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Tony Essaye’s Interview

Tony Essaye discusses his life and fascinating career in this interview. He was born in London, England but grew up in the U.S. after being evacuated during World War II. He joined ROTC during his college years at Georgetown and was stationed in Japan during the 1950s. Essaye went on to become a lawyer and served as a counsel for the Peace Corps under Sargent Shriver. He was one of the lawyers who represented the Washington Post during the Pentagon Papers cases; actor Zach Woods portrays Essaye in the 2017 film “The Post.” He went on to work in a legal capacity for various political campaigns and politicians, including for Walter Mondale and Bill and Hillary Clinton. He also co-founded the International Senior Lawyers Project. In this interview, he offers his reflections on his career as well as major political events.

Date of Interview:
March 16, 2018
Location of the Interview:


Cindy Kelly: I am Cindy Kelly. This is Washington, D.C. It is Friday, March 16, 2018. I have with me Tony Essaye. I would like to have Tony say his full name and spell it.

Tony Essaye: Anthony F. Essaye, E-S-S-A-Y-E. It’s like what you write in an exam, except it has an E on the end.

Kelly: Let’s start with your background, when you were born and where, and what your childhood was like.

Essaye: I was born in London, England, on May 13, 1934. I lived there for six years. My parents had divorced shortly after I was born, actually. I was in father’s custody. When World War II broke out, he went in the Navy, first in somewhat of a reserve position and then full time. As the war heightened and the bombing started, there were two programs in England relating to children. One was the program that a lot of people have heard about. They were trying to get the kids out of the cities, particularly London, and into the countryside where they would be more protected.

The other was a smaller program, which related to children who had relatives overseas in countries where they might be able to be evacuated to. My father was able to get me into that program because his older brother, my Uncle Joe, lived in the United States.

Essaye: In June 1940, I got on the Eastern Prince, a converted liner. It was still a passenger ship, but had been converted for military use. I remember seeing fairly well of going up to Liverpool from London by train with my father dressed in his Navy white uniform, and getting to Liverpool and the ship was out in the harbor. They were barrage balloons to protect against strafing. We went out in a tender to the ship and got on there. He placed me in the hands of a nurse, who was to take care of the children that went without a parent. I didn’t want to go, and I didn’t want to leave him. [Laughs] It was a pretty traumatic scene, I think, but he had to leave and off we went. 

It was certainly more dangerous than I had any idea of, because the British Navy were escorting ships like this out to a certain distance where they thought the U-boats would no longer be a danger, it was beyond the U-boat range. A few months later, a similar ship with a lot of kids on board was sunk beyond that range. It was obvious that the U-boats had developed capacity to go further. 

We got to Halifax as the first stop. We were probably there a day or so. I was too worried to get off the boat and even go on the pier with the nurse and the other kids, because I was afraid the ship was going to leave without me. [Laughs]

We arrived in New York. My aunt and uncle were living in Winter Haven, Florida, at the time. They came up and met me there, and off we went to Winter Haven, a small town in central Florida. So I had gone from London to a big city to a small town in Florida. I think I lost my British accent in about three weeks.

I enjoyed it there. My Uncle Joe was a pretty strict disciplinarian. He had been in World War I as a sergeant in the British Army. It’s tough times in the trenches, and so forth. He raised me as somewhat like a British Army private under the control of a British Army sergeant. After a year at the Winterhaven public schools, he sent me off to Florida Military Academy in Saint Petersburg, which I didn’t care for very much, but I got through it for two years.

My aunt was quite different. She was much younger than my uncle. She was only seventeen years older than I was, so she was twenty-three when I arrived. Very vivacious, very athletic. I can remember trying to race her at one point and not getting anywhere close to beating her, and making some excuse that I had stubbed my toe. She just wouldn’t accept that at all. [Laughs] We became very close.

I had a lot of disagreements with them that I can remember. I don’t think I was an easy child. They basically were raising me. I had the expectation when the war over, I would go back to England, but that didn’t happen. What happened was, my father had remarried, had two children. My mother had remarried and had three children. It was sort of arranged that my aunt and uncle, who had no children, would continue to raise me in the United States. I was very much upset by that at first, but I got used to it.

When I finally went back to England in 1948, eight years later, I felt fairly comfortable with the situation and met all of my little brothers, half brothers and sisters, and my new stepfather and stepmother on different sides, all of whom I got along with very well. It just evolved that way. I went back, and continued to live and be raised in the United States with occasional visits over to England. My father would get over a fair amount, my mother not. I was in closer contact with him.

I went to school. Ended up in my high school years at a boarding school in Connecticut called Hotchkiss. Finishing there probably was another fork in my life. Most of my classmates were going to Ivy League schools. My best friends were almost all going to Yale. That was the easy place for me to have gone, really.

