Category Archives: American history

Hangin’ with Judge Hoffman

POST #8

This is the eighth in a series of posts that recall what it was like to serve as Judge Julius Hoffman’s law clerk from 1967 to 1969.

The “Chicago 7” Trial (continued)

            How did the Nixon victory lead to the trial of the “Chicago 7”?  The answer is simple.

             With prosecutions by the U.S. Justice Department shifting from the Johnson administration and its attorney general, Ramsey Clark, to those on Nixon’s team who began running the Justice Department, things changed dramatically. 

            AG Clark had been reluctant to go after antiwar activists.  But Nixon was a warped personality, bent on punishing those he viewed as his enemies.  Once in office, with his own attorney general, John Mitchell, securely installed, he could prod federal prosecutors to go after his perceived foes.

            With the assistance of the FBI, long under the direction of another warped individual, J. Edgar Hoover, Nixon was able to track down his enemies, including antiwar protestors who had militated against him.  At the Democratic convention in Chicago in August 1968, antiwar activists’ outspoken opposition to the ultimately successful nomination of Hubert Humphrey (who in their view had not supported their cause with sufficient enthusiasm) disrupted the convention and undermined Humphrey’s ability to defeat Nixon.  As I noted in Post #7, Humphrey’s popular vote total in November was only one percent short of Nixon’s.  But that one percent made all the difference in the now-notoriously-undemocratic Electoral College.

            Many of these protestors had opposed the Vietnam War even before 1968, and they promised to further disrupt things once Nixon was elected.  Hoover’s FBI moved on from targeting people like members of the Communist Party USA to antiwar activists.  A covert program, Cointelpro, used a wide range of “dirty tricks,” including illegal wiretaps and planting false documents. 

I’ll add a recent update on Cointelpro here.

A fascinating revelation appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2021

            On March 7 of this year, The San Francisco Chronicle revealed an FBI break-in that underscores what the agency was doing at this time.  On March 8, 1971, Ralph Daniel, then 26, was one of eight antiwar activists who had long suspected FBI malfeasance and broke into a small FBI office in Pennsylvania to seize records that would prove it.  (March 8 was chosen because, they hoped, FBI agents would be focused on the title fight between prizefighters Ali and Frazier that night.) The break-in was successful, and the records uncovered were leaked to journalists and others, exposing Hoover’s secret FBI program that investigated and spied on citizens accused of engaging in protected speech. 

            This was the massive Cointelpro operation that had amassed files on antiwar activists, students, Black Panthers, and other Black citizens.  Fred Hampton, the leader of the Chicago Black Panthers, was one target of this operation. (He plays a small role in Aaron Sorkin’s film, “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” before his shocking murder is revealed during that trial.  I remember learning of Hampton’s murder and feeling sickened by the conduct of local law enforcement, whose homicidal wrongdoing later became apparent.)

            In 1975, the U.S. Senate’s Church Committee found the FBI program illegal and contrary to the Constitution.      Exposure of Cointelpro tarnished Hoover’s legacy and damaged the reputation of the FBI for years.

            The recent revelation appears in the March 7th edition of The San Francisco Chronicle.  Ralph Daniel, a resident of the Bay Area, revealed his story to a Chronicle reporter fifty years after the break-in took place.

The legal underpinnings of the trial of the “Chicago 7”

            With John Mitchell running Nixon’s Justice Department, federal prosecutors were instructed to focus on one section in a federal statute originally intended to penalize those who created civil unrest following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and specifically to use that statute to bring charges against antiwar activists.  The statute, which had been enacted on April 11, 1968, was mostly a follow-up to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and it applied to issues like fair housing and the civil rights of Native American tribes. 

            But Title X of this law, which became known as the Anti-Riot Act, did something quite different.  It made it a felony to cross states lines or make phone calls “to incite a riot; to organize, promote or participate in a riot; or to aid and abet any person performing these activities.” This provision, sometimes called the “H. Rap Brown Law,” was passed in response to the conduct of civil rights activist H. Rap Brown.  

How did Judge Hoffman become involved?

            In September 1968, shortly after the Chicago convention, the Chief Judge of the Northern District of Illinois, William J. Campbell, convened a grand jury to investigate possible charges against antiwar protestors who had been active during the convention.  The grand jury, which met 30 times over six months and heard about 300 witnesses, indicted the eight antiwar protestors who came to be dubbed the “Chicago 8” with a violation of the Anti-Riot Act.  AG John Mitchell then asked the U.S Attorney for the Northern District, Thomas Foran, to stay in office and direct the prosecution.

            In Hoffman’s chambers, I was unaware that any of this was happening.  But in the spring of 1969, Hoffman became the judge who would preside over the prosecution.

            Anyone could see from the very beginning that this case was a hot potato–such a hot potato that before it was assigned to Hoffman, it had bounced around the courthouse a couple of times.  Cases were supposed to be randomly assigned to judges according to a “wheel” in the clerk’s office.  But this time, the first two judges who’d been handed the case had reportedly sent it back.  One of these judges was Chief Judge Campbell.  I’m not sure about the other judge, but whoever he was, he had a lot more smarts than Hoffman did.

