By Malcolm Gladwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 26, 1994
The courthouse that Stephen G. Breyer built will stand on a spectacular stretch of Boston Harbor, a 10-story, $200 million block of courtrooms and offices turned into something more by a vast public atrium. On the outside, there will be parks and a boating dock; on the inside a day-care center, a theater, a community meeting hall, a restaurant and an art gallery.
This, Boston's new federal courthouse, has been Breyer's responsibility as chief judge of the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and the unusual shape it will take says much about the philosophy and temperament of the man who may become the next Supreme Court justice.
Breyer personally interviewed the architects applying for the project. He consulted with community and environmental groups. While cycling through the countryside of France three years ago, Breyer stopped, gazing at the buildings he encountered, talking animatedly with the locals about their design. He called his aunt in San Francisco to ask about how to make the building more accessible to children. He visited courthouses around the country, mining for ideas, and pored over the original plans for the Supreme Court in Washington, all the while insisting on a Boston complex that would expand the definition of courthouse from legal to civic, a place open in the evenings and weekends, a place inviting to the community.
"This most beautiful site in Boston," he said at the time the project was unveiled, "does not belong to the lawyers. It does not belong to the federal government. It does not belong to the litigants. It belongs to the people."
For Breyer, the law of casebooks and procedures has never been enough. His father was a lawyer. His brother is a lawyer. Virtually every one of his close friends from childhood is now a lawyer, and his own career has followed the quintessential legal trajectory: Phi Beta Kappa at Stanford, graduate school at Oxford, law school at Harvard, a clerkship at the Supreme Court. But his life and personality read as an effort to create something practical and personal from the law.
In this, Breyer bears the imprint of the powerful personalities of his parents, who pushed him to believe that a life spent in intellectual isolation was a life squandered. He also bears the mark of his particular peer group, those men of privilege who came of age in the window of optimism between World War II and the disillusionment of the Kennedy assassination and Vietnam. Friends and acquaintances call Breyer an idealist, not in the utopian sense, but someone with an unshakable belief that the system -- both things as abstract as laws and as concrete as new courthouses -- can be used to make a difference.
"Ours was the age of Kennedy," said Stuart Pollack, a municipal judge in San Francisco and a longtime friend of Breyer's. "That was when we were coming out of law school. Government was there as a tool to bring about change. It could be done, absolutely. I don't think that Steve ever had his faith in public institutions shaken. I think he has retained his faith in the ability to deal with our problems."
Underlying it all is a kind of intellectual restlessness, a curiosity for new ideas so insatiable that few friends ever describe Breyer as ambitious, if only because ambition seems to require a singular focus.
He is a gourmet cook, a bird watcher, an avid reader, a serious student of philosophy. He is a prodigious worker, author of two books, father of three children, a judge who still teaches at Harvard Law School, a speed typist and a chronic worrier given to nervous pacing. At 55, he is teaching himself Spanish, taking the language tapes with him as he exercises in the morning. He is unpretentious, a millionaire who mows his own lawn, a man who takes his delight from ideas and their application.
"I remember once we went on vacation together to the south of Spain, where we had a wonderful argument one afternoon about Aristotelian free will on the back lawn of a hotel in Torredonjimeno," said Stephen Umin, a lawyer in Washington who knew Breyer when the two were at Oxford in 1959. "He was very interested in British linguistic philosophy and in Wittgenstein... . We were talking at cross-purposes. It was during the afternoon siesta, and people leaned out the window and said, 'Shut up, we want to take a nap.' "
A Generation Past Poverty
Stephen Breyer was born in San Francisco in 1938, the first of two sons.
"He started speaking in sentences. We knew he'd be something great," said his aunt, Shirley Black.
His father, Irving Breyer, who died in 1979, was for 42 years legal counsel to the San Francisco Board of Education. His mother, Anne, who died eight years before that, was active in local Democratic politics and the League of Women Voters. They were part of what then was a large Jewish middle-class community in San Francisco, one generation removed from poverty. hey lived frugally, putting the education of their children, Stephen and his younger brother, Charles, first.
"His mother was very, very much concerned with Steve doing well. His parents were always pushing him," Pollack said.
School for Breyer, his brother Charles says, was "almost embarrassingly easy." At Lowell High, an academically rigorous public school that counts among its alumni two Nobel laureates, a former California governor and Rube Goldberg, Breyer won debating, science and math prizes, and upon his graduation in 1955 was voted "most likely to succeed."
