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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: Joe Borkin, Thurman Arnold, Sukharno, and BP

From Washington Lawyer, December 2001

By Jacob A. Stein


I met Joe Borkin in the 1960s when each of us had an office in the Ring building at 18th and M. In talks with Joe I learned he was one of those people who as a young man wanted to read every book in the library. As a byproduct of that effort, he knew a lot of things about a lot of people. If someone could not finish a sentence because he couldn’t remember a name or the title of a book, Joe quickly supplied what was needed and then he would add the relevant bibliography on the subject in question.

Joe was a man of obsessions. Within his major obsession of wanting to know everything were his minor obsessions, such as the complete works of Sigmund Freud, the complete works of Thorsten Veblen, and Galbraith’s theories of why the stock market crashed. Despite these distractions, Joe obtained a degree in economics and took it to the Department of Justice in the late 1930s.

There he met the man who had a decisive influence on his life. The man was Thurman Arnold, who was in charge of reawakening the antitrust division of the Department of Justice. Thurman Arnold has been described as contradictory, dramatic, intriguing, and ironic, and with no desire to clarify the signals. Joe was Thurman Arnold’s economic adviser, theoretician, Boswell, server of subpoenas, and the expert on the conspiratorial behavior forbidden by the Sherman Act.

Thurman Arnold’s satirical commentaries on government and myth, Folklore of Capitalism and Symbols of Government, organized Joe’s theories of political science.

President Roosevelt in 1943 appointed Thurman Arnold to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Arnold recalled, "I confidently expected to spend the rest of my life in a position of great dignity, with long vacations in the summer, in an atmosphere where the wicked cease from troubling and the weary are at rest." When Thurman Arnold became Judge Arnold, Joe Borkin left Justice to go out on his own as a consulting economist and writer. When Joe and I met in the 1960s, Joe was busy writing the history of the German cartel I. G. Farbin. Joe eventually finished the book and when published it made the best-seller list.

Judge Arnold discovered he did not have the temperament for appellate judging. He wanted to be a player rather than an umpire. "I was impatient with legal precedents that seemed to me to reach an unjust result. I felt restricted by the fact that a judge has no business writing or speaking on controversial subjects. A judge can talk about human liberties, the rule of law above men, and similar abstractions. All of them seemed to me dull subjects."

In the 1950s Indonesia was in turmoil. Competing local armies fought each other when they were not fighting the Dutch colonials. A person who emerged from all the conflict who seemed to hold out the best prospects for Indonesia was, simply, Sukharno. His publicity labeled him as his country’s George Washington. Sukharno needed money to fund his troops. He let it be known that he was selling shares in his prospects of victory.

Thurman Arnold made a chance remark to a Sukharno representative that Joe Borkin might have among his wide acquaintance of friends a few people who would like to help Sukharno bring democracy to Indonesia. The chance remark initiated a meeting between Sukharno and Borkin. Borkin took Sukharno’s cause to friends in the movie business. One of these people was an erratic genius who made lots of money by signing up Abbott and Costello to make movies. B movies for a B-rated Hollywood studio. This erratic genius bought shares in Sukharno.

In time Sukharno won out and tried to bring order out of disorder in Indonesia. When he came into power, he remembered his friends. He worked out a plan to give the investors shares in certain Indonesian oil wells.

The investors nominated Joe Borkin (who did not invest) to go to London and arrange to meet with the high officials in British Petroleum to sell BP the oil properties. Joe took the deeds and went to London.

Joe described what happened this way. BP’s man, Sir Something or Other, invited Joe to a meeting in a leather-bound office. Joe told Sir Something or Other of his mission. He produced the deeds. Sir Something or Other looked at the deeds, examined the seals, examined the signatures. He held the deeds up to the light. He then pressed a button and someone came into the office, and Sir Something or Other said, "Charles, look these over and be back here as soon as you can and tell us whether they are authentic."

Charles left and Sir Something or Other offered Joe a Cuban cigar. They talked of London hotels. Sir Something or Other said his favorite was the Stafford.

In a few minutes Charles returned and handed the deeds and a note to Sir Something or Other. Sir Something or Other handed the note to Joe. The note said, "These deeds are authentic."

Joe handed the note back to Sir Something or Other, who then handed the deeds back to Joe. Then Sir Something or Other leaned forward and said to Joe, "I have some good news and some bad news. Joe—do you mind if I call you Joe?—these deeds are authentic. That’s the good news. Now the bad news. As long as you have these deeds, your life isn’t worth a shilling. Burn them and get out of here as soon as you can."

Joe did exactly as he was told. He returned home with the bad news. The investors had prepared a gift for Joe that they intended to present to him to commemorate his triumphant return. After Joe spoke they understood that they were childishly shortsighted in their expectations of wealth beyond the dreams of avarice.

The gift was a fine portrait of Thurman Arnold done by an Indonesian artist of some fame. As years went by, the portrait, on display in Joe’s office, was Joe’s reminder of those exciting Sukharno days ending with Joe’s trip to London.

Jacob A. Stein may be reached by e-mail at [email protected].