By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, October 19, 2008
SOME OF IT WAS FUN
Working with RFK and LBJ
By Nicholas deB. Katzenbach
Norton. 320 pp. $27.95
The photograph on the cover of Nicholas Katzenbach's splendid memoir shows the author, then 41 years old, wearily wiping his brow with a handkerchief. Tall, balding, correctly attired in a standard-issue Brooks Brothers suit, Katzenbach stands alone on the front of Some of It Was Fun, but readers of a certain age will immediately know why he was wiping his brow -- it was June 1963 in Alabama, and the weather was scorching -- and what he was doing: As deputy attorney general of the United States, he was trying to enroll two African American students in the University of Alabama, while a few feet away the state's governor, George Wallace, was making the "stand in the schoolhouse door" that had been central to his gubernatorial campaign in 1962.
It was one of the signal events of the civil-rights struggle -- Vivian Malone and James Hood quickly were registered at the university without incident or resistance -- and it cemented Katzenbach's reputation as a calm, dedicated, resourceful and occasionally witty champion of black rights. He had earned his stripes the previous year at the University of Mississippi, where the enrollment of James Meredith had been accompanied by violence that was subdued only after President Kennedy sent in federal troops, a decision that Katzenbach now sees as "an essential foundation to the successful integration that eventually took place throughout the South," though at the time "it seemed a failure in virtually every respect." It was a surpassingly stressful time in which the Department of Justice under Robert F. Kennedy played a heroic role. Some of It Was Fun brings it all back with an immediacy that I find haunting, bracing and ultimately heartbreaking, because nothing else that I have read conveys so vividly and intimately just what we lost with Bobby Kennedy's assassination in 1968.
Katzenbach had never met either Kennedy before signing on with the new administration in 1961, and like many other lawyers he had doubts about the appointment of John F. Kennedy's 35-year-old brother as the nation's highest law-enforcement officer. But he had a strong urge for public service and got in touch with Byron White, "a friend from my student days at Yale Law, [who] was named deputy attorney general." He met with Bobby Kennedy, whom "I could not help liking," quickly was appointed assistant attorney general heading the Office of Legal Counsel, the "most important duty" of which "was to give legal advice to the attorney general."
The team that Kennedy was assembling at Justice was extraordinary and so, Katzenbach quickly came to understand, was Kennedy himself. "His pride was in the department he ran, the people who surrounded him, and service to his brother," and he was as aware of his shortcomings as any of his critics, which made him all the more determined to overcome them. One of the things he did was to "create his own mini crime commission, of which he was the chairman and leader," which brought together people from throughout the government at meetings that Katzenbach occasionally attended:
"Bobby was clearly the leader, and not simply because he was attorney general. He impressed the group with his factual knowledge, and he encouraged free-flowing discussion and differing views. He was quick to appreciate suggestions, to praise efforts, to push for more without being critical. You could sense that this varied group was prepared to follow him and wanted desperately to please him. . . . What Bobby was able to do was to communicate his own enthusiasm and energy to others, to make them feel that they were members of a team and that what they were doing was important. . . . He saw law for what it is -- a tool to implement policy, a part of the political system through which hopes and aspirations can be realized. . . . He almost always tended to identify with the underdog, with the poor, the weak, the disenfranchised, and in a sense he saw law as the road to justice. I had thought of Bobby as a tough political pragmatist -- and indeed he could be. But more and more I saw a young idealist struggling with the realities of a difficult world."
In the second year of Kennedy's presidency, Byron White was appointed to the Supreme Court, and Katzenbach succeeded him as deputy attorney general, which imposed "a big administrative responsibility" on him that he didn't especially enjoy, but which also made him "alter ego to the AG, so I often had the choice of deciding matters or discussing them further" with Kennedy, a position from which he was able to observe Kennedy often and with considerable intimacy. He remembers "with both sentiment and admiration" the annual "party for underprivileged children at Christmastime in the courtyard of the Justice Department" that Kennedy had instituted. He also remembers the funeral service for Kennedy at St. Patrick's Cathedral: "Tears were streaming down my face, but the tears made me feel at one with the others in the church. Bobby had that effect on people, and I think the country suffered a loss the magnitude of which may never be fully appreciated."
By then Katzenbach had been in the service of Lyndon Johnson for more than three years -- he was named attorney general in 1965, after Kennedy left to run for the Senate in New York, and then became undersecretary of state in 1966 -- and had come to admire and respect the man for whom RFK felt little except loathing. "In many respects I was as different from LBJ in background as Bobby had been," he writes, " -- thoroughly eastern, educated at elite institutions, with a mixture of idealism and pragmatism. LBJ was poorly educated in the formal sense; very Texan in his demeanor, his accent, his storytelling; and extremely intelligent. His almost rough exterior, tall with enormous hands and big facial features, made it difficult for people easily to see the first-rate mind he possessed. He understood government better than anyone else I have ever met. Part of this was his experience as a legislator and part of it was an extraordinary innate ability with people."
There's a wonderfully Johnsonian scene in which George Wallace was summoned to the White House to discuss anti-civil-rights violence in Alabama. "After some small talk," Katzenbach reports, "the president began an absolutely virtuoso performance, flattering Wallace, then confronting him, pretending to seek his advice, then giving him hell. . . . At times he was harsh and demanding, at others flattering and cajoling. . . . It was like a violin concert by a virtuoso, with every note perfection. At the end, Wallace declined to meet with the press and left quietly and inconspicuously through a side door."
Once Katzenbach moved to State -- the move, which some took as a demotion, actually was made at his own request, as by 1966 "we seemed to be just marking time" at Justice -- he was sucked into the maelstrom of Vietnam: "Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietnam -- it got in the way of everything: LBJ's Great Society programs, our African initiatives, the Middle East, everything. The protests were increasing, dissent in Congress was more serious, and there simply were not any good answers." Johnson "wanted me to make a priority of exploring a negotiated peace in Vietnam along every avenue possible," but he came up against the secretary of state, Dean Rusk, and Walt Rostow in the White House, and also against Johnson himself: "LBJ desperately wanted to get out of Vietnam but was unwilling to just cut and run."
Even before Robert Kennedy's assassination, Katzenbach "had made up my mind . . . to leave government at the end of President Johnson's term, irrespective of the election results." He was tired, short on money, in need of a change. He stayed on loyally to the end, helping with the transition to the Nixon State Department, then went to IBM as vice president and general counsel. Now in his mid-80s, he lives in retirement in Princeton but remains active in public service and looks back on his years in Washington with "satisfaction from the progress we made on race and . . . sadness from the failure to end the venture in Vietnam, with so many unnecessary deaths long before it eventually collapsed." He also recalls those years as "a time of hope, of shared aspirations for a better America" in which members of both parties worked in a genuinely bipartisan spirit "to face up to our problems." That is reason enough for Some of It Was Fun to be required reading in Washington today. ·
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.