Upstairs in the white brick house of Edgar and Jean Cahn there's a "War Room," equipped with a Radio Shack computer, Xerox machine, several telephones, charts and printouts.
Above the radiator downstairs is a framed quote of Earl Warren praising Edgar's father, the legal philosopher Edmond Cahn, for believing "Justice was more than a passive term." And, also downstairs, there's a Siamese cat stretching in the sun and a Jewish mother searching for the coffee and sugar.
The technology, the folksiness and the weighty words help explain the world of the Cahns and this past week's fast pulse. Once again, Edgar and Jean Cahn, the activist lawyers and founders of the progressive Antioch Law School, are embroiled in a controversy.
A week ago -- after a sometimes volatile, eight-year dispute with the parent school, Antioch University in Ohio, over the law school's autonomy and finances -- the Cahns were fired from their posts as co-deans.
Almost since the founding of the law school by the Cahns in 1971, they have been the center of disagreements with the Antioch hierarchy, and the faculty, students and administration. The latest dispute, over the centralization of the law school's funds, had been in court since last year. It ended last week when a D.C. Sperior Court judge ruled that the school was under the management of the parent university. The Antioch University board of trustees immediately demanded the Cahns' resignations.
Few people around Washington are surprised that the turbulent careers of the Cahns have taken this turn. Even their closest admirers have to ask how these two brilliant and creative people can regularly become the center of intense and polarized positions, then fiercely fight their way out.
"There's a genetic streak of orneriness," says Edgar Cahn, a slight, bespectacled man with iridescent blue eyes and a feather-soft voice. That analysis is delivered quickly and is mixed with pride and humor.
They are called, by friends and associates, the Deans Cahns, like some sort of indivisible, one-person, one-mind entity. But they are not.
Jean Camper Cahn, 44, the youngest of six children of a well-known Baltimore physician and civil rights champion, grew up in a household where Thurgood Marshall, the Parren Mitchells and Paul Robeson (Jean Cahn's godfather) were frequent visitors.
She knew the worlds of Swarthmore College, Cambridge University and Yale University, which eventually were hers, only with a fight. "It's very hard to forget the cost of segregation," says Jean Cahn, a tall, stout woman whose girlish smile has to fight its way through frothng brown eyes.
Edgar Cahn, 44, the son of an influential libertarian, grew up knowing that the worlds of Swarthmore, Yale and Fulbright scholarships were his for the asking.
"We come together from very different backgrounds but similar traditions," says Edgar Cahn, looking directly at his wife. "My father said he didn't know what justice was but he had an innate capacity to recognize injustice."
For seven generations the Cahns had been rabbis and lawyers. Edgar Cahn was expected to do the same. "There was no tradition of individual impotence -- you were expected to be an intellect," says Cahn. His mother, Lenora, who has come down from New York to help out this week, interjects, "You were expected to serve, not just work for a lot of money. But you were expected to make a difference, to make profound statements and contributions."
Jean Cahn goads her husband into telling how his father refused to have Tulane University mentioned on his book jackets. "He left New Orleans with a deep sense of repugnance. And he refused to acknowledge the school until it was integrated."
Her father, John Emory-Toussaint Camper, has his own footnote to history. When now Associate Supreme Court Justice Marshall needed some money for legal work during the proceedings leading up to the Brown school desegregation decision, her father collected the money from his medical associates.
Right now the Cahns are one in their anger. And there's none of the deja vu of the battlers who have had to face the pickets, to barnstorm meetings, to go to court -- and somehow survive. Now there's some disillusionment. "That dismissal came as a jolt," Edgar Cahn says. Since then a defense committee has been formed for the Cahns and groups of students and faculty are seeking court action to have the Cahns reinstated.
At 1 a.m. one night this week, Jonathan, 22, the older of their two sons, was sitting at the edge of his mother's bed, mulling over strategy. At one point, he remarked, "Now I understand the real price of leadership," Jean Cahn, who suffered a severe stroke in 1975, recalls the conversation. "I asked him if that was the price he was willing to pay and he said, 'Yes.' But then he asked me if I had any regrets. And I said, 'No.' But at the same time I kept asking myself why are my sons so intent on becoming lawyers? Don't they see what's happening here?"
But she knows the answer.
In the mid-1950s Jean and Edgar Cahn met at Swarthmore College. Cahn was known only to Jean Camper as the witty, insightful correspondent of her roommate at Northwestern University, where she had started college, and so she looked him up.
"I had never figured out why Jean's roommate had been such a dud but the letters she wrote were interesting. I found out Jean had been answering the letters," remembers a chuckling Cahn.
Within a year, they were engaged. By the summer of 1957, when Jean Cahn finished Swarthmore and Edgar Cahn was working on a graduate degree in English at Yale they were married. Initially neither family approved of the marriage but Jean Cahn converted to Judaism and decided to pursue a legal career. To make up for the support that Cahn's father cut off, they lived in low-income housing in New Haven and Edgar Cahn made jewelry at night.
A year later they moved to England with one small son and another on the way. The physician for the second delivery was Grantley Read, the apostle of natural childbirth. When he asked them, a friend recalls, 'What color would the baby be?' the Cahns thought an American physician would never feel comfortable enough with a mixed couple to express that curiosity.
When they returned to Yale, Edgar Cahn completed his doctorate in English literature and then went to law school. By the time he reached his senior year, Jean Cahn was on the faculty of Yale law.
Before they left Yale, they wrote a paper, "The War on Poverty: A Civilian Perspective," a blueprint for legal advocacy for the poor. It became the basis for the Office of Economic Opportunity's legal arm.
And it became the Cahn's first political hot potato.
