A Conversation With Peter B. Edelman
Interview By Tim Wells
Peter B. Edelman’s career in the law spans more than 40 years and has taken him from the Kennedy administration to the law offices of Foley & Lardner LLP and into the classrooms of the Georgetown University Law Center.
After clerking for Supreme Court Justice Arthur J. Goldberg, Edelman worked as a special assistant to Assistant Attorney General John Douglas in the Civil Division of the U.S. Department of Justice in 1963. From there, he worked on Robert Kennedy’s 1964 Senate campaign, eventually serving as Kennedy’s legislative assistant.
Following Kennedy’s assassination, Edelman spent brief periods working as deputy director for the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial and issues director for Goldberg’s New York gubernatorial campaign, and then served as vice president of the University of Massachusetts.
In 1975 Edelman became director of the New York State Division for Youth. Four years later, he joined Foley & Lardner as partner, during which time he served as issues director for Senator Edward Kennedy’s 1980 presidential bid.
Edelman came to Georgetown in 1982 and now teaches constitutional, poverty, and public interest law.
In 2005 Edelman was chosen to chair the District of Columbia Access to Justice Commission, which works to ensure access to high-quality civil legal assistance for low- and moderate-income District residents.
Edelman received his undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard University, following which he clerked for Judge Henry Friendly of the Second Circuit and Justice Goldberg.
Where did you grow up?
I was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where I attended the public schools. Looking back, I would have to say it was a reasonably happy, unremarkable childhood. I did not have to deal with any great struggles or handicaps.
What did your parents do?
My father was a lawyer and my mother was a stay-at-home mom and a very gifted pianist.
What type of law did your father practice?
In the current terminology, you would say he was a complex litigation lawyer. He specialized in cases that were very complicated, often involving taxes, bankruptcy, and the pursuit of assets. His favorite case was the one he did pro bono for the Minneapolis Art Institute. The institute had purchased a bas relief purportedly done by Leonardo da Vinci’s nephew. A visiting art expert suspected it was a fake, and my father engaged in long hours of detective work to determine the true origin of the piece. Ultimately, he was able to determine it was a forgery.
In addition to his legal work, my father was quite involved in community service. He was a charter member of Mayor Hubert H. Humphrey’s Human Relations Council. He was chosen because he had some visibility in the Jewish community, and there were issues of anti-Semitism that Humphrey thought should be addressed.
Did you know Humphrey yourself?
Yes. When I was in the sixth grade the principal used to send me down to the headquarters of the board of education at city hall to pick up educational films to be shown at school. I would stop in the mayor’s office to see if Humphrey was around, and every now and then he would see me. He was a wonderful, energetic person, and he always gave me an effusive greeting. I remember one time he invited me in and asked my advice as to who he should appoint as the chief of police. So I have very fond memories of Humphrey.
Did having a father who was a lawyer influence your career decision?
Yes. My father was a great role model. I wanted to become a lawyer from an early age. By the time I was nine or ten, I was pretty much decided on that as what I wanted to do—even though I knew very little about what a lawyer actually did.
Where did you go to college?
I went to Harvard sort of by mistake. My father’s law partner, Sidney Kaplan—who served with Justice Jackson at the Nuremberg Trials—was also a great role model for me. He had graduated from Harvard Law School. I thought, “Sidney went to Harvard, so I’ll go there, too.” But Sidney didn’t actually go to Harvard College. He went to the University of Minnesota as an undergraduate, and then to Harvard Law School. So I applied to Harvard under a bit of a misconception.
Did you enjoy your undergraduate years?
I did. At first I found Harvard to be a bit daunting. I was a public school kid and a lot of my classmates had attended prestigious prep schools and were better prepared. But it turned out all right. I majored in economics, but along the way I fell in love with literature and history, and I had the opportunity to study under some great professors. During my four years there, I received a wonderful liberal education.
Were you politically active as a college student?
