In the summer of 1941 I went south from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to do research at the Library of Congress. Every morning I disappeared into the darkness of the manuscript division and immersed myself in the Washington of Andrew Jackson. At five o’clock, when the library closed, I would come out into the sunlight and heat of the Washington of Franklin Roosevelt. While I was entangled in the nineteenth century, the twentieth-century world was exploding around me. I remember emerging one afternoon to find newspaper extras proclaiming that the British had sunk the German battleship Bismarck. One could almost touch the wave of elation running through people on the street. It was far from the age of Jackson.
A beautiful young girl named Evangeline Bell, whom I had known when she was at Radcliffe, invited me to dinner at a place called Hockley to meet her friend Ed Prichard. One knew of Prich by reputation. He had made a powerful impression when he was at the Harvard Law School. He was Felix Frankfurter’s adored protégé, the coeditor at the age of twenty-four with Archibald MacLeish of Law and Politics: Occasional Papers of Felix Frankfurter. Now he was the Wunderkind of the New Deal. I had no idea that, as a friend, I would in years to come watch his brilliant future fall in ruins, and then conclude in triumph. He died on December 23, 1984.
On a soft summer evening Evangeline and I drove across Key Bridge to an old Virginia mansion on a high bluff overlooking the Potomac. We sat on the columned veranda, with a wide lawn before us and the lights of Georgetown in the distance, while Johnson, the Negro butler, served mint juleps in silver cups. I had never had mint juleps before. The “New Deal bachelors” who were renting Hockley were returning from their jobs at the war agencies. I cannot remember who was there that night. Among the young men living for periods short or long at Hockley were Philip L. Graham, later publisher of The Washington Post; Adrian Fisher, who was to become arms control negotiator and dean of the Georgetown Law School; Henry Reuss, later congressman from Wisconsin; William L. Cary, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission; John Oakes, editor of The New York Times editorial page; John Ferguson, ambassador to Morocco; Graham Clayton, secretary of the Navy and president of Amtrak. William Sheldon, the moving spirit behind Hockley, was grievously wounded at Guadalcanal and killed himself in a naval hospital in California.
When Prich appeared, he at once took over as the undisputed king of that formidable group. The talk was rapid, knowing, and droll—talk of the war, of the problems of defense mobilization, of FDR, of Felix and Harry, of Dean and Ben and Tom. I found it all vastly exciting. I do not think it was just the mint juleps. Prich was the dazzling center, exuberant, witty, bursting with legal ideas, political insight, administration gossip, and intrigue. He was enormously fat, enormously well read, enormously funny. He seemed to know everything that was going on, mimicking the mighty with immense relish.
Prich dominated his friends partly because of his extraordinary personal brilliance and charm, partly too, I surmise, because he mingled two basic streams of New Deal energy, one political, one intellectual—the Kentucky side and the Frankfurter side.
He had been born in 1915 in Paris, Kentucky, in the bluegrass region. His father, Big Ed Prichard, was a local personality, a rough and convivial man, who had served a couple of terms in the state legislature and made his living as a beer distributor. Sonny, as young Prichard was known, was a precocious little fat boy. He wore a broad-brimmed Panama hat. He read voraciously, skipped several grades, and, after school, he hastened not to the playground but to the Bourbon County courthouse.
Kentuckians are famous storytellers, and Prich learned the art. Sometimes a county judge invited him up on the bench to hear a case. He soaked up Kentucky history, politics, and law, and seemed to forget nothing. Already certain characteristics were evident—his habit of closing his eyes while he absorbed information, his passion for books, his passion for the law, his impudent humor, his remarkable memory.
Kentucky was still a southern state, where the past was a living part of the present. Politics remained a road to status as well as a source of entertainment long after the North had given itself over to moneymaking. But Kentucky was also a border state, the “dark and bloody ground,” which made it sensitive to northern and national preoccupations. The Kentucky instinct for accommodation went back to the Great Compromiser, Henry Clay. Kentuckians were natural politicians.
