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Bill Coleman's autobiography tells of obstacles and opportunities

WASHINGTON - Hunched over the telephone in his office two blocks from the White House, Bill Coleman offers sage advice born of years whispering into the ears of presidents and prime ministers.

At his Washington office, Bill Coleman, almost 90, still advises movers and shakers. (OLIVIER DOULIERY / Abaca USA)
At his Washington office, Bill Coleman, almost 90, still advises movers and shakers. (OLIVIER DOULIERY / Abaca USA)Read more

WASHINGTON - Hunched over the telephone in his office two blocks from the White House, Bill Coleman offers sage advice born of years whispering into the ears of presidents and prime ministers.

He tells the organizer of a Trilateral Commission conference on Europe's burgeoning financial crisis that it would be distracting if Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton attended.

"I was tempted to call the secretary of state and ask her to send one of her key people," Coleman says. "I don't think she should come, and I don't think Bill Clinton should come. But I do think someone from the State Department should be there, especially at a time when Greece or Portugal might be going belly up."

For Philadelphia-born lawyer Coleman, doling out advice to the world's movers and shakers is all in a day's work.

Over seven decades, he has helped launch the civil-rights movement as a young NAACP lawyer, been an adviser to 10 presidents, and given legal counsel to the nation's most powerful companies.

And, on the verge of turning 90 he's still dispensing legal advice - to those who can afford his rate of $1,200 an hour.

The full sweep of Coleman's career, though little known outside a handful of inside-the-Beltway habitués, is soon to be introduced to a wider audience with publication this fall by the Brookings Institution of his 450-page autobiography.

Titled Counsel for the Situation, the book traces Coleman's path from his youth in the still-segregated Philadelphia of the 1920s and '30s, to his graduation first in his class at Harvard Law School, to his work at the highest levels of government and the law, first in Philadelphia and later in Washington and abroad.

In large measure, it is a story of the huge obstacles African American professionals faced in the segregated America of Coleman's youth and early adulthood. But it also is a story of Coleman's resolve in knocking those barriers down.

"He opened many, many doors and, by example, showed how absurd discrimination really is," said Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer, a longtime friend. "It is important that people who don't know him understand what he has done."

Although Coleman graduated first in his law class from Harvard in 1946, and had clerked for U.S Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, the first African American ever to clerk for the Supreme Court, it took him six years after leaving Harvard to get a job at a leading law firm.

None of the big firms in Philadelphia, New York or Boston would hire him because he was black.

To this day, he betrays no sign of resentment about that early treatment.

"It [racial bias] was expected; it wasn't like it came out of the blue," said his son Hardin Coleman, dean of the School of Education at Boston University. "He had grown up in a time when the sense of disenfranchisement was very strong and very real."

Despite his accomplishments, Bill Coleman is a modest, self-effacing man who tends to deflect attention away from himself.

But he also is a person of complexity and contradiction.

He is a civil-rights pioneer who nonetheless opposes affirmative action.

Although he suffered early slights at the hands of elite institutions that barred entry to blacks, Coleman is a lifelong Republican who over time became the ultimate insider, an establishment type who shows up for work at his law offices every day at 8:30 a.m., elegantly attired in a three-piece suit.

One measure of Coleman's inside-the-Beltway status: Four Supreme Court justices attended his advance 90th birthday party at the historic Decatur House in Washington on June 2.

Coleman was one of a handful of outside lawyers assigned to the Warren Commission investigation of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

And in the early 1950s, he helped write the briefs and sat at the counsel's table as Thurgood Marshall argued the landmark Brown v. Board of Education school-desegregation case before the Supreme Court.

Later, Coleman joined Marshall again in the legal battle to desegregate public schools in Little Rock, Ark., and he played a pivotal role in desegregating Girard College in Philadelphia.

Yet he is not widely known beyond the ranks of elite policymakers and politicians in Washington and veteran lawyers in Philadelphia.

