Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Politics for Adults

Yale Law's Stephen Carter has some interesting thoughts:
When the Supreme Court sat down half a century ago to hear arguments in the case of Brown v. Board of Education, which ultimately did away with formal segregation in the nation's public schools, a legal team led by Marshall represented the plaintiffs. The defendants -- the states that wanted to keep the races separate -- hired as their lead counsel a man named John W. Davis, perhaps the foremost appellate advocate of his day. Davis, it turned out, was also a Southern gentleman who thought that segregation, all in all, was a good thing.

When I met Marshall many years after Brown, I asked him what he thought of John W. Davis. I expected him, in the fashion of the times, to respond with the sort of vicious and ad hominem assault that I no doubt would have selected. After all, the man was -- no point in sugarcoating it -- a segregationist. But Marshall surprised me. He said, 'John W. Davis? A good man. A great man, who just happened to believe in that segregation.'

The story captures Marshall's view of the world. He believed, always, in seeking the common human bond between himself and those with whom he had strong disagreements, even on the most divisive and important moral issue of the day. He sought God at work in others and usually found what he sought. He had opponents but never enemies. He did not much care what a man's politics were. Marshall's highest praise for a politician or activist? 'You could do business with him,' Marshall would say, meaning, at the end of the day, you could sit down and make a deal with him; and he would keep his end.

Indeed, many of Marshall's stories involved making deals with figures whom history treats as rabid segregationists. Certainly Marshall could have met them with the vitriol and hatred so common today. But, had he done so, he could never have, as he put it, done business.

* * *
And if Marshall could reach out across the divide of segregation and meet people on the other side with respect and even affection, and so make deals to move the country forward, is it really impossible to imagine the rest of us doing the same?

Imagine that: a politics actually worthy of adults.
Stuart Buck


Blogger Jenny D. said...

Thanks for the lovely story. I have to teach about Brown v. Board later this semester and it's good to think about the people and the time.

6:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

John W. Davis was the Democratic presidential candidate in the 1920s, I believe, and he was one of the name partners of the prominent NY law firm of Davis Polk & Wardwell.

1:51 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

Not surprising. After all, there was no criminal that Marshall wouldn't coddle. Why would a segregationist bother him?

12:06 AM  

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