At Stanford, he had his share of high jinks, getting arrested at one point for underage drinking. But after four years, he had received just one B, which left him, in the words of a classmate, "distraught." Breyer won a Marshall scholarship to Oxford after missing out on a Rhodes scholarship. (He made a frustrating and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to crew at Stanford in order to fulfill the Rhodes scholarship's athletic requirement.) At Harvard Law, where Breyer studied from 1961 to 1964, he was elected to the law review.
"In those days, it was the Socratic method of teaching case law, where the professor posed certain questions and issues and the theory was to intellectually humiliate whoever the respondent was," said former Democratic Party chairman Paul G. Kirk Jr., a law school classmate of Breyer's. "Basically it was a means of discipline. No matter what answer you gave, they would prove you were wrong. It was, 'Let's make everyone eat humble pie.' In the early weeks most of us were ducking behind the guy in front. But there was one guy whose hand was always going up and who kept responding to the professors and that was Steve Breyer. I said to myself, 'This guy will be heard from again.' "
Breyer's inclination was intellectual, but not abstract. Classmates from high school and college remember him as social and amiable, for all his brilliance. He was heavily involved with the International Relations Society at Stanford, a group that organized exchanges with foreign students. At Oxford, at Magdalen College, he was one of the few Americans who made friends with the British students.
"He had this way of bringing people together," said Reeve Parker, who was a Rhodes scholar at Magdalen at the time Breyer was there. "He had a certain affinity with the British. It was not a kind of Henry Jamesian anglophilia. I would say it was more a ... sense that when you are in England you make acquaintances and pursue the kinds of, well, not connections, because that makes him sound like an operator and he was in no sense an operator. But just a basic friendliness. He could get people together."
This is the talent that would later serve Breyer well in his work for the Senate Judiciary Committee and on the Sentencing Reform Commission, which attempted to end prison term disparities among defendants convicted of committing similar crimes. It is also the source of the expectations that surround the role he might play on the Supreme Court. It was also Irving Breyer's talent, and those who knew them both are struck by how much son came to resemble father. As attorney for the city school board, the senior Breyer worked with a diverse and sometimes fractious group of elected trustees, juggling and satisfying the demands of each, forging coalitions among the board members. In the evenings, he would regale his family with stories of the inner politics of his job.
What mattered in the Breyer family was the practical, actions more than words.
"My father always thought that while it was perfectly nice to sit around and talk about ideas, that's not the way you got things done," Charles Breyer said.
Stranger to Private Practice
"Steve's father spent his professional career as an attorney for the board of education," Pollack explained. "I think he absorbed that ethic, that that was where things of value really lay, in work that had some sort of public impact. Certainly not in making money. That push never came from any direction. Look at Steve. He has never been in private practice."
From Breyer's mother, a strong-willed woman with high standards for her children, came an even stronger push. She made young Stephen join the Boy Scouts, where he rose to Eagle Scout rank, and sent him off to summer camp, where his rather tepid enthusiasm for the outdoors earned him the nickname "Blister King."
He played soccer, with a proficiency that led the Lowell yearbook to speculate that his "secret ambition" was "to score a goal." Breyer's athletic exploits, his brother Charles says with a smile, represented "the triumph of will over ability."
At his mother's urging, there was also dancing school, where he won "most improved dancer" two years in a row, an indication, his brother says with another smile, "of how much room he had to improve." Summers during college were spent as a janitor, as a short order cook and once as a ditch digger for Pacific Gas & Electric.
Anne Breyer's concern was that Breyer not turn out like her brothers, both of whom were professors -- one at Radcliffe and one at Brooklyn College -- and both of whom she felt had isolated and unfulfilled lives. She volunteered with the United Nations Association, which meant that a steady stream of people from other countries and cultures came to dinner throughout Breyer's childhood. When the time came for Breyer to choose a college -- it was between Harvard and Stanford -- she lobbied for Stanford on the grounds that it would offer a more well-rounded education.
"My mother thought it was very important for him to develop in areas that didn't come easily. She wanted him to get out and be sociable," said Charles Breyer. She wanted to make sure the man now on the verge of the intellectual seclusion of the Supreme Court "didn't spend a lifetime in the library."
From Harvard Law School Breyer went to clerk for Supreme Court Justice Arthur J. Goldberg and from there to the Justice Department. It was in Washington, in the mid-1960s, where he met Joanna Hare, then working for the London Sunday Times. She was from a very wealthy English family, owners of the British media company Pearson PLC, and the daughter of Lord John Blakenham, a former high-ranking official in the Conservative Party. She and Breyer were married in 1967, the year he accepted a position on the faculty of Harvard Law School, and over the next 25 years fashioned a comfortable life among the intellectual elite of Cambridge.