"I've always assumed he was one of those guys who preferred influence and effectiveness over being famous and noisy," said Newt Gingrich, the former Republican House speaker, who has known and worked with Coleman for decades. "He is one of those people who seems to be in the room when key events are planned."

Where it began

William Thaddeus Coleman Jr. was born in a small apartment in North Philadelphia at 12:15 a.m. July 7, 1920. His mother, Laura, and father, William Thaddeus Coleman Sr., had gone there from their home in Germantown to be closer to their physician as the due date arrived.

Coleman writes that his mother feared giving birth in a hospital. She worried that her baby would be switched, intentionally or otherwise, with someone else's.

He describes his father, a native of Baltimore who became director of the Wissahickon Boys Club after earning a degree in social work from the University of Pennsylvania, as a demanding task master who once fired his son from his job as a boys club camp counselor for taking an unauthorized trip into town.

He paints his mother, a high school German teacher by profession, with a slightly different brush. Laura Coleman was proud of her multiracial heritage, tracing her roots to Africa and to the German-speaking Alsace region of France.

She introduced her children to Langston Hughes and the other great black writers of her day, along with German classics by Goethe, Kant and Schiller, which she equally loved.

Coleman's book chronicles early, painful struggles with discrimination that would surely have crushed a lesser spirit.

As a freshman at Germantown High School, he was turned away when he attempted to join the swim team because he was black. His parents, fiercely protective of their children and ever alert to the harm racial bias might cause, complained to school officials, arguing that their son's exclusion was illegal.

The school's response was to disband the team, reinstating it after Coleman's graduation.

In spite of the early hurdles, Coleman excelled academically and athletically, lettering in track at Germantown High. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, finishing summa cum laude in 31/2 years. At Harvard Law School, he was named to the law review.

But it was only after a handful of important allies interceded, notably Frankfurter, that Coleman landed a job with Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, then an upstart firm in New York.

Coleman made good use of his first job at Paul Weiss, working days representing entertainment-industry clients and spending his nights at the offices of the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund, where he helped chart the strategy to overturn public-school segregation. There, he formed a decades-long alliance with Thurgood Marshall.

"Those were exhilarating, marvelous years," said Coleman's good friend, U.S. District Judge Louis Pollak of Philadelphia, who worked with him on Brown v. Board of Education and went on to become the dean of Yale Law School and later dean at the law school at Penn. "In retrospect, it seems inevitable" that legalized segregation would be outlawed, he said. "But we sure didn't know it at the time."

In 1952, six years after Coleman's graduation from Harvard, Richardson Dilworth, who went on to lead a government-reform movement as mayor of Philadelphia, offered him a job at his firm, Dilworth Paxson L.L.P., a long-held dream of Coleman's.

There, he is remembered as a skilled, hard-driving lawyer who regularly could be found at his desk, dressed in a three-piece suit, on Saturday afternoons.

"I remember walking down the hall around 3 p.m. [past Coleman's office] and being pleased that Bill saw I was there," recalled Stephen J. Harmelin, then a young associate and now the firm's managing partner.

Harmelin said the firm's young associates never left for home until Coleman himself had finished for the day.

A day at the office

One of the remarkable things about Coleman, a short, elegantly tailored man with owlish eyes and a ready wit, is that as he approaches his 90th birthday next month, he still evinces the discipline and tenacity that fueled his early career.

He rises every morning at 6:30 and is out the door by 7:45 to be taken by his driver in a Lincoln Town Car to the Washington offices of O'Melveny Myers, a large Los Angeles firm with locations scattered around the globe.

One morning in April, Coleman was working the phones on behalf of a real estate company that was seeking to develop a commercial project on government land in southeast Washington. His goal that morning was to set up a meeting with Vice President Biden, to see how the approval process might be speeded up a bit.

Then it was off to the Metropolitan Club, a wining-and-dining spot for top Washington politicians and policymakers, where he sipped a Bloody Mary, had lunch, and exchanged quips with Gingrich, who crossed the room to say hello.

In his writings and personal musings, Coleman comes across as an at-times contradictory blend of firebrand rebel and discreet protege of the rich and famous, many of whom served as early allies and mentors.

