Bill Coleman served as Secretary of Transportation to President Gerald R. Ford. After leaving government, Coleman became a partner in the Washington office of O’Melveny & Myers law firm. Coleman was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton. President George W. Bush appointed him to the United States Court of Military Commission Review. Coleman served as an Honorary Pallbearer during the State Funeral of Gerald R. Ford. He is an Honorary Trustee of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation.
Bill Coleman was interviewed for the Gerald R. Ford Oral History Project on December 15, 2008 by Richard Norton Smith.
Coleman: I am not African American, you call me “colored, Black, Negro” but I’m not African American. I probably had ancestors living in northern Italy, along northern Europe long before you did. I’m serious.
Smith: But you were the first Black law clerk at the court?
Coleman: I knew him from that and it also happened that Thurgood Marshall was born in Baltimore right next to the house where my mother lived, so I had gotten to know of him a long time ago, and I was working at Paul, Weiss at that time in New York. He said, “Well, two weeks from now we’re having a meeting to decide whether we should go after segregation in public grade and high schools. I want you to attend.” So I attended and after that he asked me would I work with him. I said, “I’ve got a full time job.” So I worked at Paul, Weiss until about six o’clock and then I’d go down work with him at the Legal Reform Offices until eleven o’clock p.m. and catch the last train to Philadelphia. I was living in Philadelphia and working in New York.
Smith: What was your role in the actual case? Did you co-author the brief?
Coleman: I wouldn’t say that. Mr. Marshall clearly was really in control. I think I made some great contributions. In fact, if you ever read Simple Justice, you will see – spelling out things I did. I certainly felt how they should handle the case. I think that most people would say that I and Lou Pollak wrote most of the brief. Lou was, at that time, a professor at Yale, but he had clerked for Rutledge when I had clerked for Frankfurter.
Smith: Did you feel welcome at the Court?
Coleman: Oh, yeah. I had a great time. All of them were very good, the law clerks. My co-clerk was Elliot Lee Richardson, later of Watergate fame and also held at different times three Cabinet office – we’d gone to school together. No, I had a good time, although I must confess that one time when I was working with Justice Frankfurter, Elliot stuck his head in and said, “We’ll go down to the Mayflower to eat.” I said, “I’ll be out in fifteen minutes.” When I got out Elliot said, “It’s kind of late, let’s eat at the railroad station.” So I ate there and when we came back I noticed that Richardson and Frankfurter were crying, and they were crying because Elliot had called the Mayflower and the Mayflower said they wouldn’t take a black person.
Smith: This would have been in the mid 40s?
Coleman: This is 1948-49.
Smith: Your paths first crossed with President Ford, because of the Warren Commission?
Coleman: Yes, the Warren Commission. I was one of the senior counsels on the Warren Commission. He was a member and I got to know him then. Also, I’m pretty sure I visited him with Thurgood Marshall to talk about certain civil rights issues.
Smith: How responsive was he?
Coleman: He was superb. I think when the history is written it will demonstrate that people like President Ford and Eisenhower did much more to bring about change than anybody else, although a lot of other people talked about it.
Smith: It’s interesting, because in the case of Eisenhower, the famous Eisenhower judges who…
Coleman: Very significant. I got to meet Eisenhower because my wife’s father was a doctor in New Orleans, and he was on the Republican delegation to the ’52 convention. He and a gentleman named John Minor Wisdom, who went on to be a great judge, were the two that led that delegation from Taft to Eisenhower. So Eisenhower always was very nice to me, and I really got to know him fairly well.
Smith: How hard has it been over the years defending your Republican status?
Coleman: Well, it’s been hard, I think in part because the Republicans really never tell the true story. There’s a wonderful book by a guy named Norton on Eisenhower and the civil rights movement and he has in it things that Eisenhower did that even I didn’t know. For example, after the Supreme Court decided the Brown case, it set it down for re-argument on what the decree should be. Well, before the re-argument, Eisenhower ordered all the schools in the District of Columbia to be desegregated, which is something I never knew. But he just did it. I knew enough about the military to know that they have a certain pattern and he warned, felt that it was wrong for any President to ever interfere and put troops in a state. And secondly, he felt, after he’d been in for some time, that there should be desegregation.