            [I had my own run-in with Judge Campbell, beginning in February 1970.  But that’s a story for another time.]

            When the case landed in Hoffman’s chambers, he seemed somewhat taken aback, but I think he may have been secretly pleased to be handed this case.  He might have even liked the idea that he’d be handling a high-profile prosecution that would draw a lot of attention.  In any event, his ego wouldn’t let him send the case back to “the wheel,” even on a pretext.

            I kept my distance from the “Chicago 8” case.  As Hoffman’s senior clerk, due to leave that summer, I wasn’t expected to do any work on it.  My co-clerk, at that time the junior clerk, would become the senior clerk after my departure, and he assumed responsibility for the pre-trial motions and other events related to the case.  I was frankly delighted to have little or no responsibility this case.  It was clearly dynamite, and Hoffman was clearly the wrong judge for it.

            Since I was still working in Hoffman’s chambers, I could of course observe what was happening there.  And I could see what was going to happen long before the trial began.  Attorneys for the eight defendants (who later became seven when defendant Bobby Seale’s case was severed, in a sadly shocking episode about a month after the trial began) immediately began filing pre-trial motions that contested absolutely everything. 

            As I recall, one pre-trial motion explicitly asked Hoffman to recuse himself (i.e., withdraw as judge).  The defense lawyers’ claim was that Hoffman’s conduct of previous trials showed that he couldn’t conduct this trial fairly.  If Hoffman had been smart, he would have seized upon this motion as a legitimate way to extract himself from the case.  He must have already suspected that things in his courtroom might not go well.  But again, his pride wouldn’t allow him to admit that there was anything in his history that precluded him from conducting a fair trial.

            Soon the national media began descending on the courtroom to report on Hoffman’s rulings on the pre-trial motions.  One day Hoffman came into the clerks’ room to show us a published article in which a reporter had described the judge as having a “craggy” face.  “What does ‘craggy’ mean?” he asked us. 

            My co-clerk and I were dumbfounded, wondering how to respond to such a bizarre question.  The word “craggy” had always sounded rather rugged to me, while Hoffman looked much more like the cartoon character Mr. Magoo (as many in the media soon began to describe him).  I muttered something about “looking rugged,” while my co-clerk stayed silent.  Hoffman looked dubious about my response and continued to harp on the possible definition of “craggy” for another five or ten minutes until he finally left.

            The problem with Hoffman’s treatment of the “Chicago 7′ case was, fundamentally, that he treated it like every other criminal case he’d ever handled.  And the defense attorneys were right.  He had a record of bias in favor of government prosecutors.

            This problem became his downfall.  He refused to see that this case was unique and had to be dealt with on its own terms, unlike all of the other criminal cases in his past. 

            Further, he lacked any flexibility and remained committed to the way he’d always conducted proceedings in his courtroom.  If he’d had some degree of flexibility, that might have helped the trial proceed more smoothly.  But at 74, after 16 years on the bench, he was accustomed to running an orderly courtroom with lawyers and defendants who followed the rules.

            He would not have an orderly courtroom this time, and he was completely unable to bend those rules.

The film, “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” written and directed by Aaron Sorkin

            This film, which first appeared in September 2020 (I’ll call it “the Sorkin film”), has made the trial the centerpiece of a lengthy and detailed dramatization of the trial itself, along with the events that led up to it. 

The film is an impressive achievement.  I applaud Sorkin for bringing attention to the 50-year-old trial and to many of the people and events who were part of it.

I’ve chosen not to critique the film but simply to add comments based on my own recollections from that era along with what I’ve gleaned from my independent research.

The Sorkin film has notably garnered a 90 percent positive score on Rotten Tomatoes, based on nearly 300 critics’ reviews.  Some of the reviews are glowing, others less so.

I’ll quote from a sampling of reviews.

A.O. Scott wrote in The New York Times:  The film is “talky and clumsy, alternating between self-importance and clowning.”

David Sims wrote in The Atlantic:  This is “a particularly shiny rendering of history, but Sorkin wisely [focuses] on America’s failings, even as he celebrates the people striving to fix them.”

Joe Morgenstern wrote in The Wall Street Journal:  The film “diminishes its aura of authenticity with dubious inventions” and “muddies its impact by taking on more history than it can handle.”

Sorkin’s overall themes are opposition to an unjust war, specifically the Vietnam War; the attempt by activists in 1968 to achieve what they viewed as justice and to strengthen democracy; and how all of this played out politically.  As A.O. Scott noted in his review, “the accident of timing” helped to bolster these themes, with “echoes of 1968” clear to most of us in 2020:  “the appeals to law and order, the rumors of radicals sowing disorder in the streets, the clashes between police and citizens.” 

Sorkin himself told an interviewer that protestors in 2020 got “demonized as being un-American, Marxist, communist—all things they called the Chicago 7.”  He added, “The movie is not intended to be a history lesson, or about 1968—it’s about today.”