Not on issues in the real world. I was quite involved in student activities. I was an undergraduate from 1954 through 1958. I remember before I left for college my father said to me, “Now don’t join anything.” This was the period of Joe McCarthy and the height of Mc- Carthyism. My father was concerned I might get my name on some list that would brand me for life. In the hearings before the House Un-American Activities Committee and McCarthy’s Senate investigative subcommittee, people were being smeared by association with all sorts of liberal organizations. But on college campuses, those were quiet times. Students tended to focus on their own lives. There was nothing like the activism we saw in the 1960s, when idealistic young people felt they could go out and make a better world.
Did you pay attention to events such as the Supreme Court decision
in Brown v. Board of Education and the integration of public schools
in Little Rock, Arkansas?
Not very much. My active political consciousness about the outside world didn’t develop until after I had graduated from law school. It was 1960 when incredibly courageous young people started sitting in at lunch counters throughout the South to protest the segregation laws that were still on the books. By then I was in my second year of law school, and I can remember sitting around and discussing what was taking place with my fellow law students. We had a lot of interesting debates, but I was not particularly engaged. Generally, I thought it would be a good thing if we had racial justice in our country, but it was an abstract, theoretical sort of belief. I wasn’t ready to go and sit in with the early civil rights activists. I stuck to my law books.
When you enrolled in law school did you have any idea what kind
of lawyer you wanted to become?
Not in any specific way. I certainly didn’t envision the career path I eventually took. It was only after I got into law school that I began to understand how little I knew about what lawyers do and their function in our society. Many of my friends regarded law school as a necessary evil, as something they had to endure to attain a career objective. That wasn’t true for me. I enjoyed the intellectual rigor of law school, and I found law review to be very challenging. So even though I didn’t have a clear vision of where I was headed, I enjoyed the academic challenge.
What did you do after you graduated?
I was a law clerk for Judge Henry Friendly of the Second Circuit. He was a brilliant man and a superb lawyer, and I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with him. The following year I was supposed to clerk for Justice Felix Frankfurter on the Supreme Court, but three days before I was scheduled to start, he had a stroke and retired from the Court. Arthur Goldberg was appointed to replace him, and he very graciously took me in. So I did get to clerk on the Supreme Court after all.
What was Justice Goldberg like?
He was a wonderful person. Very warm. He treated his law clerks like family. Working for him was an eye-opening experience. His first question in approaching a case always was, “What is the just result?” Then he would work backward from the answer to that question to see how it would comport with relevant theory or precedent. It took me a while to get used to that approach. The way I had learned the law at Harvard was that you looked up the answer in a book. The law was composed of “neutral principles” that you could apply to get the proper result, and you never really asked whether it was just or not. Justice Goldberg opened my consciousness to the fact that the overarching purpose is about justice.
What year were you at the Supreme Court?
I was there for the term that began in October 1962.
Did you have a favorite case?
The case I remember best is Rusk v. Cort, in which the government had stripped Dr. Joseph Cort of his citizenship on the grounds that he failed to return to the United States to respond to a draft notice in 1952 during the Korean War. The question at issue was whether this was constitutional, and by a vote of 5–4, the Court ruled that it was not. Justice Goldberg wrote the opinion, which I helped draft. Six years later, my wife and I were traveling through Czechoslovakia on our honeymoon, and I looked up Dr. Cort, who resided in Prague. I thought he would be pleased with the opinion of the Court, which said that his citizenship could not be taken away. But he was not at all grateful. He told me that if he went back to the United States he could still be prosecuted for avoiding the draft. I confess I had not thought through the real-life meaning of the decision. I learned a lesson that day.
What did you do after your term at the Supreme Court?
At the suggestion of Justice Goldberg, I went to work in the U.S. Justice Department. This was 1963, the third year of the Kennedy administration, and I remember Justice Goldberg telling me, “There won’t be many administrations like this in your lifetime. You need to be part of this.” I had vivid memories of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, and I thought, “What’s he talking about?” Of course, I can see now that Justice Goldberg was right. The Kennedy administration was a very special time.
In the Justice Department I worked as a special assistant to John Douglas, who was in charge of the Civil Division. I would sit in on the morning meeting when he would strategize with his deputies, and he would assign me to write legal memoranda as needed. One of the big cases I was involved with came up when the state of Alabama tried to press criminal charges against Justice Department lawyers from the Civil Rights Division for practicing law without a license. Lawyers from the Civil Division went to federal court to seek an injunction against the criminal prosecutions. This was a long shot, because it is very unusual for a federal court to enjoin a state criminal prosecution. The normal course is to wait until after the trial and then begin the appellate process. So our move was unprecedented. I stayed up all night writing a memorandum that set forth the arguments in support of court intervention, and the federal court ruled in our favor and enjoined the prosecutions.
