Memory is strange. My son, Dan, has a savant-like ability to precisely place and describe even the most mundane events, going back to nursery school. My recall of even important moments is foggier. Unlike most people born before 1960, I do not remember where I was when I learned that John F. Kennedy had been shot.
However, one very distinct memory I have from my youth is where I was on January 22, 1973, at about 10 AM.
I was on a senior trip to Washington, DC, with 10 other members of my high school political science class (several of whom I remembered clearly and a few I didn’t recall being there until I looked at the newspaper photo accompanying a story on our trip). I remember the chaperones: Greg Dean, our poli sci teacher, who was a nice guy, and guidance counselor, Dave Olson, who I will always remember as the adviser who tried to discourage me from applying to college, instead suggesting I consider vocational school.
The main event around which our trip was planned was Richard Nixon’s second inauguration. In a story about our trip, the Wisconsin State Journal quoted me as saying of the inauguration: “The ceremony was very impressive, even if it was for Nixon.” My father, who passed away last month at 88, told me that he took a lot of crap for that line, although I could tell from his crinkled eyes and poorly stifled smile that he was not the least bit displeased.
Two days after the inauguration, Lyndon Johnson died. We were still in Washington for the funeral procession. My most distinct memory is of Black Jack, the riderless horse with the reversed boots in the stirrups. On January 23rd we were in the House of Representatives when Nixon announced that the Vietnam peace agreement had been reached in Paris. That same day we met the Apollo 17 astronauts who were also visiting Congress. It was a busy week.
On Monday, January 22, 1973, we visited the Supreme Court of the United States. Little did I realize, in the moment, that I was present for what would become one of the best known and most controversial events in modern American jurisprudence. Justice Harry Blackmun announced the decision of the Court. I understood the decision was important, even though it only got 43 seconds on the evening news.
In 1973 I had no plans to be a lawyer. My dreams of being a marine biologist had been dashed by my complete befuddlement in chemistry class (ironically, my son, Jeremy, has a doctorate in chemistry). I was into wheel pottery, but I knew potter was not going to be my profession.
It was not until several years after that visit to the Court that I actually read the decision from that day. I’d finally decided I wanted to be a lawyer, and Professor Murray Edelman assigned it in my college constitutional law class. I read it again in law school when Professor Telford Taylor assigned it to my constitutional law class. (I wonder what Taylor, the former Nuremberg war crimes prosecutor, would think of my doing defense work at the successor war crimes tribunals in The Hague and Cambodia.)
Over the years I have watched courts and legislators chip away at that seminal 1973 decision. Nominees to the Supreme Court have been asked about it in detail. Recent appointments to the Supreme Court have placed the vitality of the decision in ever great doubt.
I haven’t been back into the Supreme Court (except in writing) since that day. But this Tuesday, as on every anniversary since 1973, I will remember that I was in the Supreme Court of the United States when Justice Blackmun announced the 7-2 decision that would change the lives of so many, ignite 4 ½ decades (so far) of political battles and further fuel ever renewing efforts to interfere with the private decisions of American women.
On January 22, 1973, at about 10 AM, 17 year-old me listened in a hushed Supreme Court as the decision was announced in Roe v. Wade.