Brownell, Herbert, Jr.
Brownell, Herbert, Jr.
(b. 20 February 1904 in Peru, Nebraska; d. 1 May 1996 in New York City), attorney general of the United States, presidential adviser, and Republican party official who was noted for his commitment to civil rights.
Brownell was one of seven children of Herbert Brownell and May A. Miller. He spent his early years in Peru, Nebraska, where his father taught the physical sciences at the Nebraska State Normal School. In 1910 the family moved to Lincoln upon his father’s appointment as a professor of science education in the teacher’s college of the University of Nebraska. Following his elementary and secondary education in the Lincoln public schools, Brownell entered the University of Nebraska in 1920, gaining his bachelor’s degree in 1924. During his college years, he served as editor of the student newspaper, was president of the Delta Upsilon fraternity, and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. During his senior year, he also taught journalism at Doane College in Crete, Nebraska.
Initially undecided between a career in journalism and the law, Brownell chose the latter following his admission to Yale Law School. During his second year he was elected editor in chief of the Yale Law Journal. He received his LL.B. in 1927 and was elected to the Order of the Coif. He later received honorary degrees from American University, the University of Notre Dame, Lafayette College, Hamilton College, Fordham University, Union College, Dickinson College, Peru State College, the National University of Ireland, and the University of Nebraska.
From 1927 to 1929 Brownell was an associate at the law firm of Root, Clark, Buckner & Ballantine in New York City. In 1929 he moved to Lord, Day & Lord, where he became a partner in 1932. When not in government service, Brownell remained affiliated with that firm until its dissolution shortly before his death.
In 1931 Brownell embarked on his political career, seeking election as the Republican and reform candidate for the Tenth New York State Assembly District, which encompassed the Greenwich Village, Gramercy Park, Murray Hill, and theater district areas of Manhattan. Another young Republican reformer, Thomas E. Dewey, served as his campaign manager. While on the campaign trail, Brownell met Doris A. McCarter, who would become his wife on 16 June 1934 and the mother of their four children; she would remain by his side until her death in 1979. His marriage commencing on 23 December 1987 to Marion (Riki) Taylor ended in divorce.
Although unsuccessful in his first bid, Brownell ran again in 1932 and was elected. It was the first of five elections (1932–1936) he would win to the then-yearly terms of the state assembly. While in Albany, Brownell was a key linkage between New York City reformers, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia most notably, and the upstate Republican leadership of the state assembly. He sponsored legislation strengthening child labor laws and antigangster and racketeering bills, revising the New York City charter, liberalizing the state pension system, and establishing a citywide parks department. He served on the Judiciary Committee, was chair of the Social Welfare Committee, and was one of four Republican members of the powerful Rules Committee.
Following his decision not to seek reelection, Brownell was asked to serve as general counsel for the New York World’s Fair of 1939–1940. In 1940 state Republican leaders appointed Brownell as legal counsel to the Republican State Party Committee. During this period, he also began preparations for Dewey’s 1942 bid for governor of New York and was appointed his campaign manager. Following Dewey’s victory, Brownell turned down offers to join the Dewey administration, but he remained an influential member of Dewey’s “kitchen cabinet.” As the 1944 presidential election approached, Brownell became Dewey’s chief strategist in securing the Republican nomination that year. Dewey was defeated in the general presidential election by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. However, following the Republican party convention, Brownell was appointed chairman of the Republican National Committee, a position he would hold until 1946. During his tenure as chair of the party, Brownell strengthened the national party’s organization and developed its first direct-mail fundraising efforts. In 1948 Brownell again served as Dewey’s campaign manager in the presidential campaign. But, as in 1944, Dewey lost the election, this time to Harry Truman.
In 1952 Brownell was a key participant in a group of business and political leaders who were urging General Dwight D. Eisenhower to run for president. It was an effort that led to a secret visit by Brownell to Eisenhower’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) headquarters in Paris to press upon him the need to mount an active campaign to secure the Republican nomination. Prior to the 1952 Republican convention, Brownell also devised the successful “fair play” strategy that would deprive Senator Robert Taft of a number of contested delegates to the convention and that would prove instrumental in securing Eisenhower’s nomination. Following the revelation of vice presidential candidate Richard Nixon’s “secret fund,” Brownell was enlisted to advise Eisenhower on how to deal with the scandal, and thereafter he served as an informal adviser to the candidate.
