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When JFK Died, A Law Clerk’s Youthful Idealism Died With Him

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Shortly after I began working as a law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg I was in his secretary’s office while she was talking on the phone to her husband, who was an officer in the U.S. Armed Forces. He had something to do with communications, because he told her that shots had been fired in Dallas. We turned on a small television set that had been in my cubicle ever since I had brought it from home to watch the World Series a couple of months earlier. Nothing was yet on the news. A few minutes later everyone in the world knew that President Kennedy had been shot.

The chief justice asked the justices to disperse for fear that there might be a conspiracy involving attacks on other institutions, such as those that occurred following the Lincoln assassination.

It was a Friday and the justices were in their weekly conference, which no one else was allowed to attend. I had been given strict instructions never to interrupt the justices during one of these conferences, but I knew this was an exception. I went to the door of the conference room and knocked. Justice Goldberg, being the junior justice, answered and gave me a dirty look, saying, “I told you not to interrupt me.” I said, “Mr. Justice, you are going to want to know that the president has been shot.”

Several of the justices immediately gathered around my TV, which, it turned out, was the only one in the entire Supreme Court building. We watched as the news got progressively worse, finally leading to the announcement that the president was dead. The chief justice asked the justices to disperse for fear that there might be a conspiracy involving attacks on other institutions, such as those that occurred following the Lincoln assassination. The clerks stayed behind.

The following night, Justice Goldberg asked me to drive him to the White House. He was closely connected both to the Kennedy family and to Lyndon Johnson, and the new president wanted his advice. I picked the justice up in my old Peugeot, which was filled with children’s toys, and I drove him to the White House gate. Goldberg asked me to wait for him, since the meeting would be relatively brief, and drive him home. When the White House guard looked into the car, he immediately flung the back door open and grabbed a toy gun. Nerves were tense. When Goldberg emerged from the meeting, he seemed relieved: “The transition won’t be smooth, but it will work out.” It did.

When Goldberg emerged from the meeting, he seemed relieved: “The transition won’t be smooth, but it will work out.”

President’s Kennedy death affected me both directly and indirectly. Justice Goldberg had arranged for me to have a job with Attorney General Robert Kennedy, a job that I was considering taking. It soon became clear that Attorney General Robert Kennedy would not remain in his job long enough for me to serve under him, so I did not pursue that opportunity.

The assassination affected me indirectly in that it instilled a sense of cynicism in me about American politics and American justice. To this day I believe that it is likely that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, but I will never know for sure because the process by which the Warren Commission reached that result was deeply flawed.


This essay was in large part excerpted from Professor Dershowitz’s latest book, “Taking the Stand:  My Life in the Law.” 


This program aired on November 21, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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