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Nicholas Katzenbach

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Nicholas deB. Katzenbach (AP Photo) Nicholas Katzenbach in the 1960s Memorials Photo Gallery Enlarged Photo
TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - Nicholas deB. Katzenbach, who held influential posts in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and played a prominent, televised role in federal desegregation efforts in the South, has died. He was 90.

Martin Mbugua, a spokesman for Princeton University, said Katzenbach died Tuesday night at his home in Skillman. He did not give a cause.

Katzenbach's eight years in government during the 1960s began with the idealism of Robert Kennedy's Justice Department and ended in the exhaustion and despair of the Johnson administration's State Department. Katzenbach never was as famous as the men he worked for, but few government officials were so engaged in so many historical moments, both in the U.S. and overseas.

"Throughout his long and singular career in the nation's service, Nicholas Katzenbach combined realism, loyalty, and supreme equability with a bedrock devotion to principle, especially on civil rights, said Princeton Uni versity History Professor Sean Wilentz, a longtime friend of Katzenbach. "He was one of his generation's giants, and history will remember him that way."

Katzenbach was a graduate of Princeton and Yale, and a former prisoner of war. He had the intellect and resolve that Robert Kennedy was looking for as he staffed his Justice Department. Burke Marshall, future Supreme Court Justice Byron White and future Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox were others hired to serve in Justice. Their short time together still is regarded as a high point for the department.

They were young, gifted and clear-headed and operated under the "code of the Ivy League Gentleman," Victor Navasky wrote in the acclaimed "Kennedy Justice," published in 1971. They worked with an "unprecedented elan" and believed "in the notion that reasonable men can always work things out."

The Cold War, civil rights, Vietnam and the murder of a president would test the code again and again.

Katzenb ach wrote a legal brief in support of President John F. Kennedy's decision to blockade Cuba during the 1962 missile crisis and helped secure the release of prisoners captured during the disastrous Bay of Pigs raid on Cuba in 1961. He became a deputy attorney general in 1963 and, after Kennedy's assassination, served as attorney general and an undersecretary of state under Lyndon Johnson, who was in Dallas with Kennedy when the president was shot.

Katzenbach's first job for Johnson was simple, but sensitive. The new president was on Air Force One and wanted to be sworn in as soon as possible. Katzenbach, in Washington at the time, did not think such a ceremony was needed, but still agreed to speak with Johnson aide Jack Valenti and read to him the exact wording of the oath of office. The grim picture of Johnson being sworn in, with Jacqueline Kennedy at his side, quickly became an iconic image of the transfer of power.

Katzenbach, who helped work on the 1964 Civil Rights Act signed into law by Johnson, had been the Kennedy administration's point man when James Meredith became the first black to enroll at the University of Mississippi in 1962. That followed a long court battle, efforts by then-Gov. Ross Barnett to block him and violence that broke out on campus. The problems forced Kennedy to order federal marshals to escort Meredith, then later call out thousands of federal troops on Oct. 1, 1962 as rioting started at Ole Miss.

"A bone-weary Katzenbach was talking with President Kennedy when joyous shouts went up that regular troops had been sighted outside the Lyceum (administration building)," author Taylor Branch wrote in "Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63."

The following year, he was the federal official on hand when segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace made his infamous "stand in the schoolhouse door" - symbolically attempting to block two black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, from en tering the University of Alabama.

Looking businesslike in a suit and tie, his bald head sweating under the Alabama sun, Katzenbach walked up to the school's entrance and handed Wallace, who stood in the shade, a presidential proclamation saying he must obey the law. The nation watched on television, including a nervous Robert Kennedy at his office in Washington.

It was a historic confrontation, but resolved in advance. President Kennedy had federalized the Alabama National Guard and ordered some of its units to the university campus. An agreement was then reached between the White House and Wallace's aides, and Malone and Hood enrolled at the school after Wallace read a proclamation to Katzenbach and left.

A few months after the face-off in Alabama, Katzenbach again stepped up, in the days following Kennedy's assassination. On Nov. 25, three days after the slaying, Katzenbach sent a memo to Johnson aide Bill Moyers urging that results of the FBI's investigat ion be made public to combat any notion that Lee Harvey Oswald had not acted alone.

"The public must be satisfied that Oswald was the assassin; that he did not have confederates who are still at large," Katzenbach wrote.

"Speculation about Oswald's motivation ought to be cut off, and we should have some basis for rebutting thought that this was a Communist conspiracy or (as the Iron Curtain press is saying) a right-wing conspiracy to blame it on the communists," he wrote in the memo, one of thousands of files released in 1994 by the National Archives

"Unfortunately, the facts on Oswald seem about too pat, too obvious (Marxist, Cuba, Russian wife, etc.)," he wrote. "The Dallas police have put out statements on the Communist conspiracy theory, and it was they who were in charge when he was shot and thus silenced."

