Friday, April 14, 2017

Justice Souter, Washington, DC, New Hampshire

There is something about the story of retired Supreme Court Justice David Souter which invites reconstruction, fantasy, Hollywood myth making and lots of projection.

Reading about him on line, in articles in the New York Times, and elsewhere one gets the illusion you know the man, when, in fact, like most public figures you think you know, you do not know him. You only know the story which emerges out of public articles about him.

But there are some conclusions to be drawn from the facts: 
1/ The fact is he retired from the Supreme Court of the United States at age 70.  Retiring from the Supreme Court is not common and usually the Justices work into their 80's.  It's a lifetime appointment and one can well imagine why Justices work until they die:  Most people find themselves getting ignored as they get older. What they say doesn't matter so much any more because they are no longer in power. Age begets irrelevance in our nation.

But if you are one of 9 Supreme Court Justices you remain relevant as long as you stay on the Court.

It's one of the few jobs in America where you can be a celebrity, at the peak of power, for two decades after ordinary retirement age of 65. And in Washington, D.C., where so much of the culture revolves around power, position, job title, you can sail into your seventies and eighties on top.

In New York, even if you are mega rich, by the time you are in your late 70's you have likely given up much of your day to day operational control of your companies to younger hands, and you can still go to the Met and get the best seats and you can still eat at the best restaurants, but everyone knows you are not really the pivotal player any more.

Not true, in Washington, if you are a Supreme Court Justice.  There are still cases you are judging which are current, in the news and attracting lots of attention and people want to know what you think.

2/ At the end of every Supreme Court term, Souter drove home  to his family homestead in New Hampshire.

Which is to say, he did not stay in Washington.
He did not spend his summer going to dinner parties, playing golf at Burning Tree Country Club, sailing  down the Potomac on  yachts.
He could have cashed in on his status, enjoyed the power game, and given his status as a Supreme Court Justice, not to mention his academic pedigree,(Harvard undergrad, Harvard law, Oxford/Rhodes Scholar)--he had the  keys to the kingdom in the Washington, D.C. dinner set society.

He was named by some rag Washington's "most eligible bachelor."  Because he was not seen to be capitalizing on this or simply because he never married, he was rumored to be gay, but that would not have prevented him from cashing in on the glittering evenings and social perks of being a Supreme Court Justice.

But he did none of the high life stuff. He just went home to New Hampshire, where, to listen to him, he read history. Even if he did wild and crazy things back in New Hampshire, the fact is he didn't feel compelled to say anything beyond, "I read history." In fact, when asked what he liked doing back in New Hampshire, beyond reading, he mentioned he enjoyed going to the town dump, because that's where you see your neighbors.

Can you imagine Antonin Scalia or Alito or Clarence Thomas saying they enjoyed going to the dump on a Saturday morning?

What I like about this guy is:
1/ He apparently took a look at what passes for the good life in the big city, in the glittering city on the Potomac and said, "Uh, I don't think so."
We might infer he was saying, "You all worship false gods here." But again, we would be projecting and reading into a man we do not know.
2/ He was so appalled by the Supreme Court intervening in the Gore v Bush election he nearly resigned, but friends convinced him to stay because then Bush would have not only won the election but seized control of the Court.
3/ He was ushered in as another Scalia but he actually did what Supreme Court Justices always say they will do but never do--he followed the law as he saw the law and wound up voting with the liberal Democrats, even though he was appointed by a Republican. That is tantamount to Donald Trump switching parties after his election.
Hampton, NH

What I really could not abide during my own years in Washington was the smugness. People who had been winners in their youth, getting into the right colleges,  where they told each other they deserved to be at Harvard because, after all, they merited it, they were the cream rising to the top, and they continued to grab onto the "glittering prizes" and pass them around among themselves, like A list dinner party invitations.
Tugboat Obadiah Youngblood

New York had rich people, successful people, but somehow they were not as often smug.  They felt fortunate. They exulted about the good things they had: Opera at the Met, wonderful exhibits at the museums, great meals at great restaurants, but somehow I never got the vibe, even from the really rich, they thought they particularly deserved their good fortune.  "Better to be lucky than smart," they would say.

Anyway, Justice Souter's rejection of what so many value is refreshing.  And it's not like an 18 year old kid who gets into Harvard and says, no, I'll go to Kenyon instead. In that case you wonder whether he just didn't have the confidence to take up that challenge. In Souter's case, he was already there, had already proven he deserved his place, but he said, "No, you can keep your trophy life. I've got something better."

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