make money and still be a politician. I followed his advice. I went to Pitt for law school, and graduated first in my class. When you do that, you become a faculty fellow. The school asked me to teach torts. So I practiced law, and taught law school three days a week.
When World War II came along, the dean at the law school pointed out that since I was not married, I was likely to be drafted. He suggested I go to Washington, D.C. where I could do more for the war effort by joining one of the New Deal agencies. He called one of his law school friends to help me. I went for an interview, and was hired by the Office of Price Administration (OPA).
BR: Had you ever been to Washington before?
LHM: No, and I was overwhelmed. It was so different, so important. Here, you’d walk down the street and see peoples’ faces that were in the newspaper. Oh.there’s "senator so and so or justice so and so." Events of global importance took place right here, and conversations frequently centered on national issues.
BR: What was your role at OPA?
LHM: I created a division called the Office of Price Administration’s Service Trades. We regulated the price of services-freight forwarding, laundries, apple picking-any service. It wasn’t very inspiring, and I soon tired of it. But before I could resign, one of the senior members from the Pittsburgh law firm that I was associated with came to town and invited me to dinner at a friend’s house. It turns out the friend was an assistant attorney general. When I told him I was disappointed with my legal work at OPA, he introduced me to his next door neighbor, who happened to be the general counsel for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). He offered me a job, and I started to work for him the following month. That’s how I got into Foreign Broadcast Intelligence Service, and how I became an FCC lawyer. I went to dinner at the right place at the right time.
I stayed in that position until the end of the war in 1945. It was exciting-like spy work. We monitored radio programs from all over the world to provide intelligence to the United States Army and others.
BR: What happened next?
LHM: After I left the FCC, I helped found this firm, Cohn & Marks. We represented people who were interested in applying for radio and television stations. At that time, there were few radio stations and no television operating stations. There were only four of us then, and two were partners. Eventually, we increased to 26. But we’ve always been a specialty firm in the field of communications-radio, television, newspapers, satellites, cable, and outdoor advertising.
One of my first clients was Lyndon Johnson. His wife Lady Bird had been called by her father, who was about to remarry, and he didn’t want his children fighting with his new wife over money after he was gone. So he gave the children their inheritance. With that money, Lady Bird bought a radio station in Austin, Texas. The station could only operate until sunset, and because most of the business was in the evenings, it had trouble making any profit.
Lyndon and Lady Bird came to see me, and asked if it was possible to change the license to operate at night. We had to find a new frequency without interfering with other stations, and in a short time, we were successful. We not only got permission to operate 24 hours a day, but on a better frequency. And that was the beginning of the prosperity of the Johnson station.
BR: What was Lady Bird like?
LHM: She was amazing. She could read a balance sheet the way a truck driver could read a map. I’ll tell you one of my favorite stories about her. Periodically I would have lunch with the senator and Mrs. Johnson at their residence on Sunday mornings. In 1952 the FCC announced a new allocation of frequencies for television. The FCC put three stations in Dallas, three in San Antonio, and one in Austin. I recommended that the Johnsons apply for that one station. Lyndon never took just one opinion; he sought advice from many different sources including the heads of NBC and CBS. Contrary to my advice, he said no.
On the Sunday before the FCC filing deadline, I had lunch with the Johnsons and tried one more time to change his mind. "All I need is Lady Bird’s signature," I told him. Johnson looked at me angrily, and said "Marks, how many times do I have to tell you? The answer is no."
All of a sudden Lady Bird said quietly, "Lyndon, it’s my money. I want to do it." So they did. And that was the beginning of the LBJ family fortune.
BR: How did you become director of the United States Information Agency (USIA)?
LHM: One day in July 1965 I received a telephone call from President Johnson. It was 10 a.m. With no introduction, he said that he was announcing my appointment as director of USIA at a press conference at noon. I told him he couldn’t do that to me. I was at the height of my career. I was enjoying myself, and my wife would never understand. He said he’d hold off a day so that I could explain it to her. Do you know when he made the announcement? At noon.
So I became the director of USIA. I was also a member of the National Security Council. At one of the very first meetings I attended, General William Westmoreland and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara recommended we put 50,000 troops in Vietnam to end the war. But it didn’t work out that way. Vietnam became the total preoccupation of USIA, and everything else was secondary.
BR: Did you like LBJ?