I have been so fortunate to work with wonderful people through my whole career—great bosses and great colleagues. John Douglas was one of the very best.
Can you remember what you were doing on November 22, 1963?
Just about everyone does, I’m sure. That was a terrible day. I was having lunch near the Justice Department with my law school classmate, Tim Dyk, when somebody told us that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. The two of us hurried over to Tim’s house to turn on the television. The news reports confirmed what we had been told, and then we learned that the president had died from his wounds. We sat there for the next several hours, just devastated.
Did the assassination have any impact on your work at the Justice
Not substantively. We went on with the work at hand. But there was a pall over the building. Up until the assassination the work was very exciting. I loved getting up and going into work every morning. But after Kennedy’s death, the joy went out of it. That was a very grim time.
Was it while you were at the Justice Department that you made the
acquaintance of Robert Kennedy?
Actually, my first encounter with Robert Kennedy was at the Supreme Court. He was the attorney general in his brother’s administration, and he came over for a luncheon meeting to greet the law clerks. I sat next to him, and as he was making his initial remarks, I was struck by the fact that he was nervous. He was perfectly articulate, but beneath the table I could see that his knee was shaking. I thought that was endearing, to think that the attorney general of the United States would be nervous when meeting a group of young people just out of law school.
At Justice, Robert Kennedy liked to wander the halls and stop in offices unannounced to see what people were working on. I encountered him once when he came down to the Civil Division on one of his exploratory forays, and another time I attended a meeting in his office when he invited in some of the new lawyers at the department for a little talk. But I didn’t know him well when I was at Justice. He was in the building very little in the months after November 1963.
How did you come to work on Robert Kennedy’s campaign when
he ran for the Senate in 1964?
I was a very junior person in that campaign. I was brought in by John Douglas. He operated as a free-floating ombudsman within the campaign, and he thought the research operation was not going well. Douglas told Kennedy he should hire me to beef up research. So that’s how I was brought in. Kennedy was running against Kenneth Keating, the incumbent senator who had also been a congressman from an upstate New York district for many years.
Within the Kennedy campaign, I was the expert on Keating’s voting record. Right away, I saw that Keating had been much more conservative when he was an upstate congressman than he was as a senator. So we developed a couple of full-page ads for the New York Times. The first one we called “Keating vs. Keating,” which showed how he had voted as senator in one column contrasted with another column that showed how he had voted on the same issue as a congressman. The second ad was called “Box Score,” where we showed how Jacob Javits (the other senator from New York, also a Republican but a real liberal) and Hubert Humphrey had voted together on a series of issues, and Keating and Barry Goldwater had voted the other way. Goldwater was the Republican presidential nominee in 1964, and he was getting trounced by Lyndon B. Johnson. The newspaper ad tied Keating to Goldwater, who was very unpopular in New York.
Did you get to know Kennedy better during that campaign?
That was when I really began to get to know him. There were several times when Kennedy was briefed before a debate or a media appearance, and they would bring me in to go over Keating’s record. I created a paste-up display so that Kennedy could easily see the fundamental points that we had developed and could then internalize them. As the campaign went on, I got to know Kennedy fairly well and came to admire him tremendously. I was a 26-year-old kid who had never had any real involvement in politics, and then all of a sudden I was dropped into the middle of this very intense senate campaign in New York. It was all very exciting, and of course I was elated when he won.
And you joined his senate staff?