I talked to him once and he said two things changed his mind. One: “when I went to high school there were no blacks; I then go to West Point and there are no blacks; I then, like any other military man, get sent South to train and there were no blacks in key positions.” He said, “the two things that changed my mind was – one: the Tuskegee Airmen who flew and never lost a bomber. They flew and they really protected.” Also, and I had this verified by a German, when we start going through Europe, the Germans felt if you let the armed U.S. troops go through, that the people carrying the goods and military supplies were the black people and they would be scared to go through. But they all went through. Finally at the Battle of the Bulge, something that very few people know, for three days the blacks held that line until General Patton got there. Those are the things that really changed Eisenhower’s mind.
Another thing, the first key person to ever work at the White House with Eisenhower…
Smith: Was it Frederick Morrow that was on the White House staff. Did you know Fred Morrow?
Coleman: Well, I thought the guy’s last name was Rice. Wasn’t it Emmett Rice? Now it’s his daughter who is the one appointed to the UN. I think you will find it was Emmett Rice, he was a great economist. Also there is another story, and the American people just have not understood life. There is a guy, Wilkins out of Chicago, a lawyer who was the deputy secretary of labor. At that time the secretary of labor was somebody who never attended Cabinet meeting. So Wilkins had attended all just about of them. So Eisenhower was the one that started the Branch Rickey Commission, really to help get blacks in. I was on the Branch Rickey Commission, so I got to know him again there.
Smith: One sensed with Eisenhower, across the board, not just with this issue, that, “The job of the President is to persuade, not publicize.”
Coleman: That’s right, and that’s been the great tragedy. Now if you’ll read this Norton book you’ll find out that Lyndon Johnson was admired very much. In fact, I voted for him when he ran against Goldwater. But Senator Johnson would not let them put the provision in the  bill dealing with voting. He stopped that, of course. When he got to be President he put it through, so he gets all the credit. But Eisenhower had drawn a bill and that was part of the bill, but he [LBJ] wouldn’t let it go through.
Smith: He offered you an appellate judgeship, didn’t he?
Smith: Lyndon Johnson.
Coleman: Oh, Lyndon Johnson. Yeah, he offered me to be on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit – but I said no because I had three kids to support. The interesting thing is that what it was, he was in a big fight with Joe Clark, who was the senator, over what they were doing – with Vietnam or North Korea – one of them, one of those battles going on. But I was practicing over at Richardson Dilworth, which were also the leading Democrat in Philadelphia, so Johnson felt if he nominated me that Joe Clark couldn’t attack me for some reason. But I told him no.
And [I’ve] also been told there is this document which says when he nominated Thurgood Marshall for the Supreme Court of the United States, that if Marshall had not gotten through, that he was going to nominate me. I know that because one guy who was on the committee afterwards saw me and said, “You know the vote was tied, but then I realized that Marshall was your friend, so I voted for him.” So my practice of law continued.
Smith: Let’s go back to the Warren Commission. What was Ford’s contribution to that commission?
Coleman: Well, Ford – they all insisted that it be done right. Earl Warren and Ford, and it was a long time when they rejected the idea that Senator – senior senator from Pennsylvania – Arlen Specter had. They rejected it, but finally they all found the backup facts to believe him. My responsibilities were to determine whether it was a foreign conspiracy, whether Castro had anything to do with it, whether the Russians had anything to do with it, and that part. Specter was the one that really developed the one bullet, and it turned out – I think he’s right – it’s been fifty-five or sixty years now and nobody has come up with somebody else.
Smith: Has any information that has surfaced since then, done anything to affect your conclusion, particularly in terms of foreign involvement?
