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“I suppose if I had to do it over again, I’d be an architect,” says David Ginsburg. “There’s a creativity to designing a building — to make it fit the surrounding landscape — that always attracted me to the idea and the process.” He is reclining in his surprisingly undersized D.C. office; a narrow window behind him offers a constrictive view of a city he has known since the new days of the New Deal. “I suppose that is especially true if I were just starting out of college today,” he says with a grin. It’s hard to take him at his word. Ginsburg enjoys being provocative. He’s pushed the buttons of presidents, Supreme Court justices, clients, peers, and journalists. And a different path would have kept him from a remarkable 70-year career, in which he first worked in the White House during the Great Depression, hit the beaches of Normandy during World War II, helped shape the rhetoric of the civil rights era, and built a 74-lawyer general practice law firm. “Being a lawyer has allowed me to explore such diverse issues and ask questions, challenge my own perception — maybe challenge others’ perceptions,” he says. At 94, Ginsburg affects an urbane posture, holding himself remarkably well while puttering around his row office at Powell Goldstein. He is diminutive and quiet; there’s a paucity of words (and of movement) that doesn’t belie an old man conserving his energy so much as one who measures his counsel carefully. When he speaks, it bears listening. “He is truly a national treasure. But he’s also very modest about it,” says Michael Sanders, a partner at Powell Goldstein. Many of the photos adorning the walls in his office carry a personal note, signed by presidents (Kennedy, Johnson) and Supreme Court justices (Brandeis, Douglas, Frankfurter), each a story, each connected to Ginsburg. The books on his shelves are predominantly on grammar and writing, not the legal tomes that populate many a lawyer’s office. This day he is nattily dressed in a navy suit and Carolina-blue tie, his pewter hair meticulously combed. “I was a dollar-a-year man for [Lyndon] Johnson,” says Ginsburg, referring to his tenure as a legislative aide in the White House. “He would come into my office and we’d talk about whatever was on his mind. Or often he’d talk and I’d just listen.” It is quite possible he will retire at the end of the year, leaving the firm where he has been of counsel for eight years, though he warns that could change. “I’m used to physical activity, to making a contribution,” Ginsburg says. “If I were to retire, sitting at home I’d last six months.” Over the next few months he and his wife, Marianne, some 30 years his junior, will move from their home in Alexandria, Va. — the previous owner was the late Justice Hugo Black — to a more manageable apartment. Because his career may be coming to a close, Ginsburg is talking about the one person he would prefer not to discuss: himself. On the way to lunch he hooks arms with the reporter, a gesture easily interpreted as a sign of frailty. But it is, rather, the way he closes off the outside world, making the conversation more intimate. “When we speak, what I’m saying to you is being received as history,” he says. “But I lived it; these memories are still fresh to me. As you get older, you can recollect things that happened years ago better than what happened yesterday. My law school classmates, friends, and peers are part of my daily life still because the memory is sharp and clear.” AMONG THE GIANTS Ginsburg has a way of attaching himself to history. A fixture in Washington for three generations, he’s anonymous to many of the current political and legal glitterati, but once was on a first-name basis with the past century’s most influential leaders. He says he is the last living person intimately connected to the New Deal. It is no longer his moment. But that he is still contributing, still effervescent, is an indication of how he had so many moments. Growing up in Huntington, W.Va., Ginsburg won, as a high school senior, a statewide debate contest and with it a four-year scholarship to West Virginia University, where he majored in philosophy and economics. His time there earned him a full ride to Harvard Law School. After graduating, he followed the advice of his professor and mentor, Felix Frankfurter, the future Supreme Court justice, and accepted a job in Washington. He arrived in the summer of 1935, at the height of the Great Depression, as an influx of young and talented minds were brought in by the federal government to, quite literally, save the country. Ginsburg also arrived without a defined political ideology. (He says he voted against FDR in the Democratic primary.) Ginsburg’s first position, as counsel with the newly minted Securities and Exchange Commission, connected him with New Deal architect Benjamin Cohen; the two became close friends. (Of historical note, Ginsburg hired a young Richard Nixon, fresh out of Duke Law School, to the SEC. The two would meet at the White House decades later when President Nixon asked Ginsburg for advice. Even with Nixon long dead, Ginsburg declines to say what the question or answer was.) From the SEC, Ginsburg, at 25, was introduced to President Franklin Roosevelt’s inner circle, first serving as a fact checker, sounding board, and occasional stand-in for FDR’s speechwriter, Samuel Rosenthal. For the next two years he was an inside man, handling policy and helping craft the president’s message. “Back then it was easy to get an idea to the president,” says Ginsburg. “There were only a few of us, and if you had an idea you wrote it up.” He adds: “When I got to Washington it was a time when people wanted to work for the federal government to directly help people. It was not a question of who was trying to give the answer. It was about doing anything to help with the welfare of the poor, with education.” In 1939, Justice William Douglas asked Ginsburg to leave the White House and clerk for him on the Supreme Court. “Getting to work