08/11/2013 09:57 am ET | Updated Oct 11, 2013

'Keep Your Eye on Warren Burger': A Reflection

The recent death of Leonard Garment, the Wall Street lawyer who was an aide to President Nixon during the height of the Watergate scandal and went on to become, in the words of the New York Times, one of Washington's "most powerful and garrulous lawyers," sparked a poignant memory for me.

It was Garment who gave me one of my best scoops as a Washington correspondent for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. It was January 1969, just as Nixon preparing to assume the presidency after narrowly defeating Minnesota's Vice President Hubert Humphrey in November.

I had gone to the Pierre Hotel in New York to cover Nixon just before his Inaugural and Garment, who knew I was from St. Paul, told me, "Keep your eye on Warren Burger, because Nixon likes him and probably will make his his first Supreme Court appointment." He added, "Don't quote me."

Burger, who was a judge on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia since 1956, was also from St. Paul. If fact, one of my editors advised me when I left to join the Ridder Newspapers' Washington bureau in October 1965, to look up Burger. (The editor also predicted that my departure would raise the intellectual level of both St. Paul and Washington.)

Following my editor's advice, I contacted Burger and wrote several stories about important decisions that he was involved in. Anyway, as a result of Garment's tip, I wrote a story in my paper's Sunday issue, speculating that the conservative Burger probably would be Nixon's first Supreme Court choice.

The next morning, I received a call from Burger. "I read your story, and the only question I have, is what kind of pot have you been smoking?" What he really wanted to know was who my source was for the story and if the source knew what he was talking about.

I refused to tell him since Garment has spoken confidentially, but assured Burger that it was someone close to Nixon. He pressed me but I refused to reveal my source.

A few months later, the 78-year-old Earl Warren announced he would retire as chief justice in June at the end of the high court's term. The liberal former California governor had delayed his decision in hopes that Nixon would be defeated. Nixon announced on May 21 that he would nominate the 61-year-old Burger to succeed him.

Burger was appreciative that my earlier speculative story had proven right, and called me from his Arlington, Va., home after Nixon's announcement, and told me that Attorney General John Mitchell had taken him to the White House to meet with Nixon that evening,. He gave me a great story about their meeting.

Burger was easily confirmed by the Senate by a 74-3 vote as the nation's 15th chief justice on June 9, but not before Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy raised an old political grudge. McCarthy objected to Burger for "personal and political reasons," the main one that he bamed Burger for opposing him in his 1952 House race as soft on communism when the latter was an attorney who was active in the state GOP.

McCarthy was convinced Burger masterminded a smear campaign against him after he debated Burger, who was standing in for McCarthy's GOP opponent. He was outraged when a daughter came home from school one day and asked her mother, " What's a Communist?" Mrs. McCarthy was aghast because she knew that some child has asked her why her father was a Communist.

"It is my opinion that the manner in which the issues were presented to the people of my district that year first of all misrepresented my position, but more significant than that, they were designed to elicit an emotional if not prejudiced response," McCarthy said.

He did not get any more specific, except to note that "l952 was the year in which those techniques were not limited to my campaign, but were rather generally employed," an obvious reference to the "soft on communism" charges then used by the disgraced late Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin.

Despite McCarthy's opposition and that of Democrats Ernest Gruening of Alaska and Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, Burger was speedily confirmed after Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts placed his name in nomination.

Burger, who occasionally invited me for tea at the Supreme Court, told me that he was always baffled by McCarthy's grudge against him. "We had that I thought was a very pleasant discussion," he said. "I can't imagine what's sticking in his craw."

Back to Len Garment. I later thanked him for his tip, but regrettably never asked him what he thought of Burger. I wouldn't be surprised if he shared my opinion that Burger was not one of the giants of the high court.

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