Following the election, Brownell and General Lucius Clay headed up Eisenhower’s transition to office. Brownell was then tapped by Eisenhower to serve as attorney general, a position he held until 1957. Brownell’s great-uncle William H. H. Miller had served as attorney general under President Benjamin Harrison, and Miller’s portrait graced Brownell’s office.
During his tenure as attorney general, Brownell reorganized the Justice Department and sought to remedy the corruption and morale problems that had plagued it during the Truman years. Along with others in the administration, Brownell worked behind the scenes to curb the excesses of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Brownell’s efforts to develop more effective internal security policies proved more controversial, especially following a speech Brownell delivered in which he alleged that the Truman administration had been lax in dealing with suspected Communists, most notably Treasury Department official Harry Dexter White. Although former president Truman denied the charges against White at the time, materials that were declassified years later bore out Brownell’s charges.
Following Eisenhower’s 1955 heart attack, Brownell was instrumental in drafting a proposal for dealing with presidential disability that would eventually become the Twenty-fifth Amendment to the Constitution. Brownell, however, was not the only member of his family to have an imprint on that document; a distant relative, Susan Brownell Anthony, was an active force in advocating the women’s suffrage amendment.
Brownell’s greatest achievements as attorney general were in the area of civil rights. He successfully persuaded Eisenhower to let the Justice Department support the efforts at school desegregation in the landmark 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education. In 1955 he crafted the first major civil rights legislation since Reconstruction, although the bill that would eventually pass in 1957 did not include crucial enforcement provisions that Brownell had drafted. Brownell was also a strong voice for other federal efforts at enforcing civil rights, most notably in urging Eisenhower to take a strong stand during the Little Rock, Arkansas, school crisis of 1957. He was especially instrumental in recommending the appointments of federal district and appeals court judges, particularly in the South, who were committed to carrying out the Supreme Court’s civil rights rulings.
In the years following his tenure as attorney general, Brownell returned to his law practice. He served on the board of directors of the Dia Art Foundation, the Ludwig Foundation for Cancer Research, and the Miller Center for Public Affairs at the University of Virginia, where he participated in a number of its commissions on the study of policy issues. He also served as president of the New York City Bar Association from 1962 to 1963, as the first chairman of the Institute for Court Management, for which he was appointed by Chief Justice Warren Burger, and as an adviser to New York City mayor John Lindsay, who had been Brownell’s executive assistant at the Justice Department.
In 1969 Brownell was a leading candidate for appointment as chief justice of the United States Supreme Court by President Nixon, a post that went instead to his longtime friend Warren Burger. He was later appointed by Nixon to serve as special ambassador to Mexico to deal with Colorado River issues. He was appointed by President Gerald Ford to serve as chairman of the National Study Commission on Records and Documents of Federal Officials. During the Jimmy Carter administration, he was called upon for counsel regarding the president’s constitutional powers to abrogate the Mutual Defense Treaty of 1954 with Taiwan. President Ronald Reagan appointed him vice chairman of the Commission on the Bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution. It was a fitting capstone to his long and dedicated career of service to the law and to his nation. Brownell died of cancer in May 1996 in New York City.
Brownell’s character and accomplishments are best summed up by an entry that President Eisenhower made in his personal diary on 14 May 1953:
Herb Brownell. Here is a man with long experience in politics, especially in the conduct of political campaigns. It would be natural to suppose that he would become hard-boiled, and that the code by which he lives could hardly be classified as one of high moral quality. The contrary seems to be true—certainly he has never suggested or proposed to me any action which could be considered in the slightest degree dishonest or unethical. His reputation with others seems to match my own high opinion of his capabilities as a lawyer, his qualities as a leader, and his character as a man. I am devoted to him and am perfectly confident that he would make an outstanding president of the United States.
Brownell’s personal and official papers are located at the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, Kansas. His memoir, written with John P. Burke, is Advising Ike (1993). Accounts of his association with Governor Thomas E. Dewey are quite limited but the best can be found in Richard Norton Smith, Thomas E. Dewey and His Times (1982). On his service as attorney general, Eisenhower’s own memoirs, Mandate for Change (1963) and Waging Peace (1965), are useful, as is Stephen Ambrose, Eisenhower, vol. 2 (1983), and John T. Elliff, The United States Department of Justice and Individual Rights, 1937–1962 (1987). An obituary is in the New York Times (3 May 1996).
John P. Burke