Right. I got a call from Ed Guthman, RFK’s press secretary in the Justice Department, who said, “Senator Kennedy would like to talk to you.” I met him at the White House. He had hurt his knee playing touch football and had gone over to get treatment from the White House physician, Janet Travell, who had been President Kennedy’s doctor. I had put on a coat and tie and was expecting a formal job interview. I had been rehearsing answers in my head about my qualifications and so forth. I went with Kennedy to see the doctor, and then we went outside for the interview on the little street between the White House and the Old Executive Office Building. He sat on the fender of a parked car and said, “So, are you going to come to work for me?” Just like that. No formal interview, just are you going to do it or not? I fumbled and said, “What’s the salary?” Kennedy shrugged. “You can work that out with Ed.” I fumbled again and said, “Well, you know, I’m a little worried that I’ve been out of law school for three years now and I’ve never practiced law.” Kennedy smiled and said, “I had that problem, and I worked it out.” And that was it. That was my job interview.
Did you assume that he was a future presidential candidate?
Yes, I assumed he would run for president in 1972. All of us thought Lyndon Johnson would serve two full terms. Johnson had defeated Goldwater in a landslide. So I thought it would be eight years before Robert Kennedy would have an opportunity to run. None of us were thinking about 1968.
Did you sense any animus between Robert Kennedy and President Johnson?
Not then. During the campaign the issue had come up as to how Kennedy would feel about campaigning with Johnson in New York. So I was aware that they weren’t fond of one another, but the issues that drove them apart—the war in Vietnam and President Johnson’s response to civil unrest in the cities—were not prominent when Kennedy was sworn in as a senator in January 1965. All of that came later.
Of course, President Kennedy had made some of the initial commitments
to Vietnam, which Robert Kennedy supported. When did he begin to change
his view about whether this was the right commitment?
Robert Kennedy believed in counterinsurgency. His early support was centered on the belief that you could succeed in Vietnam with a largely nonmilitary effort using counterinsurgency techniques. When President Johnson initiated a huge military escalation in 1965, Kennedy thought that was a foolish and dangerous thing to do. I’m convinced that before President Kennedy was assassinated, he had decided he had to wind down the military advisory effort in Vietnam. Both President Kennedy and Robert Kennedy had come to the conclusion that the Diem regime in South Vietnam was corrupt and could not obtain a popular base of support. So Robert Kennedy’s views on Vietnam had begun to evolve and change before he became a senator, but he didn’t begin to express strong dissent until the onset of the huge military escalation.
Was your thinking on the war in harmony with Kennedy’s?
Yes. I was opposed to the massive military escalation. But I wasn’t involved with Vietnam on a day-to-day basis. My first big task in the Senate office was trying to prevent the closure of some veterans hospitals in New York State. And my basic work was tracking legislation coming to the senate floor and keeping the senator apprised of what was contained in this bill or that bill, and drafting questions he could ask at committee hearings and so forth. I had plenty to do that had nothing to do with Vietnam.
Was it while you were working for Senator Kennedy that you met your
wife, Marian Wright Edelman?
Yes. The Senate Subcommittee on Employment, Manpower, and Poverty was holding hearings around the country on the extension of the poverty program. I was sent down to Mississippi to advance the hearings there, and Dick Boone at the Citizens Crusade Against Poverty told me, “You should look up Marian Wright.” She was going to be a witness at the hearings. So I called her and told her I was preparing for the hearings and wanted to talk to her. She said she was too busy to see me. She was writing a brief and was up against a tight deadline. I said, “You need to eat dinner, don’t you?” She said she supposed she did. So we met for dinner, and I liked her immediately. I guess she liked me, too.
When Senator Kennedy came down for the hearings, Marian took us through some terribly impoverished rural communities where there was no electricity, no indoor plumbing, and the people were living in awful conditions. We saw emaciated children who were practically starving. Kennedy was deeply moved by that. He couldn’t believe that children were being allowed to starve in the United States. But there they were, standing right before our eyes.
One of the issues was that the government charged recipients for food stamps. Even if you had no income you had to pay $2 to receive a monthly allotment of food stamps. Kennedy was appalled by what he had seen. There were literally families with no income because they had been forced off the plantations and couldn’t get either welfare or food assistance. When he got back to Washington the first thing he did was visit the secretary of Agriculture, Orville Freeman. He said, “Orville, you’ve got to stop charging these people with no income for food stamps. You’ve got to get some food down there.” Freeman said, “Bob, there are no people in the United States with no income.” Kennedy said, “Oh, yes, there are. I’ve seen them.” Freeman was dubious. So Kennedy said, “I’ll tell you what. I’ll send Peter back down to Mississippi with someone you trust from the Agriculture Department, and Peter will retrace our steps. If they come back and tell you that there are people who have no income, will you amend the rules so they can get some food stamps?” Freeman said, yes, he would do that.