Coleman: No, I think it was right and actually something we didn’t put in the report, I guess I can say it now, was that Oswald, when he saw his wife who was separated from him, said, “By the next day you will know something about me which will make me very important.” We certainly didn’t think we should say that the reason why he killed the president was because he was trying to satisfy his wife.
Smith: You know, that’s fascinating, because one of the things that President Ford said in the last years of his life went very much to this theory that marital problems, including sexual problems, may, in fact, have…
Coleman: That’s why we would not put that in the report because nobody would believe it. But he was the guy. And another problem we had was that when it happened, the Russians thought that somehow they were involved in it because they had had Oswald up in Minsk for about a year or two training. When they went out on hunting – the rule was, the men couldn’t come back until every guy had shot the animal. And Oswald was such a lousy shot that he couldn’t hit the person, so finally, somebody would stand behind him and shoot so he thought he got one so they could come back.
But when he was in the Marine Corps, he was given the highest rating as sharpshooter. So we just felt that there were people in Russia that were trying to make themselves look good, because they thought that if they trained the guy that killed the President of the United States – our relationships weren’t that great at that time. And also at the time with Castro – found out that he had nothing to do with it.
Smith: But did you know, at that time, what was revealed, in fact, during the Ford presidency with the CIA revelations about the plots against Castro, about the attempts of the American government to eliminate Castro?
Coleman: Oh, yeah, we knew. The Secret Service and the CIA gave us all the information that we needed, Earl Warren insisted and President Ford. They read the documents and they were as prepared as we were when we briefed them.
Smith: How did you become secretary of transportation?
Coleman: Well, I was sitting in my office one day and I got a call from Don Rumsfeld saying would I come down and see the president tomorrow? I met him and talked with him and then he offered me – the first three jobs I turned down-
Smith: Do you know what they were?
Coleman: Well, one was another Cabinet spot and then there was one at the UN, and he then said secretary of transportation. I really didn’t know they had a Department of Transportation, I didn’t know what the hell the guy did, and really you could never say to man like Ford, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” So I said, “Let me think about that one.” I went home, fortunately my daughter was home from Yale Law School that weekend, and she said you should do it, because they didn’t have that many people in the Cabinet. I called President Ford and said, “If you still want me, I’ll be willing to do it.” So I did it.
Smith: And it is an extraordinary agenda that you had.
Coleman: Oh yeah.
Smith: Talk about déjà vu, the energy crisis, the fifty-five mile per hour speed limit, which of course today, conservatives all want to repeal. The reorganization of railroads.
Coleman: Railroads, the Concorde coming to the United States. More important, when I took office, twenty five percent of the highway system was not completed, tied up with mainly environmental problems.
Smith: That’s the Interstate Highway System.
Coleman: Interstate Highway and I got them all unglued and got the money to do them all. The one mistake I made was, I did not insist that they change the federal tax from a certain cents to a percentage. Because if it had been a percentage they’d have much more money. There was a memo in a file…so they really, really wouldn’t affect the price charged because the dealer would take that in consideration when he fixed his price.
Smith: The Washington Metro.
Coleman: There were two miles done when I got in. And the only thing the federal government would say, they would lend a billion dollars to Metro. Fortunately, I had a wonderful lady working with me, and at the end 118 miles was planned and it all got done. I must say the Mayor of Washington helped me a lot because he was willing to take some of the highway money and put it into transit and that helped us to get moving, and after that we got the rest of the money.
Smith: The landing rights for the Concorde. That must have been controversial.
Coleman: Oh, yes, it was very controversial. The French and the British were saying, well we won’t let it land because we (the US), at one time, were trying to do a high speed plane and we stopped doing it and therefore we didn’t want our competitors coming in. And there were all types of information, what it would do to surrounding territories. So I thought that the best thing to do was have a public hearing. I sat in the public hearing and actually somebody told me that the British wouldn’t come in, but they did come in. Then I wrote the report and at least the Second Circuit said I thought it was a good report. Did you ever read the Second Circuit opinion?