Four days after the memo, Johnson appointed some of the nation's most prominent figures to the Warren Commission, which ultimately concluded t hat Oswald acted alone, a theory still disputed. Skeptics and conspiracy theorists have often cited Katzenbach's memo as a sign of a government cover-up.

In February 1965, Johnson picked Katzenbach as his attorney general, but he held the post for less than two years, feuding with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and others before stepping down in October 1966. A short time later, he was named an undersecretary of state, a post he held for the remainder of the Johnson administration and which led to an unhappy entanglement with the Vietnam War.

In testimony before the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee in 1967, Katzenbach made a controversial defense of the war's legality, citing the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which allowed the U.S. to repel attacks and prevent further aggression. The committee's chairman, Sen. J. William Fulbright, had disputed that the Tonkin resolution - passed before the U.S. had sent ground troops to Vietnam - was a formal declaration of w ar.

"What could a declaration of war have done that would have given the President clearer authority?" Katzenbach responded. "It would not, I think, reflect correctly the very limited objectives of the United States with respect to Vietnam to use an outmoded phraseology, to declare war."

Katzenbach believed his testimony was accurate, but acknowledged its unpopularity. Philip Roth and Jules Feiffer were among the artists who took out a full-page newspaper ad condemning his remarks. Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota would cite Katzenbach as a reason for running for president in 1968 as an anti-war candidate, a decision that helped convince Johnson not to seek a second term.

Feiffer, in his memoir "Backing Into Forward," remembered speaking with Katzenbach at a party thrown by author William Styron and being assured that he was against the war and trying to end it.

"I happened to turn on the TV one morning, no more than a week after meeting Nick," Feiffe r wrote, "and - my God! - there he was, standing before Senator William Fulbright's Senate Foreign Relations Committee, raising his hand to take the oath. My new pal, Nicholas deB. Katzenbach, testifying nauseatingly in support of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which gave total war powers to the administration, a full-scale endorsement of open-ended escalation. Say it ain't so, Nick!"

Katzenbach also became caught up in the nasty battle between his former boss, Robert Kennedy, and Johnson. In his 2008 memoir "Some of It Was Fun," Katzenbach wrote of a White House meeting he helped arrange and watching the two argue about Vietnam. Kennedy, who had become a U.S. Senator from New York, had visited Vietnam and suggested a negotiated settlement was possible. Johnson accused him of weakening the U.S.

"You have blood on your hands!" Katzenbach remembered the president shouting. Kennedy, "pale with repressed anger," left the room.

In 1969, after the Johnson administrat ion ended, Katzenbach became IBM's general counsel and helped represent the computer giant in its long fight against an anti-trust lawsuit filed by the government and eventually dismissed. He also served on prison reform panels and remained active in national Democratic politics and constitutional issues. In December 1998, he took part in a protest in Princeton against Republican efforts to impeach President Clinton and also spoke as a witness for the president.

"I find it very discouraging when decent Republicans don't have the courage to stand up and say, 'No, we won't do it'," Katzenbach said at the time.

In June 2005, Katzenbach and three other former attorney generals - along with nearly 160 other ex-Justice Department officials and federal judges - signed a "friend of the court" brief that sought to overturn a 55-year sentence given to Weldon Angelos, a Utah man convicted of carrying a pistol during a string of marijuana deals and 13 other drug and money-lau ndering charges.

The brief noted that Congress has the right to enact mandatory minimum sentences, but said the sentence handed down was "grossly disproportionate" to the crime and amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.

A three-judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed those arguments in a ruling issued in January 2006, saying the sentencing law constitutionally reflected Congress' intent to severely punish crimes involving drugs and guns. Katzenbach would later express disgust at what he called the politicization of the Justice Department under President George W. Bush.

Nicholas deBelleville Katzenbach was born in Philadelphia in 1922 to a family of politicians. His middle name, with the unusual abbreviation deB., came from a forebear who had served as physician to Napoleon's brother before emigrating to the U.S.

Katzenbach served in the Army Air Force during World War II and spent two years as a prisoner of war in Italy. He l ater graduated from Princeton University and the Yale Law School and studied at Oxford University for two years as a Rhodes Scholar.

For much of the 1950s, Katzenbach was a professor of law, first at Yale, then at the University of Chicago. He was on a leave of absence, in Switzerland, when John F. Kennedy received the Democrats' nomination for president in 1960.

"Kennedy was a junior officer in World War II, just as I had been. And it was a really strong pull for young veterans who came back from World War II," Katzenbach told The Associated Press in 2008.

Katzenbach phoned fellow Yale alum Byron White and was told to come to Washington. After being interviewed by Robert Kennedy (who addressed him as "Professor Katzenbach"), he was appointed to head the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel.

It was an exciting time," Katzenbach told the AP. "There were lots of young people who got themselves involved in civil rights, and later in protesting the Vietnam War, feeling involved in the government and what's going on in their own future. To my mind that's what makes this a great country."

BRUCE SHIPKOWSKI, Associated Press

AP National Writer Hillel Italie contributed to this report.


Copyright © 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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