Background on Nicholas Katzenbach

Topic: Background on Nicholas Katzenbach

Nicholas Katzenbach: I’m Nicholas Katzenbach, and I’m a retired attorney. I’m originally from New Jersey, from Trenton, New Jersey, where my father was a practicing lawyer and a one time Attorney General of New Jersey and where his uncle was a prominent… his brother, my uncle, was a prominent Democrat who ran for governor once and lost. The next time, he went to the Democratic Convention and he lost to an upstart by the name of Woodrow Wilson. My father died when I was 12 years old, and it’s hard to know whether… I was always interested in government and I really would like to have had elective office, but where I came from, in New Jersey, in that Congressional district, if you weren’t an Irish Catholic you didn’t have a chance. Growing up I think the people with the most influence on me probably was my mother, certainly. And there were former partners of my father, and then there were teachers at school, some at school that heavily influenced me, I think, and others that probably influenced me some. It’s hard to know the influences that you had. My mother was active in New Jersey. She was president of the State Board of Education for some 30 years, so I was interested in education, I was interested in public service, and I think I got probably most of that from my mother. I think there are probably several reasons why I decided to write the book. One, I was just bored and I needed to do something to occupy my time, and the second reason was I was very distressed by the present administration, [and but] more than anything else, what they were doing to the Constitution and to the Justice Department in terms of politicizing both in ways that I thought were inconsistent with our democracy as I had known it and with our being what I’ve always thought was the greatest country in the world and I would hope would be the greatest country in history, but it has to remember what it’s doing and not succumb to temptation.

Question: What impact did WWII have on your worldview?

Nicholas Katzenbach: Well, I think, to tell the truth, my experience at World War II did change considerably. I left college in my junior year, early, right after the Pearl Harbor attack, and I left because I felt it just was important, and it was important for somebody who had a very elite education, as I did, to simply join the Armed Forces and not sit around and think you should be in Intelligence or Naval Intelligence or something like that, to just do a job along with other people, and I did, and I volunteered. I volunteered to go overseas. I wanted to go overseas, and I got shot down on our 19th mission in North Africa, and as we crashed into the water I really said to myself, “If I get out of this, I’m going to try to do something in this world, not make a fool of myself.” So I think the experience was very big and very real.

Question: What role does religion play in your life?

Nicholas Katzenbach: It never has played much of a role in my life. My father, my mother and all of her sisters were very religious and I was, my father was religious, all members of the Episcopal Church in my hometown of Trenton, and it just… I’m not anti-religion. I don’t think it just has played a very important role in my life.

Question: Do you see a service mentality today?

Nicholas Katzenbach: I don’t know whether I see a service mentality today or not. We sure had it in the ‘60s, and one of the wonderful things was the college students pouring into the South to try to register, African-Americans [to vote] in really dangerous circumstances. Of course, three of them were killed doing that. And then, in their protest of the Vietnam War which they may or may not have understood and protest they continued with the way South Africans or with the way South African government was treating blacks, I don’t see as much of that today as I would like to see, but the experiences available to those who will take it, and it can be a wonderful, rewarding experience, as I try my best to paint in the book, to say, you know, working with other people to accomplish something that you believe in, there can’t be any greater thing in life than doing that.

Topic: Advice to the next generation…

Nicholas Katzenbach: Look, I’m old. I’m a has-been. All that I want to do is to tell young people, “Come on. This is your country. Take it on. Take on the tough decisions. They’re the ones that are fun and they’re the ones that take a lot to decide. You’re not always going to be successful. You’re going to make mistakes, but go on. Put your shoulder to the wheel, push!”

Question: What are the hardest moments you’ve had?

Nicholas Katzenbach: I think the hardest moments I’ve had in my career were probably difficulties of finally getting the 1964 Civil Rights Act through which was a happy ending. And things like I’ve described in the book too, trial of Jim Landis, a fine person, and yet they had to do it, it had to be done, and Jim himself knew it had to be done and said it had to be done. But, prosecuting a fine man for something that didn’t amount to a hill of beans is difficult and I think disappointing and make you unhappy. But, you know, we had failures of not getting out of Vietnam is a failure and I often wondered what I could have done and didn’t do. So, you have those. Those, and I think afterwards, I had a very happy career as IBM’s Chief Legal Officer. I enjoyed that tremendously. I then decided I solve all those problems and I better not wait around there why they got some others that I didn’t have time to solve. I was almost 65. So, I decided to go practice law in New Jersey and that was probably a mistake. I probably should have stayed on and done that or done… My whole career was not well suited, I think, to practicing law in New Jersey.

Question:What do you want to be remembered for?

Nicholas Katzenbach: Oh... I think in point of fact, actually, I just hope my kids remember me as a fair, middling father and that’s about as much as I want.


Recorded on: 10/22/2008

Katzenbach talks about growing up in New Jersey, his personal and political influences and how WWII changed him.

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