Smith: No, I haven’t.
Coleman: I also did the same thing on I-66, which was all jammed up. I felt that the Secretary should sit down and hold a public hearing, then write an opinion as to why he did things.
Smith: And what happened on I-66?
Coleman: On I-66 for umpteen years, that’s the one that goes right outside of Washington. It wasn’t built because some people thought it was environmentally unsound. It was too wide, not narrow enough, and I just got it done, and also talked to the governor then, and I said, “Well, also, you’ve got to make sure that your employment figures for people doing the job reflects the people that live in the area.” And he said, “Are you trying to blackmail me?” And I said, “I don’t think you should use the word blackmail anymore.” He turned out to be a good friend.
Smith: The requirement of airbags in automobiles.
Coleman: Oh yeah. Once again, we had people to look at it and what would happen and I had a very good general counsel, a guy named John Hart Ely, and we really worked on it and got it done.
Smith: Also, fuel efficiency standards.
Coleman: Oh yeah. President Ford was good, and if we’d had another week, I think we would have won the election, and I think…
Smith: I’m struck by all of these elements. If you put yourself in today’s Republican Party, I’m not sure any of these would get majority support. They would be seen as government overreaching.
Coleman: I thought they were necessary to do, and we did them.
Smith: So where does that put him on the spectrum – certainly he was a fiscal conservative.
Coleman: He was a fiscal conservative, but he understood what had to be done, therefore he did it. He was not for just spending federal money to do things that don’t make sense. But for those, it made sense. Once I got a system where I could also get people employed, like building the railroads and everything, like from Washington to Boston, I just slipped that in. But instead of saying they have to be black, I would just say it would have to people similar to those that live in the neighborhoods. Well, hells bells, _______. And we really did it. We had a good time.
Smith: Can you think of an instance where he overrode you on something?
Coleman: No, I can’t think of an instance, but I know an instance where he wanted to override me. Ed Levi came in one day, the attorney general, to a Cabinet meeting. And his first issue was, what do we do with New York? The A.G Levi thought that you give them money and let them work the system out. Ford kind of passed over that, and the other issue was the bussing in Boston. The Attorney General said we should stay out of that and his solicitor general wanted to file a brief on the side of the white parents – that it was illegal and everything, and I finally said, “You know, this really amazed me. You talk about the first problem and you’ve got one mayor who is supposed to spend all this money and do everything, but yet, when you talk about a federal judge who is the only one trying to change the system, that you shouldn’t let him do that.” I went on and on.
President Ford finally said, “You know, Bill, I never believed in bussing. When I played football, even when I got hurt, I still walked to school.” I said, “Mr. President, if you would go on the television and say that’s the reason why you’re against it, I’ll support you.” He kind of laughed and we stayed out of the case and then what happened in Boston happened.
No, he was a very decent guy. Not only that, but on his foreign policy, he and Kissinger, first time our nation really recognized the Chinese, he got the problem dealing with Formosa/Taiwan, whatever you want to call it, and he was really solid and I think, with all due respect to President Carter, if he’d won the election again, I think we’d have a better country today.
Smith: How did he use the Cabinet? What were Cabinet meetings like?
Coleman: Well, he’d have a Cabinet meeting, but more important, on Saturdays, he would make himself available from one to five. The reason not until one was because he and Tip O’Neill used to play golf in the morning and then he’d come in at one o’clock. You’d raise the problem and he’d sit there as a judge sometimes, and Jim Lynn would have his ideas, I’d have my idea. One thing – Jim Lynn could read my report but I couldn’t read his. I thought that was unfair, so we finally got so the Cabinet officer could read the report of. Jim Lynn to head up the OMD and that really was a good idea. On the other hand he would leave to go off to Asia.
Smith: Did he encourage back and forth debate within the Cabinet?