in the judicial branch seemed like a good idea,” says Ginsburg, understated as ever. “But it didn’t work out quite the way I’d hoped.” Germany moved on Poland that summer, and Ginsburg returned to the White House, helping oversee the massive mobilization of the American work force. Months later, he joined the Price Stabilization Board as general counsel, focusing on staving off inflation. Then he was berated for not doing more. In 1941, Ginsburg enlisted in the Army, pushed, he says, by calls from congressmen for he (by name on the House floor) and other Jews to join the war effort on the ground. Ginsburg began as a private, driving trucks, but the Army found better use for him, promoting Ginsburg to captain, a position in which he collected intelligence. It was a thrilling and jarring experience. He dined with actress Vivian Leigh, found himself on the beaches of Normandy days after the initial D-Day invasion, and saw Adolf Hitler’s bunker shortly after his suicide. When the war ended, Ginsburg stayed in Germany, aiding the country’s economic recovery. “There was so much work,” he says. “Cities, buildings, everything were in total ruin. It was all about preventing the economic depression that helped Hitler come to power.” An assistant to Gen. Lucius Clay, Ginsburg attended the Nuremberg Trials “as an interested observer” and later, the Potsdam Conference — the Allied talks involving President Harry Truman, Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin, and British Prime Ministers Winston Churchill and Clement Atlee. “Churchill went back to England for his re-election, only he never returned,” says Ginsburg. “A few days later, Atlee was there, the new prime minister. We were stunned.” Soon, Ginsburg’s Army life was complete. Having been a lawyer for 11 years without a client, he returned, ready for private practice. Perusing the country for work and being shunned, he says, largely because of his Judaism, Ginsburg returned to Washington and opened his own practice. It was 1946 and the beginning of Ginsburg Feldman and Bress. ACROSS THE GREAT DIVIDE “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal,” Ginsburg wrote in 1968 in the report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, commonly called the Kerner Commission. For a government document the writing is uniquely vibrant; the single sentence personified the country’s cultural and racial division, giving the national dialogue a reference point. It was, perhaps, too well written. For all the positive attributes peers speak of, Ginsburg’s writing is revered. “He taught me how to write,” says Albert Beveridge, name partner at Beveridge & Diamond. “He strongly believes that the way you express yourself is through writing. Talking is imprecise, but writing exposes both your intellect, your moral values, your entire makeup.” While building his private practice, Ginsburg spent a year on Capitol Hill, in 1950, as an administrative assistant to then-Sen. M.M. Neely (D-W.Va.) and in the 1960 Democratic primary as a campaign adviser, overseeing a pivotal swing state, West Virginia, for Hubert Humphrey. Then, when Johnson was in the White House, so too, for a time, was Ginsburg. He was a legislative assistant and general adviser, often weighing in on the administration’s relationship with Israel, especially during the Six Days War. In 1967, Johnson appointed Ginsburg to the President’s Commission on Postal Organization, which reformed the postal system and ended patronage for the party controlling Congress. “He is very thoughtful, never shot from the hip,” says Murray Comarow, the commission’s executive director. “He would lay back and let a discussion flow, and then at some point, when he thought best, would raise a question and steer the conversation. It was the essence of the Socratic dialogue, and he was a master.” Ginsburg worked out of the White House for long stretches, always at the president’s disposal. “We talked often. I recall him sitting across from me as you are now,” says Ginsburg, readying to act out the story. “He wanted to know about legislation on the Hill. My answer began, �Well, the political situation . . .’ And he slammed his hand down and said, �That’s not what I asked. I know more about politics than you ever will. Tell me if it’s good legislation.’ He had a good point,” says Ginsburg, gleaming. In July 1967, Johnson created the Kerner Commission to investigate the causes of the 1967 race riots. Ginsburg was the 11-member panel’s executive director. “I can remember my dad sitting in our downstairs library, working all hours of the night,” says Jonathan Ginsburg, a partner at Fettmann, Tolchin & Majors, about his father writing the Kerner report. “He is exacting, and he believes in the power of the individual word.” The report concluded the riots and general malaise resulted from blacks’ angst over deficient economic opportunity. Johnson rejected it. “It was a very tough report and was received by something close to outrage by many friends of the president,” says Harry McPherson, then special counsel to Johnson and today a partner at DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary. “I hesitate to say that their relationship was hurt. I do know that Johnson was very upset about the impact of the report.” Ginsburg says it was the specificity of the commission’s job, to look at race relations in 1967 alone, that resulted in blame being perceived to be heaped on the Democratic leadership. “I stand by the president,” he says. Later that year, Ginsburg’s writing and deal brokering would garner national attention. He was general counsel for the Democratic National Committee and an adviser to Humphrey. When Humphrey, again running for president, delivered his Salt Lake City speech, he seminally broke ranks from his own party and president on the Vietnam War, striking a dovish posture. He did so reading Ginsburg’s words. Months later, Ginsburg wrote the Vietnam plank of the Democratic Party’s 1968 platform. “It wasn’t an easy process,” he says. “The language had to be