Milton Brener on New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison
Milton Brener was appointed Assistant District Attorney by DA Jim Garrison in the early 1960s. The following is excerpted from Brener's The Garrison Case: A Study in the Abuse of Power.
The strange spectacle known as the Kennedy assassination probe of Jim Garrison cannot be fully understood without some understanding of the man himself and his tempestuous political career.
He is physically impressive-six feet, six inches tall, handsome, and well built. His dress is immaculate; his voice is deep and beautifully modulated. Few experience trouble recalling his name. No one mistakes him for anyone else.
The favorable first impression deepens upon closer contact, for Garrison is blessed with an easy mastery of the language. Humor is his key weapon and he has a deft ability to parry the most telling criticism with pointedly clever rejoinders. They generally obscure to all but the most humorless their often totally irrelevant nature.
He is possessed of an irresistible confidence in himself and the correctness of his opinion on any matter he deems significant. Contemptuous of details, he is subject to capricious change of opinion on matters not fundamental to his basic convictions. But the fundamentals of these convictions are his most cherished possessions. They yield to no evidence.
He sometimes appears to stand in awe of his ideas in the manner of a sculptor or painter regarding his work. His manner in meeting attacks upon them is not defensive; it is one of restrained outrage.
The correctness of his conclusions is thus a matter of high principle; he does not compromise nor admit to the possibility of error. A favorite author is Ayn Rand; a favorite book, The Fountainhead, the story of the uncompromising architect. As though anxious to dispel an impression of intractability, he often seems prone to compensate by a ready disposition to yield to all suggestions in matters of less significance.
There is, finally, a quality about Garrison incapable of definition that renders an abiding dislike of the man virtually impossible upon personal contact. The word "charm" is close, but inadequate. I once heard him say of a mutual acquaintance that he possessed a "delicious" sense of humor. The word aptly describes his own. It permeates his private informal conversation no less than his most studied public appearance. His manner is casual and unhurried.
These were traits that were quickly apparent when I first met Garrison in the fall of 1956 upon joining the staff of District Attorney Leon Hubert, who was later to serve as Assistant Counsel to the Warren Commission. Garrison was Hubert's Executive Assistant. First Assistant was Malcolm O'Hara, who was later to serve as a fudge of the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court. There was nothing in Garrison's performance to presage what was to come. I knew nothing of his past, which was, in fact, unspectacular. He was born Earling Carothers Garrison in 1921 in Denison, Iowa, and moved to Chicago with his mother at an early age. He served with distinction in the United States Army in Europe during World War II as a pilot of an unarmed observation plane. His legal education was at Tulane Law School in New Orleans, from which he graduated in 1949. After graduation he took a year of postgraduate work, then found employment with a large New Orleans law firm.
Garrison was appointed Assistant District Attorney for Orleans Parish in 1953. Without question, he was the most impressive of the twenty or so lawyers on the District Attorney's staff. He was reputed to be lazy. I, for one, never agreed with that estimate, however, and felt it was born largely of his propensity for writing satirical compositions, often in verse, which he circulated among the staff, and an undoubted knack for delegating both authority and labor.
Like the rest of us, of course, he was not without fault. He did, it seemed, have a tendency to make snap judgments on insufficient facts. He was prone to oversimplify. His abundant ego could, on occasion, be a cause of annoyance. And it is neither exaggeration nor hindsight to recall that in his humor there could at times be detected traces of cruelty.
But these faults, if such they were, seemed relatively insignificant. More prominent were his obvious ability, an easy manner, and a sharp and spontaneous humor. His mind was quick. He seemed incapable, and intolerant, of dullness or ineptitude.
Garrison's earliest political adventures gave little hint of the tempest to follow. In the fall of 1957, with the backing of the then Mayor, de Lesseps S. Morrison, Garrison ran as a sacrificial candidate for the office of Assessor in a district traditionally, and invincibly, in the grip of a political opponent of the Mayor. Morrison himself was running for reelection as Mayor. Malcolm O'Hara was the administration candidate for District Attorney. I agreed to help Garrison with the ritual of posting signs on election day at polling places throughout the district. I was, and remain, ignorant in the ways of politics, but knew it to be minimum accepted procedure that posters be in place before the polls opened at 6:00 A.M. Garrison suggested 9:30 A.M. It was at least 10:30 A.M. by the time we actually started. It amounted to a leisurely cruise through the area punctuated by infrequent stops to post a sign wherever a vacant spot could be found amid the sea of his opponent's posters. His reaction to a 3-1 defeat was mock solemn assurance to me that, had he listened to my suggestion to post additional signs, he would have won.