He denounces the U.S. history of racism, calling it "American apartheid."

Yet he describes himself as a proponent of free markets and says he opposes heavy government regulation of the private sector. He doesn't think much of affirmative action, saying that the country has made enough racial progress so that it is not necessary.

"The many times that I have seen this country in good shape, it is usually because business has done quite well," he says. "That doesn't mean they don't make mistakes, and once in a while violate the law."

But then he adds, "You make that much money, you get burned sometimes. How many times did Babe Ruth strike out? Well he struck out sometimes, and Ted Williams too."

Crawford Hill, a childhood friend of Coleman's son Hardin, describes Coleman as a man who is comfortable not only with senior-level policymakers but also chatting up the neighbor next door.

"He clearly was a person who could talk not only with heads of state, yet he could also make you feel comfortable in his own home," said Hill, whose father practiced law with Coleman at Dilworth Paxson. "He was the brains behind Brown v. Board of Education, he was capable of that and comfortable with that, and at the same time interested in you as a person."

Early in his career, Coleman became a confidant of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, providing advice on ways the federal government could open up employment opportunities to blacks.

Coleman writes that Eisenhower, in turn, backed the legal assault on school segregation in Little Rock by having his solicitor general file an amicus brief and by sending federal troops to Little Rock to quell white resistance.

Later, President Lyndon B. Johnson offered Coleman a seat on the federal Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia, and asked whether Coleman would accept a nomination to the Supreme Court if the nomination of Thurgood Marshall failed.

(Coleman, then a lawyer at Dilworth Paxson, flatly refused the Third Circuit nomination, explaining that he had three children and high college tuition costs, and couldn't afford the pay cut. He demurred on the Supreme Court idea, insisting that Marshall would be confirmed.)

In time, Coleman took on the role of unofficial cabinet member, like a James Baker or a Vernon Jordan or a Clark Clifford.

That is, when he wasn't actually in the cabinet himself.

In 1975, President Gerald R. Ford named Coleman secretary of transportation; he had earlier turned down offers to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development, to be the Watergate special prosecutor, and to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Coleman's inner circle has been small and rarefied, its members regularly intersecting in mutually beneficial ways.

One example: Earl Warren was chief justice when Coleman sat with Thurgood Marshall during arguments in Brown v. Board of Education.

Nine years later, Coleman was named one of three senior counsel to the Warren Commission investigation of the Kennedy assassination. His assignment was to investigate possible Russian or Cuban involvement in the killing. It was on the Warren Commission that Coleman got to know Ford.

Three or four days a week, he rode the train from his home in Philadelphia to Washington as part of his Warren Commission assignment. His travel companion often was Sen. Arlen Specter (D., Pa.), then a young junior counsel to the commission, who gained notoriety for creating the single-bullet theory to explain how one of the rounds fired by assassin Lee Harvey Oswald hit both Kennedy and Texas Gov. John Connally.

As part of the probe, Coleman spent weeks in Mexico City in 1964, debriefing CIA operatives who had gathered information on Oswald's visit to the Cuban Embassy there before the assassination.

Such concerns seemed distant June 2 at Coleman's birthday party in a garden behind the Decatur House. Standing at the door, Coleman greeted guests including U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Associate Justices Breyer, Antonin Scalia and John Paul Stevens.

Vernon Jordan, former adviser to President Bill Clinton, was there. So was former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan.

Coleman was toasted by his children - Hardin, William III and Lovida - and by Scalia and Breyer, who sat to Coleman's left during the dinner. Finally, it was time for Coleman to speak.

As the crowd grew quiet, he praised his wife, also named Lovida, and his children. And then he turned toward the broader canvas of American life, heaping praise on the country for his many career triumphs, but also suggesting that the nation and its politics still are a work in progress.

"This is a great country," he said quietly, "and when you give opportunity to all its people, you will have an even better place."

Coleman's speech was met with an eruption of applause, and then, slowly, the nobility of Washington headed for the taxis and limousines waiting on H Street.