Democratic politics in Kentucky had a liberal and cosmopolitan cast. This was owing in part to the presence of a great newspaper, the Louisville Courier-Journal. The Courier-Journal had first acquired national influence under the celebrated editor and Democrat Henry Watterson. Watterson finally broke with Woodrow Wilson over the League of Nations. When he was much criticized for this, he replied, “Things have come to a hell of a pass when a man can’t wallop his own jackass.” Robert Worth Bingham, who supported the league, bought the Courier-Journal, steadied its course, and established it as one of the best papers in the country. When in 1933 FDR sent Judge Bingham as ambassador to the Court of St. James, the paper was left in the hands of his able son Barry. The editor of the eloquent editorial page in the late Thirties was the historian Herbert Agar.
Kentuckians were a disproportionately large presence in FDR’s Washington. Alben Barkley of Paducah, Truman’s vice-president, was then Senate majority leader. Fred M. Vinson of Ashland was perhaps the most effective New Dealer in the House before becoming secretary of the Treasury and Chief Justice under Truman. Stanley Reed of Mason County was Solicitor General before he went to the Supreme Court. The erratic and egotistical Albert B. “Happy” Chandler of Versailles, after a term as governor, crashed into the Senate in 1939. Paul A. Porter, of Lexington, one of the keenest of the younger New Dealers, helped to found the law firm of Arnold, Fortas & Porter. Arthur Krock had worked in Louisville for Henry Watterson and was now the chief Washington correspondent of The New York Times.
Prich grew up in this most political of cultures. But he added to it a first-rate analytic mind and broad intellectual interests. He was only sixteen when, in 1931, he entered Princeton. In freshman English, a professor, seeing Prich sit through class with his eyes closed, denounced him for sleeping. Prich responded with a verbatim summary of the lecture just delivered. He quickly became a renowned figure on campus. His Princeton friends included Fisher, Oakes, and Sheldon, with whom he was to live at Hockley, Edmund Gullion, who had a distinguished diplomatic career ahead of him, and Philip Horton, the biographer of Hart Crane and executive editor of The Reporter magazine.
Graduating summa cum laude in 1935, he went on to the Harvard Law School, where his friendship with Frankfurter began. As a professor, Frankfurter was effervescent and combative. He delighted in irreverent young men. Prich, a special favorite, stayed on an extra year as his research assistant. One day in 1939, shortly after Roosevelt nominated him to Cardozo’s seat on the Court, Frankfurter set forth an argument in administrative law. Prich said, “That is the most tenuous legal proposition I have ever heard.” “I hope, Mr. Prichard,” Frankfurter said, “that your capacity for surprise has not been exhausted.” “No, it has not,” Prich said, “and I’ll tell you why. You can never tell what one of these new Justices may decide.”
Justice Frankfurter inherited his first law clerk, Joseph L. Rauh, Jr., from Justice Cardozo. Rauh was followed by Adrian Fisher, who was followed by Prich, was was followed by Philip Graham (who had spent a year clerking for Stanley Reed). These Frankfurter clerks, a high-spirited, iconoclastic group, took full advantage of their license to challenge their principal. Once when the Justice was holding forth, Prich could be seen slumped down at the end of the table, counting on his fingers. Felix interrupted himself and said, “Prich, what are you doing?” Prich said, “Oh, nothing, Mr. Justice. Just counting your digressions.”
While Prich was living with his Princeton friends at Hockley, John Oakes brought Katharine Meyer, the daughter of Eugene Meyer, the owner of The Washington Post. Both Prich and Phil Graham became interested in this lively and attractive young woman, but Graham won her and Prich was best man at the wedding. To everyone’s surprise, given his unreliable habits, he appeared on time and with the ring. The wedding lunch was disrupted by a violent argument when Frankfurter (this was at the time of the Soviet–Nazi pact and of vehement Communist opposition to the Roosevelt policy of aiding Britain) proposed outlawing the American Communist party. Prichard and Graham accused him of betraying the Bill of Rights. There was much shouting, and Frankfurter finally took Kay Graham for a walk in order to cool off.
