In The Long Reach of the Sixties, Laura Kalman tells her story with the enthusiasm of someone who has waited more than three decades to do so. The wait was not without value. Intervening projects provided research that enriches this one. And everything was enhanced by the serendipity of access to recordings made in the Oval Office by presidents Lyndon B. Johnson (of telephone conversations) and Richard M. Nixon (of all conversations). The recordings allowed Kalman to write almost literally from the perspective of a fly on the wall. The result is a book of some 330 pages of text followed by almost 90 pages of notes. Her subject: the process by which justices of the Supreme Court are nominated and confirmed. Her thesis: that the process emerged, changed, from the politics of “the Sixties.” Told from that almost omniscient perspective, the story reveals that for both presidents the Supreme Court became a vital component of their presidential agendas. At the least, each president felt the need to know the deliberations of the justices. Even more, each president wanted to influence the Court’s decisions. Both goals could be achieved through the process of appointment. As Kalman relates, each president came to work primarily through a single justice—Abe Fortas for Johnson, Warren E. Burger for Nixon. Not surprisingly, senators recognized the presidents’ interests, with the opposing political party using the confirmation process to resist them. Even then, the presidencies of Johnson and Nixon had differing involvements with the Court. Johnson “identified everything with himself” (74). He struggled to remove the aura of the Kennedys while pursuing his own agenda. His contacts with the Court ranged from having Chief Justice Earl Warren chair an investigation of President Kennedy’s assassination to furthering a civil rights agenda by appointing Thurgood Marshall to the Court. For Nixon, the Court provided a foil against which he could promote his “law and order” agenda. Putting aside what Kalman shows to be an ineptitude with which each president chose nominees for the Court, the period was indeed one in which new meaning was given to the notion of the Court as a “coequal” branch. A pervasive strength of the book is the skill with which Kalman tells her story, a skill resembling that of a mystery writer. She assembles characters and reveals details, though not all are vital for her plot (read “thesis”). At times the sheer number of characters can be overwhelming, especially for a reader not as familiar with the period as is Kalman. It is as though the storyteller’s perspective is too inclusive, lacking relief from the omniscience of the fly. The volume of material available—the recordings, supplemented by other archives—is valuable in itself. It may, though, provide clues that point in a direction different from that suggested by Kalman. For example, she may too easily dismiss the shadow of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR left no recordings from the White House; and his party generally had firm control of the Senate. Still, three FDR appointees and allies (Hugo Black, William O. Douglas, and Felix Frankfurter) served into the early 1960s. And, of course, President Johnson himself had been an early supporter of the New Deal. Kalman even describes a number of occasions when the shadow of FDR influenced decisions in “the Sixties.” In addition, and with no small irony, the volume of material may provide the most important clue of all: the recordings create such a weight of evidence that they themselves shape the story. A second strength of the book comes from the times Kalman steps from behind the curtain of pure storytelling. On those occasions, she reveals her strong commitment to the role of a historian. She acknowledges the imprecision inherent in that role—her word is “messy” (xii). Nevertheless, her candor in discussing the resolution of inconsistent evidence is welcome. The book’s title provides the first instance of her historiography: she rejects the historian’s penchant for periodization (182). For her, “the Sixties” extends to 1975 (347 n. 3). Similarly, it is “the Contemporary Supreme Court,” no longer the Burger or Rehnquist or Roberts Court. In other places, Kalman is more direct. For example, she explains the reasons for her conclusion that a contemporaneous memorandum from Cartha DeLoach (the deputy associate director of the FBI) accurately describes a conversation between DeLoach and Justice Fortas (79 fn.). In a longer segment, she explains how she came to her view of the appointment of Thurgood Marshall to the Court (97–98). The final chapter, her “epilogue,” surveys the years since the end of “the Sixties,” ruminating about how the changes detailed in the body of her book played themselves out in subsequent years. For all its value, the book is not without flaws. Even with almost every paragraph supported by an endnote, there are at least ten footnotes that appear mysteriously. Unfortunate errors of fact occur. For example, William Hastie was not the first African American editor of the Harvard Law Review (46). Charles Hamilton Houston preceded Hastie by several years. David Paul O’Brien was not the “appellant” in the Supreme Court case arising from his burning of a draft card. O’Brien was the “respondent” in a case that reached the Court through a writ of certiorari (United States v. O’Brien ). In spite of errors, the book remains of value to anyone interested in the Supreme Court of “the Sixties.” Kalman has given us a fine example of how to combine a diversity of archival material into a single story. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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