I called Marian and said, “I’m coming back down.” Together we all went back to see the families we had met. So we were able to get the food stamp distribution rules changed and the poorest of the poor were able to get some food. Starting with that trip, our romance evolved rather quickly, and we were married the following year.
During this time the escalation of the war in Vietnam was taking
place. Were you passionately antiwar from the outset?
My opposition became much more intense as the war escalated, as did that of Senator Kennedy. He was deeply disturbed by the commitment of ground troops and the rounds of escalation that followed. In February 1966, Kennedy called for the sharing of power and responsibility between North and South Vietnam as a way to bring about a negotiated end to the conflict. President Johnson jumped all over that. He sent Kennedy’s friends inside his administration—Hubert Humphrey, Robert McNamara, Maxwell Taylor—out to attack Robert Kennedy in the press. He did that deliberately. He wanted to make Kennedy’s friends carry the water. Of course, Kennedy just had his small senate staff, and Johnson had the entire administration. We weren’t very well equipped to deal with the press onslaught that was brought down on our heads. But he persevered. We were all convinced that the war in Vietnam was a tragic mistake.
In the summer of 1967 some dissident Democrats—most notably
Curtis Gans and Allard Lowenstein—were promoting the idea of dumping
Johnson by denying him renomination, and they desperately wanted Kennedy
to run against Johnson in 1968. Did you have any contact with them?
I did. I was sympathetic, as were others on the senate staff who wanted him to run. But Kennedy was saying he had no intention of becoming a candidate, and I took him at his word.
Why was he so reluctant to get into the race?
This was a decision he struggled with for a period of several months. Robert Kennedy was a transitional figure. Part of him did things the old, traditional way—dealing with Chicago’s Mayor Daley and the party professionals, cutting the necessary deals. Another part of him was committed to “cause politics,” where you take risks because you’re in it for the cause, and the personal consequences be damned. His father had told him that an iron rule of politics was, “Never go into anything you can’t win.” In 1968 he wasn’t at all confident he could win a nomination fight against an incumbent president. So he was torn.
In late January 1968, he attended a journalists’ breakfast and said that he would not run under any foreseeable circumstances. While they were at breakfast—remember there were no blackberries and no cell phones then—the news about the Tet offensive in Vietnam came across the wires. The timing was extremely unfortunate. He was stuck with his statement that he would not run. He had a very uncomfortable month of February, and he eventually changed his mind.
What made him change his mind? Was it Eugene McCarthy’s unexpected
success against President Johnson in the New Hampshire primary?
Kennedy had decided that he was going to run before the vote in the primary took place. It was an accumulation of things—the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the pressure on him to run by those opposed to the war, the antiwar demonstrations that were tearing the country apart, his belief that President Johnson wasn’t responding adequately to the crisis in the inner cities, and his personal conviction that it was the right thing to do. Ultimately, he chose “cause politics” over traditional politics.
This is something I know about first hand. The New Hampshire primary was scheduled for March 12, 1968, and two days before the primary I was with Kennedy in California. Cesar Chavez was staging a fast on behalf of striking migrant farm workers, and his health was imperiled. The doctors were becoming alarmed. Chavez sent word that he would break the fast only if Kennedy was present to help him do it. Kennedy said, “Okay, I’ll go.” So after a Jefferson-Jackson Day speech in Iowa, we flew out to California. In Los Angeles we got on a little private plane—there were four of us, Ed Guthman, John Seigenthaler, Kennedy, and myself—and after we were airborne Kennedy blurted out, “I’ve decided I’m going to run for president.” He just came out with it. None of us were pestering him about it or trying to convince him to run, he just said it was what he was going to do. And that was two days before the New Hampshire primary. Needless to say, I was ecstatic.
In that primary Eugene McCarthy did extremely well, exposing President
Johnson’s vulnerability and the strength of the antiwar sentiment
in what was supposed to be a conservative, hawkish state. Were you surprised
We’d been getting reports from New Hampshire indicating that McCarthy was doing well. His strong showing against President Johnson wasn’t a total surprise. Kennedy thought McCarthy would do well.
