The White House has always been for me a place that embodies public service, and I would not have imagined standing in its west entrance, about to meet with Josh Lyman, the Deputy Chief of Staff, for a job interview. To have a meeting with a person so high up in the administrative pyramid would usually mean good news, but this is a Democratic White House, a liberal White House, and Mr. Lyman doesn't like Republicans. The reason I was somewhat anxious was that I grew up in a conservative household; I was bred Republican.
Fortunately, I've had practice dealing with liberals... the best kind of practice.
I remember when I received the letter about a job offer as a clerk for Justice Roy Ashland. I was dumbfounded: he may well be the most liberal judge the Supreme Court has ever had, and he wanted me to work for him. At first I thought it was a joke, maybe a jab to my thesis supervisor, since they knew each other socially. When I told him, he smiled and said "So he did took me up in my suggestion. You two will be a great fit." He proceeded in telling me about his time as a clerk working with Justice Brady, who was the political polar opposite of Justice Ashland. My supervisor's friend, a brilliant fiercely conservative lawyer, was offered the same job as I was. He was also dumbfounded at the time, but he accepted the offer because we all know that clerking for an Associate Judge looks good in a resume, even if it is only for a couple of weeks. His friend ended up working for him for the next five years.
At that time, I was working in the New York City Department of Transportation but was looking for another job opportunity to grow in the public sector. So I took the job offer on those grounds, without any idea on what it would turn into.
When I first was called into Justice Ashland's, he looked at me with eyes that cut through flesh. Eyes that you either can't look at directly or can't stop staring at. They were indescribably off-putting, and quite effective at putting down other Justices. His eyes were legendary.
"Mr. Quincy. Come in."
"You can call me Joe, sir."
"We're not there yet, Mr. Quincy."
"Yes, of course, sir. I'm sorry."
"Not as much as I am," he said, pulling out a piece of paper from out of one the drawers from his desk. "Do you really believe that a company has the right to discriminate their clientele based on race, religion, sexuality or gender?"
He was referring to my Law Review Note I wrote ten years prior about a company's freedom of choice of who to conduct business with. This is a topic of contention between liberals and conservatives, and my Note made the rounds. It got some attention from conservative lawyers, including my thesis supervisor. It was not well received in liberal publications. "Oh, God," I said to myself.
"He's not here, Mr. Quincy. I, on the other hand, still am."
"I... well, I mean... see... capitalism works when the State lets the free market works itself out."
"You're not an economist, Mr. Quincy. And even if you were, and that free market dribel of yours were to be correct, you're basically saying that discrimination is fine if it makes money for the company. This is not about Economics, it's about Law. And you seem fine that a private school does not let homosexual students in."
At this moment, I don't know what happened, but I suddenly got very angry. He was turning my words inside out, making them say what wasn't there. I couldn't help it.
"What?! Where in that paper does it ever state that? You're completely misreading my contention!"
He grinned. His eyes completely shifted to something else. To some other kinder plane. "Good. Let's pause here. I need you to go back to your desk and re-write this paper in such a manner that someone like me does not attack you from that side."
"What side?", I stuttered, trying to compose myself.
"A private school is a company. The same as a hospital. In your paper you're not distinguishing between services that are essential and those that are luxury or with an abundance of options. With such a broad stroke, you're letting yourself be branded as a fascist."
I stood there in silence. Part of me was trying to absorb what he was saying, and the other was just too damn...
"And, Mr. Quincy, the moment you let the other side touch a nerve, you have lost the argument. Breathe. Thinking you're right is not enough. You need to be steady, for the sake of your point. That is all. I want to see a draft by tomorrow."
By this moment in time, my other side was a lake of still water. I walked outside and closed the door to his office. Then, a roar of thunder went through my head: he read my Law Review Note. A Supreme Court Justice read my paper and debated me about it. He cared.
The following day he called me into his office.
"I read your revised Note. Better. However..."
"Bring it on." I thought.
"Is it now your contention that a company has the right to discriminate in order to preserve our freedom of worship?"
