Exploring past politics
Alexander Wohl i83 writes the seldom told story of two American politicians
Alexander Wohl '83 believes that the past is an inextricable aspect of the future. To that end, he asserts that participating in modern legal and political debates crucially depends on an understanding of the dynamics of the past.
For this reason, Wohl examined the long-standing American tension between the power of the individual and the power of the central government through the lens of a dual biography of former Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark and Attorney General Ramsey Clark, called Father, Son, and Constitution.
Since graduating from Brandeis with a degree in History, Wohl has explored his interests in law and legal affairs from different perspectives-working as a journalist and a professor at American University, as well as completing a tenure with the Clinton administration.
Wohl's diverse profile of accomplishments is the result of his success in merging all his interests with teaching and writing. "To me, legal issues, understanding why laws do what they do and understanding how governments function to protect the individual, these are the key questions. When I write, the goal is to get to those ultimate issues," said Wohl.
Wohl was drawn to the father-son biography of Tom and Ramsey Clark by a political anomaly: the resignation of Tom Clark from the Supreme Court at a relatively young age. Further along in his research, Wohl discovered that Tom Clark had selflessly stepped down for the sake of his son Ramsey Clark, at the time a young lawyer in the President Lyndon Johnson's administration and attorney general nominee.
"Tom Clark didn't want there to be any potential conflict of interest. They were very close, and he wanted his son to have his own day in the sun. I found this to be quite remarkable," Wohl said.
As Wohl investigated further, he discovered the dynamics between the father and son, uncovering an inter-generational story that illuminates the evolution of the political and legal rights in America.
"Tom Clark started out quite conservative in many areas and gradually [became more liberal]. Ramsey Clark started out liberal, and ended up even more so. ... I discovered that what they shared and what they didn't share would make an interesting political, legal and familial story," Wohl said.
Tom and Ramsey Clark both influenced the interpretation of civil rights in America, however in different ways and under different presidents. Tom Clark, under President Harry Truman, helped to subtly and quietly lay the framework which would allow civil rights to occur. Ramsey Clark was then an outspoken advocate for civil rights under President Lyndon Johnson. "They crossed ideological paths on these issues, although they never discussed the issues personally," said Wohl.
Wohl's book examines the ideological change in just one generation from Tom to Ramsey and the progression from the '40s to the '60s in how Americans interpret individual rights and equality. "Both men believe strongly in the underlying rule of law, they just approached it differently. They came from different eras. Although they started differently, they both ended up in the same place: as strong advocates for civil rights."
In general, both their ideals are founded on a strong belief in the rights of an individual in the face of an overwhelmingly powerful government. "They shared a commitment to the rule of law and the protection of the constitution in broad terms," said Wohl.
In fact, the interpretation of the legal system as a means of protection for the rights of the individual citizen is a central theme of the book. "The backdrop of this book is examining the balance between how to balance government power with the rights of individuals.
This issue is in front of us everyday, in issues such as drones, the role of the FBI, or the privacy rights of individuals," said Wohl.
Although Tom and Ramsey are similar ideologically, Wohl's analysis of their lives centers on the difference in strategy of the two men.
"What's interesting is the way they approached these issues-they have very different personalities. Tom Clark was a very gregarious individual who understood the political process and was able to accomplish things and get along with everybody... Ramsey Clark was more idealistic and very stubborn. His nickname was 'the preacher,' said Wohl.Wohl suspects that his course of study shaped is current interests and beliefs.
"This may have stemmed from my time as a history major at Brandeis, but I have a belief that we can learn a lot both from the individual facts, and the dynamics of how things worked out in the past. For me, the issue of individual rights versus government power has been a key issue in our country since it's founding. This is the issue which divides us most today," said Wohl.
Wohl shared the assertion of using the past as a powerful tool with which to interpret the present yesterday when he lectured to Prof. Daniel Breen's (LGLS) legal studies class.
A defining aspect of Wohl's experience at Brandeis was his role as editor in chief of the Justice. From this experience, he learned about subtle power dynamics between individuals, as well as between the administration and the student body.
"I gained an understanding of the impact of the media. How things could be misinterpreted. You get an understanding of politics, with a lowercase 'p'-how people deal with each other," said Wohl.
"The idea of the book is to use these two individuals to illustrate this ongoing debate. To understand that things change over time, that we learn from the past, that things are the way they are for a reason."