Category Archives: the White House

Hangin’ with Judge Hoffman

POST #9

This is the ninth post in a series recalling what it was like to clerk for Judge Julius J. Hoffman from 1967 to 1969.

The “Chicago 7” Trial (continued)

More about the Sorkin film

            In Post #8, I praised the Sorkin film as an impressive achievement, noting the many awards and positive reviews by critics that the film has garnered.       I now want to add more of my own comments on the film.  I’ll begin with casting.

Casting

I don’t agree with some of the casting in this film.   I can recall a number of personae–how they looked and acted in 1969-70– and my recollections do not jibe with all of the actors chosen to fill those parts.  Even great acting cannot completely make up for this kind of disparity.

One excellent bit of casting is that of Mark Rylance as William Kunstler.  I encountered Kunstler about three years before he appeared in Hoffman’s courtroom, and I retain vivid memories from that time.  Those memories were later enhanced by my in-person observation of the trial twice and by TV coverage of Kunstler once the trial began. 

I first encountered him at a conference on civil rights held at Yale Law School the first weekend of April 1966.  The conference was sponsored by the Yale law students’ Civil Rights Research Council.   A law-school classmate kindly offered to drive three other students and me from Cambridge to New Haven (he immediately became a great friend).  At Yale, we attended sessions offered by a host of leading lights in the field of civil rights.  One of those was Kunstler, who was already an accomplished civil rights lawyer and co-founder of the Center for Constitutional Rights.  He spoke at a session of the conference, and he also gave the keynote speech at the Saturday night banquet held on the Yale campus.  After this encounter, I remembered him because of his passion for civil rights and his engaging delivery.

In my view, Mark Rylance is a good fit for the role of William Kunstler.  In one scene, he rebuts one of the defendants, who characterizes Judge Hoffman as “nuts,” by calling the judge only “a little hostile.”  In his reading of this line, Rylance incorporates what I think was Kunstler’s generally lawyerlike approach to the case. He was, however, painfully caught in the middle between an irascible judge and defendant-clients who were openly defiant in court.  Lashing out at Judge Hoffman at times earned him a number of contempt citations by the judge.  (Only one of these was upheld by the appellate court.)  Overall, Rylance captures Kunstler’s difficult balancing act very well.

I don’t recall how some of the other individuals looked and acted in 1969, so I can’t comment on the actors’ resemblance to the real people.  Prime examples: Defendants Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, David Dellinger, Bobby Seale, John Froines, and Lee Weiner.   But I do recall Abbie Hoffman (hereinafter Abbie, to avoid confusion with the judge) and Jerry Rubin, both from observing them in-person in Chicago and from media coverage before and after the trial.  The most striking lack of resemblance, to me, is the great difference in their height that the film makes apparent.  Sacha Baron Cohen is (as he himself has noted) about half a foot taller than the real Abbie. This difference is jarring.  As for Jerry Rubin, I remember him as close to Abbie’s height and much better looking than the actor who plays him in the film.  Neater, too. The film’s Rubin comes across as a total slob, which I think is inaccurate.

Abbie’s son Andrew, who lives in the Bay Area and was interviewed by a journalist here last fall, noted that his father was a short man with charismatic energy.  “He was a tiny little …monster,” according to Andrew.  The entire interview with Andrew and others who knew the defendants appeared in Berkleyside, an online newsletter, and was republished in jweekly.com (Oct. 30, 2020.

I encountered Abbie myself on January 1, 1970, in the middle of the trial, which ended on February 18, 1970.  I recount that encounter below in Watching the movie “Z.”

The two federal prosecutors, Thomas Foran and Richard Schultz, both appeared in Hoffman’s courtroom a number of times during my clerkship.  Foran was a short and scrappy Daley acolyte whose name is mispronounced in the film.  He pronounced it as “FOR-an,” with emphasis on the first syllable, not “For-AN,” with emphasis on the second.  His preferred pronunciation was well known in Northern District courtrooms.  His portrayal in the film by J.C. MacKenzie is pretty close to what I remember.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt somewhat resembles prosecutor Richard Schultz and portrays him well.  As I remember Schultz, he was a rather ordinary-looking young man of about 30 who was a low-key prosecutor, pretty much as he’s portrayed in the film.  Whether he ever took a stand against this prosecution, as the film suggests, I have no inside knowledge. But he’s been interviewed recently by media outlets in Chicago, and here’s what I’ve gleaned from published interviews. 

