A Lawyer Looks Back on 70 Years in Washington David Ginsburg, 95, retired Friday after seven decades of service in Washington. Ginsburg arrived in the capital in 1935, an idealistic young lawyer passionate about the possibilities of government.
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A Lawyer Looks Back on 70 Years in Washington

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A Lawyer Looks Back on 70 Years in Washington

A Lawyer Looks Back on 70 Years in Washington

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An era came to an end yesterday in Washington, D.C.

(Soundbite of crowd)

ELLIOTT: Dozens of people gathered in a plush conference room at a downtown law firm to bid farewell to Attorney David Ginsburg. The veteran of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal is retiring at the age of 95.

Unidentified Woman: Hi. It has been such an honor to be able to call you my partner. I'm really going to miss you.

ELLIOTT: David Ginsburg's legal career reads like a history book. His first job was at the newly formed Securities and Exchange Commission under Joseph Kennedy. He helped FDR write speeches. He clerked for Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, and he investigated the race riots for the Johnson administration.

David Ginsburg's long journey began in Huntington, West Virginia, where his father settled after leaving Russia in 1890. The young Ginsburg won contests in debate and speed typing, which earned him a scholarship to West Virginia University just as the depression was tightening its grip on America.

Mr. DAVID GINSBURG (Retired Attorney, Powell Goldstein Frazer & Murphy): It's the years '30, '31. '32. Those were the terrible years when I had the feeling of catastrophe. My father owned a grocery store. People wouldn't buy. You just had the feeling of how are you going to maintain yourself and that was true of almost everyone when you - so that it was a sad and difficult period, the answer is yes.

ELLIOTT: How do you think living through that era shaped your life and career?

Mr. GINSBURG: Above all, I think that it made me aware that there are people in this country that need help and that somehow the government and we, through the government, have got to find ways to help them. That was true of the white people and it was true, certainly, of the black people. And it has to be done and is being done, far more now since Johnson was in office than ever before.

ELLIOTT: Your career in Washington started almost by accident? You had graduated from Harvard Law School and were on your way to Cincinnati to go to work for a law firm.

Mr. GINSBURG: Exactly right.

ELLIOTT: And you took a little detour. But it lasted, what, here, 75 years now?

Mr. GINSBURG: I got here in the fall of '35. So it's 72 years but haven't (unintelligible). To us in Huntington in West Virginia, Cincinnati was the New York of what New York is to Washington. And so the notion of going to Cincinnati was itself exciting to me and it remains to this day. So I went back to the law school until Felix Frankfurter who was then a kind of a mentor…

ELLIOTT: This was when he was at Harvard and before he was on the Supreme Court?

Mr. GINSBURG: That is - yes. I went back to Cambridge, told him where I was going. He knew the firm and thought it was a great thing to do. But why don't I ever take the year off and spend it in Washington? It seemed to me it was a good idea. Why not? Two or three months after I was here, I picked up the phone again and called Cincinnati and carefully explained that I really wouldn't be ready to leave after one year. And this worked out beautifully.

ELLIOTT: What kept you here? What were you so passionate about those first few months working as a young lawyer?

Mr. GINSBURG: Exactly what I've indicated before, that is - that the government was trying to help people who needed help. The point is that we haven't - never had any experience in doing it. And FDR was really looking for ideas. And so I came to know the president, of course, and that was largely through Judge Sam Rosenthal, a longtime personal friend of FDR's.

And when the president had a particularly important speech to produce, he would call Sam and then on many occasions, I and others would be assigned to check facts. But we would sit with them often until when he was talking to the president, and the president was reaching into his pocket and taking out little notes that he had sent to himself, offering him his ideas.

The president was open-minded. He was looking for answers, trying to bring in new ideas into the government. And for that, he's been criticized but it was absolutely essential that it be done.

ELLIOTT: Did you realize at that time that you were part of something that would profoundly change the way Americans viewed their government and what they expected from government?

Mr. GINSBURG: It's not a question that really was upfront in anyone's mind really, as far as I can tell now. The problem was how to exist? How do you keep people alive? How do you prevent these suicides, the catastrophes that were taking place, the bankruptcies that were taking place? Desperation is something different from inspiration. When you are desperate, it's essential to find answers. When you're inspired, you'll hope to find answers.

ELLIOTT: In 1947, you co-founded Americans for Democratic Action. What was the impetus for that group?

Mr. GINSBURG: Essentially, liberals in the country were being attacked for being communists. The simple fact then would be, we've created a - an organization though (unintelligible) communists were not eligible to enter. And in a sense it was to separate the goat from the sheep. I think that who would be best regarded as the sheep and who would be best regarded as goats, we'll leave it aside for the moment.

ELLIOTT: You know, you all were young and grasping for solutions to very pressing problems at that time, but you also had a sense of idealism that you could make a difference by being in Washington and working with the government. Do you still feel that way? Do you still feel that people can come here to Washington and make a difference?

Mr. GINSBURG: There is nothing else that can make that difference. You can't ask a portion of the population to assume the responsibilities of government. I think that there is no alternative to government in a democratic society. It's only when people come together to accomplish something that problems of this sort we're talking about can be dealt with. It takes a nation to act.

ELLIOTT: David Ginsburg retired yesterday from the law firm Powell Goldstein. He plans to spend sometime traveling in Europe with his wife. He told us he's particularly looking forward to the spas of Baden-Baden.

(Soundbite of music)

ELLIOTT: That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

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