Sunday, June 24, 2012

Garry Wills on Lawyers & Politicians

The previous post let me back into reading some of the "Elites" chapters that I mentioned in that post. I particularly enjoyed chapter "Politicians", which Wills spells out his understanding of their role (and which anticipates the recent NYRB post about the Unger position). Because this book appears to be out of print (not many of his are!), I thought I should share this quote about lawyers and politicians. I've not been a politician, but I've observed and read a great deal (now in the great Caro biography of LBJ), and I have been a lawyer for over 30 years now, so I think that I can affirm a good deal of what Wills writes.

It is not accidental that most of our politicians were educated as lawyers for do... . Many have criticized the tenets of legal training and its effect on the politicians who share this kind of training. Jimmy Breslin grumbled yesterday, and Macaulay, a hundred years ago. It is easy to understand their objections. The lawyer's skills are negotiatory, technical, mediating, neutral. He acts as an expert adviser for a client, not as a creative thinker or framer of his own views. It is his job to make the maximum claim on his client's behalf -- whether to a jury, an insurance company, the  IRS, a sued or suing  opponent, a partner in divorce proceedings. He speaks for one client today, another tomorrow; one side now, a different one later. The neutral agent is not a friend of one side, and therefore no enemy to the other side. Legal adversaries can exchange their lawyers, and the only difference (if any) will be in their technical skills. Having made the maximum claim for his own client, and expected a similar maximum claim from the other side, a lawyer must forge the terms of settlement and advises clients on them. If our own lawyer made less than the maximum legal claim for us--out of ignorance, or reticence, or rectitude -- we would feel cheated. His services were not fully at our disposal; part was kept to indulge himself.

    So the critics of the lawyer background shared by so many of our politicians are dead wrong. No better training can be found for them. They, too, a struggle with each other, yet be friends the next day; make maximum claims as bargaining points, but aim at a compromise settlement; satisfy most people somewhat rather than a few people fully; represent diversity by muting differences; always be more neutral than hostile; dealing  in increments and margins only, but you'll constantly; always adjusting, hedging, giving in a little, gaining a little; creeping towards one's goals, not heroically striving there; always leaving oneself an out, a loophole, a proviso -- what Willmoore Kendall used to call "a verbal parachute," so that no alliance is irrevocable, no opposition adamant.
 Confessions, 175-176.

The rest of the chapter is well worth it, and, I must say, Wills has always made me want to read the likes of Macaulay, Bagehot,  Belloc, Johnson, Hume, and the like; literary writers who addressed politics.