Schultz calls the film “a fantasy” that has little resemblance to the actual events.  He remembers that the goal of some of the defendants was, from the outset, to make a mockery of the court proceedings.  He believes they were also planning violence from the beginning, and fist fights actually occurred between them.  According to Schultz, there was “nothing we could have done to stop the violence in the courtroom.”

 He regrets what transpired with Bobby Seale, but he defends Judge Hoffman’s ruling.  According to Schultz, the judge had no choice because of a ruling a short time before by an Illinois court requiring that an unruly defendant be bound and gagged so he could remain in the courtroom for his trial instead of being removed. 

One interesting side note:  Schultz encountered Abbie and Rubin at the Field Museum in Chicago, as shown in a scene in the film.  He remembers that, when they met, they “begged him to watch the movie ‘Z.’”  This is startling new information for me.  Please see below Watching the movie “Z,” my discussion of that movie and how it related to this trial.

I probably remember AG Ramsey Clark from photographs only and can’t comment on Michael Keaton’s portrayal for that reason.  You may not know that Ramsey Clark was the son of a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Tom Clark.  During a visit to the Supreme Court during my law school years, I saw Tom Clark read from the bench an opinion he’d written.  In 1967 Tom retired from the Court so his son could assume the role of AG.  He was succeeded by Lyndon Johnson’s superb choice of Thurgood Marshall. 

Ben Shenkman does a good job portraying Leonard Weinglass.  Strangely, I remember Weinglass, who was then 33, as looking older than Shenkman, 52.  Maybe Weinglass looked older than his years.  Or maybe my memory relies on the fact that I was several years’ younger than Weinglass in 1969, and he looked like an older and experienced lawyer to me.

John Doman, the actor portraying AG John Mitchell, bears a slight resemblance to Mitchell, whom I remember from photos and TV coverage.  He successfully captures Mitchell’s arrogance and devotion to Nixon, which led to his own downfall, including a term in federal prison.

Finally, I want to comment on Frank Langella’s portrayal of Judge Hoffman.  One critic has called it the best casting in the entire film.  I totally disagree.  I worked closely with Judge Hoffman for two years, and Langella’s Hoffman is nothing like the real man.  Hoffman was eccentric and generally biased in favor of government prosecutors, but he was not evil. 

Langella may be a good actor, but he read his lines in this film with his own interpretation of the judge in mind.  Maybe that made for better drama.  But it’s not, in my view, close to reality.

In a published interview, Langella called Hoffman “a shit” who had “no redeeming qualities.”  He agreed with what he claims is Sorkin’s view of Hoffman as “either a total pawn of the government, or getting senile, or a combination of both.”  Langella added that there are men like this “who use their position to cover what is venal and dishonest and cruel behavior.”  Again, I totally disagree. 

I had my own issues with Hoffman.  For example, I was angry when he gave my attempt to write an appellate opinion to someone else.  (See Post #6.)  But he did have redeeming qualities.  He was one of the few judges who at that time hired women as their law clerks, and during my tenure he treated me and my co-clerks with respect.  Yes, he could be abrasive toward lawyers who appeared in his courtroom, but he was not venal or dishonest or cruel, like many men in his generation. 

It’s true that he had a bias in favor of government attorneys, both prosecutors and those who represented government agencies, but he was in no way a total pawn of the government.  And I don’t think he was senile or anywhere near it at the time of the trial.  While I worked for him, he ruled in favor of the inmates of the Cook County Jail and against those who ran the county jail.  And when he agreed with the Justice Department’s position in the South Holland school-discrimination case, he was criticized by some for being too much in favor of the government’s position challenging discrimination against minority students.  But his approach led to the right outcome in that case.

