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Continued: Blackmun and Burger: Old friends, old enemies

  • Article by: GRAYDON ROYCE , Star Tribune
  • Last update: March 1, 2013 - 5:14 PM

There is truth to the conventional wisdom that Burger retained his conservatism through his time on the court while Blackmun became more liberal — and thus they grew apart. But there is more to it.

Burger had an agenda and expectations for Blackmun when the chief justice recommended his old friend for the high court in 1969. It was not a foolish expectation, Greenhouse said, and in the beginning of his term, Blackmun voted with Burger more often than not. But Blackmun was 60 years old when he joined the court — proud, intelligent and the beneficiary of much experience and education. He looked at the world differently from Burger; it was only a matter of time until their visions collided. Burger could seem overbearing and autocratic. Blackmun, Greenhouse writes, was thin-skinned and occasionally took umbrage where none was necessary.

Blackmun found himself at the center of many crucial decisions over his 24-year stay on the court. Abortion, executive privilege during Watergate, affirmative action and the death penalty were issues that helped define the Burger court. As a playwright, Blessing was overwhelmed so he pared away at his script and considered Blackmun’s story on the personal terms of his relationship with Burger.

“I realized that I had to get rid of everything in this play that is not focused on their friendship,” Blessing said. “That ordered what facts could go where, and the script became leaner and more efficient.”

Greenhouse, who teaches at Yale University Law School, recognizes the poignancy in a relationship that lasted 80 years and in the end was propped up only by memories.

“One thing that jumped out at me,” Greenhouse said. “Blackmun kept a chronology of important events in his journal and when Burger died [June 25, 1995], he took note of it tersely, ‘WEB dies.’ ”

The best of friends had become stubborn foes.

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299

  • related content

  • Nathaniel Fuller as Warren Burger and Clyde Lund as Harry Blackmun in “Courting Harry” at the History Theatre in St. Paul.

  • Courting Harry

    Who: By Lee Blessing, based on a book by Linda Greenhouse. Directed by Joel Sass.

    When: 2 p.m. Sun. and next Sun., 10 a.m. & 8 p.m. Thu., 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat. Ends March 24.

    Where: History Theatre, 30 E. 10th St., St. Paul.

    Tickets: $15-$40. 651-292-4323 or www.historytheatre.com.

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