Instead, I chose to go to Georgetown, which was kind of an exception. I think several reasons, looking back at it. One, I was quite comfortable going to a Catholic school. I had been raised as a Catholic. I didn’t feel that that was going to be something all that different. Washington and the international aspect and just the seat of government kind of interested me. Thirdly, it was sort of a breaking away, in a sense, even from my aunt and uncle, who assumed I would be going to an Ivy League school, I think. So the new vista, and I am very glad I did it. It really opened up a whole new dimension. I just had a great great four years at Georgetown. I did a lot of things, including being on the boxing team and various other more academic adventures.

Partway along the way, I had to make a decision whether to become a U.S. citizen. I could apply for it to be naturalized at age eighteen. I did so. It was not a hard decision to make. By that time, I really felt like I was American, and I wanted to be an American. I was in ROTC at Georgetown. In order to go into advanced ROTC, I had to apply for my American citizenship. So I did that.

When I finished Georgetown, I went shortly thereafter into the Army, which again seemed like a fairly natural thing to do. I had the experience of World War II, in a sense, and feeling a great antagonism towards Hitler. Then the Cold War ensued, and the Korean War was going on when I went into ROTC. Just the concept of trying to fight against totalitarianism, I think, was innate within me. It still is.

So I went in. I went into the Infantry. After basic officer training, I went to Ranger School and Airborne School. I was very gung-ho. I was sent over to Japan to join a unit there with all this gung-ho background. There was a misunderstanding by the commanding general of the First Carrier Division, who thought from my records that I played football at Georgetown. Actually, we had given up football, and I had played intramural football. Georgetown had been very good in the ‘40s, so they were well known.

I had a good friend who I went over with, Willis Crane, who fortunately had played top grade football at Clemson. The two of us, when we arrived went to visit the general. We thought this was normal for officers arriving. It was July. He says, “We’ve got a football team here. You two young men are going to play football.” [Laughs] That’s what I did for a while. It was a great experience. 

The Army had just been integrated really about a year before. Half the team were black, half the team were white. Willis was a very strong influence. He was probably the best player on the team. He really put it to all of the white players that we were going to play, and work with all of the black players. It was a new experience. It was an interesting experience. It worked out very well.

Just being in Japan at that time, 1957, was a very interesting experience. No animosity, notwithstanding the twelve years earlier, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was pretty astounding. I felt very comfortable there. I tried to study Japanese, and get to know some Japanese. At the end of my tour there, we closed down our camp and I was working with some Japanese. One of them who I got to know would bring me his children’s books to learn the two little Japanese alphabets, rather than the kanji. I got to be able to use those, but they were totally useless reading the newspaper. Every fourth character was one of those, and the rest were kanji. It was kind of useless.

But then I got transferred over to Korea. We were right up on the DMZ [demilitarized zone] and it was much more of a total military experience, even though it was peacetime. You could really see the potential enemy. It was very serious.

When I finished that or before I finished it, I had to make a decision what to do next. I had been a history major, history and government, at Georgetown, and had this idea that I would get at least a Master’s degree in History and teach and so forth.

I had a friend, George O’Grady, who had left earlier and gone back to Chicago. He was at the University of Chicago. When you are way overseas like that, at those times you had no contact with the U.S. Fortunately, George was there going to graduate school at the University of Chicago. He facilitated my applying and getting accepted there.

When I got back, it was wintertime. I arrived at University of Chicago. It was freezing cold, and kind of a miserable experience. After a couple of months at University of Chicago, studying seventeenth-century France and eighteenth-century Italy and so forth, it felt so removed from what I had been doing in Korea and everything, that I just realized, “This wasn’t going to work for me.” 

The only good part of University of Chicago is the relationship to my wife, Eileen. This is another one of these curious things in life, a happenstance. Her brother had a track scholarship to Georgetown. He was in my class. Senior year in the spring, he had invited his kid sister to come for a weekend. She was at Northwestern. His roommate, Charlie Craig, was going to be her date for Saturday night. Charlie had to go home to New York, for some reason. I was the substitute. We met. Then we stayed in, kind of letters, in touch while I was in the Army. She lived in Cleveland. I was now in Chicago. She was able to get up once or twice. We kind of reconnected. That was the one very important benefit of my University of Chicago experience. 

I instead explored law school. I kind of backed into it. I had this funny event where the only two people I knew at Harvard Law School at the time were who we call Tony Scalia, Nino Scalia, who became a Supreme Court justice, and his Georgetown roommate, Dick Coleman, who was also his roommate in Georgetown. They were first year students.

I arrived in March or April. It was a miserable, wet day. I came into their room and was chatting with them. They were not happy campers. They didn’t know how they were doing. They had had no exams at that point. They basically said to me, “Think twice about coming here, [Laughs] or even becoming a lawyer!” I used to see Nino a couple of times, not very often, and I would mention this to him. He said, “Oh, was I really that bad?”

I went to Harvard, notwithstanding that. Harvard in those days was much more of a trade school, in a sense. Yale was when you wanted—I know, where Bill [Kelly] went—was much, to us, was much more of the theoretical. 

I didn’t care for it very much my first, second year. But my summer between my second or third year, I managed to work for a couple of wonderful professors, international law professors, which was really my interest, particularly Professor Louis Sohn, who was one of them, who I became really quite friendly with. That sort of really—I wouldn’t say inspired me, but it made me feel better about the law and my interest in the law. 