So I’m wondering:  Did Langella do any research of his own into Judge Hoffman’s record?  Did he uncover any evidence supporting his description of Hoffman as venal, dishonest, and cruel?  Did he conveniently forget how some of the defendants deliberately provoked this judge, a man who had previously been able to maintain an orderly courtroom?  Can’t these provocations themselves be viewed as “cruel”?

 Although I did not agree overall with the way Hoffman conducted this trial, there were reasons for many of his rulings, especially his reactions to the outrageous behavior of some of the defendants.  Further, he was later reprimanded by the Seventh Circuit for some of these rulings, so he didn’t get away scot-free for what he did.

My own attendance at the trial

            I personally attended the trial twice.  The first time I showed up simply out of curiosity, and when I left, I had no desire to return.  The second time I attended only because a law-school classmate who lived and worked in NYC was visiting Chicago, phoned me, and asked whether I would accompany her to the trial.  I met her at the courthouse, where we got into line and waited for our turn to be seated. 

            I got no special treatment either time.  Waiting in line the first time, my handbag was searched along with everyone else’s, and a comb was confiscated and held for me until I exited the courtroom.  At the time, I carried an aluminum comb that had a “rat tail,” and it was deemed too sharp for me to bring into the courtroom. I was highly amused that my spindly comb was viewed as a weapon!  (I didn’t bring it along when I returned with my friend.)

            Each time I attended the trial, I felt extremely uncomfortable.  By that time, I was a lawyer with the Appellate and Test Case Division of the Chicago Legal Aid Bureau, representing poor people.  Embarrassed by some of Judge Hoffman’s conduct during the trial (and also troubled by the unruly behavior of some of the defendants), I did not return.  I also cut off my relationship with the judge almost completely.  But I briefly got back in touch with him before moving to California in August 1970.  (I discuss that in Post #10, my final post in this series.)

Hoffman’s conduct during the trial

            It’s irrefutable that Judge Hoffman’s conduct during the trial became a source of widespread criticism, and much of it was warranted.  As I mentioned in Post #8, the problem with Hoffman’s role as the presiding judge of the “Chicago 7” trial was, fundamentally, that he treated it like every other criminal case he’d ever handled.  And the defense attorneys were right.  He did have a record of bias in favor of government prosecutors.

            This led to his downfall.  He refused to see that this case was unique and had to be dealt with on its own terms, not like all of the criminal cases in his past. 

Further, he lacked any flexibility and remained committed to the way he’d always conducted proceedings in his courtroom.  He’d been sitting on the federal bench since 1953, and by 1969 he was unfortunately “fixed in his ways.” 

If he’d had some flexibility, that might have helped the trial proceed more smoothly. But at 74, he was accustomed to running an orderly courtroom with lawyers and defendants who followed the rules.  He did not have an orderly courtroom this time, and he was unable to bend those rules.

The Sorkin film highlights many of Hoffman’s missteps.  The situation involving Bobby Seale is the most notable example.  Hoffman was foolish to refuse to sever Seale from this case as soon as Seale complained that his chosen defense lawyer was unavailable.  The back and forth between the two of them became more and more heated, until Seale’s defiance led Hoffman to have him bound and gagged.  According to prosecutor Richard Schultz, Hoffman was following an Illinois court ruling requiring Hoffman to proceed this way, but the film’s reenactment is a spectacle in which Hoffman looks almost unhinged.  Despite his announcement from the bench that “I tried fairly and impartially to get this defendant to sit on his own,” viewers are appalled by this treatment of Seale, which seems especially unjust and discriminatory because Seale is Black.  When Schultz finally asks the judge to sever Seale from the “Chicago 8” and declare a mistrial in his case, Hoffman proceeds to do just that.  But it’s too late.  The damage has been done.

Hoffman’s increasingly fraught relationship with defense attorneys Kunstler and Weinglass further damaged Hoffman’s claim to be a fair judge. I discuss how the appellate court viewed the judge’s conduct in Post #10.