One evening in May 1940, Prich rushed panting into Rauh’s house, pulled a sheaf of papers out of his pocket, and said, “You’ve got to do something to prevent this disaster.” He handed Rauh Frankfurter’s draft opinion in the Gobitis case, which held that two grade-school Jehovah’s Witnesses could be expelled from a Pennsylvania public school for refusing to salute the flag. Prich said he had pleaded with Frankfurter not to commit this atrocity against civil liberties, but to no avail. How to save their beloved Justice from himself? Rauh said, “If I am to go and argue with the Justice, how do I explain where I got the draft opinion? May I tell him you showed it to me?” “Oh, God, no,” cried Prich. “He would have an absolute fit.” Since they could not figure out a story of how Rauh could have seen the draft, there was nothing to be done. With that case, Frankfurter’s reputation began its descent among liberals.
On the Court Frankfurter became more conservative, more possessive, more insistent on agreement. Though nothing interrupted their personal affection for him, Ben Cohen, Rauh, and Prichard felt in the end that his reputation would have been higher had he never gone on the Court. In 1975, after the publication of the Frankfurter diaries, Prich recalled in a letter to me Mrs. Mark Howe’s opinion that Felix was an intellectual and spiritual vampire sucking the blood of his protégés. “While I must agree that there is some truth in this contention,” Prich wrote, “it is also true that he, at the same time, pumped their blood full of life, giving oxygen, so that it was really Felix’s giving and Felix’s taking away.”
Once Prich was having his hair cut at the Carlton Hotel when a telephone call came for him from the White House. Frankfurter was on the line and in an urgent voice asked him to get to the Oval Office as fast as he could. He left the barber chair, his hair half cut, and rushed to the White House, wondering what crisis had caused the summons. He entered the office to find Roosevelt and Frankfurter sitting in somber silence. “Ah, Prich,” Frankfurter said. “We have been waiting for you. The President would like to hear your imitation of John L. Lewis.”
The stories should not obscure Prichard’s immense abilities. In 1941, at twenty-six, he became a key figure in solving problems and overcoming bottlenecks in the nation’s preparation for war, from lend-lease agreements with Britain and Russia to the reconversion of the economy to defense production. There were many able lawyers in Washington, but, in Rauh’s words, “Prich outshone all the rest in his innovativeness and determination.” In 1942 he went to the White House to work for James F. Byrnes at the Office of War Mobilization. With a small staff, including Prich, Ben Cohen, Paul Porter, and Samuel Lubell, Byrnes did a masterful job of settling interagency disputes and bringing a measure of coherence into the domestic front. John Kenneth Galbraith, who was running the Office of Price Administration, said of Prich, “He was, I think, the most brilliant lawyer I ever knew.”
After the evening at Hockley in 1941, I next met Prich in 1943 at dinner at the house of the liberal newspaperman Gardner Jackson. Prich arrived with Isaiah Berlin, then at the British embassy. They were sharing an apartment, and clearly enjoyed each other’s company. They sat next to each other on a large sofa, exchanging gossip, witticisms, recondite literary and philosophical allusions, and ruminations about the war and about the future. While the rest of us listened in fascination, each set the other off as in one of those fireworks displays where each rocket shoots higher in the sky than the one before and leaves an ever more glittering trail of light and color behind. I thought then I had never heard such conversation. Perhaps I have not heard its equal since.
There was a fine but dangerous carelessness about Prich in those days. The young men of Franklin Roosevelt’s Washington were not deficient in willfulness and presumption. Judge Learned Hand, who liked the New Deal but not the New Dealers, confided to Justice Harlan Stone, “The Filii Aurorae make me actively sick at my stomach; they are so conceited, so insensitive, so arrogant.” Prich was notably spoiled, he could be irresponsible and outrageous. His friends were constantly protecting him, forgiving him, and picking up the pieces after him.
A clerk’s elementary obligation, after his Justice had drafted an opinion, was to “Shepardize” the document—that is, to use the Shepard index to make sure that no cited case had been overruled. One day Prich called Joe Rauh and announced in despairing tones, “I’m leaving town—maybe forever.” He had neglected to Shepardize an Oklahoma case on which Frankfurter had relied in reaching a decision. A petition for re-hearing had just arrived, proving that the case had been overruled and that Frankfurter’s decision was wrong. Within an hour or two Frankfurter called Rauh and demanded to know where Prich was. Rauh said he did not know but expected to hear from him in a day or so. Frankfurter said to tell him all was forgiven. When Prich finally reappeared, he heaved his enormous body to the floor, and crawled on hands and knees across the carpet toward Frankfurter’s desk for a tearful reunion.
