Anecdotes are dangerous to biographers and truth Mistakes: When essential little stories are distorted, vast damage is done.

The Argument

September 07, 1997|By Theo Lippman Jr. | Theo Lippman Jr.,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Dwight Eisenhower was quoted once again in som obituaries of Supreme Court Justice William Brennan to the effect that appointing him was one of his two "mistakes." He never said it, and it wasn't a mistake, judged by Eisenhower's own standards. Blame the whole thing on gossip and Brennan's biographers.

Such anecdotes as a saddened Eisenhower grumbling about Brennan's opinions are the stuff good biography is made of: little stories that humanize the subject and cast light on his life and work. In the case of Supreme Court justices, such stories bring the subject to life in a way that mere description and analysis of opinions, speeches and previous legal career can never achieve. Nothing is duller than an "and-then-he-wrote" approach. Justices are people, they put their robes on one arm at a time. Biographers must show that.

But given the power of anecdotal evidence to concentrate a reader's essential image of the subject along specific lines, it is incumbent on biographers to document their sources when they resort to these humanizing touches and take great care to put them in responsible context.

President Eisenhower appointed Brennan to the Supreme Court in 1956. He has been reputed to have said in 1958, "I have made two mistakes, and they are both sitting on the Supreme Court." He was referring to Brennan and Chief Justice Earl Warren, whom he appointed in 1953.

The significance of the quote, in addition to its showing presidential exasperation, is that it suggests justices do not do what their presidential sponsors expect of them. It either vilifies Brennan and Warren or bathes them in a heroic glow, especially to those who like their justices principled, independent and aloof from politics.

But since politics at its rawest was at the heart of Eisenhower's choice of Brennan, the president's alleged quote would be misleading even if he in fact said it.

The two Brennan biographies that have appeared since his retirement in 1990 both give credence to the quote. In "A Justice for All" (Simon & Schuster, 1993), Kim Isaac Eisler writes that Eisenhower didn't actually say it in so many words but implied it in a 1957 conversation with retiring Justice Harold Burton.

Burton kept a diary, and Eisler, who used no footnotes, said in his text that that was his source. But what Burton actually wrote was this: "[Eisenhower] expressed disappointment at the trend of decisions of Chief Justice and Brennan." Hardly the same thing as "two mistakes."

Hunter Clark in "Justice Brennan: The Great Conciliator" (Birch Lane Press, 1995) uses the quote as a chapter heading. Though his book contains some 2,000 footnotes, he does not cite any source.

It was probably Eisler. You see the problem? Good anecdotes, true or false, acquire a life of their own. Eisler correctly explained in his book what happened after the Burton-Eisenhower meeting: "the rumor mill translated" Eisenhower's actual remarks into the juicier "mistakes" statement. But when the New York Times, in its obituary, said the evidence that Eisenhower actually said it was "equivocal," biographer Eisler wrote a letter to the editor saying Eisenhower did say it, refuting his own research and book.

And in 1961, Eisenhower, who had certainly heard the translated version, described his Warren and Brennan appointments in the rumor mill version's phrasing, according to CBS producer Fred Friendly, who was working with Eisenhower on an interview program.

Corrective at hand

If Eisler and Eisenhower, himself, could be influenced by the wrong version, so will many who come after them, even future biographers and historians.

Fortunately, a corrective is at hand. The CBS incident was described in a law review article by Stephen Wermiel, who is finishing up his Brennan biography for Scribner. I can't help but wonder if it wasn't Friendly, not Eisenhower, who described Warren and Brennan as mistakes. Wermiel doesn't say that the producer put the words in Ike's mouth, but he comes close to implying it.

Surely if Eisenhower had said it without prompting, Friendly would have decided it was newsworthy enough to film. It wasn't filmed. And the Eisenhower Library says it has found no corroboration of Eisenhower's uttering such a quote, in that or any other instance.

True vs. interesting history

Wermiel's research and documentation for the article's section dealing just with the famous remark are impressive. If his whole book is, as I presumed it will be, that thorough and well done it will be the definitive biography of Brennan. (Wermiel had 60 hours of interviews with the justice.)

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