To a comment that Paul Tsongas "is in...


February 15, 1992|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

IN RESPONSE to a comment that Paul Tsongas "is in the

private sector," Sen. Bob Kerrey, a businessman, said, "He's a lawyer! I mean, please!" So the mudslinging has begun.

Approximately half of all presidents practiced law at one time or another in their lives, but few were in practice when elected. In this century, only one was. That was Richard Nixon in 1968. Like Tsongas, he was a former elected federal official who was paid not for what he knew about the law but for who he knew in government. Tsongas gets $360 an hour to work out deals.

Before Nixon, the last lawyer in private practice to be elected president was Grover Cleveland. Like Tricky Dick, Grover was between elective offices. He was elected president in 1884. He was defeated in 1888, so he resumed his legal career for four years.

Before him, the last practicing lawyer to win the presidency was Abraham Lincoln.

Lawyer-presidents were the rule before World War II. By lawyer-president I mean someone who may have come to the White House from another public job -- governor, senator, vice president, ambassador, the cabinet -- but who had early in career practiced law. From 1786 through 1944, America never elected two successive non-lawyer presidents.

Since 1948, however, only Nixon of the eight elected presidents was a lawyer. He was also, of course, the only president caught breaking the law. Probably just a coincidence.

Harry Truman went to law school, but never practiced. Dwight Eisenhower was a career soldier. Jack Kennedy was a career politician (briefly a journalist). Lyndon Johnson was a career politician (briefly a teacher). Jimmy Carter was a farmer and businessman. Ronald Reagan was an actor. George Bush was an oilman.

One of Paul Tsongas' law partners says, "He wouldn't work for any client or purpose he didn't feel good about." Does that he mean he felt good about Michael Milken? Tsongas represented Drexel Burnham Lambert in the 1980s. You can bet that Aetna, Cigna, the Travelers and Hartford Life, all of whom Tsongas represents, feel good about Paul. According to the Wall Street Journal, all would benefit from Tsongas' health care proposals.

Most lawyers represent clients they may not feel good about. Take the man we honor this time of year.

Last summer, two new Lincoln documents were discovered in a county courthouse attic in Illinois. They date from the late 1850s.

One is his brief filed in a railroad ownership and fraud case in which Honest Abe's clients were, in the words of a biographer, "the railroad's shady financiers."

The other document involves Lincoln's representation of a man clearly guilty of murder. Facing an inexperienced state's attorney, Lincoln first delayed proceedings, then got the case dismissed because the prosecutor didn't get it tried in accordance with the speedy trial law.

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