Prich frequently leaked stories to the press. Leaking is always a temptation to young men in government, partly to demonstrate their self-importance, partly to advance or repel bureaucratic intrigue. Like all other presidents, Roosevelt was irritated by leaks. One day he called in the White House staff to announce he would tolerate no more leaks. “He put the fear of God into us,” Prich told the story in later years. “Then he tossed his head back and, with that Roosevelt grin, said, ‘Of course there comes a time occasionally when there should be a leak. Now there’s a certain matter that I’m going to make a decision on that needs to be leaked and,’ ” looking at Prichard, ” ‘I guess you’re the one that ought to leak it. Will you tell Drew Pearson about it?’ ” Prich said, “Well, Mr. President, I already have.”
He never leaked a story to Arthur Krock, whom Frankfurter detested. One winter evening, Prich and Isaiah Berlin were walking in a snowstorm in Georgetown, and Krock, driving by in his car, offered them a lift. Prich declined. Krock said, “I know why you won’t ride with me. It is because your mentor Justice Frankfurter doesn’t like me.” Prich said, “Mr. Krock, I have many other reasons for not wanting to ride with you.” The Washingtonians who flattered Krock and were rewarded by laudatory descriptions in his New York Times column, Prich called “Krock-suckers.”
Hockley in time was reclaimed by its owner. The young New Dealers were drawn into the war. Philip Graham and Rauh had tried unsuccessfully to enlist the day after Pearl Harbor, but later went to the Pacific. Evangeline Bell was with the Office of Strategic Services in London, where she met and in time married David Bruce. As medical standards fell, Prich was drafted into the Army, all three hundred pounds of him. “They have scraped the bottom of the barrel,” he said. “Now they are taking the barrel.” He spent most of his brief military career in the hospital, received a medical discharge, and returned to the White House for the duration of the war. When the war ended, he prepared to go back to Kentucky, secure his political base, and, in time, run for governor. “We all felt then,” Joe Rauh said in later years, “that of all the young men in Washington the two most likely to become president were Ed Prichard and Phil Graham.”
Prich began law practice in Lexington. In 1947 he married Lucy Elliott, the daughter of a patrician bluegrass family, a striking woman with a strong personality. He attached himself to the New Deal wing of the Kentucky Democratic party, led by Earle Clements, who was elected governor later that year. Prich was not unanimously welcomed by the state political establishment. Some resented his Washington success, his highhandedness, and his vaulting expectations. They felt he had not paid his local political dues. But others saw him as the most promising man to come out of Kentucky since Henry Clay.
In 1948 Virgil Chapman, an undistinguished congressman, won the Democratic nomination for senator. His opponent was the intelligent and liberal Republican John Sherman Cooper. On election day in Paris, before the polls opened, workers found ballot boxes already stuffed with 254 ballots. All the ballots but one were marked for the Democrats. When the news appeared on the ticker, Joseph Alsop, another of Prich’s close Washington friends, noting that the ballots had been stuffed in Prich’s home town and knowing of Prich’s contempt for Chapman and admiration for his opponent, sent off a jocular telegram saying he assumed Prich was responsible for the Cooper ballot.
Alas, it was no joke. In May 1949 Prich and his law partner were indicted by a grand jury for ballot stuffing. Why had he done it? It was partly owing to his recklessness. It was partly, he told a reporter in 1979, the “heady wine” of his days in the New Deal: “I got to feeling, perhaps, that I was bigger than I was, that the rules didn’t always apply to me.” It was probably also out of an impulse to prove that, despite his associations with powerful people in Washington, he was still one of the boys in Bourbon County.