Some additional comments

  1. The film seems to confuse some locations in Chicago, including two of its large parks.  I was away from the city during the convention, but I believe that events depicted in the film took place separately in Lincoln Park on the North Side and in Grant Park downtown (not in only one park).  Grant Park is the large park located across Michigan Avenue from the Hilton Hotel.  Violence took place there on the night of August 27, and a scene in the film shows a hotel window being broken.  There’s also dialogue by the defendants about “going to the convention,” but the convention was held a considerable distance from Grant Park at the International Amphitheatre.  In the film, the violence that occurs takes place in Grant Park and on Michigan Avenue, not at the convention itself.

2. When the defendants and their lawyers meet to discuss the members of the jury, they openly prefer two specific individuals already chosen to be jurors.  I won’t discuss the film’s depiction of how these two jurors were later replaced by alternates.  But I was struck by the comment by the defense that they especially liked a young juror who seemed to be on their side because she noticeably carried a copy of a book by James Baldwin into the courtroom.

This line struck me because by 1967 I had become an avid reader of books by James Baldwin, and I still have my paperback copies of several of them (sporting a cover price of 50 cents).  When I wrote a seminar paper in 1967 for my law school’s Civil Rights Seminar with Professor Al Sacks, I quoted a couple of passages from The Fire Next Time.  These quotes later appeared in a law review article that published my paper, “A Child of a Different Color:  Race as a Factor in Adoption and Custody Proceedings,” 17 Buffalo Law Review 303 (1968), on pages 331 and 346.

3. The U.S. courthouse shown in the film, with people lining the steps chanting “The whole world is watching,” is nothing like the actual courthouse, which was and is a Mies Van der Rohe black box of a building.  The change is clearly made for dramatic effect, but if a viewer goes in search of that courthouse, she will be disappointed.  Hoffman’s courtroom is also different, chosen by Sorkin to feature his presentation of the actors’ positions in the courtroom.

4. Hoffman repeatedly gets some names, especially Weinglass’s, wrong.  This is typical of many people in their 70s.  A problem with names is quite common among older people (including President Joe Biden).  Because it’s not unusual for someone who’s 74 to forget names, even important ones, I think it was unfair to highlight Hoffman’s occasional lapses and suggest that they indicated senility.  In the case of Weinglass, I suspect that Hoffman had friends or associates with similar names, and those names occurred to him in place of Weinglass’s.

5.  I never followed the courtroom testimony of any of the defendants or any of the witnesses, but I’ve always remembered one fairly inconsequential response by Abbie Hoffman that was reported in the media.  At one point, Abbie was reportedly asked whether he was addicted to any drugs.  Answer:  Yes.  Question:  Which one?  Answer:  Caffeine.  As a caffeine addict myself, I find that answer perfectly apt as well as hilarious.

Watching the movie “Z”

In January of 2017, I wrote a post on this blog titled “Watching the Movie ‘Z’:  A Tale of Two Hoffmans.”  In that post, I noted that in January 1970 I watched the movie “Z”—a film I consider a powerful and enduring classic—under somewhat remarkable circumstances. (By the way, this is the film that Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin “begged” prosecutor Richard Schultz to see.)

An edited version of my 2017 post follows.

“Z” is a 1969 film that was written and directed by Costa-Gavras, a Greek-born filmmaker who lives and works in France.  He based it on a 1966 book that used official documents to describe the 1963 death of a Greek politician, Grigoris Lambrakis.  Lambrakis was a leading pacifist and left-wing member of the Greek parliament.  Shortly after speaking at an antiwar meeting in Thessaloniki, he was struck on the head by a club wielded by two far-right extremists.  He later died of his injuries. After his death, graffiti with the letter “Z” began to appear in Greek cities.  Representing the growing protest against the right-wing government, it stood for the first letter of the Greek word, “Zi,” which means “he lives.”

In a filmed interview in 2009, Costa-Gavras discussed the making of “Z.”  You can watch this interview, as I did, on a DVD of “Z.”  Costa-Gavras focused on the theme of political oppression.  His cast included Yves Montand as Lambrakis and Jean-Louis Trintignant as the prosecutor who slowly realizes what happened and is ultimately driven to seek justice against the wrongdoers.