Largely on the strength of Joanna Breyer's personal wealth (Breyer has declared his family's net worth at between $3 million and $6 million), the Breyers own a house in the tony Brattle Street section of Cambridge, where he is a familiar figure bird watching in the early morning at a nearby cemetery or riding his bicycle to work. The Breyers vacation at a rustic 320-acre retreat in New Hampshire, as well as having access to a house owned by Joanna Breyer's mother on the island of St. Kitts in the Caribbean.
The St. Kitts home was the source of some embarrassment to Breyer earlier this month when his expense records revealed he had once flown there from Puerto Rico and billed the government. After an inquiry by The Washington Post, he reimbursed the government for the $215 cost of the flight.
Similarly, after his name first was discussed as a possible Supreme Court candidate last year, Breyer belatedly realized he was required to pay Social Security taxes on the $50-a-week wages he and his wife paid to a part-time cook.
Joanna Breyer is a clinical psychologist at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. She is described by friends and family as an outgoing woman who spends much of her time working with children who have leukemia. The Breyers have three children -- Chloe, 24, a magazine editor in here; Nell, 22, a student at Yale University; and Michael, 19, a student at Stanford -- and what friends describe as a close-knit family life.
"She is able to handle him both intellectually and spiritually," said Breyer's brother Charles. "She and their children are constantly deflating his ego. You constantly hear someone say to Steve, 'That's an idiotic idea.' There is no holding back in that family."
Breyer Discovers Economics
In "Remembering Denny," Calvin Trillin's 1993 memoir of one his Harvard University classmates, Trillin writes of the idealism that captured men coming out of the country's best schools in the 1950s.
"There was an assumption that the society was ours to lead and that preparing what amounted to a leadership class made good sense," Trillin wrote. "There was also an assumption that the society was worth leading."
This is Stephen Breyer's generation. His circle of friends and acquaintances from college, law school and Oxford -- now an extraordinarily successful group of lawyers and academics and government officials -- speaks of the sense of possibility that gripped them as they first made their way into the world.
It was during this time, at the peak of the Kennedy-era idealism, that Breyer discovered economics, the discipline that replaced philosophy as his intellectual passion and that has remained at the center of his life's work ever since.
"It was," his brother remembers, "a whole new glimpse for him. It was an age when you could do something about things. People were optimistic. Economics intrigued him because it combined the rigor of science with concern about practical effects."
But as much as Breyer shared in the spirit of the age, those who knew him in those years remember him as standing a little apart. As a professor at Harvard Law, he marched in an antiwar rally in Washington in 1967 because he felt a teacher should stand with his students. In discussion, he was analytical, but not passionate, more playful than committed in his attachment to ideas. While at Oxford he was drawn to the British, finding a match for his own reserve and understatement.
"Our generation produced more than its share of ideologues," said David Boies, an attorney in New York and close friend of Breyer's. "But Steve has never been an ideologue. He's too aware of the complexity of things... . Margaret Thatcher, who Steve admires, said that certainty is the refuge of the second-rate. Steve is not second-rate." "He has an ironic sensibility," said New Republic editor-in-chief, Martin Peretz, who has known Breyer for many years. "It's not at all cynical. It's not at all bitter. His eyes seem to be saying, 'How strange.' "
Staff writer Jim McGee and special correspondent Christopher B. Daly in Boston contributed to this report.
NEXT: The pragmatic centrist
Born Aug. 15, 1938, in San Francisco to Irving and Anne Breyer. Married Joanna Hare, Sept. 4, 1967. Three children: Chloe, 24; Nell, 22; and Michael, 19.
A.B., Stanford University, 1959; B.A., (Marshall scholar), Oxford University, 1961; LL.B., magna cum laude, Harvard Law School, 1964.
1964-65: Law clerk, Supreme Court Justice Arthur J. Goldberg.
1965-67: Special assistant to assistant attorney general for antitrust, U.S. Justice Department.
1967-81: Professor, Harvard University (assistant professor, Harvard Law School, 1967-70; professor, 1970-81; professor, Harvard University, Kennedy School of Government, 1978-81; lecturer, Harvard Law School, 1981).
1973: Assistant special prosecutor, Watergate Special Prosecution Force, Justice Department.
1974-75: Special counsel, Senate Judiciary Committee.
1978: Lecturer, Salzburg Seminar, Austria.
1979-1980: Chief counsel, Senate Judiciary Committee.
1981-94: Judge, 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Boston (became chief judge in 1990).
SOURCES: Who's Who in America, Judicial Staff Directory.