Everyone knew Elliot Richardson, the ultimate public servant, the Boston blueblood who held four Cabinet posts and saved the country by giving up one of them at the peak of the Watergate firestorm. I am sure that personage will be vividly and reverently recalled at the National Cathedral on Jan. 15 at his memorial service.
There was another Elliot Richardson, though. Beneath the starchy exterior, the perfectly chiseled jaw, there was a wistful boy, hoping for love and understanding, hoping to be appreciated for the right reasons. I saw them both at the Justice Department in the blown-out days after his resignation. With his wife, Anne, Richardson stood on a gallery in the foyer of the department, while cheers and shouts sounded at his feet. The sculpted jaw was firm, but there were tears in his eyes, and wonder. Waves of adulation and gratitude broke and re-formed. He seemed almost bewildered. What he regarded as his greatest failure to find a solution to a government problem had brought him the acclaim he had always craved.
"There's an orphan quality in Elliot," said Richard Darman, his assistant at Justice. "You see it at times like that."
The decision--to resign rather than fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox, his old Harvard law professor--was easy, he told Jonathan Moore, his right hand for many years. Cox and Richardson had another bond, their reverence for Learned Hand, a great federal judge for whom they both clerked. They spoke in the original Greek, the passage from the Illiad that was Judge Hand's favorite. It begins, "Now, though numberless fates of death beset us which no mortal can escape or avoid, let us go forward together . . ." In the wake of the tempest, Richardson was much sought after on the lecture circuit. But not for long. Incurably high-minded, he went before audiences hungry for red meat and told them they should try to understand Richard Nixon.
Gerald Ford sent him to London to the Court of St. James and made him secretary of commerce. But George Bush and Ronald Reagan cut him off from the oxygen of high policy. It took a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, to give him the Medal of Freedom.
I got to know the other Elliot Richardson when he was back in private practice. He invited me to lunch one day; I can't remember why.
Somehow we got off on a subject we both knew well, the Boston Irish. I grew up with them and he had encountered them in his public life. He told me about an Irish prosecutor who indicted his own brother-in-law. The Irish could talk of nothing else: Was he mad at his sister, at his father, was he trying to tell his wife's family something? "It never occurred to them that he may have examined the facts and come to the conclusion that his brother-in-law was guilty of breaking the law," he mused. "It never crossed their minds," I said. We became friends.
We met periodically after that and talked and talked. He loved to talk about writing. He was wistful about that, too. He knew he wrote long, looping, elaborate, Latinate sentences. He talked in paragraphs. He told me about his childhood. His mother died in childbirth when he was two.
"I was angry all the time," he said bleakly. "I was spanked every day."
His father wore a mourning band for 14 years. The household was under the jurisdiction of a Yankee woman of resounding probity named Marguerite Brown. She was fair but very strict. His father backed her up in all disputes. I urged him to write the story of his childhood--in short sentences. He never did.
I remember him most gratefully from 1982, when Reagan was refusing to speak to him about the Law of the Sea, a treaty which he had negotiated with great zest. John Lehman, the two-gun secretary of the Navy, was preaching defiance. Richardson addressed a press breakfast that I attended. He spoke in his usual, deliberate, elaborate, halting style. He told about Lehman and his resolve to blast our way through restricted waterways.
I assumed that he was quoting Lehman. Lehman's public relations admiral was burning up the wires. The secretary had called the entire high command of The Washington Post. The Pentagon system said he had said no such thing. They wanted a retraction, an apology.
Elliot's splendid secretary, Marguerite Randolph, tracked him down to a trout stream in Scotland. I told him the story. He said simply, "I will back you up."
He was the last of a dying breed, the moderate Republican. His excellent mind, his exalted sense of office and duty made him a paragon. His talents were prodigious--he doodled, drew and painted. And there was the sweetness of his nature. He once told his partner Charles Work, "I do not believe I am naive, but I am proud to say I am not cynical."