Morrison was an easy winner. In the race for District Attorney Malcolm O'Hara went into a second Democratic primary, held in January, 1958, against Richard Dowling, an experienced and well-known criminal lawyer. On the night of the second primary election, O'Hara was the apparent winner by five votes out of approximately eighty thousand cast. Even before the final returns were in, most of the assistant district attorneys geared for the court fight that was inevitably to follow such a close election. Ultimately, the result was reversed by the State Supreme Court, which threw out thirteen votes in one precinct as having been fraudulently cast by the polling commissioners. As the commissioners all wore O'Hara badges, the votes were subtracted by Supreme Court edict from the O'Hara column, rendering Dowling the winner. Garrison's acid comments were welcome relief to the general gloom of the assistant DA's. No one saw fit to mention that he had not been seen during the course of the preparation for the election suit, the trial, or the appeal. He had, in fact, not been seen at all following the official counting of the ballots, at which time he had pronounced the controversy to be "all over," the reversal of the vote in the courts to be an "impossibility," and the claim of fraud made by the Dowling forces to be "incredible."
Service in the District Attorney's Office in Orleans Parish is under the spoils system, not civil service. The entire force of assistant district attorneys on Leon Hubert's staff suddenly faced the prospect of immediate relocation, and Garrison entered the private practice of law.
The next four years were tough ones. His sense of humor never dulled, though its target was often his own financial difficulties and his struggle to survive in the practice of law. But he was the embodiment of the adage that one can best hide his poverty by living like a rich man. His dress continued impeccable, his cigars expensive. He would spend several hours at the more plush New Orleans restaurants consuming pre- and post-lunch martinis and liqueurs and entertaining his companions with splendid specimens of wit.
In 1959 Mayor Morrison ran for Governor against Jimmie Davis and lost. For his support in the campaign, Garrison was appointed Assistant City Attorney, a part-time job paying a nominal salary.
In 1960 Garrison ran with the support of Mayor Morrison against a sitting Criminal Court Judge; Sitting Judges have traditionally been considered unbeatable, a myth that was to remain until destroyed by Garrison himself sometime after his election as District Attorney. However, even as early as 1960, it was apparent that Garrison had little faith in this dogma. He ignored the platitudes of his co-candidates for other judgeships and launched an aggressive attack on the poor work record of the incumbent. Garrison lost by a mere few thousand votes. It is interesting to speculate on the nature of his judicial career had he won.
Sometime shortly thereafter Garrison formally changed his name to "Jim Garrison," the name by which he had always been known.
In 1961 he qualified to run for District Attorney against the incumbent, Richard Dowling, with a well-written blast at Dowling's laxity in pursuing prosecutions and, generally, in attending to the duties of his office. It was a charge often made by others throughout Dowling's four-year term, but Dowling, a tough warrior by any standards, appeared unbeatable. Garrison sought the support of Mayor Victor H. Schiro, who had been chosen by the City Council to succeed Morrison upon the latter's appointment as Ambassador to the Organization of American States. Despite Schiro's reluctance to be burdened with Dowling's spotty record on law enforcement, he refused to buck a District Attorney considered to be a likely winner. Dowling's major opposition appeared to be defense attorney Irvin Dymond, later to appear as chief counsel for Clay Shaw, the man accused by Garrison of conspiracy in the assassination of President Kennedy. Dymond had the backing of a major mayoralty candidate. Another candidate in the District Attorney race was Frank Klein, likewise backed by a mayoralty candidate. Garrison had no backing at all. He was without support or money of his own. On one occasion I spoke to him in the Civil Court Building and inquired if he were still in the race. He lamented that the deadline for withdrawals had passed and complained that he could not get the support of Mayor Schiro as he, Garrison, had been "finessed," referring to a purported agreement whereby Schiro and Dowling would not oppose each other.
