Friday, June 7, 2019

Cold Case File

There’s a story here as yet untold. It’s what I like to call the Goldberg Bafflement.

In 1965 Arthur Goldberg did the inexplicable. He quit his prestigious, lifetime job on the Supreme Court with these words, It is so ordered.  He would then take on a short-term repugnant position as U.N. Ambassador. It was particularly ugly work because it meant lying for Lyndon Johnson in front of the world body.

If I were to name the best and worst presidents in American history Johnson would be on both lists. During his five years as Commander-in-Chief he extended the war in Viet Nam with a build-up to nearly 600,000 U.S. soldiers accounting for the needless deaths of tens of thousands G.I.s and hundreds of thousands Vietnamese.

It’s almost as if there were two LBJs. The man who extended Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal agenda with his War on Poverty, shepherding Medicare, Medicaid, Pell grants, voting rights and significant Civil Rights legislation through Congress. Then there was the other LBJ who systematically deceived the American people about the war in Viet Nam squandering lives, napalming villages and defoliating their crops. This was the vulgar, cowardly, tragic manipulator who, somehow, regarded military defeat as a sign of phallic impotence. 

In a room of reporters, when asked why he couldn’t end the war, he answered by unzipping his fly. The President seemed to conflate the misadventure in Southeast Asia with sexual potency. This strikes me as an act of cowardice almost as shameful as Daddy Trump finding a doctor to concoct bone spurs for little Donald.

Add to Johnson’s disgrace one more almost inexplicable act of political miscalculation.  Three years after serving as associate Justice LBJ asked-persuaded or pressured him to resign his lifetime position.  It’s like asking Justice Roberts to step down and take the job watering the lettuce in the market. Or collecting shopping carts in the parking lot. There’s got to be a story here never told. Why would anyone accept such a demotion unless Goldberg was under extreme duress? Maybe LBJ had negatives of last year’s Christmas Party which Goldberg wanted hidden.

Perhaps one day the truth about Goldberg’s fall from the high court will become known. Robert Caro may yet discover the secret among the 44 million documents in the Johnson library. But that book is yet to be written.

Without a doubt the following conversation will not be among those 44 million papers. My febrile imagination records the following ……. (Goldberg calling his mother in 1962 when JFK nominated him to the High Court.)

A.G.: Ma, I have great news. President Kennedy has just named me to the Supreme Court.
Mrs. G : Do what you have to do.
A.G. : I want you to come to my swearing-in ceremony.
Mrs. G:  I have nothing to wear. 
A.G.: Not to worry, Ma, I’ll buy you a new dress and I’ll send you a train ticket to Washington.
Mrs. G (to a bystander at the ceremony) See that man up there? His brother is a dermatologist.

Johnson installed his friend, Abe Fortas who resigned, under fire, less than three years later. Fortas was Johnson’s choice to replace Earl Warren as Chief Justice but Warren’s choice was said to be Goldberg. The entire scheme fell apart. I cannot think of a more brainless series of political stumbles particularly coming as it did from the grand insider of Washington politics. His wrongheadedness serves as a model of executive incompetence rivalled only by the present occupant.

As a consequence we have not had a Chief Justice of the High Court appointed by a Democratic president since Truman's choice over seventy years ago. Of course Warren was a Republican but one with a conscience to guide him. However had Goldberg remained Nixon would not have been able to install Warren Burger as Chief who presided for seventeen years. The nation was deprived of a very decent and brilliant Chief Justice because of Lyndon Johnson’s ill-conceived, self-serving and brazen over-reach.

As a saving grace Congress denied Nixon his first two nominees to replace Fortas in 1969 and he finally settled for Harry Blackmun. Blackmun turned out to be that vanished breed, a centrist Republican, who authored the majority opinion in Roe v Wade. 

Perhaps our better angels got the best of the Avenging God. We lucked out but I’m still thinking of poor Arthur Goldberg and those parting words, It is so ordered, to say nothing of his non-existent dermatologist brother.

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