altered constantly. Being precise was so important.” IN THE PRIVATE SPHERE Moby Dick is an epic allegory; pursuit of the whale, a clash of idealism and pragmatism. It is Ginsburg’s favorite book. “You can apply problems and answers from that book to pretty much anything,” he says. Throughout his career, Ginsburg balanced two spheres, government service and private practice. A generalist in the era before specialization, Ginsburg built his practice around many notable clients. He helped Schenley Laboratories Inc. develop antibiotics; represented the state of Israel, South Korea, and the king of Morocco; worked with the International Monetary Fund; handled the German Marshall Fund; and successfully argued on behalf of Henry Kissinger before the Supreme Court in 1981. Through the turbulent ’60s and on, Ginsburg stayed busy (he was at the Lincoln Memorial during Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dream Speech and in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention). He taught an international law class at Georgetown University Law Center and a writing course for young associates at his firm; was chairman of the National Symphony Orchestra Association (the genre is his favorite); served on the Overseers Committee at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University; was a member of both the board of governors at the Weizmann Institute of Science and the Council on Foreign Relations; and helped raise two kids, Susan and Jonathan, who are D.C.-area lawyers. In 1998, Ginsburg Feldman and Bress closed its doors. It was midsize — intentionally so — and poached by larger, more specialized firms. The firm, like its founder, never specialized, taking clients as diverse as major airlines, foreign leaders, and white-collar criminal defendants. “I think he really always liked having close personal relationships, and a small firm afforded him that,” says Alan Weitz, a partner at Greenstein, DeLorme & Luchs. “If he had a different drive or ambition, he could have turned his firm into a megafirm, but he didn’t want that.” The firm withstood defections through the ’80s and ’90s, until the death knell came when the communications group left for Shook, Hardy & Bacon. Though he says he understands his lawyers’ accepting generous offers to depart, it was nonetheless hurtful. Not only to see his firm chopped up to the highest bidder, but because it revealed the passing of an era. “Justice Brandeis used to say that law was best practiced among a small group of lawyers,” says Ginsburg. But specialization was in, generalization out. And so too was that generation of Washington superlawyers. “Asking me to talk about David is like asking a minor league player to judge Babe Ruth,” says Ed Cogen, former managing partner at Ginsburg Feldman and now a partner at Whiteford Taylor & Preston. “He is a giant in the profession, and it was an honor to work with him.” But it was his work for the Democratic Party, not his firm, that Ginsburg says he’s most proud of. “If I can be remembered for one thing, it’s that I was a good liberal, a good Democrat,” he says. Why he has not fleshed out his memories in a memoir is something many have asked. He has a simple answer: “Facts get lost and personal interpretation takes over.” What gives him his greatest pleasure now is interacting with people decades younger. His days are left to his discretion; Powell Goldstein doesn’t track his hours. Routinely he puts in a 40-hour workweek, his energy spent on probate, handling cases for friends, and working with young associates. “I’m providing a mentor’s role, and I’m very much indebted to the firm for letting me continue to work,” Ginsburg says. That delight is nothing new. “I think one of the things he enjoyed most out of private practice was helping younger associates with writing,” says Cogen. “The use of a language is a precise tool and it is a lawyer’s key tool, and you have to know how to use it properly.” Among the associates, Ginsburg has befriended a few and is regarded with affinity and admiration. It is a filial warmth. “I took a writing class he taught to new associates,” says Anne Hance, a former Powell Goldstein lawyer who is now an associate at McDermott Will & Emery. “It ended up evolving into a chat session. We’d ask his take on politics, work, social issues. He took a genuine interest in not only my career but in me. Now he’s a friend who knows about my professional life.” That is a common story; several associates mention his love for writing and reading, especially, as of late, biographies. Though he’s still working — and working out, five days a week, three at the Metropolitan Club — he does not view his job as arduous, something he says would not be true if he were just starting out of law school. “I’ve lived a different kind of life than the typical D.C. lawyer you find today,” says Ginsburg, sounding more melancholy than curmudgeonly. “A specialist is a much less interesting person. Questions aren’t asked about the nature of law. The profession today has sacrificed enrichment for focus.” In June, Ginsburg will host, for the last time, his annual summer party for Powell lawyers and their families. He insists they bring their children. This has always been the mandate; he wants his co-workers to know that having a personal life does not reflect poorly on their professional life. And now there’s a second reason. “There are very few around of my generation,” says Ginsburg. “I get along best with children. I think what appeals to me and shocks me is their honesty.” At that final gathering he will offer the same advice he gives now. Pausing, choosing his words, drawing a sharp breath, eyes tightly closed: “It’s so important to enjoy life. You must seek out what gives you pleasure, because the rest of your life will need that information. I have the feeling a lot of people never learn to enjoy life. For me it is simple: People, books, music — that is life.”
Nathan Carlile can be contacted at [email protected].

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