Coleman: Oh yeah, back and forth with the Secretary of Treasury. No we’d have real debates. I remember one time when the Attorney General came, said that we decided that no Cabinet officer could use the car to go to and from work except the Secretary of State, the Secretary of the Treasury, the Attorney General, and Secretary of Defense. I said, “Why are you exempting them?” They said, “Well, they get threatened all the time.” I turned to Carla Hills, Secretary of HUD and said, “Carla, tomorrow morning write me a letter threatening me and I’ll write you one.” So we kept the cars. We had a good time. But he listened, he was bright. And sometimes he said, “Let me think about it,” and come back the next day.
Smith: You said he was bright. There is this notion, the stumbler and all this sort of thing…the old line that LBJ stuck on him. Tell me about his intelligence.
Coleman: In fact, a young man who was in his class at Yale said that he got the highest grade in the course on how you handle governmental ethics. That he got the highest grade. He was an awfully good student at Yale, did quite well, and he was a good lawyer. He and Phil Buchen – they were good lawyers. Levi was a very good lawyer. They would talk – really talk legal issues and really demand you come back or write up what you want to do. Like on the Concorde, I just said, “Chief, stay out of it – and I’ll let you know five minutes before I announce it. One remedy is that you could fire me other than that – just stay out of it.” So that’s the way it happened.
Smith: He probably appreciated that.
Coleman: Oh, we were always good friends. Afterwards I got him to go on one of the boards I was on.
Smith: One of the interesting things about him – clearly he was perfectly comfortable surrounding himself with people of high IQ and combative personalities.
Coleman: And he brought Elliot Richardson back from London to become secretary of what? Education, I think. No, he was really bright and he really knew how to run the government. The whole time he never had a majority in the House or the Senate, but he got most of the bills through.
Smith: How did you observe the Kissinger-Ford relationship?
Coleman: They respected each other. Henry obviously was very bright. But I think on most issues, President Ford would agree with Henry, and there was no conflict of that type. Kissinger is awfully bright.
Smith: It is interesting, for example – and Ford tried to make it clear there was nothing personal – but that he simply believed it was better policy if the National Security Advisor did not also wear the hat of Secretary of State. That it was supposed to be, not an adversarial relationship, but differing.
Coleman: Brent Scowcroft was a superb person, it really worked. We had some issues and Carla Hills had some issues, and she was able to get a lot done.
Smith: He was a strong supporter of mass transit.
Coleman: Oh, yeah.
Smith: Again, I say it with a certain element of surprise in my voice, because you don’t think of more recent Republican presidents, in particular, as favoring this agenda.
Coleman: Oh, come on. That’s not true – you wouldn’t have the highway system if it weren’t for Eisenhower.
Smith: No, no, I’m saying more recent. Ronald Reagan’s view of government, which has prevailed in the Republican Party for a generation, I would respectfully suggest would be less inclined to support these kinds of initiatives.
Coleman: Yeah, but I think the present President Bush has gotten a lot of unfair raps. I know for a fact that at 10:45 on the last day that he [Clinton] was in office, he told the new Bush that the guy had the weapons – and that’s why Senator Hillary Clinton has never come out against him, or it probably would have lost her the nomination. But not only that, you’ve got to recognize that after the Kuwait invasion, and they got out, and I thought Jim Baker and Colin Powell were very skillful in bringing that about, there were nineteen resolutions passed by the Security Council, each one saying that he’s got to let the inspectors in. He wouldn’t let the inspectors in.
Finally, when they got to the last time, the French wouldn’t agree and Colin, who met with them and said, “Well, how much time do you want?” And he said, “Nine more months.” So at the end of the nine months if he hadn’t let us in, we could then go in with you. And the French said, “No we can’t guarantee we’d do that.” And then Colin said, “Well, do you realize that we’ve got a fleet out there and it’s costing us x dollars a month to do, and under the NATO your pro rata share is x. Would you at least pay?” They said no, and that’s when President Bush ordered the U.S. troops to go in.
