He believed, like the Greeks, that man is the measure of all things. So he didn't climb the mountain because it was there -- he climbed it because he was there .
Eric Sevareid on former Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas
He was there Thursday night too, this now frail-looking giant, William O. Douglas, at 80 a legend in his own time and a jurist the likes of which few paying tribute expected to see again in their lifetimes.
And they had come together in a gathering one of them, Washington attorney David Ginsburg, his former law clerk, called "quite unique." They were judges, lawyers, legislators, teachers, law clerks, representatives of labor and the media, conservationists, environmentalists, philosophers, poets, friends of the family -- "all who walk with and for Bill Douglas," said Ginsburg.
It was the highlight of a day that had been filled with highlights -- the first of a two-day convocation titled The William O. Douglas Inquiry Into the State of Individual Freedom convened by the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions at Santa Barbara. The Regency Ballroom at the Shoreham Americana was almost full at the $125-a-plate testimonal.
Three of Douglas' former colleagues on the court, where he served for 36 years before he retired three years ago, were in the throng, including Chief Justice Warren Burger who characterized the prominent libertarian's contribution on the court as "keeping ideas alive -- basically he's a man of ideas."
Burger went on to say that "as judges do, we don't always agree, but we have a wonderful personal relationship."
Douglas made his appearance toward the end of the meal but before the speeches, and he entered in his wheelchair with all the glory of a charioteer, surrounded by a horde of photographers and TV cameramen who followed him. The crowd was on its feet applauding, and as he was wheeled to the table where Burger, Eric Sevareid and others awaited him, he reached over to his wife, Cathleen Douglas, to give her a kiss.
Thursday's crowd was, as someone put it, "la creme de la creme of Washington's legal establishment."
During the speeches by such old friends as former Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas and lawyer Clark Clifford, Douglas would smile occasionally as his wife whispered frequently in his ear. When others applauded, Douglas pounded the table with his right hand.
At one point he reached over to shake the hand of Burger who was sitting on his left. That moment occurred when Clifford announced that the evening was "the first time I have ever known the chief justice to be on the left of Justice Douglas."
When Clifford rose to make his remarks, he said the previous speakers had stolen most of his thunder. He then proceeded without notes to relate three incidents which, had they occurred, he said would "definitely have changed the life of Bill Douglas and the life of the United States."
Clifford went on to speak of 1944 when President Roosevelt barely chose Harry Truman over Douglas to be his running mate, of 1946 when Douglas was close to becoming the secretary of the interior and of 1948 when despite the intervention of Eleanor Roosevelt, Douglas turned down Truman's request to be his vice presidential running mate.
Finally, with a glance at Douglas, Clifford summed up his friend with a quote from Horace Greeley: "Fame is a vapor, popularity an accident; riches take wind, and those who cheer today will curse tomorrow. Only one thing endures -- character."
Before the guest of honor arrived, his spirit pervaded the pre-dinner reception.William McCormack Blair said he first met Douglas when Adlai Stevenson, after his defeat, asked Blair to go with him on his round-the-world trip. In preparation for that, Blair visited Douglas to show him the itinerary.
"Bill told me the itinerary was all wrong," laughed Blair. "'You're going as a guest of the government,' Bill said. 'If you want to see the people you have to go the way Robert Kennedy and I did in Iran and live in a tent. Otherwise you're going to miss an awful lot.' Of course we didn't," added Blair, "but it was still a great trip."
Newton Minow, chairman of the board of the Public Broadcasting Service, recalled that it was Douglas who swore him in as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.
Sen. e/dmund Muskie (D-Maine) portrayed Douglas as "a good friend over the years" and he added, "a silent supporter. Nobody was supposed to know he supported me for so long but I guess that doesn't have to be kept silent any more."
"Somebody said, 'I never saw such a collection of tired old liberals in my life'," remarked communications lawyer Bernard Koteen, "and I said 'that's a redundancy,'."
Not all of them were tired. Civil rights lawyer Joseph Rauh was enthusiastic about Bill Douglas' contribution on the court -- absolute unyielding opposition to McCarthyism. "I do not remember a single instance of his knuckling under, and I watched it awfully close. He and Hugo Black were two Rocks of Gibraltar. Everything else was quicksand -- Eisenhower and other judges."
Burger, winding up the testimonials, recalled that once someone told him that "Bill Douglas was not a team player. I said 'No, of course not. We don't want team players on the Supreme Court. It is a multi-member institution. It must have diversity.'"
However it was Cathy Douglas who drew the evening's biggest laugh. Going to the dais to a standing ovation, she told a lengthy story about the night she and Douglas were stranded in the Cascade Mountains of Washington.
And then she went on to note that "Congress sought on four occasions to impeach Bill -- and one of those times it was because he married me. However it turned out not to be serious," she added with a pause, "because it was suggested by Sen Strom Thurmond."