Herbert Brownell had one of the hottest seats in Washington in the 1950s. Dwight Eisenhower was president, Brownell was his attorney general, and the first volleys were being fired in a battle over civil rights, highlighted by the Supreme Court decision ordering desegregation of schools and the dispatch of federal troops to Little Rock, Ark., to enforce the integration of Central High School.
Brownell did not shy from his responsibility as the nation's chief law-enforcement officer despite adamant opposition from the South, where Eisenhower and the Republican Party had made substantial inroads in the 1952 election.
But doing political battle was nothing new for Brownell, a native Nebraskan who after earning an undergraduate degree at that state's university went on to Yale Law School, then began practicing law in New York City in 1927.
Brownell soon became active in New York state politics, working closely with Thomas E. Dewey. When Dewey was elected governor of the state in 1942, it was Brownell who managed his campaign. And when Dewey was nominated by the Republican Party as its candidate for president in 1944, Brownell again was his choice as campaign manager.
That time Brownell _ and Dewey _ met with failure as Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected to a fourth term. Brownell then served as national chairman of the Republican Party until 1946, resigning to prepare for another Dewey presidential campaign.
The nominating campaign was a success. Dewey again was chosen by the Republicans as their standard-bearer, this time running against Harry Truman, who had succeeded to the presidency upon the death of Roosevelt.
Conventional wisdom had Dewey winning this time, but in one of the greatest upsets in presidential election history, the GOP White House ticket again lost.
So it was not until Eisenhower was elected president in 1952 that Brownell made it to Washington. He was appointed to Eisenhower's first Cabinet and served as attorney general for five years.
Since then, Brownell has remained in New York, practicing law with the Manhattan firm of Lord, Day & Lord, Barrett Smith.
"I went right back to the old firm and I've been here ever since," he said. "But I'm really retired now. I'm on the boards of several non-profit corporations, and I do some general advising here in the office. But I've spent most of my time this year on the Eisenhower Centennial Celebration. I've been speaking all over the map on it." This weekend finds him in Austin, Texas.
Brownell also has begun writing his memoirs. "I'm sort of a lazy author," he said. "but I'm enjoying it and hope to have them out before too long."
Looking back on his Washington years, Brownell says he is proudest of the role he played in the area of civil rights. "Ike thought it would take a generation or more to educate people to such a change of life in the South," he said, "and he was criticized for not saying it could be done overnight. But it was a matter of education as well as law, and I believe it has moved about as rapidly as one could hope for."
Brownell says he is doing nothing politically today, "except Monday morning quarterbacking. I tell them how they should have done it."
He recognizes that the Republican Party in New York is in disarray today, and says, "There's got to be a new leader like Tom Dewey before we can win the state again. In 1952 we really came back as a party nationally, and I hope we can do that again in New York."
Outside New York, he views this year's election as hard to call. "The orthodox result," he said, "would be for the party in the White House to lose a few seats in Congress, but this year is complicated by disillusionment of the public of the budget crisis, so I think it'll be kind of a special election. There are some signs the voters want to punish incumbents."
Brownell views the Oklahoma decision to limit terms of legislators as one of the most significant developments of this election year.
"I think it's a good idea," he said. "We have too many legislators who become professionals and make lifetime careers out of politics. That's not the original concept of our form of government."
Brownell, now 86, says he has "four wonderful children" and also has a great-granddaughter. Doris, his wife during his Washington years, died, and Brownell married again but now is separated and lives with one of his children in Manhattan.
Of the four children, says Brownell, "None has gone into politics. And there are no lawyers, either."