I really think that the problem was after going in, nobody knew that the Shi’ites and the Sunnis and the Kurds were separated, and I blame that on the universities. Nobody came down. I also blame it on the fact that shortly after they went in, the Democrats that originally supported him, began to say, “Call off the troops.” Now if you were an Iraqi not knowing which side to pick, what would you do? I just really think that somebody has really got to do that.
Smith: Tell me about probably the most historic initiative to come out of the Ford presidency, one that was in your bailiwick, and that was deregulation. Beginning with the trucking, and…
Coleman: Trucking deregulation and then we halfway did deregulation with aviation industries and carriers, but that finally got completed under the next people.
Smith: How difficult was that to do?
Coleman: Well, all I’m saying is, when I have to go over to tell the union for the trucking that we were going to support deregulation, the guy threatened to throw me out of the fifth floor. Actually, it was helped because Kennedy, at that time had a superb staffer. It was Justice Breyer, then a staff member in Senator Kennedy’s office. I know Justice Breyer and we worked it out and we got that one done. And Ford, at the end, would not do something else unless they did that. So that’s how that got accomplished.
Smith: Why would the trucking industry, or the unions, in particular, object to deregulation?
Coleman: Because they thought that would affect their bargaining power and how much money they’d get. As long as you had the regulation, and the regulators pretty much catered to the unions, therefore the unions got what they wanted. Look at the automobile situation now. You’ve got new people coming in with these foreign cars, they’re making cars in various places in the United States, and they are charging much less money and not making as good cars. You just have to make a readjustment, and I’m pretty sure anytime a Republican tries to make a readjustment, they say he just doesn’t think much of labor. That just isn’t true. You’ve got to realize what you have to do.
Smith: I know President Ford philosophically was committed to economic deregulation. The railroad – that was part of the package, wasn’t it?
Coleman: No, because we spent so much money. I really can’t remember, you ask me stuff about twenty-five, thirty years ago, I don’t remember when we got started. I do know though, that I was very much against what we ultimately did, namely to create Amtrak. What I thought should have happened, was that the Pennsylvania Railroad, that half would be sold to the Southern Railroad and the other half to the Chessie. And I say that only to give credit to Liz Dole, because that is what she did. And it is much better now that she did it. I tried to do that and I couldn’t get anywhere because the federal district judge in New York that was handling the bankruptcy just wouldn’t listen to me. He thought his idea was better. And so they did and they lost money for seven years and then Liz Dole came in and she also did a better job on the Pennsylvania railroad station idea. I tried like hell, but she was the one that really straightened it out.
Smith: Did you oppose Amtrak conceptually?
Coleman: Well, I said it should not be made into a governmental corporation. It was Consolidated Railroads or something. I said the way to do it was to sell half of the whole Pennsylvania line and split it up that way, and then you’d have two lines who competed with each other. And that’s what’s done now.
Smith: And the airline industry. How did that begin?
Coleman: Well, we were working on that. I was only there about twenty-two months and the pay was lousy – but we were working on that. Now I really felt that what you should do is either have two U.S. airlines who were awfully good to handle the foreign stuff and then have the other handle the travel in the United States. Or you could say that you divide the world into four parts and have them divide it up that way. Now we represent Northwest and they just merged into Delta. I told them the next step is that they should get one of the foreign airlines, I think Chinese airline or the Brit and put it together because that’s what you really need to make the money these days.
Smith: Do you regret airline deregulation in light of all that’s occurred?
Coleman: Well, what I regret is that we didn’t stay in long enough to really work these things out. I worked out with the automobiles the whole question of the airbags. How you had to do it: you had to talk to each one separately and together. And I remember that I talked to all of them, because I said it should only be $50 or $55 for the airbag. One guy insisted that I should say $55, but a cost adjustment for each year, if prices went up. I agreed to that.
Then I realized, when the other person came in, he never asked that. I thought it would be the worst thing in the world for him to go back to Detroit with a worse deal than the other guy got. And I just said, “Look, if you ask me for this, I think I’ll give it to you.” And he was surprised and he went back and he finally called and was very thankful. You’re working with people, but you really got to – I think the Cabinet officer has to get his or her hands dirty and really get into it. What bothers me now is that, usually, the Cabinet officer doesn’t get that far into it. I think that’s what you have to do.
