Rep. Jerrold Nadler was photographed in his Manhattan office on March 21, 2019. Photo: Steven Strasser
Forty-five years after Watergate, the nation is once again engulfed in Constitutional turmoil, and history has chosen as the man of the moment an urban progressive, beloved in his district, who sees his mission, in no small part, as the defense of democracy.
U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, universally known as “Jerry,” the Brooklyn-born, yeshiva-educated, son of a failed New Jersey chicken farmer, has been a household name on the Upper West Side since his student-activist days at Columbia University in the late 1960s.
He's served 26 years in Congress, wins elections by landslides, assumed the helm of the House Judiciary Committee only in January, and has forged a reputation for patience, judiciousness – and unflinching firmness.
And unlike New Jersey congressman Peter Rodino, who led the same committee during Watergate and never stopped asking himself, “Why me?”, Nadler embraces the role.
“If we're going to have a Constitutional crisis, then we need someone to defend against it, and I'm just happy to be in that position,” Nadler said during a 98-minute interview with The West Side Spirit.
His mood was relaxed, his manner contemplative. He was formidable, to be sure, but didn't lack a sense of humor either. He showed flashes of outrage. And above all, a consequential sense of duty to nation and founding Constitutional principles.
“Why me?” he repeats. “I don't think so — I'm in the right place at the right time. And it's a place I wanted, it's a place I think I'm well trained for, it's a place I think I'm well suited for ...
“My original motive in politics, from the time I was probably 12 years old, was civil rights and civil liberties and due process,” he adds. “I have always concentrated on them, and that has never changed.”
What has changed? “I now have a lot of responsibility, which I didn't have, and a lot of power, which I didn't have, and I'm in the middle of a lot of things I care very deeply about as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and people look to me for leadership and guidance by virtue of this position,” Nadler says.The Picture in the Lobby
The 71-year-old, lower West 70s resident was seated in his Manhattan district office at 201 Varick St., a 12-story, 1929 Art Deco federal office building that members of the public cannot enter without walking past a grinning, government-issue color photo of President Donald Trump.
Not that Nadler needs any reminders: “We have now under President Trump the most sustained attack on our democratic values and our democratic norms and the rule of law since the Civil War,” he said. “And that we have to defend against by making sure our fundamental liberties are intact, our Constitutional structure is intact, and the rule of law itself is intact.”
It was the afternoon of March 21 – exactly 24 hours before the Mueller Report dropped, with less of a bang and more of a whimper – and Nadler was elucidating the personal, political, historical, intellectual, sociological and Constitutional context to his half-century-plus of public service.
In two interview sessions, sandwiched around a brief meeting with the Australian consul general, he also described the character, ethos and moral principles of a neighborhood he's embodied since his time as a young political reformer who bucked, and vanquished, the entrenched Democratic political establishment back in 1969.
“I would define it as liberal and generous, believing that government should be open and activist and help people who need help – to do for them what they cannot do for themselves – combined with a strong respect for civil liberties and civil rights, women's rights and gay rights,” he said.
“Those are the quintessential West Side values,” he said. “Those are the good, progressive West Side values,” he repeated.
Of course, there were national phenomena that the local body politic despised: “The West Side hated McCarthyism, hated HUAC [the House Un-American Activities Committee], hated our endless, unnecessary wars in Vietnam and Iraq,” Nadler said.An Early Close Encounter
And it also didn't cotton to a 150-story tower – hyped as the “tallest building in the history of the world” and the centerpiece of the “biggest project in the history of New York” – that an audacious developer named Donald J. Trump was proposing to erect along the old Hudson River rail yards between West 59th and 72nd Streets.
It was the mid-1980s, and the stage was set for the first showdown between Nadler, then a state Assembly member, and Trump, who was reveling in the 1983 success of Trump Tower – and out to conquer a broad swath of the West Side.
Score it as a knockout victory for Nadler.
The complex was initially dubbed “Television City” because NBC was a target tenant. But the network soon dropped out, and it was inevitably rebranded “Trump City,” and Nadler was invited to view the models.
There it was, a 150-floor monstrosity, surrounded by what he describes as a bunch of “75-story Chrysler buildings,” and, as he tells the story, “I thought it was grotesque…But I was too polite to say that.”
So he asked about the tower's residential component, and suddenly, Trump was getting animated as he riffed on high-rise living, and Nadler quotes him asking, “Did you know, did you know, that the people living on the top stories, before they go out in the morning, have to call down to the concierge to find out what the weather is like because they can't see it because they're above the clouds?”
“I'm thinking, 'What a drag,'” Nadler recalls. “But he's getting more and more excited, and I realized that he's living on the 68th floor at the top of the Trump Tower, and all of a sudden, I got it, and I asked if he would be living on the 150th floor, and he said, 'Yeah.'”
His conclusion? “Trump wanted to be the highest person in the highest apartment in the world,” he said.
It didn't happen. Nadler rallied the opposition. The project's grandiosity vanished. It withered in size, scope and density. By 1991, a compromise was thrashed out, though Nadler still opposed it because it precluded the continuing operation of the railyards.
