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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: How Could He Be So Dumb?

From Washington Lawyer, February 2013

By Jacob A. Stein


Two lawyers—one a man of many years in the practice, the other, a young man new in the practice—are meeting a new client. The client’s problem is that he is a public figure and now the government is closing in on his fraudulent schemes. His corruption will be exposed. He will no longer live in mansions, drive expensive cars, take trips around the world, or receive high–profile publicity for his over-the-top charitable donations.

The client leaves. The young lawyer says, “How could that man be so dumb?” The experienced lawyer replies, “I was afraid you were going to say that to the client. Once when I was your age, I did say it, and I was fired.”

The client does not tell the lawyer the facts of the case all at once. He tells his story little by little to test the lawyer’s reaction. If the lawyer says “How could you be so dumb,” or if the lawyer’s facial expression says the same thing, the client decides he needs a more experienced lawyer.

We all make mistakes, even politicians. When the articles appear on the front pages, it is inevitable that a journalist will write “How could he be so dumb?”

One such politician was Herbert Henry Asquith, a British prime minister in the early 1900s. He was a successful lawyer, a wise politician, and the leader of his party. All went well in his life until he met Venetia Stanley. She was 25. He was 58, and married. Venetia was attractive, intelligent, and experienced beyond her age. After they met, Asquith put in writing his thoughts the day he fell in love with Venetia: “Suddenly, in a single instant … the scales dropped from my eyes … and I dimly felt … not at all understanding it, that I had come to a turning point in my life.”

Their correspondence was unique and intimate. During World War I, Asquith, in Cabinet meetings, had to make life–and–death decisions. Nevertheless, he wrote Venetia as many as three letters a day. In one letter, Asquith commented about Winston Churchill: “Our War Council lasted nearly 2½ hours. Winston was in some ways at his worst—having quite a presentable case. He was noisy, rhetorical, tactless and temperless—or—full.”

Certain Cabinet members learned of the Venetia connection. One of Asquith’s political enemies, David Lloyd George, used the rumors to replace Asquith and install himself.

During this time Asquith had another Venetia complication. Asquith’s friend and political secretary, Edwin Montagu, also was in love with Venetia. They agreed to marry. Venetia regretfully told Asquith of her decision. Asquith wrote back:

Most Loved,

As you know well this breaks my heart.
I couldn’t bear to come and see you.
I can only pray God to bless you—and help me.

Montagu died young, at age 45. Venetia wrote a touching letter to Asquith, and with it the story ends:

My darling Mr. Asquith,

Edwin asked me to give you something of his and I finally thought you might like this Hamlet, which I’d given him a long time ago. I’ve never thanked you for your divine letter, you know how dumb and inarticulate I am, but you do realize, I hope, how glad I was to get it. I hope I may see you sometime when you get back.

Much love always,

In random readings, I came across a paragraph that hit the target of Why We Could Be So Dumb. Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860), a German philosopher, offers this diagnosis:

[Sex] has an unfavourable influence on the most important affairs, interrupts every hour the most serious occupations and sometimes perplexes for a while even the greatest minds. It does not hesitate to intrude with its trash, and to interfere with the negotiations of statesmen and the investigations of the learned. It knows how to slip its love-notes and ringlets even into ministerial portfolios and philosophical manuscripts. Every day it brews and hatches the worst and most perplexing quarrels and disputes, destroys the most valuable relationships, and breaks the strongest bonds. It demands the sacrifice sometimes of life or health, sometimes of wealth, position, and happiness. Indeed, it robs of all conscience those who were previously honorable and upright, and makes traitors of those who have hitherto been loyal and faithful. Accordingly, it appears on the whole as a malevolent demon, striving to pervert, to confuse, and to overthrow everything.

Reading this stunning paragraph one might wish to know more about this man Schopenhauer. His father was a successful Dutch merchant and businessman. Schopenhauer chose education and philosophy rather than business. Schopenhauer studied at various universities, and then spent most of his life in Frankfurt, Germany, living alone, reading, playing his flute, and writing. Schopenhauer wrote a number of wisdom essays. He ends up by declaring that the universe is a hostile place, filled with terror and without purpose. All we must do is to take Madam Fortuna by the hand and we see a different world. There is good luck there for ourselves and the energy to help others. Madam Fortuna likes it that way.

Reach Jacob A. Stein at [email protected].