With Liberty and Justice for All
Waking today to the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I am reminded of another Saturday forty years ago and an early-morning call informing me that a liberal lion of the U.S. Supreme court was gone.
“Douglas died last night,” my city editor at the Yakima Herald-Republic told somewhere north of seven a.m. “We’ll stretch the Sunday deadline an hour tonight and hold forty inches on the front page. Do you still want another forty inches for the sidebar?”
I said I did.
“Okay. You’d better get going.”
Appointed to the Court by Franklin Roosevelt in 1939 at age 40, Douglas was among the youngest court Justices. His term on the court—36 years and 211 days—is the longest in history. Time Magazine eulogized him as the most doctrinaire and committed civil libertarian ever to sit on the court.”
The eulogy he would have most treasured, though, was that of Cragg Gilbert who, along with his father Elon Gilbert—Douglas’s boyhood friend—spent many hours hiking and camping with Douglas in Washington’s Cascade Mountains.
Like numerous Yakima natives who were embarrassed by the political leanings of the city’s favorite son, Cragg and his father were political conservatives. On the day of Douglas’s death, though, Cragg told me, “Basically, Bill believed in America. He wanted to defend it at all costs. I appreciated and defended Bill’s politics because I got to know him as a man in the mountains. I knew him as a man I could count on in a tight spot.”
I was a reporter working for the Yakima Herald-Republic on the January 1980 morning Douglas died. His death came as no surprise. A few weeks before, he’d suffered another in a series of debilitating strokes. My editor assigned me the task of reporting his death. “Read his books, track down his old friends here in Yakima. Talk to them and put together the story. Then we’ll top it with a lead with he dies,” my city editor told me.
I read the books and made sure I had all the contact information for his closest Yakima friends, but I told my editors I wanted to wait until his death to talk with them. No way could I capture the emotion that would make my story real by interviewing them in advance. A couple of editors were skeptical. They talked about the impracticality of pushing deadlines if Douglas died in the midst of a news cycle. Managing Editor Steve Kent, though, gave me permission to wait.
That Saturday became one of the most extraordinary days of my professional life.
Douglas grew up poor—the son of a widowed Presbyterian minister’s wife—living on hand-me-downs from his father’s church. He spent days with boyhood friends hiking the hills that surround Yakima from Union Gap to Selah Gap. He spent weeks backpacking in the Cascades.
Robert Lucas, a former editor of the Herald-Republic, told me on that Saturday, “Bill’s love for Yakima was its association with the West and the country he explored around it—of his experiences in the Cascades as a kid, and his valued friendships. But he seemed to have been embittered by the fact that he thought Yakima was a feudal community in that it was very class conscious. It had its powerful families and its very poor families, and he was one of the very poor.”
His inclusion as a young man in Franklin Roosevelt’s inner circle did not endear Douglas to Yakima’s citizenry. Roosevelt appointed him to the Securities and Exchange Commission in 1934 and two years later elevated him to the chairmanship. When Roosevelt appointed Douglas a Supreme Court Justice, the headline in his hometown paper read “Yakima Not to Blame.”
Douglas quickly established himself on the court as a New Deal liberal. He’d ridden the rails, drank soup from tin cups in Depression hobo camps and seen first-hand a plague of poverty visited upon the poor by careless indulgences of the rich. He championed civil liberties, civil rights and protection of the common man.
He flirted with the presidency. On that incredible Saturday, Lucas said Douglas had confirmed to him the truth of a rumor about Truman’s selection as Roosevelt’s 1944 running-mate. At the 1944 convention, Roosevelt gave the Democratic Party Chairman three names he’d accept as vice president. Douglas topped the list. Harry Truman was third. The party chairman reversed the order of the names.
Lucas also told me of a day sitting in his office at the Herald-Republic four years later when Douglas walked in. “I asked him what the hell he was doing here. He told me he was keeping away from the phone. He said Harry Truman wanted him on the ticket with him as vice president and he was trying to avoid the call.”
As Douglas’s term on the bench progressed, cries of outrage arose from his hometown regarding his positions and his behavior. He dared to advocate the recognition of Red China as both a legitimate political entity and a future economic force with which to be reckoned. He took an outspoken stand in favor of desegregation. Vice-President Spiro Agnew questioned his character and integrity. Several congressmen called for his resignation or impeachment because an article about Douglas’s advocacy of conservation appeared in Playboy Magazine.
And then there were the wives. Douglas was divorced three times, each time marrying a younger woman. He married his fourth wife, Cathy, when he was 67 and she was 23.
On that Saturday of his death, Grace Corpron, widow of Douglas’s childhood friend Dr. Douglas Corpron, gave me her opinion of Douglas’s proclivity for younger women. “He was happily married,” Grace told me, “until he went on a fact-finding trip to somewhere in the Middle East and saw those harems.”
The editors and I agreed we would save that observation for another time.
I also learned that day that Douglas was on a camping trip in the Cascades with Elon and Cragg Gilbert on the night John Kennedy won the Democratic nomination for president.
“Bill and the Kennedy’s were at odds,” Cragg said, “When Bill found out the Kennedy’s were going to buy that election, well, he was just incensed. We had some liquor along, and out there in the mountains that night, he really tied one on. It was quite a show.”
Several times over his career, Douglas brought the world to Yakima’s doorstep. When the Supreme Court was in recess, Douglas and Cathy would retire to their home in the mountain solitude of Goose Prairie, Washington. From time to time, he would be required to rule on issues that could not wait for a formal session of the court. He could have held those hearings in his living room at Goose Prairie, but “Bill thought it would be a good experience in civics and the law for the people of Yakima to share in those decisions,” Cathy Douglas told me in an earlier interview.
From the Yakima federal courthouse that now bears his name, he ruled in favor of school desegregation. He ruled favorably for Daniel Ellsberg in the Pentagon Papers controversy. And in 1973, sitting in Yakima, Douglas ruled that Richard Nixon, president of the United States, was breaking the law by bombing Cambodia, and ordered him to stop.
As history played out, Douglas wasn’t impeached, Richard Nixon went to Red China, Spiro Agnew had some character flaws of his own and Jimmy Carter granted an interview to Playboy.
With the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I am reminded of that incredible Saturday—we ended up pushing the front-page deadline an hour and a half—spent among friends of William O. Douglas.
I am also reminded how much we are in need of liberal lions—those who actually believe in the creed “one nation, with liberty and justice for all.”