"Yes, the people working in the company should not be forced to violate their freedom of worship when working there. If homosexuality is a sincere violation of their religious beleif, the State should not require the person to deal with them."
His posture was unfazed, and his eyes were staring right down my soul. I continued, "Let's look it another way, I think you would agree that the State should not force a Jew to deal with a known Nazi."
He smiled. Looked down at his desk. Nodded. And with with a calm but rumbling voice said: "You are not equating being a homosexual to being a Nazi, are you?"
"N... No. Of course not."
"And protecting people that carry out illegal acts based on their religious beliefs would open the freedom-of-worship clause up for abuse. Companies would start quoting the Quran to justify cutting off hands because of theft."
"Right..." I didn't know how to respond.
He leaned back, as if a demon just exorcised itself from his body. His stare turned kind again. "Ok. Let's leave it there. It was a good jab, but too big of a swing. We are not psychics; we cannot judge the legality of an act based on what's in the perpetrator's head. Also, don't use Nazis in your arguments. You're just begging to be ridiculed. Come back tomorrow with a better response."
I didn't sleep that night, reading court cases and rulings to find some precedent, inspiration, providence. Anything. By the time I was called into his office the following morning, I had nothing.
"Well, Mr. Quincy?"
"I'm sorry, sir. I couldn't come up with a better response."
He looked at me with the kindest of stares. "Are you saying that you now believe the State should mettle in the inner workings of a family bakery?"
"No. Well... maybe. What you said yesterday, made sense. But..."
He sat in his chair, in silent expectation. "Yes?"
"I guess it depends..."
All of a sudden, something clicked inside of me: "You've been playing with the words ‘people', ‘person', and ‘family' in the same context as ‘company'."
"I wouldn't call it ‘playing', but go on."
"A company is not a person. It doesn't have the same rights as a person, like participation in a democratic vote or public education. But it doesn't have the same obligations either. The State cannot expect the company to conduct itself with the obligations of a person, such as ‘do not discriminate', because it isn't one. So a company can discriminate if need be. The people inside the company, however, may suffer the consequences of those actions, either by being sued by the discriminated clientele or by the free market itself."
"Good? Really? Did I change your mind?"
He belt out a big laugh. "No, Mr. Quincy. You haven't specified which people inside the company should be sued, and, thus, should not be protected. Also, a monopolistic company cannot suffer the consequences from a free market when there isn't one."
"But, you're starting to sound more like a real lawyer."
I smiled. "Thank you, sir."
"Sleep for a few hours, and then come back to work."
"Yes, sir. Thank you." I don't know if it was the zombie-like state I was in, or the fact that the six cups of coffee were wearing out, but I couldn't help asking, "Sir, if I may: we obviously don't see eye to eye in a number of key issues. And you definitely have better things to do with your time. Why do this?"
He let out a faint sigh, as if my question was both expected and surprising at the same time. He leaned back again, and looked over my head. "I once read that David Goodstein, a famous physicist and a colleague of Richard Feynman, asked him to explain a quantum mechanics theory that I can't remember the name of. Feynman replied that he was going to try and prepare a lecture on it. A few days later he came back and told Goodstein that he couldn't do it. He couldn't reduce the theory into a set of practical, simple ideas with which he could explain it. He then concluded that because he couldn't explain the theory, he really didn't understand it. But he pursued it anyway, practicing and perfecting his method, to the point that he won the Nobel Prize in Physics. Feynman became an expert in quantum mechanics by trying to teach it."
He paused for a second, grinning, and stared back at me with those kind eyes.
"The night before I called you into my office the first time, I didn't sleep trying to figure out how to counter your Note's argument. I need the practice as much as you need to get better at arguing. I think it's a good win-win scenario, don't you think?"
I grinned back. "Agreed, sir."
"Good. Then, I need you to read up on a court case: Banes vs US Steel. I'll give you a week to familiarize yourself with it."
A week flew by, and the following three nights were filled by sessions of extensive debating, each longer than the last. I attacked him from all sides I could think of, and each was easily blocked by a simple retort. This was followed by helpful advice, followed by some more reading from my part while he wrote some decision papers, followed by my next attack. We rinsed and repeated this for five years. Five years of glorious discussion, followed by smiles of disagreement.
