As we approach a new year, which also happens to be an election year in a campaign that has already generated a lot of heat, it’s good to remember the life and work of U.S. Appeals Court Judge John Minor Wisdom.
I started thinking about him again a couple of weeks ago when the court building in New Orleans that bears his name was given National Historic Landmark status. He and three other judges formed a majority in the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals housed there now, issuing numerous opinions leading to far-reaching changes in the South.
In 1996, I called the judge because I wanted to do a story looking back on his crucial role in helping Dwight Eisenhower win the nomination at the 1952 Republican National Convention.
I called him because 1996 was a presidential election year and, with the conventions coming up, I thought his story would be timely.
He immediately stopped me short, thinking that I wanted to discuss the politics of the day, which, as a federal judge, he shouldn’t be doing.
But he relented when I told him the kind of story I was looking for, and we talked about 1952.
Then he let me in on a little secret: In the upcoming presidential election, he favored former Tennessee Gov. and U.S. Education Secretary Lamar Alexander, a Republican who later also won a U.S. Senate seat.
That was off the record, of course, but I don’t feel like I’m breaking any covenants by revealing that now, 16 years after Wisdom’s death.
Besides, his affection for Alexander, his former law clerk, was no secret; he invited him to the ceremony when President Bill Clinton gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1993.
You’ve probably heard the stories about how Wisdom became one of the most reviled men in town because of his court decisions. He was threatened; his dogs were poisoned; his enemies threw rattlesnakes in his yard.
You’d think that what Wisdom experienced then might have changed him, radicalized him. You’d think he would have been moving away from his old party when former segregationists like Trent Lott and Strom Thurmond moved into it. You’d think he would have been favoring the leftiest of the left when it came to presidential candidates.
But he wasn’t. His pick for president was mild-mannered Lamar Alexander.
And there’s Judge Wisdom’s lesson for us. Sometimes, doing the right thing may be a radical action, but that doesn’t mean only radicals can do right.
As the fear of jihadist terrorism tests us, it will be up to rational ordinary people to stand strong against hysteria and hate.
I don’t think Eisenhower put Wisdom on the court to change the face of the South, and that probably wasn’t Wisdom’s plan, either. He was just a lawyer who got thrust into history because he thought Eisenhower would make a good president.
The president rewarded him with a judgeship, and with that, Wisdom slowly brought justice and change, even in the face of vile resistance.
But through it all, he was probably still the same man he was before he ever liked Ike.
Note: I started writing this column in the first week of October 2012, when The New Orleans Advocate became the city’s only daily newspaper. Today’s column is my last.
I’ve enjoyed helping augment the news staff’s coverage by providing some perspective on the stories and issues presented in these pages and interacting with readers through email and the online comments section.
I’ll still be around, though, and you’ll still see my name on stories in The Advocate.