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Published: Thursday, 5/10/2012

Nicholas Katzenbach, 1922-2012: Adviser to Johnson, JFK helped shape civil rights, foreign policy


SKILLMAN, N.J. -- Nicholas Katzenbach, who helped shape the political history of the 1960s, facing down segregationists, riding herd on historic civil rights legislation, and helping to map Vietnam War strategy as a central player in both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, died Tuesday. He was 90.

Mr. Katzenbach was one of the "best and the brightest," David Halberstam's term for the likes of Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, Walt Rostow, and other ambitious, cerebral, and often idealistic postwar policymakers who came to Washington from business and academia.

Mr. Katzenbach, an attorney general under President Lyndon B. Johnson, was the son of a New Jersey state attorney general, a Rhodes scholar, and a law professor at Yale and the University of Chicago.

He advised President John F. Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis, negotiated the release of Cuban prisoners captured during the Bay of Pigs invasion, and pushed for a commission to investigate the Kennedy assassination.

He was Robert F. Kennedy's No. 2 in the Justice Department.

Before Congress, as an under secretary of state, he defended Mr. Johnson's escalation of the Vietnam War.

Perhaps his most tense moment in government came on June 11, 1963, when he confronted George C. Wallace in stifling heat on the steps of the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

On Capitol Hill, Mr. Katzenbach cultivated the good will of Republican senators in 1964 to help pass the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

On April, 15, 1965, Attorney General Katzenbach addressed 450 members of the American Society of Newspaper Editors proposing a new set of guidelines governing the release of information surrounding criminal cases investigated by the Justice Department. He said he recognized the government had a responsibility to protect the defendant's right to a fair trial, while respecting the public's right to be informed.

Eight days after Mr. Katzenbach's address to the newspaper editors' convention The Blade editorialized in part: "Some other newspapers may have doubts and reservations, but The Blade, for one, wholeheartedly welcomes the rules made formal by Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach to guide federal law enforcement officers in commenting on criminal cases following an arrest."

By May 2, many of the nation's newspapers had lauded the attorney general's recommendations, according to an Associated Press story.

Mr. Katzenbach visited northwest Ohio in October, 1967, as undersecretary of state to deliver a commencement speech for graduates of the Ohio Northern University law school.

Mr. Katzenbach was educated at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and Princeton, where he majored in international relations and public affairs.

Two years later he graduated from Yale law school, where he was editor in chief of the Yale Law Journal.

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