LHM: Yes, he was the most brilliant man I’ve ever met -- and I’ve met a lot of important people. I have great admiration for some of the presidents that followed him, but in my opinion he was the greatest.
Many say that Lyndon, because he came from the South, didn’t believe in civil rights. Lady Bird had two people as hired help, Zephyr and Sammy Wright. Zephyr was the maid and cook, and Sammy was the chauffeur. At one of the luncheons I attended before Johnson became president, Zephyr was serving when Lyndon told her that she and Sammy should get ready to drive to Austin. The family would join them later. She said, "Senator, I’m not going to do it." There was silence.
She said, "When Sammy and I drive to Texas and I have to go to the bathroom, like Lady Bird or the girls, I am not allowed to go to the bathroom. I have to find a bush and squat. When it comes time to eat, we can’t go into restaurants. We have to eat out of a brown bag. And at night, Sammy sleeps in the front of the car with the steering wheel around his neck, while I sleep in the back. We are not going to do it again."
LBJ put down his napkin, and walked out of the room. Later, when Johnson became president and signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law Zephyr was there. He motioned to her, gave her the pen that he used to sign the bill. He said, "You deserve this more than anybody else." It was a very moving experience.
BR: Did you ever try to talk to President Johnson about his handling of the Vietnam war?
LHM: Johnson inherited the Vietnam War from Eisenhower and Kennedy. When Kennedy was assassinated, we had 15,000 advisors in Vietnam and things were going badly. Johnson was told we needed 50,000 troops to solve the problem, and he provided 50,000 troops. When we bombed, he would stay up all night picking the targets. He’d wait up for the reports on how many airplanes were lost, and how many people killed.
He usually got up at 6 a.m., and would work out of his bedroom until late morning. Many people would come there to talk to him, including me. One day I said to him, "Mr. President, we’re getting the hell kicked out of us all around the world. There’s adverse comment about our participation in Vietnam. The headlines, radio broadcasts, they’re all condemning us. I say we get out, and bring the boys home. That’s what I’d do." In all of the time I knew him, he never said a cross word to me, but that day he told me to get out of the room.
Although I was not a statutory member of the National Security Board, LBJ ordered that I was to sit at the table. I attended all sessions and voiced the USIA positions. After that experience, I no longer received notices about the meetings. I was not a member of the cabinet, but he ordered that I sit in the second row at cabinet meetings. After that, I was no longer notified of cabinet meetings. I was ready to resign when Lady Bird called and invited my wife and me to a surprise party for LBJ. I went with trepidation, but as soon as he saw me, Johnson put his arm around me as though nothing had happened. He told a fellow partygoer, "This is the brightest man in my government-the most loyal friend I have." And all of a sudden, I got notices about the meetings again.
After he left office and retired to his ranch, I continued to be his lawyer. One weekend when I was there, I asked him why he got mad at me. He said, "Because I knew you were right, and there was nothing I could do about it. I couldn’t get out of Vietnam, I inherited it. Kennedy’s people were still in government, there would have been a huge uproar in the House and the Senate. I couldn’t get out."
BR: Are there any other experiences that stand our from your days in the Johnson administration?
LHM: Yes. As director of USIA, I was responsible for bringing people from other countries to meet with their counterparts to see for themselves how our economy and social relationships worked. At that time, we had a very tense relationship with Egypt. President Nasser was in charge of the Egyptian government, and he was viciously opposed to the United States. I called our ambassador in Cairo, and said that we were getting the hell kicked out of us in the Arab world. I asked if we could bring six prominent Egyptians to the United States on a cultural exchange program to see what kind of people we were. Six prominent Egyptians came as our guests. We told them they could go wherever they wanted, and we’d provide transportation and an escort. We only asked that when they were through, they’d return to Washington to meet with the secretary of state. I decided that they should also meet the president, and I called the White House. I was told to send them over. They stayed there for hours. One man said to me, "This is the most exciting experience of my life. I’m the leader of the majority in parliament, and I didn’t want to come. My skin is dark. I thought I’d be discriminated against, but on the contrary, I found Americans to be very friendly. They received me with open arms. I no longer believe this propaganda about discrimination." That man was Anwar Sadat.
When Sadat became president of Egypt, he threw the Russians out. He embraced the United States and offered public statements of support for our policies. He said that he had met Americans, and that he could trust them. That is a very moving example of what cultural exchange can do.