I was able to take a couple of international law courses. But I still wasn’t sure I was going to practice. There were two other people in my study group. We just had a study group of four of us, who I thought were—and they were—really much better legally attuned guys than I was. Neither of them ever practiced law. One clerked for a while. I practiced law in one way or another for my whole life, ever since the first day I got out of law school.

Well, I skipped one whole thing, which was Eileen. We had gotten back together at the University of Chicago and continued that relationship, and got engaged and got married the summer after my first year. Eileen had been teaching at the Cleveland schools in elementary schools, and got a job in a school outside of Boston. But we then had our first child near the end of my second year—not great timing, just before my exams. Ann was born. We got through that. Fortunately, Eileen’s mother came and helped out for a while. 

We were living there in Cambridge, Mass. We were very fortunate to find a great little place. The fellow who owned it and ran it—it was just a small apartment, group of apartments, about six apartments in Cambridge. It was very hard to find fairly decent places. He had been in the Merchant Marines. He kept that really spic and span. We said, “We would like to do it, and he could write us a signed lease.”

He said, “I don’t give no leases. Either I like you or you don’t, and you’ll find out pretty quickly.”  [Laughs] Fortunately, he liked us, I guess. We stayed on, and Ann was born. We got through.

After I graduated, I took a job in New York. There was kind of a siphon going to New York law firms—if you got an offer, you ought to take it. I was sort of inclined to go back to Washington, but there was an election going on when I was interviewing. I just ended up going to New York. I had a good experience. I very much liked the firm. The first was called LeBoeuf, Lamb, and Leiby. I was doing antitrust work, which was quite interesting, actually. It was a big antitrust case.

But as another happenstance, another fork in one’s life, our next-door neighbors in the apartment in Port Washington, New York, very nice couple. Shelly Turtletaub went to Columbia Law School. He had a classmate who had become the Deputy General Counsel of the Peace Corps. This was 1962. Peace Corps had started in 1961. Shelly knew Bill Josephson. Bill had told him that they needed to hire another lawyer. We just were talking about it, somehow. I don’t know how we got even onto the subject. I got interested. 

One thing led to another, and I went down and became that lawyer and joined the Peace Corps as a lawyer, as an employee, in February 1963. It was exciting. It was the New Frontier, the Kennedy administration. It was just a great time to be in Washington with a great program. It was a whole new chapter of my life.

We moved back to Washington for me, down to Washington. My son John had been born when we were living in Port Washington. There were now four of us. We came down. In a way, except for three years, two and a half years in Paris, we have been in Washington ever since. I have never regretted it. I know Eileen has not, either. 

The Peace Corps was another great four years’ experience. Georgetown was a great four years. The Peace Corps was a great four years.

Just two vignettes, one involves Kennedy and the other involves [Lyndon B.] Johnson. Well, I should first say about what lawyers did at the Peace Corps in those days. It was an in-house counsel, about five of us. We did a lot of different things. We did everything from drafting amendments to the Peace Corps Act, to helping on issues that arise between the Peace Corps and a foreign government. We had agreements with each government. [Sargent] Shriver always wanted the government to contribute something in terms of transportation, some various other in kind sort of things, but sometimes governments weren’t doing that and had to be talked to and so forth. 

Then the much more mundane. I can remember dealing with lost baggage claims, lost baggage of the volunteers going overseas or staff. Trying to get the facts and make sure we were being careful about reimbursing people, and so forth. But it was within the context of a very exciting program. When I arrived, there were only about 1,000, probably, volunteers overseas. By the time I left, four years later, we had 16,000 spread out in 60 countries. It was a big program, and I think effective in what it was trying to do.

The two vignettes is, it was a couple of months after I got there, Shriver would use the lawyers, because he was a lawyer, for all sorts of things. It was going to be the second anniversary of the Peace Corps, and President Kennedy wanted to send up an address, a written address to the Congress celebrating the second anniversary of the Peace Corps.

It came down to me to do a first draft. We were very close to the White House, and Lafayette Square was right between our building and the White House. I went out, just came up with this idea. Walked around and saw all of the statutes of [Marquis de] Lafayette and [Tadeusz] Kościuszko and others who had come over to help America in its Revolution, its military revolution. I compare that with the Peace Corps with the developing countries that were just breaking off from their colonial rule to help them with their peaceful revolutions.

Sarge thought it was terrific, and sent it over to the White House unchanged. Richard—Dick Goodwin got a hold of it and changed it around a little bit—he was one of the speech writers—I thought, “Not to the better.” But then it went up to the Congress. I had been with the Peace Corps three months and I had written something for President Kennedy. It was extraordinary. 

Maybe a year later, Kennedy is assassinated in the fall. Johnson became President. With the third anniversary, Johnson wanted to do something, and had a Rose Garden reception for a group of Peace Corps volunteers who had just returned. He invited several of us over—well, Shriver had invited a few of us including me, because I had been involved in writing some amendments to the Peace Corps Act, which Johnson had supported.  