(As I point out later in “A Brief Detour,” these themes also played out in Greece during the 1960s.)

In his screenplay, Sorkin sets the scene well.  He begins with news coverage noting LBJ’s escalation of troops and draft calls to beef up the war in Vietnam.  He includes a clip of Martin Luther King Jr. stating that the war was poisoning the soul of America.  He also highlights the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, who had spoken out against the war, while at the same time noting the increase in casualties among the troops in Vietnam.

In addition, Sorkin makes clear that two of the Chicago 7 defendants, Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis, were leaders of SDS, an organization maintaining that the Vietnam War was contrary to our notions of social justice.  He also shows us Abbie Hoffman (hereinafter Abbie, to avoid confusion with the judge) and Jerry Rubin–who wanted to see either Senator Eugene McCarthy or Senator George McGovern nominated for the presidency– proclaiming that there wasn’t enough difference between Humphrey and Nixon to merit a vote for Humphrey.  (Gosh, this sounds familiar, doesn’t it?  It reminds me of Ralph Nader in 2000, proclaiming that there was no difference between Al Gore and George W. Bush. Thanks, Ralph, for helping to defeat Al Gore and giving us George W. Bush and the war in Iraq.) 

One more thing:  Abbie and Rubin claim in a clip that they’re going to the convention in Chicago “peacefully,” but “we’ll meet violence with violence.”

The film has deservedly won over a large number of admiring movie-watchers, but let’s be honest: Many if not most of them have little or no knowledge of the real story portrayed in it.

Sorkin’s screenplay received the Golden Globe award as the best screenplay of 2020, and it’s been nominated for an Oscar in that category.  The film has also been nominated for an Oscar as the Best Motion Picture of 2020.  One of its actors, Sacha Baron Cohen, is nominated for best supporting actor, and the film is nominated in three other Oscar categories.  In April, the cast received the Screen Actors Guild award for the Outstanding Performance by a Motion Picture Cast.

A few of my own comments

            As I’ve previously pointed out, in the spring of 1969 I was serving as Hoffman’s senior clerk.  I wasn’t responsible for advising him on his rulings during the trial (which began after my departure that summer), and I also didn’t take part in his rulings before the trial.  But it was impossible not to observe what was happening in his chambers while I was still working there.

            Although I therefore could observe what went on in Hoffman’s chambers, I was unaware of many of the events that were taking place outside of his chambers, and I don’t recall whether I personally observed any of the pre-trial courtroom appearances of the defense attorneys.  I also never observed the conduct of any of the defendants before the trial began, unless they appeared on local TV news coverage.

            For these reasons, I found much of the Sorkin film illuminating.  Although I’d very much like to know the sources Sorkin relied on in crafting his screenplay, I haven’t attempted to find out exactly what they were.  For proceedings in the courtroom both before and during the trial, I’m sure that Sorkin relied on the court transcript, which would have recorded everything said in court by the prosecutors, the defendants, defense counsel, the judge, and the many witnesses. 

            [Because of my own experience with court reporters, I know that not every word said in court is in fact recorded properly.  When I said during an oral argument (in a case called Doe v. Scott) that there was “no consensus” among medical experts regarding when life begins, the court reporter recorded my response as “no consequences.”  A very different word with a very different meaning in that context.  But in the trial of the “Chicago 7,” it’s probably safe to assume that the court reporter got most of the words right.]

            As for anything said outside of court, I’ll assume that Sorkin chose to rely on reputable sources.  I know, for example, that defense attorney William Kunstler published a book titled “My Life as a Radical Lawyer,” which probably provided helpful background for some of what happened (at least from Kunstler’s viewpoint).  Countless other books, interviews, and media accounts were no doubt researched and used to support scenes in the film.  Kudos to Sorkin if he and his staff perused these books and other background material for insights into what happened.

            I nevertheless want to ask, on my behalf as well as yours:

            How accurate is the film?

            Although Sorkin may have done a thorough job of research, there’s no question that he took considerable “creative license” when he wrote his screenplay.  He chose to emphasize certain events and to de-emphasize, revise, or omit others.  He also created totally new stuff to dramatize the story.

             For a review of what’s accurate and what’s not, I recommend two online articles.  One that strikes me as a careful job that squares with what I remember is “What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in The Trial of the Chicago 7” by Matthew Dessum, published on Oct. 15, 2020, in Slate.com.   A similar article appeared around the same time in smithsonianmag.com.

                                                To be continued

Hangin’ with Judge Hoffman

This month I’m beginning something new.

I’m beginning a series of posts that will focus on my personal recollections of working as a law clerk for a federal judge–a judge who became notorious shortly after I left my clerkship.

Judge Julius J. Hoffman was a U.S. district court judge in Chicago who became notorious when he presided over the “Chicago 7” trial that began in the fall of 1969.