BR: Was President Johnson the most important influence on your career?
LHM: Absolutely. He launched it. He brought me to the attention of the international community, Congress, and industry. He gave me a lot of power, and he stood behind me in everything I did.
BR: You said you maintained a relationship with him after he left office?
LHM: Yes. Lady Bird, Frank Stanton, the president of CBS, and I conceived the idea for the Friends of the LBJ Public Library. We’d meet periodically at the LBJ ranch. We’d discuss library matters, as well as international affairs. I think Johnson missed Washington, and the responsibilities that came with it.
BR: What did you do after Johnson left office?
LHM: I had helped to organize COMSAT under Kennedy. It was my feeling that we needed a broader organization, and we needed other countries involved. I proposed INTELSAT, and asked other nations to participate in a world organization on satellites. Johnson appointed me chair of the U.S. delegation to form INTELSAT. I called the first meeting of governments here in Washington. Then Nixon became president, and I tendered my resignation. But Nixon called me into his office and asked me to stay, so I stayed. I was in that position for a little more than a year.
My job was to try to get governments to agree to join the U.S. on the satellite consortium. We were launching satellites, and had to raise money to pay for them. We had to have launch facilities to put into orbit, had to have ground stations to receive the signals, and had to have customers.
BR: What was the mission of some other government positions you’ve held?
LHM: I have had four presidential appointments, some with ambassadorial rank.
I am also very fortunate to have been named as the head of some nongovernmental organizations that affected international policy. They were the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where I served as chairman of the executive committee for 16 years, and the International Rescue Committee, where I served as president for eight years. During my tenure on the International Rescue Committee we aided thousands of Vietnamese boat people, as well as Russian and African refugees. In addition, I served as chairman of the Foreign Policy Association. This organization provided a forum for prominent international figures, such as prime ministers Thatcher and Indira Ghandi, and many other heads of state and foreign ministry officials. I was also appointed by President Reagan to head the United States delegation of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) in Geneva.
BR: What is your role with the World Press Freedom Committee?
LHM: I’m treasurer and counsel of that committee. It has 40 organizations from all over the world participating in the effort for free press. Currently we are organizing a delegation to Moscow to talk about the freedom of a Russian journalist, a reporter for Radio Free Europe who was covering the war in Chechnya and reporting on Russian casualties. We think the Russians captured him to stop his broadcasts. We plan a delegation of African, American, and European journalists to protest government control over a free press. We’ve done similar projects in other countries as well.
But my big project at the moment involves insult laws. More than 92 countries have laws that make it a crime for a journalist to insult the president of the country. The crime is punishable by jail. We’re trying to eliminate insult laws throughout the world.
BR: Have there been many changes in the practice of law since you began?
LHM: I think it has become a business, instead of a profession. I object to the commercialization of the practice. For example, bringing three or four lawyers into a meeting when one would do, or the emphasis on hourly billing rather than performance. I think lawyers are taking on assignments that are really business matters, and they’re confusing themselves with accountants and entrepreneurs.
I also object to casual wear. Our office only does it on Fridays, but I don’t. Ever.
BR: If one of your grandchildren wanted to be a lawyer, would you encourage it?
LHM: No. One of my sons wanted to be a lawyer. I discouraged him and now he is happy as an investment banker. In my opinion, the practice of law no longer provides the satisfaction that I had as a lawyer.
BR: Who have been some of your role models?
LHM: Lyndon Johnson was my primary role model. There was also a judge of the New York state Supreme Court that I got to know. Some of his precepts still guide me today. He had a very high regard for the ethical concepts of the practice of law. I’ve known quite a few Supreme Court justices and have a great respect for their legal ability, and for the manner in which they handled controversial questions of social policy, but I won’t single out any one judge.
I’ve known some very successful businessmen, and admired the way they handled their business affairs. But most of my heroes have been in journalism-such as Frank Stanton, the former president of CBS. He had the highest moral principles and ethical standards for the broadcasting industry. There’s no one comparable to him at this time.
BR: What are some of your hobbies-outside of the practice of law?
LHM: I used to play tennis, but I’m too old for that now. I like to travel. I like to lecture. And I read novels, sometimes one a day, sometimes one a week. I love adventure stories, mysteries, and biographies.
BR: Any regrets?
LHM: None. I’ve had a wonderful life.