I was over there for the Rose Garden thing. When it was finished, I think we all expected to head off and Johnson said, “No, no, come on, all of you, come on into the Oval Office.” He was about to start a meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Vice President [Hubert] Humphrey was there, and Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense. We all came in, squeezed in among them. I remember squeezing in next to the Vice President, who was very cordial. 

Johnson sat on the edge of his desk talking to Humphrey and the Joint Chiefs, and everybody, saying, “Now, these Peace Corps volunteers, this is what American soldiers in Vietnam,” as he would say, “have got to represent, these principles. They have got to reach the people and reach their hearts and minds, and make them understand we are there to help them.” He must have gone on for ten or fifteen minutes. It was really quite extraordinary. This was March, April 1964, before our large units had gone over there. It was mostly special operations and so forth. I think it was not totally unrealistic, but within a year, he had had to send over enormous regular units. The whole idea became totally impractical.

But I think that it showed to me what a tragedy the Johnson presidency was, with what happened in Vietnam. Really, he could have been truly a great president. He was a pretty good president, in everything but the Vietnam debacle, I think. Anyway, that’s the Peace Corps after four years. But it was an exciting, great four years. 

Another fork as to what to do: I had an opportunity. Shriver had gone over to the Office of Economic Opportunity, the War on Poverty. I had an opportunity to go over there, but not as a lawyer, to basically move out of legal profession and take on an administrative role, or go with a law firm. I interviewed. The one that interested me most was a firm named Royall Koegel and Rogers, which was a New York firm with a Washington office. 

William Rogers had been the Attorney General under President Eisenhower, a very distinguished, still fairly young man at the time. He personally interviewed me and talked about developing an international practice, which interested him at the time. There really wasn’t all that much international law being practiced in the private level. There was public international law, country to country issues. The whole thing sounded very interesting.   

I joined Royall Koegel and Rogers and about a year later, Bill went off to be Secretary of State. The whole idea of international sort of went into the background and I became a libel lawyer. [Laughs] Because our main client was the Washington Post, the main client for the Washington office. That had developed because Bill Rogers had become quite a good friend of Phil Graham, who was Kay Graham’s husband.

Phil had asked Bill to become the lawyer and the firm to become the lawyers for the Washington Post when he became the president, after Kay’s father had stepped down, Eugene Meyer. Phil Graham tragically began to have psychological and emotional problems. Bill Rogers was helpful to Phil Graham to try to steady him, and very helpful to Kay. I think Kay relied on Bill quite a lot, emotionally and otherwise. There was quite a close relationship there.

The work for the Post was very interesting. I had opportunities to do some personal work for Kay and for Ben Bradlee, which had been interesting. They paid for them personally, they weren’t trying to get the Post to pay for it.

A lot of the work I did was libel law review work. I would go over to the Post and look at stories, get to know, got to know quite a lot of the other reporters and the editors. Then libel law litigation as well, invasion of privacy issues, copyright issues, quite a lot of interesting stuff.

In June of 1971, suddenly came the Pentagon Papers case, which has gotten so much recent publicity because of the recent movie, The Post, Steven Spielberg with Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks.

Of course, The New York Times got the Pentagon Papers first and took their time and after a couple months, started to publish. I knew the Post was very jealous, but so be it. Then the Nixon administration went into court, and got an injunction requiring The New York Times to hold up. It was a temporary restraining order to hold up until the courts could consider further the issue of whether this was such a danger to national security that it warranted a preliminary injunction, prior restraint, by the government against the press. 

That was the situation when my partner—I had just made partner. Royall, Koegel, and no longer Rogers because Rogers was Secretary of State, although he had removed himself from anything to do with the litigation against The Times or the Post. 

My partner, Roger Clark, got a call from Ben Bradlee one morning saying, “Could you and Tony come over here to my house in Georgetown?” We had never been invited to Ben’s house, and thought that probably what was going on is, it was something to do with the Pentagon Papers. That was certainly the case. The movie depicts Roger just arriving by himself; actually, the two of us were there together. 

We had to scramble. We got on the phone trying to get some research into the Espionage Act. There was some, let’s say, “history” that might suggest it was not intended to be applicable to the press, the Espionage Act making it a criminal act to knowingly disclose secret information, classified information.

But we were concerned that the Post—Kay personally really and possibly Ben—could be subject to criminal penalties, in addition to the Post having an injunction against it and being pursued criminally, which could have had a lot of business repercussions over and above the legal repercussions. But Kay Graham made a very courageous decision I think, particularly in retrospect, to go for it.

We plunged into litigation. Probably the most intense ten days in my life. Because we started in the district court and won there. Judge [Gerhard] Gesell of the District Court denied the temporary restraining order. It went up to the Court of Appeals, who sent it back to Gesell to have a more full hearing, and did enter a temporary restraining order pending Gesell’s next decision. Judge Gesell again decided after the second hearing to deny the TRO [Temporary Restraining Order].

