Sunday, January 10, 2016

"Washington Confidential" and the Washington Lawyer

In today’s Washington Post, John Kelly revisits Washington Confidential (1951), by Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer, two bottom-feeding journalists who wrote popular exposés of the seamy side of American cities.  The title of the on-line version of Kelly’s column, “Commies, clip joints, easy women,” aptly describes the book’s principal concerns, and Kelly gives his readers a good taste of the authors’ misogyny, racism, homophobia, and red-baiting.  He also notes the outraged reaction of the Washington establishment, but he does not mention the dismay of the capital's lawyers.

Wedged between the book’s chapters on the philandering diplomatic corps and possible ties to national organized crime syndicates is “The Right to Petition,” which tars Washington’s lowliest lobbyists and most high-toned law firms with the same brush.  “The law firm of Thurman Arnold, Abe Fortas and Paul A. Porter has practically everything for its field,” Lait and Mortiner wrote.  “Fortas, onetime stooge of Harold Ickes, is the boy to see for anything in the Department of the Interior.”  The $1 million fee earned by “Dean Acheson’s law firm”–Covington & Burling–gets a mention, and readers are urged not to “shed tears for Louis D. Johnson.”  Although “fired as Secretary of Defense,” he had founded Steptoe & Johnson and become “one of the biggest operators on government contracts in town.”  Indeed, thanks to “Truman inflation,” his firm’s cut was now seven-and-a-half percent, rather than the wartime standard of five percent.

Washington Confidential was by no means the only reason why Washington lawyers felt a need to explain themselves in the early 1950s.  The scandals of the Truman administration, for example, provided the occasion for Thurman Arnold’s defense of the revolving door for government lawyers before Senate subcommittee.  Still, the book’s calumnies stung.  Among the grateful reviewers of The Washington Lawyer (1952), in which Charles Horsky, a member of Covington & Burling, defended the Washington bar as an indispensable fourth branch of government, was Lloyd Cutler.  Horsky’s book, Cutler wrote, was “a good antidote for ‘inside’ tipsheets such as Washington Confidential” and “a far better guide for avoiding legal clip joints.”