Two years before he was elected president, Senator John F. Kennedy gave a speech at Loyola College in Maryland that concluded with the soaring rhetoric of a bygone era: “Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer but the right answer.” Though Kennedy’s remarks may seem hopelessly naive to a generation that treats politics as a blood sport, my good friend and mentor Morris Abram, who hailed from the small Georgia town of Fitzgerald, actually lived much of his life in the public eye adhering to Kennedy’s exhortation.
In this splendid new biography, David Lowe (who retired as vice president for government relations and public affairs for the National Endowment for Democracy) tells the life story of a now-forgotten man who served as an adviser to Democratic and Republican presidents and led several major Jewish organizations. Though he began his political life on the left and concluded it on the right, Morris Abram was singularly guided by a passion to advance civil rights at home and human rights abroad. And in his pursuit of those ideals, he aligned himself with whatever political party lived up to his principles.
I first met Morris Abram in 1987 during my second week as an associate at the New York law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, where he was a partner. I had just returned from a clandestine trip to the former Soviet Union where I had met with dozens of refuseniks. Morris was then the chairman of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry and the chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and a friend of mine had urged me to give him a report on my recent trip. I knocked on his office door.
As I waited for Morris to finish what he was writing, I let my eyes wander around the walls of his office, which were covered with photos of Morris with Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as several American presidents and Israeli prime ministers. It was both intimidating and inspiring. Eventually, he turned his attention to me, and after I introduced myself and told him about my recent trip, he handed me the letter he had just finished writing and asked, “Would you mind looking this over and letting me know if you have any edits?” It was a letter he had just written to Ronald Reagan asking the president to raise the names of certain refuseniks at his upcoming summit with Mikhail Gorbachev.
So began our 13 years as colleagues and friends, which culminated in his passing in 2000 at the age of 81. During the years in which we overlapped at Paul, Weiss, I served as an informal speechwriter for him in his role at the Conference of Presidents. Later, I worked for him when he was the representative of the United States to the European Office of the United Nations, a position he held from 1989 to 1993. Morris had nominated me to serve as a member of the U.S. Delegation to the UN Human Rights Commission in 1990, and we worked closely together that year combatting the hypocrisy of a UN human-rights agency that refused to take any action on human-rights abuses in Iraq or Cuba but readily adopted anti-Israel resolutions.
I never worked directly for Morris again after my experience in Geneva, but we remained close as he, a longtime Democrat, found himself shifting further rightward. In the fall of 1991, I was working as a domestic policy aide to President George H.W. Bush. One of the most contentious political issues at the time was the effort by Democrats to pass new civil-rights legislation. The prior year, Bush had vetoed a bill because he claimed it would have legalized racial quotas. Throughout 1991, Congress and the White House battled back and forth, working toward a compromise bill that could gain the president’s approval. By late October, it looked like a compromise had been reached—and though Bush would claim of the bill he ultimately signed that “it does not resort to quotas, and it strengthens the cause of equality in the workplace,” many conservative supporters thought otherwise and were deeply distressed. Among them was Morris Abram.
I was sitting in my office in the White House two days before the president was to sign the bill when I got a call from Morris, who was in Geneva. He was agitated about the legislation and asked me if I could arrange a call between him and the president to discuss it. He told me he was sending me a letter to Bush in which he explained his conviction that the law would trample on the Equal Protection Clause’s goal of color-blindness. In the end, Bush read Morris’s letter and spoke with him on the phone. But the president also signed into law the bill Morris wanted him to veto. And though he continued to serve Bush dutifully from his post in Geneva, Morris was bitterly disappointed in the president for his compromise.
Lowe explains how a civil-rights lawyer from Georgia who argued a landmark “one-man, one-vote” case before the Supreme Court came to work for President George H.W. Bush and ultimately criticized him for not opposing racial preferences. The answer to both the how and why is simple: The culture and political climate changed but Morris did not.
Abram’s family was part of a small group of about a dozen Jewish families in Fitzgerald. There was no synagogue in the town and Abram never had a bar mitzvah. But there was no way to avoid the complexities of growing up as a Jew in Georgia in the 1920s. I remember, more than a half-century after he had left the Peach State, Morris would open the dinners he hosted in Geneva with Jews and non-Jews alike by retelling the story of Leo Frank, the young Jewish man who was framed for the murder of 13-year-old Mary Phagan in Atlanta and then hanged by a lynch mob three years before Abram was born.
Though he later became an active supporter of the State of Israel, in his youth he was anti-Zionist. He also had no interest in joining a Jewish fraternity when he entered the University of Georgia in 1934 and recalled in later years that he was “far too proud to assimilate with Gentiles” and “‘too anti-Semitic’ to associate with exclusionary Jews.” Lowe reveals that when Abram was invited to join a Jewish fraternity, he responded that “he was personally opposed to groups that were segregated by race or religion.” That sentiment, vehemently anti-exclusionary and color-blind, became familiar to me in the course of the countless conversations I had with Morris about race relations. And he regularly invoked Martin Luther King Jr.’s encomium that we should not judge people “by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
After attending law school at the University of Chicago and serving in the Air Force, Abram moved to England for two years of study at Oxford. Then, during the summer of 1948, he served on the staff of Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, the chief U.S. prosecutor of Nazi war criminals in Nuremberg. This experience seared in him the desire to devote his life to fighting for civil rights at home and human rights across the globe. And that is what he did. Beginning in 1949, he commenced what would turn out to be a 14-year battle to overturn a Georgia electoral rule called the county unit system, which gave disproportionate weight to the votes of small rural counties instead of the far more populous urban areas in the state. This legal battle climaxed in an argument before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1963 in which Abram, joined by Attorney General Robert Kennedy, persuaded the Court to strike down the Georgia system of voting. As Justice William Douglas wrote in his opinion for the Court, “the concept of political equality…can mean only one thing—one person, one vote.”
