Art Linkletter, who died yesterday at the venerable age of 97, was not the only nonagenarian to pass away this week who played a significant role in the life of President Nixon. On Sunday a man died in Arlington, Virginia, who was, rather incredibly, three months older than the seemingly ageless Art – and who happens to have been the person responsible for hiring Richard Nixon in his first position in the world of the federal government that he would one day head.
C. David Ginsburg rarely was a particularly visible figure either during his decade of government service, or during the sixty or so years of private practice as an attorney that succeeded it. (He didn’t retire until he was 95.) But he had a rather considerable impact in both fields.
Ginsburg was raised a grocer’s son in Huntington, West Virginia. After graduating from West Virginia University he went on to Harvard Law School, where he studied the constitution under that celebrated professor, future Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. (At the time of his death, Ginsburg must have been either the very last of Frankfurter’s Harvard Law students, or close to it – a group that included figures as revered as Paul Freund and as infamous as Alger Hiss, plus some who fell somewhere in between, like Tommy Corcoran, Ed Pritchard and James Landis.)
After law school, Ginsburg moved to Cincinnati and joined a firm. But Frankfurter soon persuaded him to go to Washington instead and enter the ranks of New Dealers, so he moved east and went to work at the brand-new Securities and Exchange Commission under its first head, Joseph P. Kennedy. From there he served as the first clerk of Justice William O. Douglas, and from the high court, went back to the SEC for a time, until, in April 1941, he was appointed General Counsel of one of the most important agencies of the FDR era, the Office of Price Administration, which had as its job preventing inflation from crippling the United States as it prepared for the war that was inevitable.
Like all the New Deal-era agencies, the OPA was in need of many talented young lawyers. One of those working with Ginsburg was David Cavers, formerly of the Duke Law School faculty, who recalled a student from the class of 1937 with just the kind of quick, analytical mind the OPA needed. He then wrote to that student, who was back home in Whittier, California, not long before Pearl Harbor.
The offer came at a good time for Richard Nixon. As a Quaker, he had to make up his mind whether to follow the pacifist traditions of his forebears or to fight in the defining conflict of his generation. The OPA job gave him the chance to serve his country (at $3200 a year, money quite a bit better than the average lawyer in his twenties was earning in an America still emerging from the Depression) while he came to a decision. And so in January 1942 he came with his wife Pat to Washington, and David Ginsburg hired him.
In 2008, Ginsburg told the Alexandria Times about the young attorney living in the Northeast for the first time: “Nixon had a distinct personality that did not seek friendship, but he did a first-rate, responsible job.” That job was drudgery to a considerable degree: day in and day out for six months, RN reviewed requests for exemptions from the newly instituted regulations enforcing the tire rationing that was one of the war’s most resented features among civilians, and dictated replies to a secretary to explain, almost invariably, why these could not be granted. By the summer of 1942, with little but bad news coming from the war front, the young lawyer finally decided he could stay a civilian no longer, and joined the Navy.
But those months in OPA were critical for Richard Nixon. During his precious weekend hours, he and Pat, a still-childless couple, got the chance to see the end of winter and the glories of spring in the nation’s capital, including the priceless cherry-blossom season (though, for understandable reasons, the blooming of the Japanese trees tended not to generate the same excitement as in years before). He learned something of what the Federal government could accomplish when it had a mind to. There can be little doubt that his experience of 1942 later shaped his still-controversial decision in 1971 to impose a wage-price freeze, then wage-price controls.
And as for David Ginsburg….he continued at the OPA for a while, until speeches by congressmen demanding to know why he was still a civilian moved him to join the Army. (He also worked on Franklin Roosevelt’s speeches from time to time. In a letter to OPA head Leon Henderson, defending him from the legislative blasts, FDR calls him “David.” Think of that. Ginsburg was probably the last person living, apart from the president’s grandchildre,n to be called by his first name in a document from the Roosevelt hand.)
After service in WWII, Ginsburg returned to DC and went into private practice. But he kept his hand in the public arena. He was the very last co-founder (in 1947) of Americans for Democratic Action, the group that defined anti-Communist liberalism in the postwar era. He was frequently asked to lend his ideas to the Kennedy and Johnson White Houses, and in 1967 LBJ appointed him to direct the commission headed by Illinois Governor Otto Kerner which sought to explain the causes of civil unrest in America. Though Sen. Fred Harris formulated the essential idea, it was Ginsburg who wrote the well-known words: “The United States is moving toward two societies – one white, one black, both separate and unequal.” Johnson was unhappy with this conclusion.
When Ginsburg’s onetime employee returned to Washington, the attorney visited him in the White House, but since he was a Democrat and a thoroughgoing liberal, Ginsburg played no role in the Nixon Administration. In his role as a counsel, though, he did work with some from the Nixon era when they returned to private life, most notably Dr. Henry A. Kissinger, whom he represented for years as the former National Security Advisor fought in the courts to retain privacy rights to transcripts of his taped conversations over the NSA phone system.
All this, by the way, still doesn’t cover even the highlights of Ginsburg’s life. As an aide to Gen. Lucius Clay, he was at the Potsdam conference, at some of the Nuremberg war-crimes trials. In 1947 and 1948, he was an important advisor to Israel’s first President, Chaim Weizmann, as the Jewish state was born.
Starting about a decade after FDR’s death, there were reunions from time to time of those who forged the New Deal. At the beginning, these included many members of Roosevelt’s Cabinet and “brain trust.” Then they began to die off, one by one. For the last decade, if an academic wanted to arrange an appearance before his students by someone who had played an important role in the New Deal, Ginsburg was the one and only go-to man, at first, because John Kenneth Galbraith (who had been at OPA with him) was no longer in shape for such appearances, and then, because Galbraith had passed away. Now that the Alexandria lawyer has died, that’s it. No other really significant figure from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Administration is alive, sixty-five years and six weeks after it ended. The last New Dealer really is gone.
One last note: Ginsburg voted for Barack Obama in 2008, mentioning to the Alexandria Times that friends of his at the Harvard Law faculty had spoken highly of their onetime student. But in the last fifteen months, as America at first hailed the new President as the second coming of FDR, followed by the inevitable disillusionment, Ginsburg, who was better able than anyone to say how much or how little the 44th President measured up to the 32nd, seems not to have said anything for the record about him. One does wonder what he thought.
Photo courtesy of the Associated Press: President Lyndon B. Johnson with David Ginsburg.