On Political Books

September/ October 2013 The Incurious Investigator

Why introspection was too dangerous for Washington’s bravest sleuth.

By Jamie Malanowski

The Investigator: Fifty Years of Uncovering the Truth 
by Terry Lenzner
Blue Rider Press, 384 pp.


Leonard Zelig, the hero of Zelig, Woody Allen’s 1983 mockumentary, had a gift: he could appear before a motion-picture camera with seemingly every notable figure from the 1920s and ’30s, from Charles Lindbergh to Al Capone to Joseph Goebbels to Fanny Brice. Ace investigator Terry Lenzner seems to have a Zelig-like ability to have been present and played a role in many of the great public dramas of the last half century. From the murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964 to Watergate, from Ken Starr’s pursuit of Bill Clinton to the capture of the Unabomber to the death of Princess Diana, Lenzner can be seen trudging through the background, consuming shoe leather and thickening a callus on his dialing finger. In his memoir, The Investigator: Fifty Years of Uncovering the Truth, Lenzner talks Harvard football with Robert Kennedy, double-dates with Donald Rumsfeld, dines at the Palm with Edward Bennett Williams, attends jailhouse communion services with Father Philip Berrigan, talks constitutional law with Sam Ervin, and performs oppo research on Mitt Romney’s record at Bain. But for all of his impressive ubiquity and incontestable prowess as an investigator, there is a question that The Investigator leaves dangling: Has Terry Lenzner gotten to the bottom of Terry Lenzner?

Shared omnipresence notwithstanding, Zelig isn’t the best pop-cultural exemplar of Lenzner, who evidences none of the agreeable spinelessness of Allen’s character. Instead, with his steady, colorless prose, Lenzner conveys the implacable, unflappable, “just the facts, ma’am” demeanor of that other great pop icon, Sergeant Joe Friday of Dragnet. It helps Lenzner’s credibility that he keeps his attention focused and his emotions under such tight control. Alas, it does little for the liveliness of his prose.

We first encounter Lenzner as a Harvard Law School student bored with the world of corporate law that he encounters as a summer associate. Fortunately, an attentive law firm partner (a descendent of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison—how’s that for a cameo?) steers him into the infinitely more exciting experience of working in Bobby Kennedy’s Justice Department. This occurred during the summer of 1964, when Washington was sending a small army of lawyers and investigators into steamy, hostile Philadelphia, Mississippi, to investigate the murders of three young civil rights workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. Lenzner makes his investigatory bones in the most pedestrian way possible, finding African American people who had been denied their voting rights by local authorities (numerous) and who were willing to talk about it (rather scarcer), and faithfully recording chapter and verse of what happened to them.

It is entirely to Lenzner’s credit that he hypes nothing. In fact, in the one tale where Lenzner becomes the hero by finding an eyewitness to the ignominious burial of the three slain workers and cracks the case wide open, he is soon revealed to be a gullible young fool who swallowed a pack of lies. And it is even more to his credit that, in the end, the meticulous record that Lenzner and others diligently compiled proved its value when it was cited by the Supreme Court in its validation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Unfortunately, downplaying has a downside; even his accounts of being frightened generate as much sweat as eating tapioca.

Luckily, as Lenzner moves in his career from the periphery of events to center stage, his story grows more colorful. Zigging while others zagged, as his mentor, the great John Doar, advised him, Lenzner joined Richard Nixon’s administration, and went to work for Donald Rumsfeld at the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), where he worked with (name check alert!) Bill Bradley, the Knicks forward and future senator. Like-minded about the OEO’s mission, Lenzner and Rumsfeld and their wives became terrific friends, and Rumsfeld elevated Lenzner to head the agency’s legal services division. There, the agency’s policy of providing poor people with attorneys to sue underperforming state and local governments ran afoul of powers like Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and California Governor Ronald Reagan. At a White House reception where Lenzner met the president, Nixon recognized him. “So you’re the one causing all the problems,” he said, which caused Mrs. Lenzner to observe to her husband, “Your days are numbered.” What she discerned, the ambitious Rumsfeld could see in 3D, and he soon rid himself of the millstone his friend had become.

Lenzner did not remain at large for long. He joined Ramsey Clark in defending the Harrisburg 8, a group of antiwar activists that included the priests Philip and Daniel Berrigan. Lenzner distinguished himself with an effective cross-examination of one of the government’s witnesses that was so aggressive that Father Phil felt obliged to remind Lenzner that he needed to respect the witness’s humanity. After winning acquittals on all but a few minor charges, Lenzner then spoke to Daniel Ellsberg about representing him in the Pentagon Papers case. But after a meeting in the Hollywood Hills, Lenzner passed, finding the famous leaker to be foolish and insufferably vain. This worked out: Lenzner was consequently free when the powerful Washington attorney Edward Bennett Williams, who had admired his work at the OEO, recommended to Sam Dash, counsel of the Senate Watergate Committee, that he hire Lenzner as an associate.

At this point, Lenzner was in his early thirties, and if he hadn’t had the kind of meteoric ascendency that often characterizes the career paths of great men, he certainly had been terrifically successful in capturing the support of powerful, accomplished men. Unfortunately, the less-than-introspective Lenzner does not explore what specifically it was about him that his friends and mentors so admired. Listening to Lenzner’s account, he just went to work and did his thing, and stuff happened. Just the facts, ma’am.

Lenzner’s work on Sam Ervin’s Watergate Committee is the centerpiece of the memoir. His war stories are tasty in the manner of a good canapé: although they go down easy, you’re immediately looking for the waiter to reappear. The tale that says the most about Lenzner is his account of his aggressive cross-examination of a now nearly forgotten witness named Richard Moore, who had been sent up by the White House to rebut John Dean. Lenzner’s questioning left Moore in a puddle of confusion, but opinion was divided, as Lenzner acknowledges, about whether he went overboard in discrediting Moore. Some people feared that the sight of the tattered Moore might generate a backlash, as though someone hadn’t, you know, respected his humanity.

Jamie Malanowski is a writer and editor. He has been an editor at Time, Esquire and most recently Playboy, where he was Managing Editor.

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