Monday, March 25, 2013

Tony Lewis, his Times and his Times

I started law school at 6 on a Monday night in August, 1963 in the basement of the University of Louisville law building.  There was a flash flood.  There was water on the floor.  Acting Dean William Peden gave us greeting.  "You are lucky," he said, "that you are joining an underpeopled profession."

He was right.  I suspect through most of history the supply of lawyers has exceeded the demand, but coming out of World War II, the market was particularly grim.  Swarms of returning vets used their GI bill money to qualify for the bar and what had perhaps long been an oversupply became an outright glut.  By 1963, he juridical python had pretty much assimilated its consular pig.  

I suspect we all held our breath for a moment (I know I did).  This was night school; we were mostly around 28 (my age); mostly in careers which, though not exactly dead-end, still didn't seem to be going anywhere quite as fast as we were piling up expenses for wives and babies we had somehow accumulated (we didn't quite know how) along the way.  We were looking for a break.  Bill Peden had just told us that we might just have cut ourselves a break.  In retrospect, I'll surmise that not many of us had an inkling of just how good a break it was.

Now jump cut sideways a few months.  I think it was the spring before my evening in the flood zone that I read Anthony Lewis' Gideon's Trumpet (it have been just after but that's a detail)--about the Gideon of Gideon, who found himself, the somewhat bemused centerpiece in a story about the Constitution and the glory and dignity of the practice of law.    I loved the book: had I been sufficiently fluent, I could have said all the nice things about it that his legions of admirers are saying just now  as they honor Lewis' passing (early today, in Boston, at the age of 85). 

Truth to tell, I had harbored a near-paralyzing ambivalence about law school: Would I like it? No, much less: could I bear it?  Would I have even the foggiest notion what was going on?  You are waiting for me to say that  it was Lewis who gave me the assurance to go forward.  In a way, this is true.  Granted, I never really saw myself as Abe Fortas, the powerful, implacable, cerebral, and, yes liberal lawyer who reigns, as much as anybody, as the hero of Lewis' book. but he certainly made me feel that I could find law "worthy of the interest of an intelligent mind" (me, of course). Not only that, you could make a pretty good living, too (I suppose I could also see that if Tony Lewis was the standard, there was no future for me in journalism).

They couldn't have known it then (nor could I) but Lewis and Peden thus converged to begin a series of events that made the 60s a marvelous decade to be a young lawyer.  Next year was the Mississippi summer of 1964 when we discovered--imagine our surprise--that lawyers could be figures of glamour, even a kind of honor.  It was along about the same time that Lyndon Johnson funded legal services as a part of the law on poverty, so even of the truest of true believers could fight the good fight while still putting food on the table.  And one more: I think it was in 1965 that Cravath, Swaine & Moore, the whitest of white-shoe firms made Soros-like preemptive strike on the competition by raising the starting salary to some unheard-of number (I've forgotten, was it $8,500?  Or $18,500)--anyway a number that made it clear that at least in biglaw, beginning lawyers need never fear poverty again.  Oh, and a final fillip: it was along about the same time that I saw the smiling face of a law professor--and an associate dean, at that--as the glamour boy in an ad for some kind of whiskey.

In short, all of a sudden it was a great time to be a  lawyer. For me to, FWIW: I won't labor the details, except to note that I never did get to Cravath, nor to Mississippi either, for that matter.  Let's just note that I had made rather a mess of my early education (why I wound up in night school at 28). But children, don't believe them when they tell you there are no second chances in life.  For most of the decade, I found myself hurling my body against doors that turned out to be unlocked.

But as the fella says, enough about me.  I'm trying to say something about Tony Lewis.  So perhaps we can agree  that Lewis went from success to success also, though on a much higher plane.  In short he morphed from being a young man of promise, the author of  one very good book (and several other respectable books),  into what seemed to be his destined place at the very center of the liberal firmament, the let-no-dog-bark oracle with (at least) "wisdom, gravity" if not "profound conceit." [Which is not to say he was lockstep predictable: breaking with the pack, he proved himself a dissenter on the matter of special rights for reporters and the institutional press.  For myself I'd say he got that one profoundly right and we can be grateful to him for it.]

So far as I can tell, Lewis' luck held throughout his career (until one day it didn't but that last  is true of everybody). "Luck held" in the sense that h e continued to find causes he felt worthy of his advocacy.  "Luck held" also in the sense he wasn't really onstage long enough to get torn up by the scratching and clawing in which big time journalism has immured itself, nor to see his platform gnawed away from under him as it has for, say Thomas L. Friedman or David Brooks.   In short, a charmed life.

I wonder if I should say the same for the profession of law that Tony Lewis did so much to define.  Granted, there are a lot of old coots (and younger coots) who still burn with the passion of Warren-court liberalism.  There are also ladies and gents in storefront law offices who go to work every day as true believers, and who have probably never seen the north side of $60k a year.  But I suspect that a lot of the brave young souls who got on the up escalator in the heady days went on to become--well, try this: went on to become what became of the French bourgeoisie in the 1860s-70s-80s, who still saw themselves as children of the revolution even as they dined on oysters and fine champagne. The kind of person,  in short, for whom Karl Marx had contempt, and whose very existence was proof enough to Marx that the events of 1789 were only the beginning.

1 comment:

marcel said...

... Lyndon Johnson funded legal services as a part of the law on poverty ...

This makes for a very clear contrast between the U.S. and the French, where the law on poverty is well captured in Anatole France's famous observation about sleeping under bridges.