Bottom line: Trump City was dead. A much smaller Riverside South rose in its stead. Six more modestly sized buildings bore the name “Trump Place.”The Boys Who Wore Neckties
Highly selective Stuyvesant High School, which Nadler entered in 1961, was an incubator for political prodigies. Here, he joined the debating team, launched his first five campaigns for electoral office, all of them successful, and mastered the fine art of constituent service and trust-building.
“I spent four years in high school trying to figure out how to combine a career in politics with either molecular biology or astrophysics,” he said. “I never quite figured it out.”
He quickly came under the tutelage of two other precocious political dynamos, each a year ahead of him at Stuyvesant – Dick Gottfried, who went on to become the state's longest serving Assembly member, and Dick Morris, who became reelection campaign strategist for President Bill Clinton in 1996 and has since drifted over to right-wing fringe politics.
After winning two elections, as freshman vice president and sophomore president, Nadler got a boost from Gottfried, who wrote his campaign literature, and Morris, who served as campaign manager, for his next three triumphs, as class secretary, vice president and then student government president.
“I'm very good with a magic marker, so I hand-lettered all his campaign posters!” Gottfried recalled. “Even back then, his political skills showed strongly.”
Stuyvesant was and is a place where a student can be hugely popular – even without playing on the football team, he said.
“And Jerry and I and our friends were very much NOT on the football team,” Gottfried added. “If you look in the yearbook, we're the only kids wearing neckties…We were all nerds back then, maybe we still are, and our nerdiness has served us well over time.”
Nadler graduated Stuy, as everyone called it, in 1965, and Morris had already devised a plan for his future:
“Dick said we ought to recruit a bunch of bright young liberal kids to go to Columbia and go into politics together on the West Side and not wait until we graduate from college,” he said. “This sounded wonderful to me.”The Columbia Crucible
The idea was to establish a group and attract a political following, “like the Kennedy brothers,” Nadler said, and thus was born the “West Side Kids,” or “those damned kids,” as they were sometimes branded.
Between 1965 and 1967, drawing from Columbia, NYU and Stuyvesant and Hunter High Schools, they organized roughly 200 to 300 students who campaigned for liberal, reform anti-war candidates, delivering the vote via canvassing and phone banks. “Very old-fashioned political work,” he said.
Established politicians took note. In 1967, when Nadler was only 20 years old, Percy Sutton, then the Manhattan Borough President, appointed him to Community Board 7.
Meanwhile, anti-Vietnam sentiment was feverish, President Lyndon B. Johnson had become a pariah on the West Side, and Nadler, Morris and Gottfried all got involved in the “Dump Johnson” movement.
They helped start the “Clean for Gene” campaign in New Hampshire, in which bearded, long-haired students were asked to “clean up their acts” – meaning shave and get haircuts – as they went door to door for Sen. Eugene McCarthy in the state's decisive Democratic presidential primary in 1968. Just three weeks later, LBJ dropped out of the race.
Closer to home, Columbia University was exploding, the Students for a Democratic Society began occupying buildings, and Nadler stayed away:
“I thought it was an invasion of the civil liberties of students and faculty who wanted to attend classes to forcibly prevent them from doing so,” he said.
After an initial police bust radicalized the campus, he got involved – as leader of the “right wing of the strike committee,” so called because it favored negotiations and didn't believe, as the SDS did, that anyone trying to cross a picket line should be “physically stopped by whatever means necessary,” he recalled.
“I thought they were crazy,” Nadler said of the SDS extremists. “Haven't you ever heard of civil liberties?” he demanded. “Have you forgotten that you're on strike against the university's use of coercive tactics?”
His faction won the votes. But it didn't matter. SDS-controlled “strike central” only implemented the votes they wanted to implement, he said. So Nadler called for the right wing to walk out and form its own strike committee. No, he was told, that would break strike unity.
“You can't have unity with people who ignore the votes!” he countered. “But I couldn't persuade people, so finally, I got disgusted and left and went back to the McCarthy campaign…
“Ending the war was the be-all and the end-all – that and running our political group,” he said.
By the time Nadler graduated from Columbia in 1969, the West Side Kids were ready to take on the “Adults,” as the upstart reformers referred to the older, cautious established Democratic power structure that had dithered as the Dump Johnson bandwagon picked up steam.
So Nadler, 21, and Gottfried, 22, and five like-minded outsiders ran for Democratic district leader posts against seven organization incumbents – and upset every single one.
Their rallying cry? “Harass your local politician!”
The coup was completed that year. Nadler founded a new reform club, Community Free Democrats. Other clubhouses were either taken over from the old clique or created anew. His faction now held sway over most of the political universe of the Upper West Side and ushered in a more representative, egalitarian and left-of-center Democratic Party.“America's Most Important Person”
The Kids came of age pretty fast. But amazingly, their values and belief systems did not bend.
Nadler served seven years as district leader, then was elected to the state Assembly in 1976, following Gottfried, who got there in 1970.