“We have two natures,” Prich told Charles E. Claffey of the Boston Globe in 1983:
We all have conflicting forces in our lives. I was raised in a country where monkeying with elections was second nature; my father did it; my great-grandfather did it…. I was raised to believe that was just second nature. There I was on the one hand with all those great moral and intellectual principles, believing I ought to stand for the good, the true and the beautiful; on the other hand, thinking it’s perfectly all right to stuff a ballot box. Now that’s an absolute absurdity, but that’s the kind of dichotomy I got into, and it’s absolutely unforgivable.
The Kentucky side of Prich clashed with the Frankfurter side; and in that fatal moment Bourbon County won. He told John Ed Pearce of the Courier-Journal, “It was as common in Bourbon County as chicken-fighting, and no more serious. I…thought of it as something you did for fun. It was a moral blind spot…. It was wrong, and I know it was wrong, and I think you may grant that I paid for it.”
Prichard and his partner pleaded not guilty. But Prich privately admitted his guilt when he sought the counsel of a Kentucky judge, William Breckenridge Ardery, the father of a former law partner, who later testified against him in court. Prich’s lawyers tried to stop Judge Ardery’s testimony as a violation of the lawyer-client privilege, but the plea was rejected, an arguably dubious ruling. In July 1949 Prich was found guilty. His partner was acquitted. Washington lawyers mobilized to fight the case on appeal, and Hugh Cox of Covington & Burling prepared the brief. The court of appeals sustained the conviction. The Supreme Court refused to hear the case, sufficient Justices disqualifying themselves on the grounds of personal friendship. Access to people in high places was not a total blessing.
Prich was sentenced to two years in the federal penitentiary. He missed the annual dinner of the Frankfurter law clerks, and sent a telegram: “Dear Mr. Justice, You are greatly appreciated by the criminal classes….” President Truman pardoned him on Christmas day 1949 after he had served five months. A brilliant career seemed utterly shattered.
Prich, once out of prison, sank into depression. These were dark years. He and his family were living now in Heartland, Lucy’s handsome old family house in Versailles. Prich had resigned from the bar before his trial, but he was soon readmitted to practice. Still he could not bring himself to deal with his problems. Washington friends like Paul Porter and Joe Rauh threw briefs and clients his way. He failed them. His financial affairs were a mess. He often did not pay his bills or taxes and had to hide out from bill collectors and Internal Revenue agents. His friends despaired of him. He took refuge in books, spending long hours reading in the library at Heartland.
It was in these years that he made his wry reformulation of Acton’s Law. “Absence of power tends to corrupt,” Prich said, “and absolute absence of power corrupts absolutely.” Prichard’s version, I think, applies as often as Acton’s. There were other flashes of the old Prich. He showed up at the Democratic convention in 1952. One day he, James Wechsler of the New York Post (a different paper from the abomination of today), and I were chatting in a hotel lobby when Matt Connelly walked by. Connelly, who had been Truman’s appointments secretary, had also recently been released from prison. Prich said, “Maybe I should organize the ex-cons in the party.” Jimmy Wechsler, who had been a Communist in his youth, said, “Well, in that case, I will organize the ex-coms.” Prich said, “Which of us will get Alger Hiss?”
But Kentucky politics, having broken Prich, offered a chance of redemption. Earle Clements was now senator, and in 1955 the Clements wing ran Bert T. Combs, a staunch liberal, for governor. The demagogic Happy Chandler, returning to politics after five years as commissioner of baseball, opposed Combs in the Democratic primary. One day Prich appeared without invitation at Combs’s headquarters. Combs knew from Clements of Prich’s talents and set him to work. Prich remained in the backroom, but the Chandler people denounced Combs for using an ex-convict. Combs publicly defended Prich, praising his abilities and saying he had paid his debt to society. Prich said, “It is true that I was an inmate at the federal penitentiary. I lived with rapists, murderers, thieves, and embezzlers. But I tell you, my friends, that every one of those men was the moral superior of A.B. Chandler.”
Chandler won in 1955, but Combs took the governorship four years later. By this time Prich was one of his closest advisers. His life was not yet under control. Politics seemed at times almost an escape from responsibility. Lucy had stood by him; they now had three children; but Prich was still, as Combs said, “wandering in the wilderness.” On occasion he would simply disappear. He would send a friend to a library with a list of books and then, hiding out in some boarding house, read for days. He would, Combs said, “go without notice and return without explanation.”
