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Remarks on Presenting the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Irving R. Kaufman

October 07, 1987

The President. Judge, I'm only going to speak for a moment or two because I know there aren't many in this group of friends and colleagues who need to be reminded of your accomplishments. But I do think it's important to formally note here the debt that this nation owes to you for a lifetime of devoted service.

The simple fact is that you've had one of the most distinguished careers in the history of the American judiciary. Not only that, you've handled some of the most important cases of our times, but you've handled them with distinction and character. And it's for this that history will remember you; and for this, today, that your countrymen thank you.

For example, only a short walk from here is the office where President Eisenhower told you that of all the crises in his own life, and he specifically mentioned the Normandy invasion, he had never felt so much public pressure as he did during the international campaign to thwart the course of justice in the Rosenberg espionage case. But President Eisenhower also told you that whenever he considered weakening or giving in to that political pressure, he thought of the courage that you had shown during the trial and sentencing, and I know he told you he took inspiration from that. Judge Kaufman, keeping a judiciary independent and protecting the courts from political pressures is both noble and heroic work, and you certainly earned both of those adjectives. And by the way, it's certainly worth noting one comment you made during the sentence hearing, you said then that betraying a nation's secrets was a crime worse than murder. Well, sadly, we've learned in recent years how utterly appropriate and far-seeing those words were.

You have, of course, been at the center of many other important moments in recent judicial history: the Appalachian crime trial, the Taylor v. Board of Education desegregation case, the Pentagon Papers case, and many others. And during all of these proceedings your conduct and decisions showed always a level of fairness and excellence that was frequently remarked upon by court observers and, yes, sometimes even by the contending parties themselves. It's true you insisted on high standards, that you've always asked the best of those who appeared before you or worked with you. But then you had a right to make such demands—because you made even greater demands on yourself.

During 52 years, you have faithfully carried out your responsibility to do justice and have compassion. Serving on both the District Court and the Court of Appeals, you have demonstrated the highest qualities of the bench. When you obtained senior status, you were the longest-serving judge on the Court of Appeals anywhere in the country. But your willingness to go even beyond your achievements on the bench is another reason for our gratitude today. Whether it was jury reform—a committee that you headed for the U.S. Judicial Conference and whose recommendations you helped move through the Congress—or your wide and varied writings for legal journals and popular magazines and newspapers or your work with—or for the Judicial Administration, you have been a friend, advocate, and popularizer of the law.

And I think you know I owe you a special debt of gratitude here. Judge, one of my greatest hopes for this administration was a crackdown on organized crime of historic proportions—a full declaration of war that would lead to not just occasional tactical victories against the mob but a systematic strategic approach that would break apart the nationwide syndicates and, once and for all, take this terrible blot from American history. In many ways now, we are approaching that goal—we have set in place both the strategy and the machinery to accomplish this. And all of this was due in no small part to the 3 years of work done by the President's Commission on Organized Crime that you so graciously agreed to chair. I won't list all the accomplishments of the Commission, but from examining the role of drugs to finances to new emerging groups to the legal community, the Commission did extraordinary work—work that is routinely and frequently quoted now, whenever organized crime is discussed in the media or the Government or the academy [academia].

And I know these commissions never are easy work. They suddenly come to life and have to achieve a great deal in a very short time, and there are plenty of startup problems. So, Judge, I know it wasn't easy to push along the bureaucracy, some of whom weren't so happy with the idea of the Commission. And I know you had your moments of frustration. On the other hand, I hope you also take comfort not only in the great contributions of the Commission but in the knowledge that, when it came to the bureaucracy, you gave as good as you got. [Laughter] In fact, I heard about one bureaucrat who, when he stopped trying to get in the way, just threw up his hands and said that if we really wanted to eliminate organized crime in America, all we needed to do was provide you with the home phone numbers of the major mobsters. [Laughter]

And that's what it comes down to, Judge. I don't know how many people about whom this can be said. But the truth is that in your career you took on the mob, the international Communist conspiracy, and even the United States Government bureaucracy, and they, not you, came up second best. So, we salute you today, not only for your intellect and achievement but for your courage and persistence as well. We salute you for your unconditional commitment to a cause you perceived as worthy of such selflessness and the cause of justice.

Now, I know you've been recommended by two prior Attorneys General for this medal, and I know Ed Meese has been enthusiastically recommending this award for the past 2 years. And that's why I'm especially delighted that we could do this now and have this ceremony here today to honor you for what you've done for the cause of justice, for the law, and for future generations of Americans. So now let me read the citation:

Irving Robert Kaufman became an assistant Federal prosecutor at the age of 25. More than five decades later, both his energy and his devotion to the rule of law remain utterly unflagging. Assistant Federal prosecutor, Special Assistant to the United States Attorney General, District Court judge, judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, member of countless panels and commissions, including the leadership of the President's Commission on Organized Crime—Judge Kaufman has brought to each his practical skills, his zeal for justice, and, again, that remarkable energy. He is a distinguished jurist and a great American.

Judge Kaufman, the Medal of Freedom.

Judge Kaufman. Thank you.

The President. And congratulations and [applause] .

Judge Kaufman. I shall only take a moment. I start by saying that I should heed the advice of many friends and that is that nothing beats no speech. [Laughter] And, so, with that, I will be very brief.

Mr. President, I'm very grateful to you. You've always been so gracious and, of course, I know you always will be. And give my best to your dear wife. And, of course, I'm honored to accept this Medal of Freedom from the President and to be recognized by the Nation I have served for nearly half a century. I suppose I've been fortunate to have served with some very capable Attorneys General. And I put among the leaders of those Attorneys General, Ed Meese, who had the wisdom to recommend me— [laughter] —or to be one of those who recommended me for the Medal. [Laughter]

It has been my good fortune to serve my country as an Assistant United States Attorney, as a Special Assistant to the Attorney General, as Chairman of the President's Commission on Organized Crime, as chairman of a committee of the American Bar Association that worked for 10 years to draft 14 volumes on juvenile justice, all of which were adopted. I think all of which-although Pat Wald reminded me that maybe we only got 13 through— [laughter] —the house of delegates of the ABA. But to get one through the house of delegates is an achievement—and to serve as a Federal judge for 38 years. The only thing that was omitted was I was a judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals—and, also no easy task, the chief judge of that herd.

Now, this represents the crowning moment in my lifetime of devotion to law and justice. All my life, I have sought to preserve and protect the core of our heritage. As embodied in our Constitution, our nation is one of laws—not merely men-and that is the genius of America. The Constitution is our beacon and, so long as it guides the ship of state, we need not fear the rocks and shoals. And to that end, I have dedicated my heart and soul. And I take this award as confirmation, Mr. President, that in the eyes of my countrymen, I have helped keep the beacon burning. I thank you, Mr. President, and I accept with pleasure.

And I cannot step aside without also expressing my gratitude to my dear wife, Helen. We have been married for almost 52 years. And on our 50th anniversary, I said that she really is deserving of the Purple Heart. [Laughter] And I'd like to make that award. [Laughter] Well, at this time I would say, I think with this award to me, I am going to have to push for the Congressional Medal of Honor for her. [Laughter] Thank you very much, Mr. President. Thank you, friends, for coming.

Note: The President spoke at 2 p.m. in the Roosevelt Room at the White House.

Ronald Reagan, Remarks on Presenting the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Irving R. Kaufman Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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