What was Kennedy’s relationship like with McCarthy?
Not very good. Kennedy thought McCarthy was lazy—a poor senator. It nettled him that McCarthy had decided to make the run against President Johnson when he had decided to stay out. He didn’t think that McCarthy was the appropriate person to carry that standard.
Did Kennedy expect McCarthy to step aside so that he could have
the anti-Johnson, antiwar constituency all to himself?
No. Kennedy realized he had muffed his original decision. He never actually said that, but he was very conscious of it. All he could do was pick up the pieces and get going. He got on the campaign trail and did very well, winning every primary he entered, except Oregon, and drawing huge, enthusiastic crowds.
Were you campaigning with him in Indiana on the night Martin Luther
King Jr. was assassinated?
No, I was here in Washington, D.C., where Marian and I were having dinner with Judge David Bazelon. That was a terrible night. The news of the assassination was a horrible shock, and that news was followed by major riots here in the District as well as all over the country. Entire blocks went up in flames. When Kennedy came back from Indiana, Marian and I walked through the streets with him. This was the Sunday after the assassination. We were going to church together, and there was no police escort, no secret service—just the three of us walking through the neighborhood. There was terrible destruction. Some of the buildings we walked past were still smoldering. But Kennedy felt a need to be there, to bear witness to what was happening.
Did you feel as if civilization was coming apart?
The death of Martin Luther King was a terrible loss for the country, and I was deeply saddened. But I hadn’t given up hope. I felt that we had to keep working on these issues of civil rights, equality, and economic justice—all the issues that were vital to Dr. King. After all, we still had Bobby, and he was pushing hard on the same issues.
Then, two months later, Bobby was taken, too.
Yes, he was shot after his victory speech on the night when we won the California primary. He lingered on through the next day and died the day following. I had been campaigning with him on the west coast in both Oregon and California, and the morning of the California primary, June 4, I flew back to Washington to file my tax return. I had been so busy I hadn’t filed in April, but I had gotten an extension. So I came back to take care of that on primary day. That night Marian and I watched the election returns, and we could see that the outcome looked promising. We fell asleep with the TV on. Then we woke up to all the shouting and the commotion. The news was beyond belief.
If it hadn’t been for the assassination, do you think Robert
Kennedy would have won the presidency in 1968?
We don’t know what would have happened if Kennedy had lived, but I believe he would have been nominated and elected. He won the California primary that night, and he would have won in New York, which was coming up next. In those days though, a lot of delegates didn’t come out of the primary process but were creatures of the state party committees, which were controlled by party leaders. In late March, Lyndon Johnson had withdrawn and Hubert Humphrey, who was vice president, had announced his candidacy immediately thereafter. The administration still possessed considerable influence, and Humphrey had a large delegate base. McCarthy was also still in the race. I think the McCarthy and Kennedy forces would have found a way of coming together.
I know Kennedy was thinking about how best to put together a coalition of delegates that could have won him the nomination. He was in close touch with Mayor Daley in Chicago, and Governor Hughes in New Jersey, and others. In terms of his positions on ending the war and reconciliation among the races, he had considerable appeal. He was a very attractive candidate. So I can’t prove it, but I think he would have been nominated. And if he had won the nomination, he would have run against Richard Nixon, who barely defeated Humphrey in a very close election. So if Kennedy had won the nomination, I’m confident he would have done better than Humphrey in the general election. In a Robert Kennedy versus Richard Nixon contest, I think Kennedy would have won.
What did you do that summer after the assassination?
Marian and I got married on July 14, 1968. We had known we were going to get married at some point, but we had anticipated being in the middle of an election campaign that summer. Then, after the terrible losses we had been through, we just decided to go ahead and do it. We got a caterer and sent the invitations out and had a ceremony in Adam Walinsky’s backyard in McLean, Virginia. We think we were the first interracial couple to get married in Virginia after the Loving decision. Reverend William Sloane Coffin Jr., the chaplain from Yale, whom Marian had known when she was in law school there, conducted the ceremony, and Justice Goldberg agreed to stand up for us. Because Reverend Coffin was from out of state, we had to post a bond so that he could be empowered to conduct the wedding in Virginia. At the county clerk’s office we were told that we had to pay $100, which was a lot of money back in those days. Bill Coffin thought that was outrageous and started to protest. We had the local ACLU lawyer there with us, and he whispered in my ear, “Just pay it!” So we paid the $100 and we got married. Looking back, I’d have to say that $100 was a good investment. We have three grown children now and four beautiful grandchildren.
