Stuart E. Eizenstat Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Politics, Law, and the
Search for 'Imperfect Justice': Conversation with Stuart E. Eizenstat, former
Deputy Secretary of the Treasury; April 30, 2003, by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Politics and Law

Throughout your career, you seem to be moving between politics and law, a very interesting dynamic.

That's a very good description of my career, because when my party, the Democratic Party, was in office and held a presidency, I worked in public policy and governmental positions, and was the president's chief domestic advisor in the Carter administration, and held four separate positions, as you've mentioned, in the Clinton administration. When they were not in power, I worked in private practice but still stayed engaged in Democratic Party activities and religious and other activities.

But aren't there two different ways of thinking? Or, if not, how does one inform the other?

That's a very good question. I think that they're different disciplines, and yet I've tried to merge them in my work. For example, as the president's chief domestic policy advisor, I was helping draft laws. I was helping create in health education, in welfare, energy, the environment, laws which are, of course, the stuff of lawyers. The fact that I was a lawyer meant that I had an understanding of how the law worked and I could analyze legal issues. But I was not primarily a lawyer in the White House. I was a policy maker, and I had to rise above the narrow definitions and try to look at the broader issues. It's that merger of having an underlying legal background, but being able to try to think at a policy level, at a strategic level, that have fused these two careers, politics and law.

If students were watching this interview, what would you tell them are the skills that you should have a) to be a lawyer, and b) to be in politics or in public policy? And, again, what is the dynamic between the two?

The key to being a good lawyer is the ability to analyze situations, factual situations, and to put them into a context of a solution that can fit within our legal system. I think that, in many ways, Harry, is also what makes a good public policymaker, someone who is able to take a set of facts, analyze them, pick them apart, and then arrange the situation in ways that create a solution to that problem. So it's problem-solving, the ability to analyze, the ability to solve problems that are relevant both to law and to politics in the broader sense of the term.

I've never been involved in elected politics. Mine has always been the policy side of government, coming up with solutions, domestic, and then in my international work to try to solve international problems. But I found, again, a legal knowledge, an ability to analyze, a problem-solving capacity which you learn in law school, to be critical in my governmental work.

What about values in both domains? What I have in mind here is, for example, the notion of justice, which you've already said entered into your thinking very early as a young person. We'll talk in a minute how you've tried to realize that in these different domains. What is the play there? Is there more compromise in politics that stymies those kinds of efforts, or is there compromise in both realms?

Life always is filled with compromises, whether it's in your personal life or in your professional life, but it's important that you not compromise your basic principles. You can sometimes compromise solutions, legislation, where you get half a loaf, you get part of a program, rather than all of it. In a negotiation, you don't achieve everything you want. But you have to know where to cut that line off. If what you've done in the compromise is undercut the basic principle which led you into the matter to begin with, then you shouldn't reach the agreement. You shouldn't accept the legislation. You should veto it, or walk away from the negotiation. There's always a [danger of] compromise that goes so far that you've basically undercut your principles and values.

Now, in terms of values, I always felt it was important when I was, for example, in the Carter White House not to be seen as "the Jewish advisor." I happen to be Jewish, and my values are influenced by Jewish religious values -- concern about the underdog, the prophetic concern for the disadvantaged and feeding the poor, and helping those who are less benefited by society -- but those were broader values. If I saw myself as purely a Jewish advocate -- or a Black advocate, or a labor advocate, or a Hispanic advocate -- my ability to solve problems would have been severely compromised. I would have been put into a cubbyhole. So I've always brought my values with me, and I hope anyone in public service does. But you need to keep those at the broadest level possible.

Next page: Working in the White House

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