Abram was also at the vanguard of human-rights activism. In the early 1960s, while serving on a UN subcommittee on human-rights issues, Abram was the lead drafter of an international convention that called for the elimination of all forms of racial and religious discrimination. Though he fought valiantly to include anti-Semitism in the anti-racism law, he was stymied by the Soviets, a prelude to his later work on behalf of Soviet Jewry. Then in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson appointed Abram U.S. representative to the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva. In that role, he took the lead in advocating for the appointment of a UN high commissioner on human rights, a campaign he finally won nearly 30 years later, in 1993. Upon his retirement from government service in 1993, Abram founded a Geneva-based nongovernmental organization called UN Watch that to this day adheres to his founding vision of “monitoring the performance of the United Nations by the yardstick of its own charter.”
Anti-discrimination was Morris Abram’s guiding principle, and it was not only the hallmark of his legal career; it was also the dominant issue on which he focused his attention during his tenure as president of the American Jewish Committee, then the leading national Jewish advocacy organization. He also took a serious interest in Catholic–Jewish relations. At the time, a pivotal issue within the Jewish community was the Vatican II Council’s reconsideration of the Catholic Church’s charge of deicide against Jews. Lowe highlights Abram’s meeting with Pope Paul VI in 1964 in which Abram pressed the pontiff to denounce the deicide charge once and for all (as New York Cardinal Spellman had recently done at the urging of Abram and other Jewish leaders).
Perhaps the story Morris was most fond of retelling, and that Lowe recounts in much the same way Morris did (minus the sweet Southern accent), was how he developed his relationship with the Kennedy brothers. A week or so before the 1960 presidential election, Martin Luther King Jr. had been imprisoned with a group of student activists after being refused service at a segregated restaurant in Atlanta’s largest department store. The Kennedy campaign reached out to Morris and asked him to intervene on behalf of King with the city’s mayor to help secure King’s release, which Morris did.
But while King was let go from the city jail, he was then taken in the middle of the night to a state prison. While this was taking place, John Kennedy called Coretta Scott King to express his support for her husband’s release from prison. When she received that call, she was sitting with her father-in-law, Daddy King, in Abram’s law office, strategizing about the situation. Martin Jr. was set free after Robert Kennedy took the unorthodox step of calling the judge in the case on King’s behalf. Abram asked Daddy King, who had previously opposed the Catholic Kennedy on religious grounds, to endorse the senator publicly. And at the Ebenezer Baptist Church on the Sunday before the election, King made good on his promise to Abram to deliver a “suitcase” full of votes for Kennedy.
The pivotal experience of Abram’s later life was probably his brief tenure as president of Brandeis University, when this Kennedy-Johnson Democrat was mugged by the political reality of the New Left. In October 1968, just as the student protest movement was about to boil over into widespread protests at college campuses across the nation, Abram organized an inaugural weekend of activities at Brandeis to celebrate his own investiture.
The events featured many prominent figures on the left, including Bayard Rustin, who had organized the 1963 March on Washington, and Coretta Scott King, whose husband had been assassinated only six months earlier. When Abram rose to speak, he advanced the same classical liberal views he had advanced his whole life, sounding a warning note: “The danger to dissent within the university comes also from a new direction. It comes from within.”
As Lowe details, during one of the panel discussions that weekend, a student representing the Brandeis Afro-American Society accused the university of “institutional racism” by reneging on its promise to add an African and Afro-American Studies major to the curriculum. She shouted to Abram that as long as “men like you” are in charge, there would be no progress. Only three months later, Brandeis students became among the first in the nation to occupy one of the buildings on campus. And while Abram ultimately negotiated a peaceful resolution to the crisis, he never really found his footing at Brandeis and left after only 16 months. As his daughter Ruth explained in an interview with Lowe, “here he had been a Southern white taking stands that put him in some danger and were in opposition to the main tenor of the time, and he comes to Brandeis, a Jewish institution, and to be told he is a racist, it was just so upsetting to him.”
Lowe’s book causes one to reflect on just how rare a breed Morris Abram was. Because he was a tireless advocate for civil rights and anti-discrimination, he was also a steadfast opponent of affirmative action and racial quotas of any kind. Though he had no formal Jewish education, was completely non-observant, and intermarried twice, he led major Jewish organizations in some of their most pivotal moments and was a passionate Zionist for the last quarter-century of his life. He served with enthusiasm under Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Carter, and then later with equal vigor for Presidents Reagan and Bush.
In the hyper-politicized world we inhabit today, where Democrats and Republicans are tribal in their fanaticism for their respective parties and antipathy toward their opponents, Lowe’s recounting of Abram’s life offers a welcome reminder that public servants once did have values that trumped partisan politics. There may not be another Morris Abram, but his largeness of spirit and ability to stay on a consistently principled path serves as an inspiration to future public servants.
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