Theo Lippman Jr.


September 22, 1990

I RECENTLY wrote here that an oft-repeated Dwight Eisenhower quote about Justice William Brennan was not believable.

In answer to the question, "Did you make any mistakes while president?", Ike is said to have answered, "Yes, two, and they are both sitting on the Supreme Court." Meaning Earl Warren and Brennan.

I said I didn't believe it because archivists at the Eisenhower Library had never been able to verify it. Snuffy Berkov of Ocean Pines sent me a clipping from the New Yorker of last March 12 -- a profile of Justice Brennan by Nat Hentoff. Hentoff attributed the quote to Fred Friendly, former chief of CBS News. Well, maybe. The New Yorker is famous for its fact checkers, so no doubt Friendly said that. That doesn't necessarily mean Ike said it. I myself haven't believed anything a television journalist said in years.

Anyway, all this is beside the real point about the Brennan nomination. Even if Ike said it, he shouldn't have. He didn't put Brennan on the court to get conservative rulings. He put him on the court to win votes in a presidential election.

The nomination was made on Sept. 29, 1956, in the middle of a Ike's re-election campaign. Many at the time believed Republican moderate Ike picked a liberal Democratic Catholic from New Jersey to woo traditional Democratic voters. It worked. Ike got 1.6 million more votes in 1956 than in 1952, and 1.1 million of those came from the Northeastern Seaboard states.

So President Eisenhower got what he wanted out of the nomination. He had no right to be disappointed or consider it his mistake that Justice Brennan continued to be a liberal Democrat.

I also wrote of Justice Harlan Fiske Stone, who suffered a fatal stroke while reading an opinion from the bench, that he "died with his boots on." Leon Reinstein, M.D., of Baltimore, wrote me as follows: "While the phrase has come to mean someone who died at work, its origin is much more interesting. During the Indian wars, cowboys kept their boots on while engaging in sexual intercourse so that if there were a sudden Indian attack, they wouldn't waste precious time struggling to get their boots on. Unfortunately, some cowboys suffered cardiac arrest and died during intercourse."

Dr.! Dr.! Mr. M.D.! What are they teaching you people in medical school these days? No slang dictionary I know of supports that story. In fact "A Dictionary of American Idioms" (Adam Makkai, editor) says "dying with your boots on" means "to be killed rather than die in bed." (Italics added.) "Picturesque Expressions" (Nancy LaRoche, editor in chief) says, "to die while working or while in the middle of some action, especially while fighting."

Eric Partridge's monumental "A Dictionary of American Slang and Unconventional English" says that in England the phrase originally meant to be hanged. Usage in the American West, originally by booted cowboys and calvarymen, converted it to "to die in harness at work."

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