Alexandria Treasures | David Ginsburg: Witness to History

Alexandria Treasures | David Ginsburg: Witness to History

At the age of 96, David Ginsburg has done more in his lifetime to make a difference in the world than almost any 10 people combined, and yet only when asked directly does he slowly reveal his past adventures or experiences. In fact, one could divide Ginsburgs life into three periods and still find that in any given 30-year period he has accomplished more than most of his peers.
The first third of his life was dedicated to school, the newly formed Securities and Exchange Commission, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, President Franklin Roosevelt and World War II. The second third of his 96 years found Ginsburg starting his own law firm, working on Capital Hill, serving President Johnsons administration, working tirelessly as a campaign advisor to Vice President Herbert Humphrey and drafting the dovish 1968 Democratic Party Presidential Campaign plank on the Vietnam War. Finally, the last section of Ginsburgs life (since President Johnson left office) has been dedicated to his law practice, teaching and mentoring, reading and his family.PRE-WORLD WAR II

Ginsburgs accomplishments are not only due to his being a likeable, hard-working, articulate and compassionate person, but also to the fact that he is brightreally bright. The intellectual prowess and verbal skills of Ginsburg were apparent from the time he was a high school student in Huntington, West Virginia, and won a statewide debate competition. First prize was a four-year scholarship to West Virginia University. At West Virginia, Ginsburg studied economics and politics and was invited to enter the scholarly Phi Beta Kappa. His next destination was Harvard Law School.

After graduating from Harvard, Ginsburg was planning to seek a job with a law firm in Cincinnati when one of his former law professors and soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice, Felix Frankfurter, called and suggested that he come to Washington, D.C., for a year and work as an attorney with the newly created Securities and Exchange Commission that was headed by Joseph Kennedy, the Kennedy family patriarch. Initially, Ginsburg worked on some litigation in Baltimore with Benjamin V. Cohen and Thomas Gardiner Corcoran, who were members of Franklin Roosevelts New Deal brain trust (and with Dean G. Acheson, who would later serve as President Trumans Secretary of State). When World War II threatened, Ginsburg was named General Counsel of the Office of Price Administration to help address the nations growing inflation.

During his tenure at the OPA, Ginsburg needed an intelligent, young lawyer to assist with industry price groups. After consulting various law professors, he hired a young Duke University Law School graduate who originally hailed from California and who was considered extremely intelligent: Richard Nixon. He worked with us for about a year, and then went into the military where he was sent overseas. Nixon had a distinct personality that did not seek friendship, but he did a first rate responsible job in the Office of Price Administration, says Ginsburg. I only saw him one more time after he left the OPA. When he was President he called me to talk about some problems that were then important and difficult. We spoke at some length, and I made my recommendations. President Nixon took some advice and rejected others, but he acted in a fully responsible way.

Besides working with the OPA and SEC, Ginsburg also met and worked for President Roosevelts administration (even though Ginsburg voted against Roosevelt in the first Democratic primary). He later met Roosevelt, and came to know him, but not intimately. My job then was to assist Cohen and Corcoran with speeches and public statements the President needed and used. In some that Corcoran and Cohen worked on, I checked the statements of fact, explains Ginsburg. He also worked on an occasional speech for Roosevelt when called upon by Judge Samuel Rosenman, Roosevelts regular speechwriter.

When William O. Douglas was appointed to the United States Supreme Court in 1939 while he was Chairman of the SEC, Ginsburg said, He asked me to serve as his law clerk. The two had known each other well for several years and Ginsburg occasionally accompanied Douglas on one of his many long walks while Douglas was at the SEC. Ginsburg accepted the clerkship but spent only one year in that role. In 1939, Germany invaded Poland and Ginsburg returned to work with Commissioner Leon Henderson at the OPA. Price inflation now was an obvious risk.

Ginsburg remained at the OPA until he enlisted in the Army. He had been criticized by name on the floor of the Senate along with some other Jews for attempting to avoid military service. One senator in particular, whom Ginsburg declined to name, accused Ginsburg of hiding in the OPA.


Ginsburg joined the war effort as a private and initially drove trucks. I know it would probably have been simple to become an officer, but I decided to enlist as a private. The first year was spent in training. Then I was made a second lieutenant after I took officers training. I was first sent to England. Then very early, I was given orders to go to North Africa for a brief period, says Ginsburg. He continues, When I returned to England, the men in my unit were assigned to live in various homes. Oddly, I ended up in the home of an elderly man who had served as the Kings gardener. Often in the evenings when I came back from the office, I would work with him in his garden. I learned more from that man about gardens than any other single source in my life since then.

A short time later in June of 1944, Ginsburgs unit moved closer to the English Channel, eventually making the crossing by boat a mere seven days after D-Day, the largest single-day of amphibious military invasions in history. I will not forget the day we left England, said Ginsburg. The boat I was in, like others, encountered considerable German defense from the coast. We went through a rainstorm of fire in the bay but we ultimately landed safely in France. Indeed, almost all of our people came through safely. We took most of the equipment we were carrying with us. We knew that the fighting had been and remained serious, and the cost in lives not small.

Over the next few months, Ginsburgs unit prepared for the move inland from the coast. It took some difficult months to move from the periphery to Paris. There I was sent ahead to requisition hotels for our own officers, and so I spent a few weeks in Paris and after that several months in Frankfurt, Germany. Towards the end of the war, Ginsburg was temporarily made a civilian and enabled to negotiate with the Russian generals. In between his negotiations, he made two or three day trips to Bri
tain and France. He goes on to say that, Finally, I was sent on July 4, 1945 to Berlin with General William H. Draper, who was working on economic reconstruction under the Marshall Plan.