He prevailed in a seven-way Democratic primary race, beating the other frontrunner by a mere 73 votes. That candidate was another household name on the UWS, Ruth Messinger, the future borough president of Manhattan and Democratic mayoral nominee who lost to Rudy Giuliani in 1997.
“I've been telling people that once upon a time, I lost an election to Jerry Nadler – and the good news is that I lost to the most important person or one of the most important people in the United States,” Messinger said in a phone interview.
From 1977 to 1992, Nadler served in the Assembly, helping to write state law on transportation, housing and consumer protection policy and passing a package of landmark legislation on domestic violence and enforcement of child support payments.
Among the bills he's most proud of was a measure that was radical at the time: “If there's an order of child support and you don't pay, it's automatically withheld from your pay like income taxes,” he said. “The first time we introduced it, we got zero votes in committee. It took six years before it finally passed.”
Nadler's political life may be charmed, but there were two stinging defeats along the way. In 1985, he ran for Manhattan Borough President, and got clobbered by David Dinkins, and in 1989, he ran for comptroller, ran out of money and was bested by Elizabeth Holtzman.
Holtzman, former Congress member who sat on Rodino's Judiciary Committee as it passed the articles of impeachment against Nixon, has remained a friend for decades, and in the current crisis, Nadler says, he often turns to her for counsel.National Clamor, Local Focus
After 16 years in the Assembly, Nadler suddenly had a chance to move up in 1992 when U.S. Rep. Ted Weiss, who for 15 years held the West Side Congressional seat, died suddenly on the day before the primary, which he won handily anyway.
That paved the way for the Democratic County Committee, made up of district leaders and clubhouse members, to nominate a candidate to run in his place, a designation all-but certain to lead to victory in the special election that followed.
Five contenders swiftly surfaced, including Bella Abzug, along with the two old buddies from Stuy, Nadler and Gottfried. There was a bit of tension between the two men. It lasted barely a week as the backroom politicking played out.
“Jerry had it wrapped up from Day One,” Gottfried recalls. For years, he had cultivated relationship with local pols and clubhouses, and now, it would pay off. “He is a superb one-on-one politician. Ultimately, it was a tidal wave,” he added.
In Congress, Nadler worked to secure federal dollars – sometimes in the millions, sometimes in the billions -- for mass transit, harbor dredging, rail freight and other mega-transportation and infrastructure projects.
He supported gays in the military, introduced legislation to permit gays to sponsor their permanent partners for immigration, fought to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act and campaigned for equal treatment for all married couples.
And in 1998, he coined and popularized a phrase that Trump-defenders in the GOP might well adopt politically should his Judiciary Committee eventually decide to pursue impeachment proceedings against the president: “Partisan coup d'état.”
With those three words – in impassioned defense of Bill Clinton, and in ardent opposition to impeachment managers on Judiciary who were seeking to bring him down – Nadler vaulted to the national stage for the first time.
An impeachable offense is an abuse of presidential power that undermines the function of government, he argued then, saying the framers of the Constitution didn't intend impeachment to punish mere wrongdoing.
“Rather they saw it as a protection of constitutional liberties and of the structure of the government they were establishing against a president who might seek to become a tyrant,” he said in 1998.
Nadler was just a junior minority member of the committee in his sixth year in the House.
But so seriously did he take his duties that he found himself reading the works of Sir William Blackstone, an 18th-century British judge and legal scholar who wrote about impeachment in English law.
“I still think that the best summary of what is an impeachable offense is the majority staff report of the Judiciary Committee written ironically in February of 1974 by Hillary Rodham as a young former Yale student,” he said in the interview with The Spirit.A Historic Showdown
Now, Nadler is preparing once again, devouring “To End a Presidency: The Power of Impeachment,” by Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe, whose message can be summed up in two words: Tread carefully.
“The first half of the book is the terrible fate that would befall the republic if you don't impeach a president when you should,” he said. “The second half of the book is the terrible fate that would befall the republic if you do impeach a president when you shouldn't.”
He also polished off “How Democracies Die” by two Harvard political scientists.
“Very frightening,” Nadler said. “[The book] goes through Peron and Mussolini and various strongmen in other countries, and you see a lot of this in Trump – he really checks all the boxes.
“Attacking the press and the judiciary, threatening violence against reporters and others, casting doubt on the legitimacy of the election, even when he won the election, delegitimizing the electoral process,” he said. “We have better institutional safeguards – we hope – than some of these other countries, but they don't operate automatically.”
So Nadler these days has his hands full as he presses Attorney General William Barr to release a complete copy of the Mueller Report and all its supporting documentation under threat of subpoena.
…And yet, as Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer tells the story, “There he was at a recent local meeting about a New York City Housing Authority infill site in Community Board 4 in Hell's Kitchen.”
“I've never seen anything like this,” she marveled. “He didn't have to be there. He's right in the middle of all these huge national issues. But he still shows up at all the meetings.”
What motivates him? “It's all about keeping a local focus on local issues and local housing and local concerns, and that has never changed,” Brewer said.