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Lawrence Walsh: His Judgment Came Not From Confidence But From Insecurity

Lawrence Walsh in 1988.
Bob Daugherty
Lawrence Walsh in 1988.

In 2003 the American Bar Association published Lawrence Walsh's autobiography, The Gift of Insecurity; A Lawyer's Life. Walsh died Wednesday at age 102. The following is the foreword NPR's Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg wrote for the book.

In 1969 I was a very green, young reporter for the staid National Ob­server, and I went to meet the staid senior partner of Davis Polk & Wardwell, Judge Lawrence E. Walsh. I had talked to him several times on the phone and hadn't gotten much out of him, so I thought maybe if I went to see him, it would help. He was then the chairman of the American Bar Association's Judicial Screening Committee, and I was a nobody — new to the legal beat in Washington, a non-lawyer, and, worse yet, a woman.

By then I had grown used to being dismissed by men, patted on the head, or in some cases just hit on. So you simply cannot imagine my astonishment when I was ushered into a large office and greeted warmly by this rather austere-looking gentleman in a three-piece suit, who then proceeded to engage me in a lively conversation about the role of his committee, how it conducted its business, the problems it faced, par­ticularly in getting honest assessments of Supreme Court nominees — oh, and did I have any thoughts about how the process could be improved? As I would learn in the decades to come, talking to Lawrence Walsh is always worth a reporter's time, but you don't find out anything you could call a scoop. You just understand the dimensions of what you are covering much better. That was true on that day, as it has been on many days since in the 33 years that I have known Judge Walsh. What aston­ished me on that day was that this very senior Wall Street lawyer in such a hidebound-looking place treated me not as some silly girl but as an equal. What has astonished me as I have grown older is his ability to understand the role of the press, even when we made his life rather un­pleasant.

A case in point was the day in 1987 when I called him at home in Oklahoma. I had been phoning around trying to figure out who would be appointed the Iran-Contra independent counsel. I won't bore you with the path that took me eventually to the conclusion that Walsh had been chosen, but I finally had enough information to place a call to him and ask. He laughed and said he really couldn't help me. I wheedled. He refused to take the bait. But my sources were good and I was sure enough to write a story. The next day the Los Angeles Times said it had confirmed my story. And then ... silence. Nothing for days, as I (and Ron Ostrow from the L. A. Times) chewed my (our) fingernails. Finally, the announce­ment came, and I called Walsh again. "What was that all about?" I de­manded to know. Well, he explained, it hadn't been a done deal yet, since he was still being checked out when I called, and he could tell I had enough to write a story, and if somebody had some reason to oppose him, it would be better if it came out, and the only way it would come out was if his name was out there.

Now, that is a remarkably sophisticated assessment of the situation he faced when he got my call. It is also a reflection of his long-held view that a major nomination should not be made until the press and public have had a little time to stir the pot. I think he came to that conclusion after his experience as chairman of the ABA screening committee when G. Harrold Carswell was named to the Supreme Court. In hindsight, he clearly felt that the ABA had wrongly given Carswell its stamp of ap­proval, and he persuaded President Nixon, for a short time at least, to let the ABA vet potential nominees before their names were publicly an­nounced. So I thought it kind of nice that he applied the same standard to his own nomination, even though it gave anyone who didn't like him plenty of time to sink his prospects.

In the years that followed, of course, Judge Walsh acquired a goodly number of antagonists. His role as Iran-Contra special prosecutor won him few friends in the Republican circles in which he had long traveled; nor were his critics all partisans. I think he did care, but not enough to compromise what he viewed as "the rule of law." In the end, he was very angry about the pardons President George H.W. Bush granted to the men Bush had served with in the Reagan Administration. But the rest of the hurdles that defeated much of the Walsh investigation — the court rulings making it so difficult to prosecute, and the court rulings that invalidated the hard-won convictions — were all things he knew were possible when he took the job.

I remember the first interviews I did with him at the beginning of his tenure. Even then, he was worried about how to deal with classified information, how to overcome the objections of the not exactly disinter­ested intelligence community. Even then, he was worried about how to prosecute while congressional hearings were ongoing. Even then, he wor­ried that getting the information he needed from foreign banks would take years, putting his investigation in political jeopardy. I remember thinking that the problems he alluded to were overblown, that it would somehow work out. But in hindsight, I think he knew he could be thwarted, and simply tried his best not to be.

What I have learned about Lawrence Walsh over the years is to respect his judgment, even when it seems a little wacky. I remember one time during the Nixon Administration when I got hold of a list of potential Supreme Court nominees, and I called Walsh trying to get a third confir­mation on it. He was on vacation on Cape Cod and said he would call me back. The next thing I knew I was talking to this Lion of Wall Street, former federal judge, former deputy attorney general of the United States, and I could hear cars and trucks in the background! He told me it would be inappropriate for him to comment on my list, but that I should keep pressing, I was on the right track. And I said, "Where are you, with all that noise in the background?" And he told me he was using a pay phone somewhere near his house because he didn't trust his phones not to be tapped. I, with all the wisdom of my 26 or 27 years, rolled my eyes, thinking he was a little paranoid. Just a few years later, we learned that the Nixon Administration had tapped lots of people it suspected of dis­loyalty. So he wasn't paranoid after all — just careful.

That judgment has served him well over the years. As we learn in this book, it is a judgment born not of confidence but of insecurity, of being a C student not from the social elite. As Walsh puts it, it was "the Gift of Insecurity" that led him down so many nontraditional paths in his life — a life that took him from seafaring jobs aboard freighters and ocean liners in his college years to prosecutorial jobs in pursuit of the mob as a young lawyer working for District Attorney Tom Dewey. Indeed, the jobs Lawrence Walsh has held during his life have been incredibly diverse — from Wall Street litigator to deputy U.S. negotiator at the Paris peace talks with North Vietnam, from counsel to the New York commission charged with cleaning up the waterfront to Iran/Contra independent coun­sel, from federal judge to deputy attorney general in the Eisenhower Administration. For me, one of the most fascinating and charming chap­ters was about his years as No. 2 in the Justice Department, for his tenure covered the desegregation of the Little Rock schools, his relationship with southern senators as he sought to shepherd through the Senate judges pledged to uphold civil rights, and some other perhaps more marginal, but quite entertaining events — such as his meeting with President Eisenhower to explain why the Administration really could not cham­pion the suppression of D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover. It seems that the postmaster general had appealed directly to the president on this question, giving Ike a copy of the book with the offending passages un­derlined, and it fell to Deputy Attorney General Walsh to explain to the president of the United States why the Justice Department was not going to appeal a decision by a lower court allowing the book to be sent through the mails.

Eisenhower, like many others over the years, decided to respect Walsh's judgment.

As a reporter, I have not always agreed with Judge Walsh, and have on occasion told him so. What astonishes me now, more than three decades after I first met him, is that he can take a healthy disagreement. He wel­comes it as an opportunity to rethink a position, and if he continues to disagree, he expects you to be able to take it too!

—Nina Totenberg
Legal Affairs Correspondent
for National Public Radio

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.