by William T. Coleman with Donald T. Bliss. Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2020. 466pp. Cloth. $34.95. ISBN: 9789815704881.

Reviewed by John R. Vile, University Honors College, Middle Tennessee State University, jvile [at]


William Coleman is best known for serving as President Gerald Ford’s Secretary of Transportation. However, he has earned so many honors, served in so many capacities, and has met and worked with so many important people that his account, co-authored by an associate Donald T. Bliss, sometimes has a Forest Gump quality to it, albeit by a man who was not only present at key moments but who also helped to shape them. The first paragraph of the first chapter begins with his description of a call that Coleman received from Donald Rumsfeld, and the last chapter ends by mentioning that Coleman once represented Frank Sinatra. The first person that Coleman records meeting at Harvard Law School was Elliott Richardson, and when Coleman’s son attended Yale Law School, he roomed with Bill Clinton. Coleman’s acknowledgements at the end of the book include a veritable Twelve Days of Christmas. With some redacting, the list includes a baker’s dozen of “Brahmins of color,” eleven U.S. Senators and business leaders, ten Supreme Court Justices, nine cabinet members, eight law deans and professors; seven law firm leaders; six other judges; five U.S. Senators; four grandchildren; three city colleagues, members of two political parties; and his wife of 65 years.

If Coleman’s noteworthy acquaintances could fill a phone directory, his narrative and accompanying chronology read like a giant resume. He was born in Philadelphia to an educated mother who loved Proust and to a father who directed Boys’ Clubs; encountered “Yankee racism,” as in a tenth-grade teacher who thought he would make a “wonderful chauffer” (p.7); graduated summa cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania; attended and graduated first in his class at Harvard Law School where he served on the law review; became the first African-American to clerk for a federal appellate judge; clerked for Justice Felix Frankfurter, where he and Elliot Richardson used to spend half an hour a day reading Shakespeare and English romantic poets (p.87); joined the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund; served as a partner in prestigious law firms in Philadelphia and in the Washington, D.C. Office of a Los Angeles firm; sat on the Warren Commission; became a member of the U.S. Delegation to the U.N General Assembly; served on the National Commission on Productivity and the Price Commission in the Nixon Administration; co-chaired a State Department Advisory Committee on South Africa; served on the White House Commission on Aviation Safety; argued 19 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court (including the Girard College case); and [*188] has received numerous awards included the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Rarely did he turn down an opportunity for public service, and even less rarely did he pass up a corporate client.

William Coleman is an individual of color who chose to continue the Republican affiliations of his family at a time when most others have become Democrats. He announces near the beginning of the book that he is going to use the designations of Negroes, persons of color, and other usages rather than bow to the contemporary use of Blacks or African-Americans (he distinctly dislikes the idea of hyphenated Americans). Although he believes that Lyndon Johnson, for whom he acknowledges voting, did much to advance civil rights, he thinks that President Eisenhower did far more than did President Kennedy, and after reviewing presidents from Lincoln to the present concludes that “the Republican Party has accomplished more on the race issue” (p.362). Coleman supports some affirmative action programs, but opposes “racial entitlements” (p.360). He once reprimanded Dan Rather for identifying him as “the first black Secretary of Transportation” (p.341), since, as Coleman noted, the story Rather was covering involved placing airbags in all automobiles and not simply those that belonged to persons of color. Coleman frets whether presidents are “appointing justices simply to reflect diverse elements of our population rather than for the wisdom they bring to reasoned decisionmaking?” (p.310)and expresses concern that some Democrat-sponsored legislative endeavors have fostered undue dependency on government. By contrast, he proudly recounts how Thurgood Marshall and he once contacted Justice Charles Evans Whittaker by networking with his Negro valet (p.162).