Smith: And Ford supported you on each of these initiatives?
Coleman: Oh yeah. President Ford always supported me. But I had known him from the Warren Commission and he thought I was pretty reliable.
Smith: Was there a line between politics and policy?
Coleman: No, he really meant that – he said you do what you think is right. Because in Memphis with whether the road went through the park – he said, “I don’t want you to handle that based upon the fact that I’d get more votes one way or the other. I want you to do what’s right.” Constantly he did that. No, he was a good person. I think if we had another – and I think what killed him was that investigation they had about whether he’d taken some money from unions or something, and it took about four more weeks to get done, showing that he had nothing to do with it. Another week and I think we would have taken it.
Smith: You saw him every year at the reunions, presumably.
Coleman: I saw him every year at the reunions, but also he was on a board with me and I saw him – I think it was Amex – he went on that board with me.
Smith: Tell me about that, because he took a rap in some quarters for going on boards and supposedly commercializing the ex-presidency.
Coleman: No, we made some great contributions. We got some important business and corporate things done. And also I saw him because my next door neighbor, Joe Robert, has a place in Beaver Creek and I’d go to see him. Then Ford had a place there and we’d always go down and see him. So, I saw him and I would talk to him some on the phone. And if I went to California, because our law firm has a big office there, I’d drop in. He and his wife were always very, very nice to me.
Smith: Tell me about his service on the Amex board. What did he contribute?
Coleman: Well, he contributed. We had the whole question of whether – sometimes it was price regulation and how to handle that – or whether we should be exempt. And then we had some other questions as far as international relations, which were very important things. The company was very successful at the time he was on, the time I was on it. They finally sold it to somebody else and I don’t think it’s as successful as it was, but it was very successful.
Smith: But he was a very active board member?
Coleman: He was very active. He did other than just sit there – he was very active and he would talk.
Smith: Did he ever tell you about his college football player friend Willis Ward, the African American player.
Coleman: By the end of this present administration of the new guy – I want you guys to call us something other than African Americans.
Smith: Fair enough. But that friendship clearly influenced him for life.
Coleman: Oh, sure. He was a real guy and he touched all the time and he was very close to Thurgood Marshall.
Smith: Was he?
Coleman: Oh, yeah. Thurgood thought a lot of him, because a lot of time he’d go see him and get things done or otherwise wouldn’t…No I think his heart was in the right place. But he wanted to do what’s right, and he made great strides, put me in the Cabinet, he put Carla Hills in the Cabinet.
Smith: In fact, you were the first black Republican Cabinet officer.
Coleman: Bob Weaver is supposed to be the first who was appointed by Johnson to HUD, but I always say he was the second, I was the third. You know who the first one was? Alexander Hamilton. He had one-sixteenth black blood in him. No, really. If you go back and read the debates on the Constitution, you can feel that he wanted to do more than that Three-Fifths clause. I always felt that Alexander Hamilton was so superior to Thomas Jefferson that it wasn’t even funny. But that’s alright. When I correct people sometimes, they look at me kind of funny.
Smith: Tell me something about Gerald Ford that most people don’t know – something that might surprise people – maybe at odds with the public image.
Coleman: I don’t think it should surprise, but I think until three weeks before the election he was as friendly to the Democrats as he was to the Republicans. He could cross the aisle and get things done. And secondly, I think he knew more about the world than people thought when he took office. And thirdly, that he was a very decent man and he wanted what I want for this country, just to be the greatest country in the world and that we’re all American citizens with different abilities and take advantage of them. We’ve got to do a better job of educating our children than what we’ve done before. And that’s all I know about him.
Smith: Were you in the Cabinet, I know you joined the Cabinet in ’75, do you remember when in ’75?