As Hoffman’s law clerk from 1967 to 1969, I observed him closely throughout my two-year tenure with him. This two-year period included, in its final months, the road that led to the “Chicago 7” trial.

This trial is now the subject of a new film written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” Because the film has inspired new interest in Judge Hoffman, this seemed to be an appropriate time to publish my recollections.

As Judge Hoffman’s law clerk during the two years before the trial began, I could foresee much of what would happen in his courtroom.  I later sat in on the trial, as a spectator, on two very cringe-worthy occasions.

This is the first post in a series that will examine what it was like to clerk for a judge like Hoffman. I’ll begin at the beginning: my first encounter with Judge Hoffman and how I came to work for him.

I’ll go on to describe a wide range of issues that arose during my tenure. These will include my observations during the frenetic time just before and during the “Chicago 7” trial. I’ll conclude with my final communications with the judge, just before I left Chicago in 1970.

Post #1

          In the fall of 1969, Judge Julius J. Hoffman moved from relative obscurity into the spotlight of national attention.  Although he had earned a reputation within the Chicago legal community as an irascible judge with a strong conservative bent, he was otherwise a little-known figure.  The public knew him only as one of Chicago’s U.S. district judges, and as such, he was generally respected.  Even lawyers who had appeared before him were compelled to admit that, despite his personal shortcomings, he could sometimes be an excellent judge.

          All that changed in the fall of 1969.  Assigned to be the presiding judge in what became known as the “Chicago 7” trial, Hoffman was suddenly the focus of journalists and lawyers from every corner of the United States, even the world.  Suddenly his courtroom demeanor was under a microscope, probed for rationality and fairness.  And just as suddenly, he became a national villain, even a national joke.

My first encounter with the judge

          In his custom-made elevator shoes and his black robe (double-stitched for longer wear), Judge Julius J. Hoffman would stride imperiously into his courtroom.  He would seat himself behind his imposing judicial bench, his tiny figure almost lost in the high-ceilinged courtroom he occupied on the 23rd floor of the federal courthouse in Chicago’s Loop.

“The motion will be dee-nied!”

                I can still hear the judge spouting those five words, the five words he must have said a thousand times during the two years I worked for him.  He always seemed to be denying motions rather than granting them.  But that was just one feature of this eccentric and soon-to-be-notorious judge.

          Julius Hoffman was a diminutive, bald-headed man with a prickly ego that was easily punctured.  But when I met with him over the Christmas holidays in 1966, he struck me as a charming and altogether reasonable person to clerk for.  I was in my last year of law school, and Hoffman was one of only three U.S. district judges in Chicago who had agreed, in that benighted era, to interview me, a woman, for the job of law clerk.

          For a number of reasons, Hoffman became my first choice of the three, and when he offered me the job, I decided to take it.  Although I had done almost no research into what kind of judge Hoffman was, I was thrilled with the simple prospect of being any federal judge’s law clerk.

          My failure to research Hoffman’s reputation later came back to haunt me.  I soon discovered that I was working for an irascible, difficult man who had unusual proclivities and a bizarre personality that often played itself out on the bench.  So although I loved my job as a federal judge’s law clerk, and I learned a great deal from my experience working in the federal courts, I was sometimes sorry I had so quickly settled on Hoffman as the federal judge to clerk for.

Is It Time to Resurrect the “Housedress”?

The HBO miniseries, “The Plot Against America,” which appeared earlier this year, focused on life in America in the early 1940s.  Adapted from the 2005 novel by Philip Roth, the storyline was terrifying, highlighting the possibility that a fascist anti-Semitic regime could assume control over politics in our country.

New York Times critic A.O. Scott, describing HBO’s adaptation as “mostly faithful” to the novel, observed that the world it portrayed looked familiar, yet different, to us today.  He noted in particular “the clothes” worn by the people inhabiting that world, as well as the cars, the cigarettes, and what he called “the household arrangements,” evoking a period “encrusted with…nostalgia.”

The series was, in my view, a stunning depiction of that era, along with a chilling prediction of what might have happened.  Thankfully, Roth’s fictional prediction never came true, and I hope it never will.

One thing I took away from the series was how authentically it created the images from that time.  I was born years later than both Philip Roth and his character, the 8-year-old Philip.  But I can recall images from the 1950s, and I’ve seen countless films dating from the 1940s and 1950s, as well as TV shows like “I Love Lucy.”

A couple of things in the series stand out.  First, people got their news from newspapers and the radio.  The leading characters appear in a number of scenes reading the daily newspapers that influenced their view of the world.  They also listened attentively to the radio for news and other information.  The radio broadcaster Walter Winchell even plays an important part in the story.

The other thing that stands out is the clothing worn by the characters in “Plot.”  Especially the women characters.  These women tended to have two types of wardrobes.  One represented the clothing they wore at home, where they generally focused on housecleaning, cooking, and tending to their children.  The other represented what they would wear when they left home, entering the outside world for a variety of reasons.