This time, the Court of Appeals agreed, but entered a stay so that the government could appeal to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court immediately took the case, ordered briefs filed within 36 hours, I think, of the time they took the case. Then we had hearings before the Supreme Court and a decision, all in I think about eleven days. It was just extraordinary. Then obviously, we were excited to get a favorable decision. 

I have been asked, in the context of the more recent things with [Edward] Snowden and WikiLeaks and all that, how I felt about the national security aspect, particularly having been in the military and feeling pretty patriotic. But I never felt that we were really endangering the national security in the Pentagon Papers cases. 

This was going on in June of 1971. The documents were from the period of about 1955, I think, to ’67, so they were at best four years old. Roger Clark and I read each story. Ben had us read each story before it was published, and we felt comfortable with them.

We made a few minor changes. One I can remember, where there were a couple of names of State Department U.S. embassy people who might have been CIA. There was no need to have them in the articles. We just took them out. It was like doing a libel law review, in a way. I really felt pretty comfortable. The government really struggled to show anything that, in my mind, really would justify the temporary restraining order or prior restraint.

I never felt completely comfortable with what [Daniel] Ellsberg had done. I think if I had been Ellsberg, I wouldn’t have done it, just because there was something deep down in me that made me reluctant to expose secrets, no matter the cause. But he felt extremely strongly about the war. I was equivocal about the war, in a sense. I had supported it to begin with and I finally didn’t, because I just didn’t think we were going to win it and were just getting dragged down. 

I feel a bit differently about the more recent things, particularly where people are really trying to hurt the U.S. by their exposure. Whereas, I was confident that that wasn’t the case back with the Pentagon Papers. So that was an exciting event.

Another exciting event occurred to me two years later when I was asked if I would like to go over to Paris and run our law firm’s Paris office, which again came out of the blue. Bill Rogers was still in the State Department. Jack Wells, who had taken over, was a very interesting guy, much more casual than Bill Rogers. He called me up one day and said, “Tony, I understand you speak a little French. Would you like to go over and run the Paris office?” That was it. That was how our law firm was run by Jack in those days. 

It was exciting for me, because I wanted to get back. I loved the opportunity to get back into international work. It was not so exciting for Eileen and our two children, who were aged I guess about fourteen and twelve when this occurred, I think a tough age to go overseas as children. If you are younger, you don’t have the roots. If you are older, it’s most of an educational experience. 

For Eileen, it was tough. She was very gracious to do it, in retrospect. The three of them landed in Paris without knowing anybody, without speaking the language. Not a very friendly city if you don’t know people. I had a structure. I had the law firm, the office, and the people I worked with. Gradually, it thawed for all of us, but it was not an easy two years for them.

Of the four of us, the one that was most anxious to come back was my son. It turned out the experience probably meant more in his life than any of the rest of us, because he went back not only during college, but he went back to go to graduate school. At his graduate school, he was a walk-on on the rugby team. He played rugby for a couple of years. Then worked in Paris for a year, he worked for one of his professors. France, that’s just been part of his life. It was great. My daughter went back for a semester as well. 

We had a wonderful reunion for my eightieth birthday. We all went back to Paris—all being my son and his then wonderful girlfriend, my daughter and her husband, and Eileen and myself, the six of us. Unfortunately, our two grandkids, they were in school and they couldn’t come. We went back to Paris for four days. It was just wonderful. The weather was great. We enjoyed it. We went out to the west side of Paris, and walked past our old apartment building where we had lived so many years before, and had a great time.

The two years in France was very interesting. It was at a period of time when there was a whole sort of change in French politics, and Giscard d’Estaing was elected. I got over there early, before my family came. I would go back to my little apartment and I used to listen to French on the TV, because my French was not as good as I thought it was. But fortunately, these politicians would speak slowly, and it was a subject matter that interested me. It was fun.

Then I came back in 1976. Now, I had had one sort of political event in the meantime. In 1972, Sargent Shriver became the vice presidential candidate. Several of us who had worked quite closely with him were asked, “Could we come over and help out as volunteers?”  I was back with the firm then, or was with the firm. Jack Wells was running the firm again.

I called him because he, Jack, was a distinguished Republican. He had been the campaign manager for Jake Javits, the Senator for New York and for Nelson Rockefeller when he ran for governor. I didn’t know how Jack would react. He said, “Well, how soon do they want you to go over there?”

I said, “Well, I could probably wait a week or so.”

He said, “Well, don’t wait a week. Get over there this afternoon.” I totally misunderstood his question. Those political types, “Get over there.” They want you to be there and get there. So I did that.

When I came back, I had sort of missed the [Jimmy] Carter election, but we had had a young associate by the name of Tim Smith who had gone over to the White House and had worked there as a lawyer in the White House. He came back before the reelection and organized the legal team, and asked me to sort of de facto run it, helping him. I got re-involved in the Carter-Mondale election campaign. Then in 1976, helped organize a group of lawyers for [Walter] Mondale, who won, obviously, in the primary. I headed up a whole legal team for the Mondale-Ferraro campaign in 1984.

