This was originally published by City Hall on August 31, 2010.
From Bringing Anti-War Activism Into DC Committee Effort, Brodsky Discovered Legislative Process
Richard Brodsky, Staffer for Congressional Committee for a Vote on the War
On Dec. 30, 1970, Charlie Goodell, the man who had been appointed to Robert F. Kennedy’s Senate seat and lost it to James Buckley two months earlier, spoke again, as he was often doing, about his opposition to the Vietnam War. With four days left in his term, Goodell asked for permission to submit an article that he called “an important investigation of the role leaders of my own Republican Party played in various historical controversies that arose over congressional power and responsibility in the American military enterprise.”
Goodell urged his fellow senators, especially the Republicans, to read the piece, hoping it would sway more of them to join him in a vote to cut off appropriations for Vietnam in the hopes of forcing Richard Nixon to withdraw troops.
Goodell was apparently a big fan of the paper’s line of reasoning, and of the person who put it together.
“The author of this paper is Richard L. Brodsky of Hartsdale, New York,” Goodell said. “I believe he deserves the recognition and the appreciation of this body for the quality of the scholarly effort and for the persuasiveness of his work.”
By the time Goodell introduced the article, Brodsky was back in Cambridge, halfway through his third year at Harvard Law. He had only recently returned. On May 4, 1970—which happened to be his 24th birthday—four students were shot dead by the National Guard at Kent State in the turmoil following Nixon’s launch of the Cambodia Campaign. Harvard, like many campuses, immediately shut down.
Suddenly without a school year to finish, Brodsky and several other students followed a professor named Abe Chayes, a former JFK aide, down to Washington. The way to actually do something about the war, Chayes told them, was to get involved in government. Brodsky signed up as a volunteer for a group called the Congressional Committee for a Vote on the War. Led by Goodell, Oregon Sen. Mark Hatfield and South Dakota Sen. George McGovern, with help from Clifford Chase of New Jersey, Frank Church of Idaho and several others, they tried to gain support for a bill called S. 3000, originally called the Hatfield-McGovern amendment.
In a building next to the Supreme Court, Brodksy and the other staffers researched Congressional policy and lobbied Senate staffers to get their bosses on board.
There were riots in the streets of Washington. Brodsky remembers the tear gas. He remembers the white shoe Manhattan law firm job interview that he flubbed by telling the senior partners that he could not in good conscience represent Standard Oil, which was one of their biggest clients.
What he did not remember in 1970, though, was to head back to Boston when the summer ended and the new school year began.
Not that he took any formal leave of absence.
“I just didn’t show up,” he said, remembering the decision in light of the events he was living through. “Fuck that.”
Brodsky’s work culminated in that Congressional Record article. Though a liberal Democrat then and a liberal Democrat now, he was trying to get the Republican senators to return to what he said were the true Republican principles of asserting Congressional authority, or as he wrote in the article, “to reveal the historical and present day concern of the Republican Party over the erosion of the Congressional role in the war-making decision process.”
He even quoted Dwight Eisenhower saying, “Part of my fundamental concept of the Presidency is that we have a constitutional government and only when there is a sudden unforeseen emergency should the President put us into war without Congressional action.”
Republicans like these, Brodsky wrote in the piece, “recognized that the manner in which we make decisions is, in the long run, as important as what decisions we make.”
Mike Smith, a leader of the S. 3000 effort and now an executive at a major financial institution in Washington, has remained in touch with Brodsky over the years, and says there is a direct connection between the politician of today and the student activist of 1970.
“In his own way, he hasn’t aged a lot. He struck me then as he strikes me now: smart, principled and results-oriented,” Smith said. “Empty rhetoric was worse than useless.”
It took until 1973 for what ultimately became known as the Case-Church amendment to pass, and two years later, after Nixon had resigned and the last helicopter had left the American embassy.
But Brodsky says that experience as the turning point not just for him personally, but for many people.
“It changed the argument about the war from an outside, ‘We’re going to shut down the machine,’ to a, ‘No, this system gives you tools,’” Brodsky said. “And in retrospect, it was the great saver of the system, because it meant that if you were against the war, you did not have to go the way of the Weathermen. You had tools that this society unique in the world gave you, and they were firmed in the legislature. I think it saved the anti-war movement, and I think it saved the country.”
Brodsky ultimately did finish at Harvard, and after taking the summer to travel in Europe with his high school friend, the budding actor Peter Riegert (who went on, most famously, to play Boon in Animal House and to date Bette Midler), took the bar. Still searching for purpose, Brodsky was encouraged by a family friend to go work on Ed Muskie’s 1972 presidential campaign, and while working advance for the anti-war senator on a team that included Larry Kudlow, stumbled into one of the more famous moments in the history of presidential politics. Furious at an article in the Manchester Union-Leader that said his wife drank and told dirty jokes, Muskie convened a press conference in front of the newspaper’s offices two weeks before the New Hampshire primary to complain.
“That good woman,” Muskie started to say, then paused, put his chin down, and took a few ashen-faced moments before continuing.
Muskie’s face grew wet, though whether it was from tears or melting snow remains a debate. But the picture of the event, with his face pressed down against one microphone and another held up to the right of the frame has become the icon for the derailing of the presidential campaign.
Brodksy insists that the hand holding up that microphone was his. Wider angle shots, though, show that the hand belonged to a woman standing to the side on the flatbed truck which Muskie used for the speech.
But it is not hard to see how he made the mistake. He was on the flatbed truck, too, just holding up another microphone, as can be seen in a black-and-white photo of the event, with an intense-looking young Brodsky kneeling out of the shot, snow gathering in his darker, thicker hair.
That experience was important, Brodsky said, as was a job working for the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Foundation on the Commission of Inquiry into High School Journalism, as the group traveled around the country investigating racism and censorship in school newspapers. Six weeks on staff (all, he says, he could take) for then-Rep. Bella Abzug back in Washington was the last stop before he made his way back home to Westchester to sign on with then-County Executive Al Delbello. His path into politics, starting in the county legislature and not long after, to the Assembly, had begun.
But those six months in Washington back in 1970, he said, was where everything, in a sense, really started.
“I came from a tradition and an experience in early life that if you’re going to make things different, it’s not a matter of being more charitable, it’s about being more just; It’s not about fixing a problem, it’s about fixing institutions,” Brodsky said. “And there is almost an inevitable arc from my discussions at the law firm and my work in the anti-war movement to running for attorney general.”