The wardrobe worn at home looked extremely familiar.  My mother clung to that wardrobe for decades.  She, like the women in “Plot,” wore housedresses at home.  These were cotton dresses, usually in a floral or other subdued print, that were either buttoned or wrapped around the body in some fashion.  In an era before pants became acceptable for women (Katharine Hepburn being a notable exception), women wore dresses or skirts, even to do housework at home.

Only when they left home, to go to somewhere like an office or a bank, did they garb themselves in other clothes.  In this wardrobe, they tended to wear stylish dresses made with non-cotton fabrics, or skirt suits with blouses, along with hats and white gloves. Working women employed in office-type settings (there were a few, like the character brilliantly played by Winona Ryder in “Plot”) wore these clothes to work every day. (Women employed in other settings of course wore clothes appropriate to their workplaces.)

Now, with most of us staying home for the most part, I wonder:  Is it time to resurrect the housedress?

Here are some reasons why it might be:

  1. Warmer weather is approaching, or may have already arrived, depending on where you live.
  2. Relying on heavy clothing like sweatshirts and sweatpants, which many of us have been relying on during our self-isolation at home, will become impractical because that clothing will be uncomfortably hot.
  3. Pajamas and nightgowns aren’t a good idea for all-day wear.  We should save them for bedtime, when we need to separate our daytime experience from the need to get some sleep.
  4. The housedress offers an inviting choice for women who want to stay comfortably at home, wearing cool cotton (or cotton-blend) dresses that allow them to move as comfortably as they do in sweat clothes, all day long.

I concede that comfortable shorts and t-shirts might fit the bill, for men as well as women.  But I suggest that women consider an alternative.  They may want to give housedresses a try.

Ideally, a woman will be able to choose from a wide range of cheerful fabric designs and colors.  If she can track down one that appeals to her, she just might be convinced by its comfort and then tempted to wear more of them.

I’ve already adopted my own version of the housedress.  I rummaged through one of my closets and found a few items I haven’t worn in years.  I’ve always called them “robes,” although they’ve also been called housecoats or other names.  My mother for some reason liked to call them “dusters.”  My husband’s aunt liked to wear what she called “snap coats.”

But in the big picture, we’re really talking about the same thing.  Cotton robes/dresses in a variety of designs and prints. Today they’re usually fastened with snaps.  Easy in, easy out.

And most of them have pockets!  (As I’ve written before, all women’s clothes should have pockets.)  [Please see my blog post “Pockets!” https://susanjustwrites.wordpress.com/2018/01/ ]

I plucked a couple of these out of my closet, some with the brand name Models Coats.  I had never even worn one of them.  (A tag was still attached, featuring the silly slogan, “If it’s not Models Coat…it’s not!”)  But I’ll wear it now.

By the way, I’ve checked “Models Coats” on the internet, and an amazing variety of “housedresses,” or whatever you choose to call them—Models Coats and other brands–is offered online.  So it appears that some women have been purchasing them all along.

Now here’s a bit of cultural history:  My mother kept her 1950s-style housedresses well into the 1990s.  I know that because I discovered them in her closet when we visited her Chicago apartment one cold winter day in the ‘90s.  Mom lived in a 1920s-era apartment building, filled with radiators that ensured overheated air in her apartment.  [Please see my blog post “Coal:  A Personal History,” discussing the overheated air that coal-based radiators chugged out:  https://susanjustwrites.wordpress.com/2020/01/29/coal-a-personal-history/ ]

My daughters and I had worn clothing appropriate for a cold winter day in Chicago.  But as we sat in Mom’s overheated living room, we began to peel off our sweaters and other warm duds.  (My husband didn’t do any peeling.  He was too smart to have dressed as warmly as we had.)

It finally occurred to me that Mom might have saved her housedresses from long ago.  Maybe she even continued to wear them.  So I searched her closet and found three of them.  My daughters and I promptly changed, and we immediately felt much better.  But when we caught sight of ourselves, we laughed ourselves silly.  We looked a lot like the model in a Wendy’s TV commercial we called “Russian fashion show.”

In our favorite Wendy’s commercial, dating from 1990, Russian music plays in the background while a hefty woman dressed in a military uniform announces the fashion show in a heavy Russian accent.  The “model” comes down the runway wearing “day wear,” “evening wear,” and “beachwear.”  What’s hilariously funny is that she wears the same drab dress, along with a matching babushka, in each setting.  For “evening wear,” the only change is that she waves a flashlight around.  And for “beachwear,” she’s clutching a beach ball.

Wendy’s used clever commercials like this one to promote their slogan:  “Having no choice is no fun,” clearly implying that Wendy’s offered choices its fast-food competitors didn’t.  I don’t know whether these commercials helped Wendy’s bottom line, but they certainly afforded our family many, many laughs.

[If you need some laughs right now, you can find these commercials on YouTube.  Just enter words like “Wendy’s TV commercials” and “Russian fashion show.”]