In the film, a key scene takes place in front of the venue where Lambrakis is scheduled to give his speech.  Supporters have gathered to welcome him, but others in the crowd are demonstrators opposed to him and what he stands for.  The local police are seen clubbing a few of the demonstrators.  But it’s clear that the demonstrators are the bad guys–street toughs paid off by those in power to harm Lambrakis.  One of the demonstrators strikes Lambrakis.  After he gives his speech, he’s struck again, causing his death. 

Before he’s struck, Lambrakis asks, “Why do the ideas we stand for incite such violence?”  Costa-Gavras’s answer:  It’s all about power.  Those in power will do anything to stay in power, and here that included the assassination of a political opponent.  (Post-1963, Greek politics remained chaotic.  A 1967 coup by the military led to its control of the Greek government until the regime finally collapsed and democratic government was essentially restored in 1973.)

I first saw “Z” at the Cinema movie theater in Chicago on New Year’s Day 1970.   The Cinema was an art-film theater located on Chicago Avenue near Michigan Avenue, and I saw a great many “art flicks” there before it was demolished and replaced by a high-rise building.  At the time, I was a young lawyer working in an office that brought test cases on behalf of the poor. The “Chicago 7” trial was underway, ending in mid-February 1970

I read about “Z” in Roger Ebert’s review in the Chicago Sun-Times in late December 1969.  Ebert was a young and thoughtful movie critic, and I was a fan of his reviews.  He called “Z” the best film of 1969, and I was eager to see it.  I’d just said goodbye to a man I’d been dating—he was a bit too boring to abide any longer—and I set out on a cold and gray New Year’s Day to see the movie by myself.  (As luck would have it, I met my never-boring husband when I moved to sunny California a few months later.) 

The film more than lived up to my expectations.  But what was especially striking about being in the audience that day was that, in the crowd waiting to enter the theater, I recognized one of the “Chicago 7” defendants, Abbie Hoffman.  I didn’t agree with everything that Abbie and his cohorts stood for, and I didn’t endorse their misconduct during the trial itself.  But I was opposed to the war in Vietnam, sympathetic to other elements of the protest movement, and horrified later that year by events like the killings at Kent State.  

As I watched “Z,” knowing that Abbie was watching it at the very same time, I couldn’t help thinking of the parallels with Chicago.  Fortunately, our government (unlike the powerful right wing in Greece) didn’t promote assassination. (At least we didn’t think so.)  But there were parallels.  The attitude of local officials, including Mayor Richard J. Daley, toward the protesters who came to Chicago in 1968 led to an overreaction by the Chicago police.  Their violent conduct toward the protesters became obvious to everyone watching TV coverage of the Democratic convention.  As we know, Nixon’s Justice Department went on to indict Abbie and the other defendants on charges brought under a dubious law.

There was, however, one sharp contrast between Chicago and Greece:  the prosecutors.  I’d fallen halfway in love with Jean-Louis Trintignant when he starred in “A Man and a Woman,” a 1967 French film.  Now, in “Z,” he portrayed a fair-minded prosecutor who becomes determined to hold the powerful to account.  And he succeeds in indicting not only the two toughs who committed the murder but also the high-ranking military officers who supported them.  (The real-life prosecutor, Christos Sartzetkis, was twice arrested and imprisoned but was later elected by the Greek parliament to be the country’s president from 1985 to 1990.)

By contrast, the prosecutors representing the Nixon administration in Chicago were, in my view, politically ambitious and not exactly fair-minded.  They were determined to convict the seven defendants, including Abbie. They secured as the trial judge a man whose usual bent was to rule in favor of the prosecutors who appeared before him, and he treated this trial like any other.

No one was killed in Chicago.  And although most of the trial defendants were convicted by the jury, their convictions were later reversed.  But the parallels between what transpired in Chicago and the story told in “Z” remain. 

