Justice Ginsburg errs, wonderfully

July 8, 2009

David Bernstein writing at the Volokh Conspiracy corrects Justice Ginsburgh.  She told a reporter for the New York Times that she thought nominee Sonia Sotomayor might be, when confirmed, the first justice who didn’t speak English as a first language at home.

Not so fast, Bernstein said.  In a wonderful and fun display of historical knowledge and research, suggests several justices from earlier appointments who spoke something other than English first.

  • Justice Louis Brandeis, German -
    “I’m not sure what language was primarily spoken in the Brandeis household, but I would guess German, based on the following information: Brandeis’s parents were German-speaking immigrants; Brandeis attended a German-language elementary school, the ‘German and English Academy;’ the school was co-founded by his father, suggesting that his father had great fondness for the German language and culture; and Brandeis spent two of his teenage years studying in Germany.”
  • Maybe Justice Arthur Goldberg, Yiddish -
    “It’s also possible that Arthur Goldberg’s parents, immigrants from a shtetl in Ukraine, spoke Yiddish at home.”
  • Justice Felix Frankfurter almost definitely, German -
    ” . . . a commenter points out that Felix Frankfurter’s family didn’t arrive in the U.S. from Vienna until Frankfurter was twelve years old.”
  • Justice Clarence Thomas, Gullah -
    ” . . . I remembered that Justice Thomas’s first language is Gullah, an Afro-English creole dialect”

Thomas spoke Gullah originally?  When we shared a wall on Senate staff (he on John Danforth’s staff, I on Orrin Hatch’s), we also shared lunch on a few occasions, and meetings on energy and environment issues.  I was struck by his great enunciation, the clear way that he used his nearly baritone voice to make English work.  I wonder whether he can still command Gullah — it’s got to be one of the most minority languages on Earth right now.  Fascinating.

Are there other Supreme Court justices who may have spoken a language other than English, first?  Historians?  Got candidates? Justice Warren Burger’s family was of German descent, and in Minnesota, when he was born, it would not have been uncommon for an entire town to have German as its primary language.  I haven’t found anything to suggest that’s the case, though. Justice William J. Brennan’s parents were Irish immigrants, so there is an outside chance they spoke some Gaelic dialect.

I wouldn’t be surprised if we could find another justice who served between 1840 and 1960 with German as a first language.

How about Cardozo, and a Sephardic dialect, or Portuguese?  Any justices of French descent?  Welsh descent?  Readers, help out!


Robert McNamara, Eagle Scout

July 8, 2009

A few weeks ago I finally got a copy of “Fog of War,” at Half-Price Books.  I’ve watched it three times so far.

DVD box for Fog of War, Errol Morriss Academy Award-winning documentary

DVD box for Fog of War, Errol Morris's Academy Award-winning documentary

For a talking head documentary, it’s compelling, and interesting.  It may be just that I lived through the time, and hearing former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara explain now what was going on at various points . . . “Fog of War” is like a director’s cut DVD of the Vietnam War with Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg and Wilder all explaining every facet of what the director was doing.

Errol Morris’s interviews over the past few days are good, too.  Morris is the director of the movie.  He reminds us that he was making the movie before, and then in the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center.  Wrong decisions about war were being repeated.

I was looking to find excerpts that might work in world history or U.S. history classes.  I’m not sure there is one, now.  It should be a powerful film for an AP U.S. history class, but probably assigned viewing rather than in-class.

For his part, Robert McNamara was never anything less than brilliant, even when wrong.  We often forget that he rose to his role as Secretary of Defense because of his being right when others were so wrong — at Ford Motor, McNamara was the one who saw the Edsel as a dismal failure and the wrong path, years before the ultimate failure of the marque, the man who saved Lincoln, the man who pushed the small car revolution in the Ford Falcon, the man who pushed safety packages with seatbelts before they were popular, or required. Even at Defense he was more capable that his predecessors, more careful, and more often right.  (Read that Miami Herald piece from Joseph Califano — it reveals the brilliance of Lyndon Johnson, too.)

McNamara’s descriptions of errors in the highest places are also brilliant in their insight.

With the possible exception of Eisenhower’s never-used apology and fault-accepting letter for the failure of D-Day, the Normandy invasion — never used because the invasion worked — have we seen a more forthright mea culpa and warning from any of our warriors about their own mistakes, and how to avoid them?

What drove McNamara to do that?

Learned something else yesterday:  Robert McNamara was an Eagle Scout.

Is that why it seems like he, almost alone among the architects of that horrible conflict, confessed to error in Vietnam? He was a man who could do almost anything, had done much, but at the most important time could not do whatever it was that was required to achieve a just peace, nor even an end to war. We don’t know yet what the right thing to do might have been.

There is much more to know from that chapter, from and about McNamara, than we have learned yet.  Perhaps McNamara’s passing will spur others to find copies of the movie, and study the Eleven Lessons Robert McNamara learned from Vietnam too late; perhaps others can now apply the lessons in time.

Robert McNamara talks about Vietnam to the press - National Archives photo

Robert McNamara talks about Vietnam to the press - National Archives photo

See the Washington Post’s gallery of photos of the life of Robert McNamara.

Tip of the old scrub brush to the discussions at Scouts-L.


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