In Germany, Ginsburg worked as an assistant to General Lucius Clay, General Dwight Eisenhowers deputy for that purpose. Ginsburg was fortunate enough to attend the Potsdam Conference in July and August 1945 and saw history in the making as President Harry Truman, Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill met to determine how to administer post-war Germany and German allies. Mid-conference, Churchill returned to Britain for a national election that he lost. Clement Atlee became Prime Minister and stepped in when Churchill left Potsdam.

Some months later, Ginsburg was sent by Clay to observe what was happening in the initial Nuremberg War Trials. The Nuremberg Trials lasted many months, and many war criminals were convicted. He returned to Washington at the end of 1946.


After the war, Ginsburg returned to Washington and set up his own law firm. For 20 years, the firm operated as Ginsburg and Leventhal, which later became Ginsburg, Feldman and Bress. He mostly practiced law from 1946 to 2007 with the exception of a few career interruptions. In 1950, Ginsburg did a brief stint on Capitol Hill, working for Senator M. M. Neely, a Democrat from West Virginia; he was also a Democratic campaign advisor who helped deliver the state to Hubert Humphrey. Then, President John F. Kennedy sent Ginsburg to Korea as counsel for a business delegation seeking to assist the Koreans. In the 1960s, during President Lyndon B. Johnsons administration he frequently worked on race relations projects.

Throughout Johnsons administration, Ginsburg served in several capacities and sometimes was simply a sounding board for the President. In 1967, Johnson put Ginsburg on the Presidents Commission on Postal Organization, which reformed the U.S. Postal System. However, there was a topic more important to Ginsburg: poverty. Ginsburg believed that with the Johnson Administration he might have a chance to make a difference for workers and others who fell below the poverty line, black and white alike.

Throughout his life, Ginsburg has been dedicated to helping end poverty in both the poor African American community as well as our nations poor white communities. He thinks that something useful must be done to help both groups get the education and tools they need to lift themselves out of the lowest income levels so that their children can look to the future without the fear that oppressed them.

In the 1968 Kerner Commission Report, Ginsburg wrote the famous statement: Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white separate and unequal. The Kerner Commission, of which Ginsburg was appointed Executive Director, was an 11-member panel charged with trying to determine what caused the summer riots in the mid-1960s in the African American community. Ginsburgs two societies statement also carried warnings that unless conditions changed for African Americans, the United States could end up with a system of apartheid in its major cities. The Kerner Report encouraged the President to seek legislation that would promote racial integration, improve housing conditions in slums and create jobs and training programs.

Unfortunately, Johnson, was not able to fully accept and pursue the Kerner Commissions recommendations of March 1968. One month later, civil rights leader Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and there were riots in over 100 cities across the nation.

In 1968, Ginsburg played a central role in the Democratic platform for the Presidential campaign. He was general counsel to the Democratic National Committee and a campaign advisor to Hubert Humphrey. After the 1968 election, Ginsburg settled again into a diverse and stimulating private law practice where he has represented countries such as Israel and South Korea as well as the King of Morocco. In 1981, he argued successfully on behalf of Henry Kissinger before the U.S. Supreme Court.

When he was not practicing law, Ginsburg tried to help support Harvards John F. Kennedy School of Government. He taught law school at Georgetown as an adjunct professor and he was the National Symphony Orchestra Associations chairman for one term. RETIREMENT

Ginsburg finally decided to retire permanently last year from Powell, Goldstein LLP. Now the 96-and-a-half year old spends his days reading and seeing friends and family. He enjoys reading fiction, particularly crime novels and mysteries. Moby Dick is his favorite book with its epic allegorical struggles between good and evil and its tension between idealism and pragmatism. Most rooms in his home are lined with shelves of books about history and scores of people he has known and worked with in his illustrious career.

Two of his three children, Susan and Jonathan, are lawyers while the third, Mark, is a writer and movement trainer. He sees the three as often as he can, with two living in the greater Washington, D.C. area and Mark now in Paris.

Shortly before he retired, Ginsburg and his wife, Marianne Lais, moved after 33 years from their beautiful 1780 brick colonial home to an Alexandria high-rise with a panoramic view of the river, Old Town and Washingtons most distinctive sites. They purchased their long-time home on South Lee Street from Justice Hugo Blacks widow. I had known Justice Black for some years. After he died, I bought his home and helped my wife develop the gardens, explains Ginsburg.

The splendid gardens provided a stunning and fun setting in the heart of Alexandria where many a stimulating political discussion was had over a game of tennis or while sitting by the swimming pool. Every year, the Ginsburgs opened their home and hosted scores of friends as well as his law firm partners and their families for rousing games and good old fashioned family food and fun in their substantial yard.

Ginsburg is still occasionally in touch with some law professors at Harvard and received a letter some 20 years ago from one who wrote how singularly impressed he was by a man who was attending law school there at the time: Barack Obama. Ginsburg explained that the professor wrote that the President-elect was the outstanding and best student
that he had seen at Harvard Law School. Ginsburg went on to say, So I voted for him.

At the end of nearly a century on earth, he has given his time and talent to striving to make the nation a better place while working to earn a living. Certainly, Ginsburg has foregone large sums of billable legal time to work instead for the United States government or to help mentor and encourage young lawyers.

Undoubtedly, David Ginsburg is one of Alexandrias most outstanding treasures and I count myself fortunate to have had the privilege of meeting him.