Did you ever cross paths with Hubert Humphrey again?
I did. After Jimmy Carter was elected in 1976, he appointed Andrew Young ambassador to the United Nations. Marian and I brought our sons down to see Andrew Young’s swearing-in, and Humphrey was there. He was sick with cancer and looked quite gaunt. I went over and introduced my boys to him, and he said in his usual ebullient way, “Your grandfather is my best friend! I want you all to come up to the Senate cafeteria and have a hamburger with me sometime!” It was just wonderful. After all the political warfare we’d been through in 1968, with Kennedy running against Humphrey for the nomination, there was the potential for hard feelings. But not with Humphrey. He was a special man.
What was your next career move?
I was deputy director for the Memorial for Robert Kennedy, which at that time offered fellowships to young people who wanted to work in Vista-like poverty programs. We tailored the fellowships to match community needs. Then in 1970 Justice Goldberg decided to run for governor of New York, and I was asked to be the issues director for the campaign. My relationship with Justice Goldberg was lifelong, and he was a wonderful mentor and friend, but he was also a terrible candidate. He had been appointed to every job he’d had in his life, and running for office was an art he never mastered. Once when we were campaigning in upstate New York, someone asked him, “You’ve had all these jobs—you’ve been Secretary Goldberg, Ambassador Goldberg, Justice Goldberg—and I was wondering what’s your favorite title?” Any candidate worth his salt as a politician would say, “Oh, just call me Arthur.” But Goldberg couldn’t do that. He let the questioner know he preferred to be addressed as “Justice Goldberg.” I shook my head in disbelief. I knew then that we were in serious trouble. We lost that campaign, but the friendship continued.
After that campaign you went to the University of Massachusetts?
Yes, I was offered the opportunity to be staff director for a panel created by University of Massachusetts President Robert Wood on the future of that university. I had told Bob that Marian wanted to live in a yellow frame house if we came up there, so while we were deciding whether we would go, he had a can of yellow paint delivered to our house. Great recruiting technique! I decided to accept the offer, and after I worked on the study for a year he made me vice president for policy. I worked on several big projects. We started university classes for prison inmates, did a study arguing that the university should have a law school, and developed programs in which medical school faculty provided services to institutionalized disabled persons. I was also involved in developing an affirmative action admissions program and a faculty compensation program for the then new medical school, and defending the construction of a teaching hospital. Those were four-and-a-half very satisfying, very rewarding years.
Why did you leave?
I wasn’t looking to leave, but in 1975, shortly after Hugh Carey became the first Democrat to be elected governor of New York since Averell Harriman, the telephone rang, and David Burke, a friend of mine and a top aide to Carey, asked me if I would consider becoming the director of the New York State Division for Youth, which was the youth corrections agency. I talked it over with my wife, and we decided to make the move to Albany. That was a very challenging, very tough job. I was determined to be an active reformer, and from the outset I pursued a lot of new initiatives. We closed some of the large cottage-type training schools, toughened the response to violent offenders, and greatly expanded community-based programs such as group homes and foster homes for less-serious offenders who were not a threat to the community. Our reform effort was quite ambitious, and we stirred up some resistance from both inside people who were set in their ways and politicians who took a partisan view of what we were doing.
Did the opposition change your views of what needed to be done
in the way of reforms?
Not in any fundamental way. We were totally conscious of our responsibility to protect the community, but trying to reform a juvenile justice system always stirs up opposition. But I knew we were making improvements that were beneficial for the young people in the system. The vast majority were not violent offenders. I was committed to programs that would give them a second chance in life. If I were to do it again, I’d perhaps move a little more incrementally, a little more slowly.
What brought you back to Washington?
