jimsleeper.com » An imperturbably valiant lawyer

An imperturbably valiant lawyer

By Jim Sleeper – July 29, 2009, 1:42PM

Few if any who recall the uproar over Mahmoud Amadenijad’s appearance at Columbia University two years ago can also recall the uproar over the appearance at Columbia of Hans Luther, the first Nazi ambassador to the U.S, in 1933.

But one TPM reader could, because she’d been carried across W. 121st St. on Dec. 12, 1933 by two cops after circulating anti-Nazi handbills during the speech.

She was “a blonde, hatless, quiet, and, it seemed to me, imperturbably valiant freshman [who] stood her ground firmly but undemonstratively,” wrote James Wechsler, a reporter for the Columbia Spectator, years later in The Age of Suspicion. “I knew her name was Nancy Fraenkel and that her father was a Civil Liberties Union lawyer. I saw her much more frequently after that evening which, I learned later, was her seventeenth birthday. We were married the following October.”

Nancy Wechsler, who died Monday, at 93, never stopped showing how to stand your ground imperturbably in an uproar – a piece of political wisdom that grows from character and civic culture more than from intelligence or ideology.

Nancy and Jimmy Wechsler were young Communists in those dark years of capitalist collapse and fascist ascendancy, when democratic decency, principles, and courage like theirs saw few “fighting” alternatives to the left against the many betrayals of democracy in World War I, the Depression, and American-capitalist likings for Mussolini and Hitler.

Like some other leftists, Nancy and Jimmy soon saw through Communism’s tragedies, duplicities, and cruelties. But because their idealism and decency weren’t phony, but rooted in personal character and civic-republican principle, their disillusionment with the Stalinist left didn’t catapult them into the arms of the right, as it did some future neoconservatives, who mistake corporate capitalism’s mountebanks, bounders, and blowhards for carriers of republican freedom.

Jimmy, a hard-driving liberal and wonderfully literary journalist until his death in 1983, was targeted by Senator Joseph McCarthy while he was the crusading editor of the New York Post in its intelligently pro-labor, pro-civil-rights glory days, which ended in 1977 when Rupert Murdoch bought the Post and turned it into a daily reminder that Australia was founded as a penal colony.

Nancy became a prominent public lawyer, like her father and Jimmy’s brother Herbert Wechsler. Unlike them, she needed her unflappable, feisty, but disciplined manner to become one of the first women admitted to Columbia Law School and the New York Bar.

Through political and family adversities, Nancy and Jimmy sustained a redeeming, impish humor, recalling, for example, how Franklin D. Roosevelt, in a dinner at the White House, thought of nothing better to ask Nancy than whether she baked bread. They griped about each other’s driving: Jimmy hated to drive; Nancy was a demon on the road and, even this summer was still driving back and forth from Manhattan to a summer home in Westport, CT. (In the city, Nancy seldom took cabs; as late as this year, she was still taking city buses daily from her home west of Lincoln Center to her firm at Madison and E. 38th Street.)

It wasn’t only McCarthyism that targeted her and Jimmy’s politics, though. Jimmy was also assailed by unreconstructed Stalinists who couldn’t get over his decision not to take the Fifth Amendment before McCarthy’s committee but to denounce McCarthy to his face, on the record, even while giving him the names of some old Communists who, Wechsler knew, were already on McCarthy’s lists.

He did it for reasons he explains compellingly in The Age of Suspicion, and I think he did the right thing. That book, which also describes Nancy, is especially instructive now for two reasons:

First, it’s obvious now that many leftists who assailed the Wechslers were also wrongly assailing Elie Kazan (for naming names) and defending the Soviet Union and Alger Hiss, long beyond the point where it made political, moral, or even simple cognitive sense. Jimmy’s account of how he and Nancy saw through them so early is instructive.

Second, The Age of Suspicion is even more instructive because, reading now about the Stalinists of that time, you’ll find yourself thinking of neo-conservatives who bear striking characterological, cultural, and even political resemblances, for reasons that are worth pondering.

While both left and right have valid claims to represent profound truths, both suffer from deformities of character that only a wiser balance of civil libertarianism and civic-republican discipline can offset.

Nancy and Jimmy Wechsler found their ways to that balance because they’d grown up with it in the first place, as indomitable, savvy New Yorkers who could bring the best of progressive commitments along with them toward a viable civic consensus.

Until a few days before her death, Nancy was at her firm, McLaughlin & Stern, LLP, working in that spirit on copyright cases, as she had for decades at Deutsch, Klagsbrun, Blasband. She knew that both left and right can seem morally noble when they’re going up against the more dominant side’s (and its many apologists’) institutionalized carapaces and cant. But she also knew that each side tends to cling almost tribally to its fundamental truths until they become half-truths that curdle into lies, leaving each side right only about how the other side is wrong.

Thus Hitler’s Nazis (“National Socialists”) seemed noble to more than a few working people while on the upswing against striped-pants capitalists who’d crafted the Versailles settlement and Great Depression. On the left, Stalin seemed noble against the fascist Franco in Spain and Hitler after 1941.

But political crises demand good judgment and sometimes humor, even when one has taken a firm and fateful stand. Because Nancy Wechsler understood this, she was a brave civil-libertarian and civic-republican, from that moment in 1933 when she handed out leaflets against Hitler’s ambassador to her last freedom-of-speech case. She would never have temporized for ideological reasons about Ahmadenijad’s Iran.

Those of us who are sometimes hard on leftists and lawyers should keep this leftish lawyer in mind. No less than conservative Southerners like that old “country lawyer” and segregationist, Senator Sam Ervin, a hero of the Watergate hearings — or even like Republican Lindsay Graham, at least in his pro-Sotomayor speech to the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday — Nancy Wechsler remained rooted in and loyal to the American republic, when others were seeking political salvation elsewhere.