May 9, 2012
Nicholas deB. Katzenbach, who helped shape the political history of the 1960s, facing down segregationists, riding herd on historic civil rights legislation and helping to map Vietnam War strategy as a central player in both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, died Tuesday night at his home in Skillman, N.J. He was 90.
His death was confirmed by his wife, Lydia.
Mr. Katzenbach was one of the “best and the brightest,” David Halberstam’s term for the likes of Robert S. McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, Walt Rostow and other ambitious, cerebral and often idealistic postwar policy makers who came to Washington from business and academia carrying golden credentials. Mr. Katzenbach, an attorney general under President Lyndon B. Johnson, was the son of a New Jersey state attorney general, a Rhodes scholar, a war hero and a law professor at Yale and the University of Chicago.
His six years in government put him in the thick of some of the major events of the ’60s. He advised President John F. Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis, negotiated the release of Cuban prisoners captured during the Bay of Pigs invasion and pushed for an independent commission to investigate the Kennedy assassination. He was Robert F. Kennedy’s No. 2 in the Justice Department and took on J. Edgar Hoover, the pugnacious F.B.I. director, over his wiretapping of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. As an under secretary of state, he defended Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War before Congress.
“Few men have been so deeply involved in the critical issues of our time,” Johnson wrote to him when Mr. Katzenbach left government in 1968.
Perhaps his tensest moment came on June 11, 1963, when he confronted George C. Wallace in stifling heat on the steps of the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Mr. Wallace was the Alabama governor who had trumpeted “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” and vowed to block the admission of two black students “at the schoolhouse door.”
Mr. Katzenbach, in front of television cameras and flanked by a federal marshal and a United States attorney, approached Foster Auditorium, the main building on campus, around 11 a.m. Mr. Wallace was waiting behind a lectern at the top of the stairs, surrounded by a crowd of whites, some armed. “Stop!” he called out, raising his hand.
Mr. Katzenbach read a presidential proclamation ordering that the students be admitted and asked the governor to step aside peacefully. Mr. Wallace read a five-minute statement castigating “the central government” for “suppression of rights.”
Towering over Mr. Wallace, Mr. Katzenbach, a 6-foot-2-inch former college hockey goalie, was dismissive. “I’m not interested in this show,” he said.
About four hours later, with the acquiescence of the governor, Mr. Katzenbach escorted the students to register.
Mr. Katzenbach was known for reconciling differences and cooling tempers. In the Alabama confrontation he had the idea of defusing the situation by leaving the aspiring black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, in a car while he approached Governor Wallace.
Steering Civil Rights Bills
On Capitol Hill, Mr. Katzenbach, a Democrat, cultivated the good will of Republican senators in 1964 to help pass the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which he also helped draft, ending a century of discrimination at the polls. In an interview with The New York Times for this obituary in 2006, he contrasted his even-tempered style with that of his predecessor, the often brutally straightforward Robert Kennedy. He said his own way was to be “less than direct.”
His unflappability was on display early on, when as a bomber’s navigator in World War II he heard the bombardier announce over the intercom that the plane was on fire. “That’s too bad,” Mr. Katzenbach replied.
Nicholas deBelleville Katzenbach was born on Jan. 17, 1922, in Philadelphia, the younger of two sons of Edward Lawrence Katzenbach and the former Marie Louise Hilson. His father was a corporate lawyer and New Jersey attorney general from 1924 to 1929. He died when Nicholas was 12. His mother was a member of the New Jersey State Board of Education for 44 years and its president for a decade. His brother, Edward Jr., died in 1974.
Mr. Katzenbach was educated at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, where he played hockey, and Princeton, where he majored in international relations and public affairs. As a 19-year-old junior he drove to New York to enlist after the Pearl Harbor attack. A month later he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army Air Forces and became a navigator on B-25 bombers. On a mission in 1943, he was captured when his plane was shot down. (He was awarded an Air Medal and three clusters.) As a prisoner of war in Germany he read, by his count, 400 books in 15 months.
January 17th, 1922
1 + 17 +1+9+2+2 = 32 = his life lesson = Patriotic American.
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