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Monday, May 14, 2012

Nicholas Katzenbach, a great American

Nicholas Katzenbach died last week at age 90. A USAAF navigator who spent two years in a Nazi POW camp during World War II, he was one of the last surviving luminaries of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. (Joseph Califano and Bill Moyers are still with us.)

After public service Katzenbach managed IBM's successful defense in a long, convoluted, and ultimately pointless antitrust trial filed by the Justice Department that he had previously led.

What native Alabamians remember is Katzenbach's "schoolhouse door" confrontation with Governor George Wallace at the University of Alabama in 1963. The confrontation was theatrical; everyone involved, including Wallace, knew that Vivian Malone and James Hood were going to be admitted to the University. Nevertheless, it took courage for a Yankee like Katzenbach -- whose non-British family name and patrician background were anathema in Alabama -- to play his role in the drama. It was a hateful time during which people were killed for doing less. Katzenbach was protected by U.S. Marshals, of course, but he was not invulnerable. His experience in war and his knowledge of theatrical politics steeled his nerves.

He was the right man in the right place at the right time. For that I am most thankful.