Two years later, after a stint at Justice, Edgar Cahn went to work as a special assistant to Sargent Shriver, then head of the antipoverty programs. Shriver, as well as other officials of the program, were echoing the Cahns' position that the government had an obligation to provide legal remedies for the poor. This rocked the legal establishment, as well as some government agencies.
Jean Cahn was on a national advisory committee to suggest implementation of these principles. And, in 1965, she thought Shriver was moving too slowly. "i couldn't get to him to talk about the commitments, the progress. Finally I went over to his office and sat down until he could see me," says Cahn. "Shriver told me not to worry, that he wanted to go slow. But I told him a lot was riding on good intentions. But he wouldn't budge." Cahn's anger led to her resignation.
"This is all news to me. I never refused to see her," says Shriver of the confrontation Jean Cahn describes. "There was no project in OEO that interested me more than Legal Services."
In 1967 Jean Cahn joined one of the most publicized and debated political legal frays of the last two decades, the ouster of Rep. Adam Clayton Powell by his congressional colleagues. Powell, the most visible and one of the most controversial of black politicians, was barred from taking his seat in the House of Representatives in 1967 because of charges of misappropriation of public funds. He filed a suit to regain his seat and Cahn was a member of the legal team.
"She was bright and, at times, very impatient. But that was good," recalls Herbert O. Reid, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry's personal legal adviser and a member of the Powell defense team. "We had a small joke about Jean. Once when she was preparing for an argument before the Court of Appeals, we used to ask her whether she was paying more attention to her wardrobe or her argument."
The term of Edgar and Jean Cahn, a couple Powell used to call "the double legal eagles," was moving forward, breaking new ground. Edgar Cahn spent a two-year chunk of the late 1960s with the Citizens Advocate Center, a private watchdog over government antipoverty programs, and worked extensively with the Native Americans.
At the same time Jean Cahn had moved onto the clinical legal education frontier at George Washington University. From 1968 to 1971 she directed the Urban Law Institute and organized a public protest when the university decided to drop its sponsorship. The university officials stated that students should be studying, not practicing.
"The Cahns have two ways of doing things, one is to take you down to the mat and fight. They brought GW down, with outside pressures, got the faculty and students worked up," remembers John Kramer, a personal friend and the associate dean of Georgetown Law School. "But at the same time they can turn the anger into creation. Right then Jean decided they would have their own law school."
Through the ups and downs, her philosophy that "someone has to start and move in where people aren't moving," remained as constant as the lessons. "There were all sorts of moments," says Jean Cahn. "But maybe the most daring lesson was Adam Powell. He thought that because of what he had done, he might be admitted to a club called the U.S. Congress. But they didn't have any compunction about rejecting him. My father was fundamentally right, the lesson is, you will never be a part of society until everyone has a part."
The turmoil of the OEO Legal Services, the GW Urban Law Institute and Antioch Law School illustrates how the Cahns fight for change.
Cahn is skilled at the scholarly filibuster. Once, in 1964, when the OEO Legal Services developers were trying to convince the American Bar Association of the merits of the program, the Cahns sat for eight hours with then-ABA president, now Associate Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, and his committee, to convince them. They won.
Jean Cahn has turned confrontation politics into a style, a searing accusational style where people are hit on their personal pressure points. If being labeled a disloyalist, a racist, or sexist, works. Cahn applies it.
"If I think you are motivated by racist reasons, I will call you on it," she says. "I am solidly committed on the question of race." In 1977, the law school faculty protested to the Antioch University that the Cahns had branded them "racist bigots."
At the law school the internal politics seemed to overshadow many of the real accomplishments.The school, with its practical application approach, does represent a legal educational breakthrough. The ABA gave Antioch accrediation before the first class graduated. The faculty was one of the first of any law school to have a contract. When the Soviet Union's Chief justice visited Washington, Warren Burger brought him to Antioch.
Companion to the achievements is a long and complicated minus sheet. At one point there was almost no faculty member who had been at the law school for more than two years. The student protests over limited facilities, a curtailed curriculum and incompetent teachers resulted in a contract that included them in the decision-making.
In a way, the philosophy of the Cahns created the atmosphere for the turmoil, many associates say. And, their detractors assert, they never became skilled administrators at making their concepts a reality. Says one former insider, "They are hesitant to work with people they don't think have unqualified loyalty. Because of the nature of the place, everyone is looking for some level of freedom. So they didn't find the unqualified loyalty that most law school faculties, at least, have."
While Antioch president William Birenbaum admires the Cahns' innovations, he says it's time for them to give up their fight. "I know how difficult it is to be the creative force and then let go. But the law school has reached a point where the pain of its being born is over," says Birenbaum. h"The reality is that for at least five years the school has had major operating deficits, ongoing tumult and continued controversy. They have a management style that's not working."
In the midst of the turbulence Jean Cahn had a stroke in 1975. The doctors feared she would never walk again and that she would never completely regain her memory. "I was fiercely determined," she says. "And during that time I thought about the time I would be free to leave the school, would be free to turn over everything. But I felt we really had an obligation to stick it through." By the next January she returned to the office.
During the last months when the crisis over the law school has been escalating, the Cahns have thought of their future in philosophical terms. Edgar Cahn sees a dehumanization of people occurring. Jean Cahn concurs, "One of the questions undergoing real redefinition is who are human beings. Look at how the Vietnamese, the Haitian boat people are being treated. And none of us are sacred. The question is how do we protect humanity," says Edgar Cahn.
But that's not a new question for either Edgar or Jean Cahn and the answers are not new. And wrestling with these questions leads to confrontations. "Maybe fundamentally the message is that if you deal with these problems," says Edgar Cahn looking for a cue from his wife, "you can't live peacefully with others." he construction site, Brambilla would inform the sidewalk superintendent