I headed up a legal team for the Mondale-Ferraro campaign, which became a very intense time. I came to very much like Geraldine Ferraro. I was sort of assigned to assist her through all the legal issues that were arising, mostly legal issues involving her husband. It was a very, obviously, intense time, and very interesting, in its way. But we got through all that and only won one state, but it was a very interesting experience.

As a result of it, I had come to know other people who were associated with the Democratic National Committee. A congresswoman—well, not then a congresswoman—a woman named Jane Harman, who was active in the Democratic Party then, organized a team of lawyers, which she thought ought to be set up to be more of a permanent group of lawyers who would be helpful to the Democratic National Committee and to candidates, until or unless they got their own legal team. She asked me to join her on that. Then after she decided to leave and go run for Congress in California, asked me to take it on.

I remember visiting with Ron Brown, who was then the head of the Democratic National Committee, to discuss that. At that moment, a call came in to him that he said, “Stay, stay, stay.” It was just at the time that Bill Clinton was coming to the forefront, but was running into difficulties of one kind or another.

It was a call from, I don’t know, some senator on the Hill saying, “We’ve got to drop Clinton and move to somebody else.”

I remember Ron Brown saying, “No, no, no, we are not going to do that.” Very interesting conversation. I picked up on that, and eventually ended up running that group for a good while and helping out in one election after another. Finally, winning an election, which was the Clinton election, which was very, very exciting at the time.

On the legal side, after Paris and running the small Paris office, I came back to Washington and became the managing partner of the office there. I couldn’t find anybody else who would replace me. I ended up doing that for over twenty years. But I have always sort of enjoyed the administrative side of things, although one has to, I found, keep the amount of hours spent as administrators at bay if one is going to bill billable hours and keep active with one’s clients. There was always some tension there, but I found the administrative side rewarding, to some extent. I was willing and happy to continue to do it.

In terms of the career, I really moved after Paris into international work, which is what I really wanted to do. A lot of it in the banking area. Fortuitously, I was able to build on my international experience in representing international banks. But I always seemed to have a fairly eclectic practice going back to the early days, when people did a lot of different things and still managed to do that.  

Yeah, just winding up on the political side of things, I continued to do that into the mid-‘90s and worked quite a bit, really, on both the first Clinton campaign and the second Clinton campaign.

Then in the second Clinton term, I was asked to help out and form something called a Clinton Legal Expense Trust, which was to raise money for the Clintons to cover their legal expenses, because the whole Whitewater investigation was going on and a bunch of other things. I agreed to do that.

Then about three weeks later, the whole Monica Lewinsky thing came to the fore. I thought, “Who is going to make any contributions to Bill and Hillary Clinton’s legal expenses?” But fortuitously, he was so much attacked, and so viciously attacked, that a lot of Democrats felt that they were going to support him and that he was being unfairly pilloried. We managed to do quite well, and raised almost $10 million in small contributions. We got some initial money from larger contributions, but then we had about 125,000, 130,000 contributions, totaling almost $10 million. I think it was of benefit.

And the real benefit, I think is when they first left office, they felt that they could step back and not just be totally saddled with enormous legal bills and figure out what they wanted to do without having to immediately go into private industry or whatever to make lots of money. They have both become so wealthy afterwards that that time is forgotten, but they didn’t really have any meaningful funds to speak of. 

But we had one kind of interesting incident, where the Senator David Pryor had been signing all of the letters going out. This was just before raising money on the internet. He was leaving office, and going to the Kennedy School. He felt he had to step from down doing that. I started to sign the letters.

We had inadvertently sent a letter under Senator Pryor’s signature to Dr. Lewinsky, Monica Lewinsky’s father. He was very kind about it. He had been a Democratic donor and he sent it back with a note saying, “I know this was inadvertent. Please take me off your list.” We did that, or we thought we had done it. Inadvertently somehow, he was not taken off one list. He got another letter. This time he wasn’t so gentle. He went to the Los Angeles Times and they ran a front-page story about it, in which he said that whoever signed this letter—and it was me—must be a total moron.

I was asked for a reply quote. I said something like, “I understand his sentiment. I don’t think I’ve been called a total moron since I left grade school, but I’ll accept the compliment,” or something like that.

I had remained with my law firm—which I had not thought would necessarily be the case—starting in 1967, all the way until I retired in 2004. Around 2000, two things occurred that were not directly connected. But one took me back to my days with the Pentagon Papers and everything. That was the death of Bill Rogers, who after he had completed a term as Secretary of State came back to the law firm and ran the firm for a good while thereafter. He passed away in 2001.

Both Ben Bradlee and Kay Graham had come to his funeral because Bill had really been, as I said, very helpful to Kay at a difficult time when her husband was deteriorating. They had remained not in close touch, but they had certainly remained in contact. I had been one of the eulogists at the funeral, which I felt very honored to have been asked to do, talking mostly about Bill and the law firm, really.