Coleman’s constitutional interpretation is more strongly rooted in the text of the Constitution, and especially the Reconstruction amendments, than in creative theories of the role of judges. Although he describes “a living Constitution” (p.146), he focuses on the manner in which the Reconstruction amendments “repaired the imperfections of the original” (p.147). In seeking to persuade justices in the Bob Jones Case that they could deny tax-exempt status to institutions that engaged in racial discrimination without therefore threatening single-sex colleges, he answered a question by Justice Lewis Powell by observing that “this nation fought a war over racial discrimination. It did not fight a civil war over sex discrimination” (p.305).

Coleman respects English common-law precedents and prizes a judicial temperament. Despite early encounters with discrimination, he continues to view his nation as a nation of opportunity. Although recognizing that claims of states’ rights were often juxtaposed against claims of civil rights, he believes that “there should be legitimate constitutional limits on the powers of the federal government, especially in areas where the federal bureaucracy interfered directly with the fiscal and operation functions of states” (p.316). Coleman approvingly cites Thurgood Marshall’s view that whites gained as much as blacks by bringing the text of the Reconstruction amendments to life (p.150). [*189]

Coleman takes pride in being a consummate generalist, modifying Louis Brandeis’s description of “counsel to the situation” to “counsel for the situation.” Coleman believes that lawyers should serve as mediators and educate their clients about both sides of the issues (p.366). He relishes the thought that his varied experiences give him “the perspective of twenty-five thousand feet, especially in Washington” (p.367), and he frequently shows how knowledge of one area, and friendships made on one level, develop into business in another. He encourages law schools to stress “analytical skill and reasoning, scholarship, clarity of written and oral expression, the theoretical and ethical implications of legal precedents, and the historical roots of the law” over the teaching of “how-to techniques” (p.49).

Coleman pays continuing tribute to his wife Lovida Hardin, from a respected physician’s family in New Orleans, and credits her for keeping the home fires burning while he extensively engaged in business and government. Coleman does not give much insight into personal struggles or failures, and on the few occasions that he does so, he typically chooses to quote others rather than to engage in explicit self-criticism. Thus, he observes that an unnamed associate in his first law firm told him that “Sometimes you act like an arrogant bastard” and that “You ought to be more aware of the impression you make on the people you are working with” (p.132). Although black-and-white photographs in the middle of the book clearly show that Coleman to be a short man of fairly expansive girth, he cites Chief Justice Earl Warren’s observation that “you’ve put on some weight” and should consider walking to court (p.301) rather than comment on it himself. After acknowledging that he may “have displayed an excess of impatience, passion, and impertinence” in arguing this case (p.306), he immediately quotes extensively from a New York Times article that described his advocacy in the case.

Students of transportation policy will find Coleman’s description of the issues that he faced as a cabinet secretary particularly valuable. Students of the judicial process will not be surprised to find that he has qualms about the current confirmation situation. Coleman distinguishes his own opposition to Robert Bork’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court (he had supported his appointment to the lower court of appeals) as more dispassionate and principled than that of others, but, perhaps somewhat inconsistently, he defends the nomination of Clarence Thomas in part because he admires his willingness to think independently.

Coleman expresses concern that contemporary lawyers do not have the same institutional loyalty to firms that they once did and that they may be relying more on lateral senior-level transfers than on cultivating junior partners. Although he makes relatively few forays into political analysis, he believes that it will take “centrists” to make real progress on the issues of the day (p.364).

Now ninety years of age, Coleman continues in Washington, D.C. as a senior partner and counselor for O’Melveny & Myers. He is in the lofty company of other “Brahmins of color” (p.379) that he has identified and a living testament to the heights that a man with [*190] energy and conviction can reach in U.S. society, whatever his race. Had Thurgood Marshall not been confirmed, President Johnson might have nominated Coleman to the Supreme Court. Coleman would likely have been a more centrist justice than either Marshall or than Clarence Thomas has proven to be. Coleman reports that Justice Frankfurter once told him that “I bet on you, whatever choice you may make and whatever the Fates may have in store for you” (p.92). Most readers of this book will likely conclude that Frankfurter’s bet was solid and that he would be proud of the principles that Coleman has embodied and the public service that he has rendered.

© Copyright 2011 by the author, John R. Vile.