“Z” is still a powerful film (it won numerous awards, including the Oscar and the Golden Globe as the Best Foreign-Language Film of 1970).  And January 1, 1970, endures in my memory as a day that underscored the ugliness of political oppression both in Greece and in my own country.  

Postscript:  Today, the parallels are still with us.  Although the November 2020 election installed a new president in the White House, some who were previously in power, and some who retain a degree of power, remain willing to (in Costa-Gavras’s words) “do anything to stay [or get back] in power.”  The message of “Z” lives.

                                                                        To be continued

(Post #10 will be the final post in this series)

A Snowy April 1st

On the morning of April 1st, The New York Times reported that the city had woken up to an April snowstorm, “with about 5 inches of snow expected to produce slushy streets and a tough morning commute.”  The storm followed a string of storms that had hit the East Coast in March with heavy snows and damaging winds.

This New York story about snow on April 1st reminded me of another April 1st snowstorm:  The one in Chicago that changed my life.

In the spring of 1970, I was already questioning whether I wanted to spend another year in Chicago.  My work at the Appellate and Test Case Division of the Chicago Legal Aid Bureau had its good points.  I was co-counsel with a lawyer at the Roger Baldwin Foundation of the ACLU (who happily became a lifelong friend) in a case challenging the restrictive Illinois abortion law, a law that made any abortion nearly impossible for all but the most affluent women in Illinois.  Our case was moving forward and had already secured a TRO allowing a teenage rape victim an emergency abortion.  A great legal victory!

But the rest of my life was at a standstill.  I was dating some of the men I’d met, but I hadn’t encountered anyone I wanted to pair up with.  In fact, I’d recently dumped a persistent suitor I found much too boring.  Relying on old friendships led to occasional lunches with both men and women I’d known in school, but the women were happily married and had limited time for a single woman friend.  I tried striking up friendships with other women as well as men, but so far that hadn’t expanded my social life very much.

I also haunted the Art Institute of Chicago, attending evening lectures and lunchtime events.  The art was exhilarating, but good times there were few.  When I turned up for an event one Sunday afternoon and left a few hours later, planning to take a bus home, I was surprised to see almost no one else on Michigan Avenue, leaving me feeling isolated and (in today’s parlance) somewhat creeped-out.  (In 1970 Chicago hadn’t yet embarked on the kind of Sunday shopping that would bring people downtown on a Sunday afternoon.)  Similarly, I bought tickets for a piano series at Symphony Hall, and a series of opera tickets, but again I many times felt alone among a group of strangers.

I still had lots of family in the area.  But being surrounded by family wasn’t exactly what I was looking for just then.

So although I was feeling somewhat wobbly about staying in Chicago, the question of where to settle instead loomed large.  When I’d left law school three years earlier and assumed a two-year clerkship with a federal judge in Chicago, I’d intended to head for Washington DC when my clerkship ended.  But in the interim Tricky Dick Nixon had lied his way into the White House, and I couldn’t abide the idea of moving there while he was in charge.

My thoughts then turned to California.  I’d briefly lived in Los Angeles during 8th grade (a story for another day) and very much wanted to stay, but my mother’s desire to return to Chicago after my father’s death won out.  Now I remembered how much I loved living in sunny California.  A February trip to Mexico had reinforced my thinking that I could happily live out my days in a warm-weather climate instead of slogging away in Chicago, winter after Chicago winter.

So I began making tentative efforts to seek out work in either LA or San Francisco, cities where I already had some good friends.

What happened on April 1st sealed the deal.  I’d made my way to work that morning despite the heavy snow that had fallen, and I took my usual ride home on a bus going down Michigan Avenue to where I lived just north of Oak Street.  The bus lumbered along, making its way through the snow-covered city, its major arteries by that time cleared by the city’s snow plows.  When the bus driver pulled up at the stop just across Lake Shore Drive from my apartment building, he opened the bus’s door, and I unsuspectingly descended the stairs to emerge outside.

