Nick, as deputy U.S. attorney general and undersecretary of state for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, was a dominant figure in the historically crammed middle years of the 20th century, and I had the privilege to be there as a young journalist.
These were the years when frictions with the Soviet Union almost led to the twilight of civilization in the Cuban missile crisis; years of the Ole Miss riots, the caldron of Birmingham, black sit-ins, freedom rides and marches.
They were the years when an inspiring young President Kennedy asked the nation to redeem a promise the Founders made but could not deliver — human equality — a promise his death helped his successor Lyndon Johnson achieve.
Of course, Alabamians remember Katzenbach principally when he represented the government during Gov. George Wallace’s famous “stand in the schoolhouse door” at the University of Alabama 49 years ago this month.
You remember how it was, the scene that has been replayed a thousand times. This is how it was for a young correspondent covering the Justice Department:
When the fateful day arrived, the administration was on edge, remembering the tragedy of Ole Miss the year before, uncertain what the unpredictable Wallace would do, even though the governor had gone on the air telling everyone to stay at home.
I was anxious as well, because I had written a story predicting that Wallace would back down. My story was slimly based on one source, the late John Vardaman, a highly regarded Anniston attorney who had been a member of a blue-ribbon group advising Wallace on how he should handle the situation. My story had been given front-page, banner-headline treatment in The Houston Chronicle and was carried by several other Southern papers.
I nervously slipped upstairs from my office in the National Press building to the Press Club to watch the confrontation on TV. To my relief, the story held up. Remember, in one more replay of the scene:
The hulking, bent shape of Deputy Attorney General Katzenbach, arms folded. The rigidly erect Wallace making his constitutional case, concluding with a proclamation, “I ... hereby denounce and forbid this illegal and unwarranted action by the central government.”
Katzenbach, with mounting irritation, asking the governor to carry out the orders of the court, commenting rhetorically, “I do not know what the purpose of this show is.” (He did.) The deputy attorney general and aides then escorted the students to their dormitories.
A more-intense anxiety seized Washington during the Cuban missile crisis, knowing that our city was a prime target. Nick had not yet become undersecretary of state; George Ball, famed for thoughtful independence, held that office.
Ball briefed the international press in the mammoth State Department auditorium. When a reporter asked, “What happens if the Soviet ships don’t turn back?” A long, excruciatingly long pause followed as Ball contemplated how to answer before turning the question aside with, “We’ll confront that if it happens.”
Again the following spring, Bobby Kennedy and his brother the president anxiously looked at Alabama, where in Birmingham Dr. Martin Luther King had been jailed and students were being blown like leaves by fire hoses and threatened by dogs.
My friend Burke Marshall, chosen by Bobby to head the Civil Rights Division because he was reputed to be the brightest young lawyer in the city and because he had no identification with racial controversies, was asked to go to Birmingham and try to disarm that explosive standoff.
By shuttle diplomacy, Burke identified, finally, people who could make effective decisions for both sides and calm was restored. He returned home with the conviction that national legislation was needed because the administration could not negotiate every racial conflict city by city, state by state.
Bobby and the president agreed and work began deep in the department, below periscope depth. I didn’t know about it until I was asked to a briefing in Bobby’s office on the civil rights bill that would be sent to Congress.
The bill was instantly trapped in the infinite webbing of wiles and ways of legislative delay that often led to the death of legislation. It was resurrected by the shock of President Kennedy’s assassination, by the legislative genius of now-President Johnson and by the statesmanship — unimaginable by today’s partisan standards — of Senate Republican Leader Everett Dirksen.
Nick Katzenbach believed Dirksen gets more credit than he deserves for his role. He attributes delays in getting the bill out of committee in the Senate to “making endless revisions to satisfy Dirksen and his colleagues.”
“Burke and I spent endless evenings doing that — mainly to satisfy Dirksen that it wouldn’t have much if any effect in Illinois.” Grudgingly, the former deputy attorney general admits Dirksen’s role was “a key to enactment.”
At the end of the day, on a relatively minor scale, how did the tough-minded deputy attorney general judge my hometown’s efforts to fight back the forces of reaction? “You were a bright spot,” he wrote me not long ago.
Thanks, Nick, and good night.
H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co.