Recounts in his memoirs some of the...


May 29, 1991|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

CLARK CLIFFORD recounts in his memoirs some of the presidential poker games he and other cronies of Harry Truman played in regularly.

He describes one hand in loving detail. Truman was dealing. The game was high-low, in which the worst hand gets half the pot. Chief Justice Fred Vinson was going low. He needed to get only a jack or lower on the last card to have a lock on a $3,000 pot. Clifford writes:

" 'O.K., Mr. President, hit me,' he said to the dealer. The president flipped the next card over. It was the queen of spades. Without thinking, Vinson looked straight at the President and burst out, 'You son of a bitch!' There was a moment of shocked silence; no one had ever called President Truman anything other than 'Mr. President,' even in the informal setting of the poker table. The hush was broken by the Chief Justice, stammering apologetically, 'Oh, Mr. President, Mr. President.' Never did President Truman or the rest of us laugh harder or louder than we did at that moment."

Great story. Reminds us how down to earth good ole Harry was. (Although, that pot would be $18,000 in today's dollars, so he wasn't too down to earth.) It also reminds me of what a terrible president he was in picking Supreme Court justices.

Chief Justice Vinson was Truman's second court appointee. Truman had also appointed Vinson secretary of the Treasury. They had become friends in Congress, when Truman was a senator and Vinson a representative.

Truman's first Supreme Court appointee was Harold Burton. He was a senator who had served on "the Truman Committee," a special Senate committee investigating fraud in the war effort that propelled Harry to national prominence and the vice presidency.

Truman's third appointee was Tom Clark. He worked with the Truman Committee, while prosecuting war fraud cases for the Department of Justice. He later supported Truman's vice

presidential bid and subsequently was rewarded with the attorney generalship, then the court.

Truman's fourth appointee was also an old buddy, Sherman Minton. They came to the Senate together in 1935. Minton was defeated in 1940 and went to work in the White House as liaison with Senator Truman on war frauds.

Anything wrong with using the Supreme Court to reward old pols and old pals? Not if you can differentiate between your talented pals and your untalented ones.

Truman couldn't. He later called appointing Tom Clark a "damn fool" mistake. And Clark was the best of the Truman lot. A few years ago, 65 law school deans and professors of law, history and political science who specialize in constitutional law were asked to rank the 96 justices of the Supreme Court to 1969.

They rated 12 "great," 15 "near great," 55 "average," 6 "below average" and 8 "failures."

Clark was "average." Burton, Vinson and Minton were all "failures."

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