Norman Dorsen, 1930–2017

Norman Dorsen, longtime ACLU leader and a key figure in New York University and its law school — and a dear friend for forty years — died on July 1. I offered these reflections at his memorial service in Cornwall, Connecticut on August 31.

I always like to tell people, and reminded Norman many times over the years, about the first time I really met him, over forty years ago.

I was a 22-year old peon — a minute-taker for the ACLU board meetings — in 1976, and one Saturday in December Norman was elected chair of the board, a position he held for fifteen years. The ACLU board meetings, then as now, ran over two weekend days, and were then held at the Barbizon Plaza Hotel near Central Park. Norman, with whom I had up to that time barely spoken a word, pulled me aside at the end of the Saturday session and asked me to meet him the next morning a half-hour before the other board members showed up.

Why? The ACLU board — then, as now, an unwieldy and contentious group of over eighty people — had hardened into factions and social groups, and Norman was eager to shake it up. So early that morning at the hotel he had me work with him to move the tables into different configurations so that when the members arrived they wouldn’t know where to sit.

That bit of creative instability was the beginning of Norman’s considerable influence on me, to be sure, but more importantly on a great American institution, whose leadership he assumed at a moment of financial and organizational challenge. In the annals of organizations, board chairs rarely get the credit they deserve, for if they do their jobs well, others shine. Norman over the years became a dear friend, and his influence on me is hardly limited to the board room, but I went on to serve with him in later years as a member of the ACLU’s board and executive committee, and there is no one from whom I have learned more about organizational leadership, or from whose wisdom I continued to benefit.

Norman took an interest in me and my professional development from that point on, as he did in many young people over more than fifty years at NYU Law School. Once I went to work for the ACLU fulltime after graduating from Columbia, my main job was to staff all the organization’s policy-making committee — there were at least seven, on topics ranging from academic freedom to equality, and each had about 20 or 25 members and they met monthly for two hours in the early evening. As I got to know this group of over 150 people, I began to notice something that many of them had in common. They had gone to NYU Law School, and served as Arthur Garfield Hays Fellows. You heard more about Hays from Sylvia Law, Norman’s partner in that program for decades, but that’s when I first had a glimpse of Norman’s enormous network. Long after they were his students, Norman made sure the Hays Fellows — virtually all of whom have gone on to be leaders in the law, civil rights and liberties and social justice, had opportunities for public interest leadership.

After I left the ACLU national office and my role with the ACLU board, Norman and I kept in touch, and he provided a steady stream of advice, sometimes when I asked for it — and sometimes not. One example of the latter stayed with me powerfully. We were having lunch in the fall of 1983 at the Knickerbocker on University Place not far from NYU. I was 29 years old. I had made a run for the job of Executive Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, then the ACLU’s largest affiliate, but lost out. It seemed to me at the time an injustice, and my young self was blind to the notion that the board might have thought I needed a bit more seasoning. Norman simply told me: “Sometimes in life the best thing to happen to you is not to get what you think you want.” At the time, I found these words cold comfort, but they stayed with me over the years as that rejection, which took me off the path I thought I was on, opened up many other opportunities for the life and career I have had and relished.

As many of you know, Norman was a very gifted editor along with everything else, and my bookshelves sag with civil liberties series he edited, along with the many unsold copies of a book he and I did together on the tensions between free speech and equality, more relevant now than when we worked on it over twenty years ago. From time to time I sent him articles or essays that I wanted his judgment on, and he always delivered and made them better at drawing out what I really wanted to say. Over time, as I sent him already-published articles, he would return them edited as well, and I regretted not showing them beforehand. One of my biggest regrets today is that he is not around to take a blue pencil to these remembrances.

I want to go back, as I close, to Norman and the ACLU, along with his family and NYU one of great passions of his life. When he took over the ACLU board, as I have mentioned, it was riven with faction and conflict over old wounds, some going back to the 1940s. A popular staffer had been recently fired, and the board was divided in camps over that. There had been a disputed board election, and allegations of cheating. A special organizational review committee had been launched. Norman brought the ACLU through those days with vigor, diplomacy and grace, and soon he was the right man in the right place when in the second year of his Presidency, the ACLU was under fire for its defense of the free speech rights of a group of neo-Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois, a community with many concentration camp survivor. Sound familiar? That we were able to turn that crisis into a moment of clarity about the ACLU’s values, drawing more support because we were able to take a hit for standing on principle, owes much to Norman’s leadership, and this was nowhere more evident than in the landmark free speech convocation Norman organized in early 1978, co-chaired by a Democrat, Ted Kennedy, and a Republican, Jacob Javits. Hard to imagine that happening today.

Norman was an all-too-rare amalgam, sorely needed in many quarters today, of principle and pragmatism. He had the kind of core adherence to rock-solid values he learned as an aide to Joe Welch, the man whose anguished query during the Army-McCarthy hearings resonates through the decades and is freshly urgent today: “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you no sense of decency? “ But he also had the kind of tough political sense that helped him, sometimes with my behind the scenes help as a kind of Karl Rove of the ACLU board, to manage a roomful of 83 egos and interests.

Finally let me say how meaningful it is to me to be with you today in Cornwall, which Norman loved so much and which, despite his deep urban origins, became his true home, with so many people in this community that he loved. I cherish a particular memory, some summers ago when I happened to be in Cornwall by myself for a few days, I think to see my dear friend Rolly Algrant perform in a summer stock production in Sharon of Annie Get Your Gun. I had dinner with Norman and Harriette and Rolly and Christine in the Wandering Moose Café in town, all five of us Virgos born within a week of one another in late August and early September –within days of today, actually: my birthday was Saturday. We laughed and talked about families and politics in what now seems like a more innocent time. My heart aches this afternoon that I am the only survivor of that dinner, and I miss what each of them would bring to these challenging days, but none more than Norman, whose moral compass never wavered, whose intellectual integrity was unyielding, whose circle of caring was broad and deep, and who, in unsparingly holding our country to its highest ideals, was an American patriot in the truest sense of that word.

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