After four years in New York, I accepted a job offer from Foley & Lardner LLP, and went into private practice. During that time I also served as the issues director for Ted Kennedy when he ran against President Carter for the Democratic nomination in 1980. Of course, we lost that fight, and President Carter was defeated by Ronald Reagan in the November election. Back at the law firm, I found myself to be a dissident Democrat in a Republican era. A great deal of the legislative practice I had built up more or less fell apart with the coming of the Reagan administration. So I was fortunate to be invited to Georgetown to become a law professor.
Do you enjoy being a law professor?
Very much. I came to Georgetown in 1982, and I have had a wonderful experience here. In addition to teaching Constitutional Law, I have taught a poverty law and policy seminar that has undergone numerous variations in the two-and-a-half decades that I have been teaching it. And I teach a new course with our D.C. Attorney General’s Office where the students do real-time work on consumer protection and antitrust issues. It’s great. I regard my mission here as being able to contribute to the turning out of a new generation of public interest lawyers. I love teaching constitutional law, or anything else, but what really excites me is to try to imbue a new generation with a commitment to serve.
One of the problems many law students have today is that they’re
graduating with a huge burden of debt. Does that have an impact on their
ability to go into public service?
Yes, it’s an impediment, considering the low pay of most public interest jobs. But it’s changing. Here in Washington, I’m the chair of the Access to Justice Commission, and we have worked with the City Council and the Bar Foundation to create a loan forgiveness program for young lawyers who do this work. It’s having a big impact. But we need both help with paying off loans and funding to create more public interest jobs for lawyers. We’ve been successful in getting public funding from the city government to add more than 30 new lawyers to do civil legal services work for low-income people. I hope that with the new Congress and a new administration coming to Washington next year, there will also be more funding for the Legal Services Corporation nationally. The funding has risen since the Democrats gained control of Congress in 2006, and I’m hoping that trend will continue with a new administration.
During the Clinton administration you took a leave of absence from
Georgetown to work at the U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) Department.
What did that involve?
I was counselor to the secretary of HHS, Donna Shalala, and then assistant secretary for planning and evaluation. Both of these were great experiences. I was involved in welfare, drug and alcohol policy, domestic violence issues, a host of urban policy problems, and so on. I had a very full plate, and I enjoyed being in the mix and having the opportunity to put ideas into action. Even though I eventually ended up resigning in protest, I found the work to be tremendously very fulfilling.
What brought about your resignation?
President Clinton signed a welfare reform bill in 1996 that brought about a radical change in the welfare system. The system needed radical change, but not in the direction contained in that bill, which gave too much discretion to the states to adopt punitive policies and introduced time limits irrespective of whether a participant still needed assistance. I thought the bill would have a very adverse impact on women and children, and I think it has in fact done serious damage. A number of us made a concerted effort to convince the president not to sign that bill, but to push for a different package of reforms. President Clinton went ahead and signed the bill over our objections, and I felt I had to resign. I was one of three members of his administration to resign in protest.
After tendering your resignation, you came back to Georgetown?
Yes, I came back to my work as a law professor. I’m quite happy with the way things have turned out because being here over the years has given me an exceptional opportunity to be involved in the local community. I’m chairing the Access to Justice Commission now. I’m able to get our law students involved on local poverty and community issues, and I’m working with Mayor Fenty on issues regarding disconnected youth. And I have stayed involved on national policy and on Israel in a variety of ways. It’s all very stimulating and very satisfying.
Looking back on your career, are you glad you made the decision
to follow in your father’s footsteps and become a lawyer?
Oh, yes. I don’t know what I would possibly be if I wasn’t a lawyer. I have been fortunate to have an enormously rewarding career with many diverse experiences and opportunities. I have done so many things that I never could have anticipated doing, and one of the messages I try to convey to my students is that there are many, many different ways to be a lawyer.
Periodically Washington Lawyer features a conversation with a senior member of the District of Columbia Bar reflecting on his or her career as a lawyer. The “Legends in the Law” are selected by the District of Columbia Bar’s Publications Committee on the basis of their prominence in their profession and their individual impact on the law and the legal profession in the District of Columbia. For past interviews, visit www.dcbar.org/legends.