Mom’s housedresses weren’t as drab as the dress worn by the model in our favorite commercial.   They tended to feature brightly colored prints.  Admittedly, they weren’t examples of trend-setting fashion.  But they certainly were cool and comfortable

In our current crisis, we need to be creative and come up with new solutions to new problems.  For those women seeking something comfortable to wear, something different from what they’ve been wearing, colorful housedresses just might be the right choice.

The Battle of the Sexes: One more take on it

When Billie Jean King met Bobby Riggs on a tennis court at the Houston Astrodome on September 20, 1973, I was miles away in San Diego.  I’d just finished teaching a class of law school students about Poverty Law, and I was blissfully pregnant with my first child.

I was watching the clock, assessing the time it would take me to drive from the law school on the beautiful campus of the University of San Diego to our recently-rented apartment in seaside La Jolla.  Waiting at home for me was my handsome and super-smart husband Herb, finished for the day with teaching math students at UCSD, the University of California at San Diego.

We were both Professors Alexander that year, and I took delight in answering our phone and hearing a student ask to speak to “Professor Alexander.”  My somewhat amused response:  “Which one?”

Herb had snacks and drinks ready for the two of us to munch on and imbibe during the televised tennis match.  The drinks included nothing alcoholic for me.  Not because the medical profession had pronounced that alcohol was detrimental for growing fetuses.  As I recall, that came later.  I avoided alcoholic drinks simply because I had no desire to drink them during my pregnancy.

Was it instinct or just dumb luck?  When we later that year saw the film “Cinderella Liberty,” in which an often-drunk woman’s pregnancy ends in tragedy, my choice to avoid alcohol was clearly vindicated.

I drove home from USD with as much speed as I could safely muster, arriving in time to watch the much-hyped tennis match dubbed the “Battle of the Sexes.”  In the 2017 film that tells the story of the match, Emma Stone captures the Billie Jean King role perfectly.  She portrays with aplomb not only King’s triumph over Riggs in that tennis match but also her initial uncertainty over her decision to compete against him and her continuing struggle to ensure that women’s tennis be given equal status with men’s.

As one of the estimated 50 million viewers who watched King on ABC television that night, I can’t imagine any other Hollywood star assuming the role with greater success.  Emma Stone embodies Billie Jean King to perfection, and I hope her performance garners the attention of countless moviegoers, including many too young to remember  the match that took place in 1973.

Steve Carell carries off his role as Bobby Riggs in the film equally well, depicting the outrageous antics of the 55-year-old Riggs, who initiated the concept of the “Battle of the Sexes.”  But the focus here has to be on Billie Jean, the Wonder-Woman-like heroine of her day.  By accepting Riggs’s challenge, and then defeating him, she became the mid-twentieth-century symbol of women’s strength and perseverance, advancing the cause of women in sports (and in American culture at large) as much as she advanced her own.  Watching the battle on TV with my adored husband, my hoped-for child growing inside me, I was ecstatic when Billie Jean defeated Riggs before 90 million viewers worldwide.

As my pregnancy advanced, I was frequently asked by complete strangers, “Do you want a boy or a girl?”  I took pleasure in answering “a girl” just to see the reaction on the faces of the nosey parkers who clearly expected another response.

I was in fact hoping I would give birth to a healthy child of either sex, but I knew that I would treasure having a daughter.  When my beautiful daughter was born about seven months after the Battle of the Sexes, and when her equally beautiful sister arrived three years later, Herb and I were both on top of the world.

Maybe watching Billie Jean King in September of 1973 sealed our fate.  We really wanted her to win that battle.

Did the endorphins circulating inside me as we watched Billie Jean triumph produce a feeling of euphoria?  Euphoria that later led us to produce two Wonder-Woman-like heroines of our own?

Maybe.

Tennis, anyone?

 

Looking Back…The Election of 1984

If you’ve followed politics for as long as I have, you probably remember the election of 1984.  In the race for U.S. president, Ronald Reagan was the Republican incumbent, first elected in 1980, and seeking to be re-elected in 1984.  Most observers predicted that he would succeed.

Opposing him was the Democratic nominee, Walter Mondale.

I found the campaign for president so absorbing that shortly after Mondale lost, I wrote a piece of commentary on the election.  Somewhat astoundingly, I recently came across that long-lost piece of writing.

Regrettably, I never submitted it for publication.  Why?  In 1984 I was active in local politics (the New Trier Democratic Organization, to be specific), and I was apprehensive about the reaction my comments might inspire in my fellow Democrats.

Reviewing it now, I wish I’d submitted it for publication.

On June 11th of this year, after Hillary Clinton appeared to be the Democratic nominee for president, The New York Times published a front-page story by Alison Mitchell, “To Understand Clinton’s Moment, Consider That It Came 32 Years After Ferraro’s.”  Mitchell’s article is a brilliant review of what happened in 1984 and during the 32 years since.  My commentary is different because it was actually written in 1984, and it presents the thinking of a longstanding political observer and a lifelong Democrat at that point in time.