After the funeral, I was in the back of the church and saw Kay Graham was there. I went over just to say hello and she took my hand, because she still felt really quite close to Bill. Ben Bradlee came over. He took Kay’s hand, and then I took Ben’s hand. It was really a very special moment. I mean maybe just for ten or fifteen seconds where we kind of were back, back in the times of the Pentagon Papers and back in the time when Bill was their counsel, very sort of symbolic and very moving.

I still felt fairly young and active. I was sixty-five, sixty-six and my firm at that time, which had become Rogers and Wells merged with a large British firm called Clifford Chance. We were Clifford, Chance, Rogers, and Wells. That was an interesting symmetry, because here I had left England at six. Now, I was back with a British firm, sort of full circle. I often think, “If I had stayed in England, would I have ended up as a partner at Clifford Chance anyway?” But I don’t think so. 

I think the opportunities that were presented to me by staying in the United States were much greater, as it turned out. The life I led in the U.S., I don’t regret at all. I think it was probably broader and I obviously don’t regret meeting Eileen, my wife, and so forth. I don’t look back on that with any remorse, but quite the contrary, really, I think in some ways. It gave me much more opportunity and a fuller life, that I did come over and that I did stay in the United States.

Back in around 2000, I needed to start thinking of what I might want to do after I retired because the firm had—the combined firm of Clifford Chance, which was the British firm, and Rogers and Wells had a policy of normal retirement at age sixty-five. You could stay on for a couple of years under some circumstances, which I did actually. 

But I just, happenstance, was having lunch with an old friend who I had worked with a bit on the Clinton campaign, quite a bit, actually, by the name of Bob Kapp. Bob and I were talking about what we might want to do after retirement. We were just talking about maybe the two of us could look for an organization where our international experience—he had done quite a lot of international human rights work, I had done more corporate work—might be of some use, particularly in the human rights area, but maybe more generally.

Then the more we talked, the more we thought there might be a lot of lawyers our age who would be interested in doing similar sort of work, who had had some sort of international experience or if they hadn’t, their U.S. background might be of some use overseas to developing countries. The more we talked, the more we thought it might be interesting. We talked to friends about it, including—I think Bob talked to Bill Kelly. So we set about looking into it.

We were very fortunate to get a grant to be able to explore this further. We were also very fortunate to find a woman named Barbara Swann, who had been doing this type of work for the Justice Department in the Balkans, Kosovo, and so forth, to do a two-month study. She went out all around the world visiting bar associations and human rights organizations in Africa, the Far East, and came back and put together a very good report. It was very upbeat and said, “There is a real need potentially for American lawyers to do this type of work, to provide their expertise to pro bono lawyers, to human rights organizations, to governments potentially, to help upgrade their legal capacity.” 

We started in and again, we were fortunate with the Open Society Foundation becoming a principal initial funder, and going out from there. We started in our organization setting up as the prosaic named International Senior Lawyers Project. A lot of people want to change the name because “seniors” make it sound like we are a bunch of old fuddy-duddies, but we haven’t found a better name yet after seventeen years. It’s gone very well. So many people have pitched in and done such a great job.

We began by recruiting, and thinking we would just be recruiting retired lawyers or semi-retired. We really found that senior lawyers in active practice in law firms were equally interested. They couldn’t go overseas for a month, but they could go over for a week. The type of work we’ve been doing—just very briefly—is partly helping government lawyers and so forth. For example, the natural resources area, the extraction to be able to better negotiate upgrade capacity, to negotiate with international law firms representing international organizations, international companies, and upgrade their ability to get a fair shake in these agreements and to try to build in protection for people who are working for these companies, whether it’s in mining or in agriculture or wherever it is. And to get their rights protected, basically, and to provide transparency. When the money is coming in, there are safeguards against it being siphoned off into people’s pockets.

Then also working on the other side with civil society organizations, human rights organizations, human rights law firms to help upgrade their capacity to effectively litigate these types of issues using U.S. precedents where we can.

The whole program has grown not large, but certainly medium-sized, using 100, 150 lawyers a year, maybe more, both going overseas and doing work from the United States. It continues to go strong. Bob Kapp, my co-president, and I stepped down a couple of years ago, but we seem to be as busy with the organization in an emeritus capacity as we were when we were co-presidents.

That’s been a great experience for me, very exciting to have seen something like that growing with a lot of people helping, which included your husband in a major way, which we very much appreciated.  

So I’d just really like to close. It’s been an exciting eighty-three years of living. I feel very blessed in many ways.

First of all, with Eileen, my wife. It’s our 59th reunion—well, not reunion, but our 59th anniversary will be coming up in June. She has just been so supportive in fifty-nine years, including the whole experience in Paris, which was not an easy one to go through. Two great children, a wonderful son-in-law, two wonderful grandchildren. I feel very blessed by it all. Five siblings, who through Eileen’s efforts, have stayed close to all of them. They are spread all around the world, half-brothers, and half-sisters, all their children, stayed close. It’s amazing. Now they have got grandchildren. It just goes on and on. A really extended family. It’s just been a very fortuitous and eighty-three years.