To be clear, I never was able to break apart his defense in anything. And one would think that would have changed my political stance, but the complete opposite occurred: my conservativeness grew, my arguments were made more robust, and I became a better public servant because of it.
After my time as a clerk, I got a job with the Solicitor General of the Republican National Committee. A short while ago, however, the Solicitor General publicly argued against the Supreme Court decision to uphold regulations that limit soft money to political campaigns. That decision was written by Justice Ashland. It might have been my love for him, or that the arguments of the Solicitor General were so weak, but I found myself writing a memo to him arguing in favor of the decision. That's right. I, a Republican that was working in the National Committee, argued against soft money. It's like a Democrat arguing against abortion in a feminist rally. It was no surprise that I swiftly got fired from that job.
Then, I received an email from Justice Ashland asking me to come and visit. When I arrived I saw a copy of my memo in his desk. "Nice prose, Mr. Quincy."
By now, Justice Ashland knew how to put a slight grin on my face, "Thank you, sir."
"I may be old, but I can argue my own points, Mr. Quincy. You shouldn't have gone in a suicide run because of me."
"With all due respect, you're implying my memo was redundant, which I don't believe it is."
Bringing up my memo to his eyes, which are starting to familiarly fire up. "Let's see. You wrote, ‘Money can titter a balanced act, and its effect is quantifiable.' It's quite similar to what I stated ‘In policy, money is influence, and as such should be limited.' Would you agree on their similarity?"
"Half agree, sir." He stared at me with those prying eyes that I have already gotten accustomed to. I continued, "You stated that soft money should be limited because of its influence, but you did not established how they were connected. The Solicitor General argued that, because its influence isn't quantifiable, it shouldn't be limited. However, I showed that it is in fact quantifiable, and proposed a very reasonable method with which it could be limited. Meaning, my memo was not redundant. I argued my point further than yours, Mr. Justice."
He smiled, bittersweetly. "Yes. Yes you did, Mr. Quincy."
He sat down in his desk chair, looking a bit tired. "Since you seem keen on working for the Republican party after you left here, I never gave you a letter of recommendation because I thought it would hinder your job search instead of helping it."
"I understand, sir."
"However, me not giving you one does not imply I never wrote it."
He reached for a piece of paper in a drawer from his desk and handed it to me.
"Thank you for the gesture, sir."
"It's not a gesture, Mr. Quincy. Since your political party may not be receptive to you now, may I suggest working in the White House? They need the help."
"This White House? With a Democratic President? Do you think they would actually hire a Republican?"
"Mr. Quincy, I think you know my opinion on their incompetence and their tip-toeing around the lion's den of Congress. But, at the end of the day, they will hire a person that still just wants to serve. We're a rare breed; they'll see through the partisanship."
I nodded. "Thank you, Mr. Justice."
"No, Joe, thank you."
I tell the guard at the west entrance my name.
"Mr. Lyman will see you in the Roosevelt room, Mr. Quincy."
"Where is that?"
Suddenly, a blonde staffer approaches me, "Hi, I'm Donna. I'll lead you there."
While walking, "So you're here for the Associate Counsel job?"
"Yes. Anything you can tell me about Mr. Lyman that could help me out?"
She looks at me, slightly squinting, as if she was pondering what she could say that wouldn't get her into trouble. "Josh gets cranky around this hour on a Friday. He has a card game with senior staff and he's not good at bluffing."
I never could tell if somebody was flirting with me. And I never know how to be witty when they do. "So, no talking about money. Got it."
"Well, unless you're negotiating salary, I guess."
"Or soft money in politics."
"Oh, yeah. He's against that, by the way. Actually, we all kinda are, you know."
She pauses. "You're not Joseph Quincy from the Solicitor General's office, are you?"
"Should I be worried?" already knowing the answer.
"Uhmm, well, I hope you've practiced arguing with a hardcore liberal like Josh."
I grinned. "Yeah," I thought. "The best kind of practice."