As governor, Combs put through a reform program that did much to change the face of the state. Prich functioned as legislative strategist, policy analyst, speech writer. His knowledge of Kentucky was encyclopedic. He was saturated in its history and knew every county and courthouse and crossroads. Combs called him “philosopher”—“Well, philosopher, what should we do about this?” In 1963 Combs’s friend Edward. T. Breathitt ran for governor. By now Prich had recovered sufficiently in the public eye to emerge from the shadows and go out to make speeches. They sent him to eastern Kentucky, perhaps figuring that his jail sentence would not greatly bother the mountaineers. Happy Chandler was Ned Breathitt’s opponent in the Democratic primary, and Happy campaigned once more against the felon Prichard.
Prich exulted in the opportunity to hold forth on the sins of Chandler’s governorship. His speeches were in the great tradition of southern oratory, rhetorically unrestrained and delivered in sonorous cadences. Mark Twain would have loved them. The tape of one speech still circulates in Kentucky. The mayor of Louisville, Harvey Sloane, played it to me the other day. Happy Chandler, Prich cried, says he is going to build some country roads:
I’ll tell you how he built country roads during the last time he was governor. He took $869,000 out of the rural road fund and gave it in contracts to his son-in-law Jimmy Jack Lewis. And 40 percent of it was for designing roads that were never built…. You’ve heard about paying a farmer not to grow tobacco, not to grow corn, but this is the first time in history that they ever paid an engineer not to build roads…. FILL THE SACK FOR JIMMY JACK.
He went on, mercilessly:
He lives by the side of a swimming pool that was given to him by a war contractor when he was a member of the United States Senate and was on the Military Affairs Committee that had jurisdiction over war contractors. And that swimming pool used up the steel and the concrete and the metal that was needed for our war effort. Three days after Pearl Harbor he resigned his commission in the United States Army and spent the war floating around on top of that swimming pool.
Prich was as close to Governor Breathitt as he had been to Governor Combs and a constant liberal influence on issues of civil rights, poverty, and education. In 1966 Breathitt appointed him to the State Council on Higher Education, the policy-making body for the public universities and colleges of Kentucky. Education now became Prich’s absorbing cause. The state had no serious research university, no public institution that had achieved national recognition, no capacity for attracting gifted faculty or students. It ranked last among fourteen southern states in a composite index of state support for higher education.
Prich’s object was to coordinate the competing elements in the state system, improve their quality, and make education a preeminent issue. The aim of education, he used to say, was “opening the way for a larger life,” and he propagated the gospel tirelessly in speeches around the state. After fourteen years on the council, he became chairman of a citizens’ committee, soon rebaptized officially as the Prichard Committee on Higher Education in Kentucky’s Future. The Prichard Committee’s first report, In Pursuit of Excellence, has become a model for other states. Before his death, he had well under way a new report on elementary and secondary education.
By the late 1960s, his rehabilitation seemed complete. He maintained an unpretentious law office in Frankfort. Visitors climbed steep, dark stairs to a large room where he sat behind a huge desk, leaning back in his chair and smoking long cigars, his eyes often closed, while he chatted about politics and law and education. His law firm at last was prospering. He had his share of corporate practice but always had time for the poor and for the mountain people. “When they wanted a big-shot lawyer,” a Kentucky judge recently told me, “they would call Mr. Prichard.” He knew their towns, families, genealogies; and he talked with the same unaffected ease and enjoyment to folks from the hollows as he had to Felix Frankfurter and Isaiah Berlin.
By the 1970s he was much revered. For all his joy in partisan combat, he had a basic disinterestedness and delicacy of mind. When he talked seriously, he talked with notable fairness and objectivity. The University of Kentucky recorded his political reminiscences on television, and he inevitably came to the subject of Happy Chandler. “He and I,” Prich said, “have not enjoyed what you might call a David and Jonathan relationship through the years.” Then he gave a generous appreciation of Chandler’s first gubernatorial term in the 1930s and of his colorful political personality. In 1976 this ex-convict was offered—and declined—appointment as a judge on the Kentucky Court of Appeals.