Coleman: About late January of ‘75
Smith: So you were there, you were in the administration, for example, when Saigon fell in April of ‘75?
Coleman: Oh, yeah. When we had to pull them out. I was sitting at the dinner one night and I was sitting next to the head of the Navy and the Coast Guard was under me and I jokingly said, “Well if your Navy can’t get those guys off the beach, I’m pretty sure my Coast Guard can.” He did not like that humor. But he stayed nice to me afterwards.
Now there was a break down because the problem under Lyndon Johnson – when you start to say, “I’m not going to give you any more money, I’m not going to give you troops,” you lose. And I just think that we made mistakes there the same way on this whole question of North Korea having the atomic weapon and the Iranians having something. People criticize Bush, but if anybody is to be criticized it really should be Clinton because his secretary is the one who went there and negotiated and he said, “Oh yes, I’m making point A and if you give me so much money in food, I’ll clean up” and that was done. So he actually was making point B, and that’s why we’re still having the problem now. In the meantime they certainly knew how to move it down to Iran. Those are real tough issues.
Smith: Did you ever discuss, after the fact obviously, the Nixon pardon with him as a lawyer?
Coleman: Well, he discussed it with me only because there were several times I discussed it – brought it up. I told him I thought he was right. There is no evidence that Nixon ever knew anything about the break in. The only evidence was after the break in, that he knew about it and felt that if it were disclosed the wrong way, it would adversely affect him as the Presidential election was in full force.
I told him I had a partner, Richardson Dilworth, who was a great one in Philadelphia. He was running for governor. It turned out that one of the secretaries, administrative aides, who worked for one of the richest partners in our firm, a guy named Doug Paxson, that she took some of his money and they found out about it and said don’t do it again. But she kept on working there. Well, a year later when Dilworth was in the midst of campaign, they found out she stole more money from the same guy. And they said, oh you’ve got to fire her – get rid of her. Dilworth said you can’t do that, can you imagine what the press would say if I’ve got some person working for me and twice they steal money and they’re still working? How in hell could I be a good governor – so we just dropped the matter.
It’s just something that you do. I’ll never forget that and I just felt the same way about that. Or the same thing that really adversely affected President Ford when that false accusation was made about the union. By the time they got it cleared up, because Levi moved very slowly on it, they’d had only about two weeks with that clearing up.
Smith: Ford was lucky. He lived long enough to know that most people had come around to his way of thinking, I think, on the pardon.
Coleman: And he stepped in at a very difficult time. The country could have really gone into a real crisis and he stepped in and did what’s right, and the man he put on the Supreme Court certainly is no “conservative” – he’s a liberal – very good. I had to read all his opinions before…
Smith: How did that come about?
Coleman: When he got the vacancy, Ford had Levi read them all, he had me read them all, I think Carla Hills read them all. And he talked with him. That’s the one that he thought should take. He took him and he performed as a good justice, not liberal, not conservative. He does what’s right.
Smith: It’s interesting, he was probably one of the last justices appointed on the sheer basis of ability – without ideology entering into the equation. He told us, because we interviewed him, he told us in his confirmation hearings no one asked him about abortion. Which also suggests what a different climate prevailed then.
Coleman: Abortion is a tough issue, and even a worse one is whether people of the same sex can do something and call it a marriage. As long as they can do it, it’s legal, you can’t use a word which traditionally means something else, and I blame the newspapers for that – I think the newspapers are not what they used to be.
Smith: Last question: were you surprised at all when he died and there was really such an outpouring. And it seemed to grow as the week went along. Did that surprise you at all – that the people responded?
Coleman: No, in retrospect, people think that he made a difference. Just like a great baseball player – he hits that home run in the World Series – he made a difference. And people realize that. After he left, he certainly remained interested in public matters, but he didn’t interfere and I think he was treated well because he had done a good job and people realized that. And they felt Carter did a terrible job. Okay, you’ve kept your word, it’s twenty minutes to twelve.
Smith: Thank you.