About a month before the first Democratic primary, there occurred one of the few truly decisive events in New Orleans politics. All of the District Attorney candidates were invited to appear on an open-end panel discussion to be broadcast live on all four television stations operating in the New Orleans area. Dowling, acting on the advice of his supporters that he had nothing to gain by offering himself as a live target for the various challengers, bowed out with a prior out-of-town engagement. His absence did little, however, to abate the vigor of his opponents' attacks. Garrison said virtually nothing until well into the program when, with the calm of a man with little to lose, he began an authoritative discourse about the current narcotics problem, its roots, its scope, and the "incredible" failure of the incumbent to attack it. This was the first exposure of consequence of the people of New Orleans to the beautifully modulated self-assured voice and the superbly effective forensics of Jim Garrison. Garrison looked and spoke like a District Attorney. And he had a captive audience. There was nothing else to watch on television in New Orleans that night.
Presently, the moderator turned to the question of the "full-time District Attorney" prompted by the repeated criticism of the incumbent for having allegedly neglected his office in order to pursue his private civil law practice. All but Dymond quickly promised to divest themselves of all outside interests. For the $17,000 yearly salary, they would devote all of their time and energy to the public. Few of the viewers realized that none except Dymond had any practice of consequence to surrender. The question gave Dymond more trouble. After preliminary skirmishing, Dymond in a moment of brutal candor said:
Let me say this. I make more than $17,000 per year and I intend to go on making more than $17,000 per year. And if the people of New Orleans want a $17,000 per year man as their District Attorney, I'm not their boy.
His candor may well have earned him the votes of a number of people earning more than $17,000 per year. Undoubtedly, however, he lost a considerable number of votes from those who manage to get along on less. It was an uneven swap. The remark deserves to live in history with "Rum, Romanism and Rebellion." The program not only finished Dowling, it all but eliminated Dymond as a major candidate. But Garrison had projected beautifully, and the response was tremendous. Support developed; contributions trickled in and TV appearances were possible. In each of them. more and more voters became fascinated by the image of this giant of a man and his flawless delivery.
"Let me show you the record of my opponent on some of the more important narcotic offenders," he proclaimed. His melodious voice boomed with promise of fascinating and shocking things to come. He turned to a blackboard containing the names of the offenders: "If I told you, you wouldn't believe it." He termed Dowling "The Great Emancipator." Said Garrison, "He let everyone go free."
"Get a new District Attorney," said Garrison. He named several of his opponents, including Klein, as all being good men. "If I'm not your cup of tea, vote for one of them, but get a new District Attorney." By friends he was soon dubbed "The Jolly Green Giant." The name stuck.
In the first primary Dowling fell far short of the needed majority. Garrison was a close second; Dymond a very poor third. Klein was fourth. With the votes of Garrison, Dymond, and Klein clearly constituting anti-Dowling votes, Garrison's second primary victory seemed almost assured.
There was a second open-end panel. Now, however, there were only two opponents: Dowling and Garrison. This time Dowling appeared, and the result was quite different. Garrison was not in his element. The free flow of uninterrupted discourse was not possible as Garrison was placed permanently on the defensive by the tough and experienced courtroom lawyer. Nor did he do a creditable job of defending. Hard facts have never been Garrison's forte. One disappointed Garrison supporter opined the following day that at the conclusion of the program Garrison looked as though he had been hit with a wet mop.
It made no difference. Unfortunately for Dowling, it was too late. Garrison won the second primary by about 6,000 votes out of approximately 130,000 cast. Schiro was reelected Mayor by a comfortable margin.
Garrison picked Frank Klein as his First Assistant; his top investigator was Pershing Gervais, a controversial figure, previously dismissed from the Police Department for misconduct, and a former witness against fellow policemen during a graft system scandal of major proportions. The appointment was to cause Garrison embarrassment and complications throughout most of his first four years. But the two men were fast friends and Garrison has always repaid loyalty with intense loyalty of his own.
Instead of the three or four civilian investigators usually employed by the District Attorney's Office, Garrison asked for and received about a dozen top policemen as his investigative force.
I spoke to Garrison about serving in a part-time position on his staff, one that could be pursued without interference with private civil practice. He responded by appointing me to supervise prosecution of all narcotic cases. In the course of my seventeen months in his office, I was assigned considerably more varied duties, but neither I nor most who have served on his staff could find reason to complain about Garrison as a man to work for. He was appreciative and respectful of each man's efforts.
In May 1962, Garrison and his staff were sworn into office. The major apprehension being voiced by his political opponents and detractors was the tired complaint that Garrison was lazy. It was going to be nigh impossible to get this slow-moving gangling giant to act. This was going to be a do-nothing administration.
Or so they said.
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