Just about my father and his British Navy experience: he had been an eighteen-year old Navy cadet in World War I, but he loved the sea. I have never cared for the sea, I don’t know why we differed that much. Otherwise, we were really quite close. He did a lot of ocean racing, sailboat racing as a crew with other people on their large sailboats.

When the [Second World] War broke out, he was in his forties. He and the others were a bit too old to be called up right away. But they volunteered. It was 1939, early 1940. The United States was not in the war, but [President Franklin] Roosevelt was secretly supporting England by having small craft—well, he was doing it in a number of ways—but one way was by having small craft taken by U.S. Navy people out of uniform across to Iceland and the Faroe Islands, and dropped off there. Then my father and others would go up and pick up these—they were tugboats and smaller craft, and bring them down for use by the British Navy. 

He was involved in Dunkirk. I don’t believe he actually went across to pick up soldiers and everything, but he was involved administratively, I think. Then went in full-time into the Navy. At that point, he determined that he needed to try to get me overseas, and did so. He then ended up on a corvette, which was a small destroyer. He would come over accompanying convoys coming over to pick up material from the U.S., and then go back.

A very odd situation, interesting vignette, I think, was, my sister had some old things of my father’s that she had collected and sent over to me. It included a letterhead from the Yale Club, 1943. I was in the Washington office in the law firm and our offices, our New York offices, were across the street from the Yale Club. I used to stay there at the Yale Club, because one of our partners was the chairman of the Yale Club at the time, and he had made this arrangement that the Yale Club would get paid by the firm.

This was on Yale Club letterhead from a friend of my father’s, who was also in the British Navy who was obviously in New York. It was a note to him on Yale Club stationary saying, “Johnny, glad you have made it. We meet at the bar at 7:00 p.m. Eric.” I thought, “Maybe my dad was staying in the same room I am in at the Yale Club!”

I will just give you one other vignette with my dad. At the end of the war, after Germany was out of it and Japan was still in—this was the summer of 1945. I was up at a camp in the Adirondacks called the Adirondack Camp. It was on Lake George.

My father, who was very outgoing and sort of gregarious, had met some U.S. Navy guys who had a seaplane. He talked them into flying him up. He had arranged this with the camp.

We were all in an area overlooking the lake. We came down. He arrives, prearranged on the seaplane, and lands. The seaplane lands with its pontoons and everything, taxis up fairly close. He gets out on a pontoon boat with one of the U.S. guys who rows him ashore. He comes in, and you know, this was this was the summer of 1945, in his dress whites again. It was probably the big event of the summer at the camp. He was very much like that. Just a couple of family vignettes. 

Kelly:  That’s like it ought to be in a movie.

Essaye: Yes, absolutely.

Kelly:  So you were about twelve?

Essaye: Yeah, this was 1945. I was eleven.

Kelly:  Eleven.

Essaye: Saying, you know, my life experience World War II and the Cold War and the overhanging nuclear threat. I had really hoped in the early 1990’s when the Soviet Union came to what appeared to be a demise through more than anything else, the whole nuclear standoff, I think, that things would change and that at least there was a very substantial chance that countries would move towards less autocratic ownership, more of a democracy, more of a peaceful relationship between countries and less rivalry and so forth. That in the end, nuclear research and the atomic bomb would create a peaceful environment rather than a war environment, and that the Great Powers themselves could then as a group really intervene in smaller conflicts, and have a much greater chance of having a peaceful earth rather than a world that was full of military combat. 

It’s just been very frustrating and disappointing to see—in the last few years, in particular—how that has not evolved and how much work has to be done, really to maintain democracy, that it doesn’t maintain itself. That it seems to be a natural instinct in mankind, where democracy is not being effective, to slip back to autocratic government and all of the abilities it brings to cut through logjams and create results, at the expense of freedom and at the expense of people who are not in favor with the autocracy. So many downsides. One integral part of democracy is some degree of willingness on the part of people who don’t agree with each other to come together and try to forge agreement, at least in some areas.

Being realistic about it, it’s not going to be across the board, but my whole experience with Republicans in my law firm—basically a Republican law firm, but everybody knew I was a Democrat, an active Democrat, the Jack Wells experience that I have indicated. Here we had Bill Rogers, Attorney General under Eisenhower, Secretary of State under President Nixon; Jack Wells, a major figure in the Republican Party for many years. We also had Cap Weinberger, who had been Secretary of Defense for Reagan, and Bill Casey, who had been CIA director for Reagan, both as partners or counsel to our firm at periods of time, both of whom I worked closely with. Really got to know, got on very well. It was just a mutual respect. We didn’t agree in some areas, but we really respected each other.

I don’t want to be Pollyanna-ish about this because I know there are going to be deep differences. There always are. But the center, if the center doesn’t hold, if there are no areas where you can work together, it’s extremely hard for democracy to survive, I think, and extremely dangerous. 

Autocracies can seem like a solution at first. They almost inevitably veer off into something being very different than where they began. I am hopeful that the countries that remain committed to democracy are going to find ways to try to create a much greater amount of sort of common ground within their constituencies. That is certainly something I want to try to participate in and devote what remaining years I have to participating, if there are opportunities to do it.

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