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August 8: Arthur Goldberg and LBJ

Lawrence Bush
August 7, 2016

C2049-20The progressive political leader Arthur Goldberg, who served America as secretary of labor in the Kennedy cabinet, as Supreme Court justice, and as ambassador to the United Nations (he drafted Resolution 242 following the Six-Day War), was born in Chicago on this date in 1908. Goldberg was a prominent labor lawyer, general counsel to the CIO and the United Steelworkers, and mastermind of the merger of the AFL and the CIO in 1955. During his brief tenure on the Supreme Court (1962-65), he was an advocate of civil rights and due process and a vociferous opponent of the death penalty, registering dissents that inspired so many appeals in capital cases that the Court (in Furman v. Georgia, 1972) eventually suspended the death penalty on the ground that its application was capricious and tainted by racism. In 1965, Goldberg was convinced by President Lyndon Johnson to step down from the Court so that LBJ could appoint his friend Abe Fortas to the Court’s unofficial “Jewish seat.” Goldberg claimed in his memoirs that he resigned to help convince Johnson to back off from the war in Vietnam -- “I had an exaggerated opinion of my capacities. I thought I could persuade Johnson that we were fighting the wrong war in the wrong place [and] to get out.” He later also confessed to having his own presidential ambitions. Goldberg’s biographer, David Stebennes, suggested that “Johnson must have had some influence over Goldberg that induced him.” His successor, Abe Fortas, would serve on the Supreme Court for less than four years before resigning under a cloud of corruption charges.

“Goldberg would be able to answer the Russians... very effectively... He’s got a bulldog face on him, and I think this Jew thing would take The New York Times -- all this crowd that gives me hell all the time -- and disarm them.... Goldberg sold bananas, you know.... He’s kind of like I am... He’s shined some shoes in his day and he’s sold newspapers, and he’s had to slug it out...” --Lyndon Johnson

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.