Here’s the commentary I wrote just after the election in November 1984.  It was typed on an Apple IIe computer (thanks, Steve Wozniak) and printed on a flimsy dot-matrix printer.  It’s almost exactly what I wrote back then, minimally edited, mostly to use contractions and omit completely unnecessary words.  I’ve divided it into two parts because of its length.

 

PART I

Although Walter Mondale conducted a vigorous and courageous campaign, perhaps nothing he did or did not do would have altered the ultimate result.  But his fate was probably sealed last July when he made two costly political mistakes.  He chose to tell the American people that he’d increase taxes, and he chose Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate.

Savvy political observers have always known that talk of increased taxes is the kiss of death for any candidate.  One wonders what made Walter Mondale forget this truism and instead decide to impress the electorate with his honesty by telling them what they had to know (or, rather, what he thought they had to know) about the deficit.  By making the deficit—a highly intangible concept to the average American voter—a cornerstone of his campaign, Mondale committed the political gaffe of the decade.  One can imagine the glee in the White House the night Mondale gave his acceptance speech and tipped his hand.  The most popular theme of the Reagan campaign became identifying Mondale with the idea of “tax, tax, tax; spend, spend, spend,” a theme that had spelled doom for Jimmy Carter and came to do the same for his Vice President.

Mondale’s choice of Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate was surely not a gaffe of the magnitude of his promise to increase taxes, but as a political judgment it was almost equally unwise.  Mondale faced a popular incumbent president.  All the signposts, even back in July, indicated that the American people were largely satisfied with Reagan and willing to give him another term.  To unseat a popular sitting president, Mondale—who’d been through a bloody primary campaign and emerged considerably damaged—had to strengthen his ticket by choosing a running mate with virtually no liabilities.  He simply couldn’t afford them.

Some of the best advice Mondale got all year was George McGovern’s suggestion that he choose Gary Hart for his vice president.  In one stroke, Mondale could have won the support of those backing his most formidable opponent, many of whom had threatened to go over to Reagan if their candidate wasn’t nominated.  Like Reagan in 1980, Mondale could have solidified much of the divided loyalty of his party behind him by choosing the opponent who’d come closest in arousing voters’ enthusiasm.  Instead he chose to pass over Hart and several other likely candidates and to select a largely unknown three-term congresswoman from New York City.

It pains me, as a feminist and an ardent supporter of women’s rights, to say this, but it must be said:  Mondale’s choice of Ferraro, however admirable, was a political mistake.  When the pressure from NOW and others to choose a woman candidate arose and gradually began to build, I felt uneasy.  When Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder (for whom I have otherwise unlimited respect) announced that if Mondale didn’t choose Hart, he had to choose a woman, my uneasiness increased.  And when Mondale at last announced his choice of Ferraro, my heart sank.  I was personally thrilled that a woman was at last on a national ticket, but I knew immediately that the election was lost, and that everything a Mondale administration might have accomplished in terms of real gains for women had been wiped out by his choice of a woman running-mate.

There was no flaw in Ferraro herself that ensured the defeat of the Mondale-Ferraro ticket.  She’s an extremely bright, attractive, competent congresswoman and proved herself to be a gifted and inspiring V.P. candidate.  She has, by accepting the nomination, carved out a secure place for herself in the history books and maybe a significant role in national politics for decades to come.  She deserves all this and perhaps more.  But one must wonder whether even Ferraro in her own secret thoughts pondered the political wisdom of her choice as Mondale’s running mate.  If she is as good a politician as I think she is, I can’t help thinking that she herself must have wondered, “Why me, when he could have anyone else?  Will I really help the ticket? Well, what the hell, I’ll give it a shot!  It just might work.”

And it just might—someday.  But in 1984, up against a “Teflon President,” Mondale needed much more.  Reagan was playing it safe, and Mondale wasn’t.  Some observers applauded his choice of Ferraro as the kind of bold, courageous act he needed to bring excitement to a dull, plodding campaign.  But American voters weren’t looking for bold and courageous acts.  They wanted a President who didn’t rock the boat–a boat with which they were largely satisfied.  They might have been willing to throw out the current occupant of the White House if Mondale had been able to seize upon some popular themes and use them to his advantage.  Instead, the Reagan administration seized upon the tax-and-spend issue and the relatively good status of the economy to ride to victory while Mondale was still groping for a theme that might do the same for him.  And all the while he had a running mate with a liability:  a woman who had no national political stature and who turned out to have considerable problems of her own (notably, a messy financial situation).

Mondale’s choice of Ferraro was compared by Reagan to his appointment of Sandra Day O’Connor to the U.S. Supreme Court.  In the sense that both men selected highly capable but little-known women and in one stroke catapulted them to the top of their professions, Reagan was right.  But Reagan’s choice was very different and politically much smarter.  A V.P. candidate must be judged by the entire American electorate; a Supreme Court nominee is judged only by the U.S. Senate.  A vice president must stand alone, the metaphorical heartbeat away from the presidency; a Supreme Court justice is only one of nine judges on a court where most issues are not decided 5 to 4.  [We all recognize that this description of the Court in 1984 no longer fits in 2016.  But a single justice on the Court is still only one of nine.]