He had triumphed. But at that very time new adversities struck him. Prich suffered from diabetes, which led to glaucoma. He lost the sight in one eye, then in the other—an inconceivable blow for a passionate reader. He was uncomplaining, indomitable, without a trace of self-pity. Friends read aloud to him—legal briefs, judicial decisions, newspapers, magazines, books. He miraculously seemed to know everything that was going on, not just in Kentucky but in Washington and New York, in Cambridge and London. More affliction was to come. Lucy and one of their sons had operations for cancer. Prich’s kidneys failed, and for the rest of his life he had to undergo dialysis three times a week, five hours at a time. Blindness and dialysis did not stop his legal practice, his educational crusade, his advice to governors; did not stop his brilliant mind or subdue his high humor. Rather affliction seemed to give him new self-discipline and strength of purpose and responsibility.
In 1979 he came to New York to speak at a fund-raiser for his young protégé Harvey Sloane, who was seeking the Democratic nomination for governor. Muhammad Ali and Colonel Sanders were the other speakers, but Prich, as usual, stole the show. We both had lunch with his old friends Joe Alsop and James Wechsler. Prich, no longer the fat boy, was now gaunt and gray, with a huge Roman head and furrowed face. “His sightless eyes were closed when I first saw him,” Wechsler later wrote. “There was an aspect of tragic old age about him, and I almost flinched from the encounter. I could not have been more wrong. Within moments…he was talking as spiritedly, entertainingly—and thoughtfully—as he did when I first met him in that long-ago Washington era.” “It was often said of Prich, Wechsler continued, that he was the brightest of the young men whom FDR had attracted to Washington. “Amid unbearable ordeals, he has also ultimately proved to be the bravest.”
He made his peace with himself and with life. During his dark years he had found great consolation in reading Reinhold Niebuhr. Though he faithfully attended the Episcopalian church in Versailles, he described himself as at best a “believing unbeliever,” borrowing the phrase Frankfurter had once used to Niebuhr (who had replied by describing himself as an “unbelieving believer”). With Heraclitus, Prich concluded that character was fate. He had a diverting fancy about Judgment Day. When the last trumpet sounded, he would say, the Lord isn’t going to send people to heaven or to hell. “He’s just going to take away their inhibitions, and everybody’s going to go where he belongs.” He illustrated this once by citing the case of John Connally. Connally’s decision to join the Nixon administration, Prich told a group of Washington lawyers (as reported by Frank Browning in 1973 in the Washington Monthly), had nothing to do with political expediency. Connally just looked the Nixon people over and said, “That’s the crowd that bugged the Watergate, that’s the crowd that tried to frame Ellsberg, that’s the crowd that tried to falsify the record about Vietnam after President Kennedy’s death. That’s where I belong.”
Character was fate. “What good does it do not to be at peace with oneself?” Prich said. “I don’t know anything to do but submit to the inevitable. You know, I’ve had a lot more joy out of life than I have sorrow, a lot more fun than pain.” His life ended in serenity and wisdom.
And to the end he remained a New Dealer. Underneath the wit and the Kentucky anecdotes and the detached, drawling irony, he was a deeply serious and radical man, more radical than he publicly admitted. He cared in age even more fiercely than he had in youth about the powerless and the dispossessed and the humiliated. He believed in the potentiality in every child, and he wanted an America in which every child, however poor, of whatever race or with whatever handicaps, had a reasonable chance for education and work and happiness.
So many Hockley friends had died before him—Bill Sheldon, Phil Graham, Bill Cary, John Ferguson, Adrian Fisher. But Joe Rauh, Evangeline Bruce, and Henry Reuss were all at the funeral in Lexington. So were four governors of Kentucky and the state’s leaders in the press, the bar, and education. Prich rose, and fell, and rose again. He carried in his bones the comedy and the anguish of the dark and bloody ground. To those of us who knew him since his days at Hockley, he was by way of being a hero of his times.
March 28, 1985