Then, it happened.  I put a foot out the door, and it sank into a drift of snow as high as my knee.  I was wearing the miniskirts I favored back then, and my foot and leg were now stuck in the snow.  The bus abruptly closed its door, and I was left, stranded in a snowbank, forced to pull myself out of it and attempt to cross busy Lake Shore Drive.

On April 1st.

Then and there I resolved to leave Chicago.  No ifs, ands, or buts about it.  I made up my mind to leave the snow-ridden city and head for warmer climes.

And I did.  After a May trip to the sunny West Coast, where I interviewed for jobs in both Los Angeles and San Francisco (with kind friends hosting me in both cities), I wound up accepting a job offer at a poverty-law support center at UCLA law school and renting a furnished apartment just across Gayley Avenue from the campus.

The rest is (my personal) history.  I immediately loved my new home and my new job.  Welcomed by friends, both old and new (including my brand-new colleagues at UCLA), I was happy to have left Chicago and its dreary winters behind.  And six weeks after arriving in LA, I met the wonderful guy I married a few months later.

What happened next?  I’ll save that for still another day.  But here’s the take-away:  a snowstorm on April 1st changed my life.  Maybe it can change yours, too.

 

How Big Is Your Signature?

I’ll bet you never thought that the size of your signature meant a darned thing.  But guess what.  It does.

A recent study by a business school professor at Washington University in St. Louis found that an oversized signature is correlated with an oversized ego, and a great big ego can have practical business consequences.

In my view, the research findings apply to people running enterprises in a whole lot of areas other than corporations, including the White House.

The research by Professor Chad Ham, a professor at Wash U’s Olin Business School, concluded that a CFO (chief financial officer) with an oversized signature is more likely to make questionable choices because of his/her oversized ego.

Professor Ham’s research, described in a paper published in the December issue of the Journal of Accounting Research, showed that “narcissistic CFOs are less likely to recognize losses” promptly, and that this behavior is “consistent with a willingness to cover up past mistakes.”

Ham’s research team, which included academics from the University of North Carolina, the University of Maryland, and Rice University, looked at the size of a CFO’s signature and how it related to his/her level of narcissism. They then connected those findings to the financial reporting by each CFO’s corporation.

The research team compared the performance of the companies before and after the CFO was appointed.  The result was telling.  The firms became “more aggressive” when narcissistic CFOs were appointed.

Ham’s research went beyond that of CFOs.  It also looked at CEOs and linked management results with their level of narcissism.  Narcissistic CEOs—those with larger signatures—tended to over-invest in riskier projects and received higher compensation despite poor financial performance.

Why did the researchers focus so much on signature size?  According to Ham, it was one way to “capture narcissism.”  They couldn’t simply ask top corporate executives to submit to a personality test.  So they used signature size as a proxy for the level of narcissism.

In other research, the team paired student volunteers, and asked them to allocate $5 between themselves and their anonymous partners.   After that assignment, the students had to fill out a personality test and sign their names.  The result?  Students with larger signatures tended to be more narcissistic, and the more narcissistic participants were more likely to keep a larger share of the $5 for themselves and to misreport how they allocated the other half of that amount.

Ham doesn’t advocate that corporate boards avoid hiring as CEOs and CFOs everyone with a large signature.  It’s not that simple.  A single narcissistic CFO might benefit the company in ways not measured in this study.  But Ham concluded that corporate leaders should be aware of their colleagues’ narcissistic tendencies in order to keep “appropriate checks and balances in place.”

Wow.  I think this research can be extrapolated to the heads of entities other than corporations.  For example, the current occupant of the White House likes to show off his oversized signature on whatever documents he signs.  His large signature is just one indication of his level of narcissism, which is related to his eagerness to embark in risky projects, to misreport how he allocates funds, and to cover up his past mistakes.

As for keeping appropriate “checks and balances in place,” we might as well forget it.  Where are the other leaders of our government—in particular, those currently belonging to the majority party in Congress–who could exhibit some strength of character and insist that “checks and balances,” a long-held principle of our democracy, are observed?

They’re nowhere to be found.

I’m wondering just how big their signatures are.