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Nicholas Katzenbach, Adviser to Lyndon Johnson and JFK, Dies at 90; One of ‘Best and Brightest’

Posted May 9, 2012 5:01 PM CDT
By Martha Neil

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Nicholas deB. Katzenbach, a former legal adviser to Lyndon B. Johnson and John F. Kennedy who famously faced off with then-Gov. George C. Wallace in 1963 at the main building of the University of Alabama in a successful attempt to integrate the school, has died. He was 90 years old.

A famed member of the iconic 1960s executive branch leaders termed "the best and the brightest" by author David Halberstam, he died on Tuesday evening at his New Jersey home, reports the New York Times (req. req.).

Among his many civil rights achievements was the founding role he played in establishing the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which honored him with its highest award in 2010.

A prisoner of war during World War II after his plane was shot down, Katzenbach went on to graduate from Yale Law School, where he served as editor-in-chief of the Yale Law Journal, the Lawyer's Committee recounts in a press release. A primary focus in his career thereafter was civil rights.

“Many of us in the government had been junior officers in World War II. We wanted peace in the world, we wanted this country to lead in the right direction, and I guess in an arrogant way we thought we were the people to do it," said Katzenbach in a 2008 television interview, Bloomberg recounts.

He taught both at Yale and the University of Chicago before joining the Kennedy administration in 1961. In addition to facing down Wallace, Katzenbach is also famous for calling from a pay telephone to get 25,000 U.S. Army troops to enforce a court order allowing black student James Meredith to register at the University of Mississippi in Oxford in 1962.

“He had one of the most brilliant and creative legal minds I have encountered, and approached public service with total seriousness,” wrote Clark Clifford, who also served under Kennedy and Johnson, in his memoir. “At the same time he saw the ironic side of service in Washington—the endless games some people play, the petty deals that are often necessary in the pursuit of objectives of great purpose.”

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