Graceful Exits… and the Other Kind | Harper's Magazine

Sign in to access Harper’s Magazine

Need to create a login? Want to change your email address or password? Forgot your password?

  1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
  2. Select Email/Password Information.
  3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.

Locked out of your account? Get help here.

Subscribers can find additional help here.

Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!

Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
Subscribe for Full Access
Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
[No Comment]

Graceful Exits… and the Other Kind


Today Brit Hume, the Fox anchor, is summing up Alberto Gonzales this way:

Gonzales was a man almost without fans in Washington at the end, because he was never much appreciated or accepted by the conservative base of the Republican party and the conservative activists in Washington. And he certainly wasn’t popular among the Democrats. He was simply a crony.

To an extent, I come out just about where Brit does on this issue. Gonzales is a man who advanced in life on the basis of his connection to and fidelity to George W. Bush. Every political figure in higher office has such retainers and they play an obvious role. But how, in retrospect, did Bush get away with appointing a crony as attorney general? That shouldn’t have happened. But the problem shouldn’t be Gonzales’s failure to command respect among the Potomac politicos. In fact, I’d rate that a plus. His shortcoming was a failure to command respect among legal professionals, starting with those who served with him at the Justice Department, and continuing to the bench and the bar throughout the country. In fact, this community viewed Gonzales as an embarrassment in the end because he lacked the independence and stature that Americans expect of an attorney general.

Gonzales’s own departure drove this home. Read his resignation letter here. It’s filled with positively unctuous flattery towards President Bush. A bit of this is normal, but with Gonzales there is little else; it’s over-the-top, sycophantic. And in case you missed Alberto Gonzales’s resignation announcement, here’s the video. It’s curt, graceless and a bit painful—adjectives that might just be applied to the totality of the Gonzales experience. I was particularly irritated by his comparison of his life with that of his father, an itinerant construction worker in South Texas. Alberto states that even his worst moments as attorney general were better than his father’s best moments. Perhaps he didn’t mean to sound arrogant and disrespectful of his father’s accomplishments, but it sounded that way to me. I believe that even those whose life is consumed in unskilled labor can have meaningful, rich lives; just as those who ascend to high office and betray a public trust may have unworthy ones. I’m not sure that Alberto Gonzales does, however; he really seems to believe it’s all about holding and wielding power.

But with perfect timing, I received a note today from Prof. John Q. Barrett, the master of the Jackson List—a service that furnishes timely nuggets and inspiration from the life of former Attorney General, Nuremberg prosecutor, and Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson. Today’s offering was about exiting with grace, and I imagine my readers will be as impressed with it as I was:

Robert H. Jackson had been serving as Attorney General of the United States for about seventeen months when President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced on June 12, 1941, that he was nominating Jackson to the Supreme Court.

At the Department of Justice, Jackson decided immediately to avoid possible conflicts of interest and distractions stemming from his pending nomination by handing off his responsibilities to the Department’s number two official, his friend and the Solicitor General of the United States, Francis Biddle. After conferring with him, Jackson called a special meeting with other senior colleagues to report his nomination and that Biddle would be acting as Attorney General until the President nominated a successor to Jackson. (Roosevelt’s choice was Biddle himself, who was nominated on August 25th and served as Attorney General from fall 1941 until late spring 1945.)

Jackson’s Supreme Court nomination moved quickly. After a subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings in late June, the full Committee voted unanimously on June 30th to recommend Jackson’s confirmation. After a July 4th recess, the Senate confirmed Jackson by voice vote on Monday, July 7th.

Once Jackson was safely confirmed, Department of Justice friends organized a celebration. On Wednesday evening July 9th, Department personnel saluted Jackson at a farewell reception and cocktail party in the main ballroom at Washington’s Mayflower Hotel. During the course of the evening gathering, Jackson, his wife Irene and their daughter Mary—her brother Bill Jackson was not present because he was working that summer in Idaho—received about 1,500 DOJ officers and employees in the Hotel’s Chinese Room.

The reception, which Department of Justice personnel paid for out of pocket, culminated in a gift and some remarks. Acting Attorney General Biddle gave Jackson, as a gift from DOJ employees, his first judicial robe. In his remarks, Biddle expressed the hope that Justice Jackson would “carry in its folds the friendly warmth of the Department to temper the cool dignity of the great court which you are about to join.” Jackson, in response, voiced a clever turn on Biddle’s theme: “I am sure that the thoughts of the loyal and friendly cooperation that I have received in the Department of Justice and of the work that we did together will survive even the chill that the Solicitor General thinks will come upon one when he enters that great refrigerator.”

Two days later, after Jackson attended his final Cabinet meeting, President Roosevelt signed and presented to Jackson his judicial commission. Jackson then took his constitutional and judicial oaths, becoming an Associate Justice.

…except for one loose end: Jackson realized that his Supreme Court appointment did not automatically vacate his Cabinet position, and that he therefore was still the Attorney General too. Justice Jackson promptly wrote a letter of explanation and resignation to President Roosevelt. A few days later, FDR dictated his response:

Dear Bob:-

Ever so many thanks for your note. I do wish you could occupy both posts at the same time….

And in historical contemplation, I think it’s safe to say, Robert H. Jackson does hold both posts—as one of the most dedicated public servants ever to serve the administration of justice in the United States.

More from