Let’s face it:  the notion of a woman V.P. (and the concomitant possibility of a woman president) is one that some Americans are clearly not yet comfortable with.  Although 16 percent of the voters polled by one organization said that they were more inclined to vote for Mondale because of Ferraro, 26 percent said they were less likely to.  It doesn’t take a mathematical whiz to grasp that 26 is more than 16.  These statistics also assume that the 55 percent who said that Ferraro’s sex was not a factor either way were being absolutely candid, which is doubtful.  Many men and women who are subconsciously uncomfortable with the idea of a woman president are understandably reluctant to admit it, to themselves perhaps as much as to others.

 

 

 

Hamilton, Hamilton…Who Was He Anyway?

Broadway megahit “Hamilton” has brought the Founding Parent (okay, Founding Father) into a spotlight unknown since his own era.

Let’s face it.  The Ron Chernow biography, turned into a smash Broadway musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda, has made Alexander Hamilton into the icon he hasn’t been–or maybe never was–in a century or two. Just this week, the hip-hop musical “Hamilton” received a record-breaking 16 Tony Award nominations.

His new-found celebrity has even influenced his modern-day successor, current Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, leading Lew to reverse his earlier plan to remove Hamilton from the $10 bill and replace him with the image of an American woman.

Instead, Hamilton will remain on the front of that bill, with a group representing suffragette leaders in 1913 appearing on the back, while Harriet Tubman will replace no-longer-revered and now-reviled President Andrew Jackson on the front of the $20 bill.  We’ll see other changes to our paper currency during the next five years.

But an intriguing question remains:  How many Americans—putting aside those caught up in the frenzy on Broadway, where theatergoers are forking over $300 and $400 to see “Hamilton” on stage—know who Hamilton really was?

A recent study done by memory researchers at Washington University in St. Louis has confirmed that most Americans are confident that Hamilton was once president of the United States.

According to Henry L. Roediger III, a human memory expert at Wash U, “Our findings from a recent survey suggest that about 71 percent of Americans are fairly certain that [Hamilton] is among our nation’s past presidents.  I had predicted that Benjamin Franklin would be the person most falsely recognized as a president, but Hamilton beat him by a mile.”

Roediger (whose official academic title is the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor in Arts & Sciences) has been testing undergrad college students since 1973, when he first administered a test while he was himself a psychology grad student at Yale. His 2014 study, published in the journal Science, suggested that we as a nation do fairly well at naming the first few and the last few presidents.  But less than 20 percent can remember more than the last 8 or 9 presidents in order.

Roediger’s more recent study is a bit different because its goal was to gauge how well Americans simply recognize the names of past presidents.  Name-recognition should be much less difficult than recalling names from memory and listing them on a blank sheet of paper, which was the challenge in 2014.

The 2016 study, published in February in the journal Psychological Science, asked participants to identify past presidents, using a list of names that included actual presidents as well as famous non-presidents like Hamilton and Franklin.  Other familiar names from U.S. history, and non-famous but common names, were also included.

Participants were asked to indicate their level of certainty on a scale from zero to 100, where 100 was absolutely certain.

What happened?  The rate for correctly recognizing the names of past presidents was 88 percent overall, although laggards Franklin Pierce and Chester Arthur rated less than 60 percent.

Hamilton was more frequently identified as president (with 71 percent thinking that he was) than several actual presidents, and people were very confident (83 on the 100-point scale) that he had been president.

More than a quarter of the participants incorrectly recognized others, notably Franklin, Hubert Humphrey, and John Calhoun, as past presidents.  Roediger thinks that probably happened because people are aware that these were important figures in American history without really knowing what their actual roles were.

Roediger and his co-author, K. Andrew DeSoto, suggest that our ability to recognize the names of famous people hinges on their names appearing in a context related to the source of their fame.  “Elvis Presley was famous, but he would never be recognized as a past president,” Roediger says.   It’s not enough to have a familiar name.  It must be “a familiar name in the right context.”

This study is part of an emerging line of research focusing on how people remember history.  The recent studies reveal that the ability to remember the names of presidents follows consistent and reliable patterns.  “No matter how we test it—in the same experiment, with different people, across generations, in the laboratory, with online studies, with different types of tests—there are clear patterns in how the presidents are remembered and how they are forgotten,” DeSoto says.

While decades-old theories about memory can explain the results to some extent, these findings are sparking new ideas about fame and just how human memory-function treats those who achieve it.

As Roediger notes, “knowledge of American presidents is imperfect….”  False fame can arise from “contextual familiarity.”  And “even the most famous person in America may be forgotten in as short a time as 50 years.”

So…how will Alexander Hamilton’s new-found celebrity hold up?  Judging from the astounding success of the hip-hop musical focusing on him and his cohorts, one can predict with some confidence that his memory will endure far longer than it otherwise might have.

This time, he may even be remembered as our first Secretary of the Treasury, not as the president he never was.