Perhaps not since Arkansas joined the Union has a judge of any jurisdiction
— federal, state, municipal — been as highly regarded as the Honorable G. Thomas Eisele, who died last week at age 94, and who once threatened to jail me.
I was a bit tardy in responding to a subpoena and, according to those present, His Honor muttered that I had best appear within minutes lest U.S. Marshals escort me first to his courtroom, then to the jug. That I had been summoned (as a witness) only hours earlier probably factored in his decision to forego a contempt citation. It most certainly would not have been the spaces we had shared over the years, he as participant and me as observer.
He was an attorney probing election chicanery in Conway County, then a legal advisor to Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller, then a U.S. District Judge; I was one of the guys with notebooks. Such was His Honor’s honor that had our relationship been more personal than professional it would not have made a whit of difference had I answered that subpoena an hour later than I did: my next couple of meals would have been at government expense.
As it was our meetings were never less than civil and often cordial. The last was at my request (I had no authority to subpoena him), to discuss his memories of Rockefeller for a magazine article I was writing. The ten minutes I asked for stretched to 90, largely from Eisele’s zest for reminiscence. Having taken senior status and thus able to reduce his workload, his chambers were piled high with case files.
The cliché is as unavoidable as it is accurate: Tom Eisele was a workhorse, not a show horse. His demeanor on the bench was invariably straitlaced, professional, utterly impartial; his fabled bushy eyebrows never betrayed his thinking, his impressions. His scholarship, his erudition, was displayed, vividly, in his judgments, rarely reversed on appeal.
Such encomia, from fellow judges and attorneys, enriched news accounts of Eisele’s passing. What caught my eye, however, was an account in the obituary released by his family of a moment to which I was not witness, a rite that blended the professional and the intensely personal: a 1991 naturalization ceremony at which Eisele presided, when his adopted granddaughter, a toddler born in Korea, became a U.S. citizen.
“You, Noel, were born a Korean. Yesterday, you might have been considered a Korean-American. But today you are simply an American,” Eisele was quoted. “No country has done as much as this nation has to remove the hyphens and the barriers that separate and divide us. We should value those things which unite us over those things which separate us.”
Noel is 28 now and, notwithstanding her grandfather’s ambitions for her sense of identity, I’ve no idea whether she considers herself an American or Korean-American. But it’s a safe bet that he who disdained, even deplored, hyphenation in human affairs would be aghast at humanity persistently, resolutely hyphenated. And just as persuaded am I that he would have had a spirited, soulful colloquy with historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who shared Eisele’s concerns in a book published the very year of little Noel’s naturalization. (I suspect Eisele, a Renaissance man, read it, for he read everything; and is it not possible that the two men, each a Harvard product, are now communing?).
The Disuniting of America, currently enjoying something of a revival, was Schlesinger’s anxious assessment of a nation steadily becoming more tribal (an adjective deservedly in wide use today), powered by “monoculturalists” on the right and “multiculturalists” on the left.
Forthrightly acknowledging that, since Independence, American history had been written by, and in the interests of, “white Anglo-Saxon Protestant males,” Schlesinger nonetheless was alarmed at what he considered “compensatory history,” an overreaction to sins of both omission and commission. He faulted academia but, by extension, the broader citizenry.
Schlesinger was a strong civil rights advocate, yet he feared that self-identification primarily by ethnicity (African-American, Hispanic-American, Asian-American, et al), social class or religion would threaten thoughtful governance, would shred what should be a shared if not wholly common culture of nationality. He was a “melting pot” man, Schlesinger. As did Eisele, he wanted the warmth of the patchwork quilt, not the chill invited by scraps unsewn.
So judge and historian were naïve? Maybe. But we need our dreamers, and eventually honor them, too often posthumously.
Again, from the obituary prepared by his kin: “In a climate in which we all too frequently identify or oppose another based on his or her political, religious, or other ‘tribal affiliation,’ let us today remember Judge’s fine example and strive to follow it.”
Noel is watching.
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