Perhaps it is inevitable that, when two of your ancestors were signatories to the Declaration of Independence and one fought side-by-side with George Washington, you are destined to become thoroughly enmeshed in matters central to Washington, D.C. But when you begin your life in a small town in north central South Carolina, it might not be so obvious at the time. So started the life of James (Jim) Hamilton, who made his way from Chester, South Carolina, then population 7,000, to Davidson College near Charlotte, North Carolina, graduating in 1960, and then to Yale Law School, two years of military service in Germany, followed by one year at the London School of Economics, and finally to Washington, D.C. in 1966. Throughout his 55-plus-year career in Washington, D.C., Jim Hamilton has worked for and with stellar lawyers (starting with Gerhard Gesell before he joined the District Court bench), served as Assistant Chief Counsel for the Senate Watergate Committee, represented high profile clients embroiled in political controversies and congressional investigations, investigated alleged election fraud on the island of Palau in Micronesia, and was trusted by presidents and presidential aspirants to head the vetting of countless candidates for vice president, cabinet offices and the Supreme Court. In his oral history, conducted by Society Board member Bill Jeffress, Jim Hamilton speaks candidly and at length about all of these experiences. It is an oral history of extraordinary value and interest.
Jim Hamilton’s sense of justice began early. Raised in a small segregated town in the 1950s, by the time he reached senior year at Davidson College, he and others used the school newspaper to advocate that Davidson should be integrated, much to the consternation of the Davidson Board of Trustees. When he arrived at Yale, his classmates included Eleanor Holmes Norton (now D.C. Delegate to the House of Representatives) and Barbara Babcock, who served as the first director of the Public Defender Service of the District of Columbia and for decades thereafter as a prominent member of the Stanford Law School faculty. “I heard her when she won the moot court [at Yale],” Hamilton recalls. “I went and listened to her argument and decided I was in the wrong profession. I was intimidated by how well she spoke.” After law school, and perhaps as a preview of his ability to maneuver through the corridors of Washington, Hamilton explains that he was able to secure a position in Germany for his 2-year army service by deciding to go directly (without invitation or appointment) to the specific colonel in the Pentagon responsible for officer assignments. “Sure son, I’ll send you to Germany.”
After two years in Germany and one year at the London School of Economics, Hamilton returned to Washington, D.C. to practice law, because he wanted to “try out a law firm” and “do stuff that was interesting.” That he did. His first assignment at Covington & Burling was with Gerhard Gesell in the final year before Judge Gesell’s appointment to the District Court in late 1967. While he worked on antitrust and other matters, Hamilton particularly recalls being sent to board meetings of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights in New York City. “[I]t was very educational to watch [Whitney North] Seymour control this group of very high-powered folks.” Thereafter, Hamilton was able to work with other icons of the bar, including Hugh Cox, Dan Gribbon and Charley Horsky.
In early 1973, Horsky recommended Hamilton to Sam Dash, who had just taken on the role of Chief Counsel for the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities (the Senate “Watergate Committee”). Dash hired him as Assistant Chief Counsel, and his primary area of responsibility was the investigation of the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up. Hamilton recounts Dash’s approach to the hearings, to start small and build the story over time. Along the way, there were tensions with then Special Counsel Archibald Cox over immunity grants to committee witnesses, including John Dean and others. Dash and Hamilton prepared Dean for his historic testimony, which was followed by the committee’s discovery of the taping system in the Oval Office. The Saturday morning after learning from Alexander Butterfield of the existence of the system, Dash and Hamilton visited Dean in his Alexandria home. “[W]hen we told him, John just broke into this huge smile because he knew those tapes were going to prove that he had been accurate about his conversations with Nixon.” Following Butterfield’s testimony the next Monday, which only occurred after Hamilton threatened to have the Sargent at Arms bring him forcibly to the hearing room, the committee subpoenaed the tapes, which in turn led to historic decisions over the scope of executive privilege, and indeed whether the hearings could go forward at all. Hamilton discusses the litigation in detail.
Ultimately the committee issued its report, unanimously adopted by all committee members, an extraordinary feat for such a high profile, historic congressional investigation. “I think it was the most successful congressional investigation in history. I think it was done, basically, in a non-partisan way.” Hamilton goes on to recall many of the personalities and events of the hearing, how the individual counsel impacted the committee’s views and work, and his role leading up to Senator Inouye’s famous comment to a hot mic after John Erlichman’s testimony, “What a liar.”
When Hamilton finished his work for the committee, he began preparations for the impeachment trial, cut short by Nixon’s resignation on August 9, 1974 and subsequent pardon by Gerald Ford. For the next year, Hamilton authored a book on congressional investigations, and then joined Ginsburg Feldman & Bress. There he continued his work in congressional investigations, representing Herman Talmadge, for example, before the Senate Ethics Committee in the early 1980s. He describes how he negotiated with Adlai Stevenson III a previously unused “denouncement” by the Senate for Talmadge’s conduct. In the Spring 1988, Hamilton represented David Durenberger before the Senate Ethics Committee for allegedly disclosing that the United States was spying on Israel. Coming out at the same time as the Jonathan Pollard case, he successfully convinced the committee to take no formal action. This was followed by an investigation into whether Durenberger had improperly supplemented his salary, again negotiating a “denouncement” rather than a censure by the Senate. Finally, Hamilton discusses at length his representation of Dennis DeConcini, one of the “Keating Five” in the 1989 – 1990 Senate Ethics Committee investigation and related matters.
Hamilton’s list of high-profile congressional investigations is a long one. Others he discusses at length include “Debategate” in which he served as special counsel to the House Subcommittee investigating the leak of the Carter debate briefing papers to the Reagan campaign in 1980, recounting his interviews with William Casey and George Will, among others. And then there was the investigation he conducted into possible election fraud in Palau, Micronesia that led to a report to the Congress of Micronesia in October 1978, teaming up again with Sam Dash in impeachment proceedings in Alaska in 1985, and representing Marina Oswald in 1976 before the Senate Select Committee on Assassinations.
One of the most riveting portions of the oral history is Hamilton’s recounting of his brief representation of Vince Foster in 1993 before his death by suicide, followed by his representation of the family, which then resulted in two landmark Supreme Court decisions on survival of the attorney client privilege after death, and the balancing of privacy rights and first amendment access with respect to crime scene photos. Hamilton discusses the strategic decisions and tactical steps taken in both cases. This is “inside lawyering” at its best, but with a remarkable and sensitive focus on the substantial human impact judicial decisions can have on those involved in tragic events such as these.
If the foregoing were not enough to satisfy any reader of the oral history, Hamilton recounts his representations of (1) Don Fowler, the former DNC Chair, with respect allegations of improper fundraising in the 1996 Clinton presidential campaign and alleged improper influence on the CIA relating to Roger Tamraz, (2) James Lee Witt, FEMA head from 1993 to 2001, over a kerfuffle arising out of a native Indian head dress gift, (3) several MLB players implicated in the 2006 Mitchell investigation into steroid abuse, (4) Robert Novak in connection with the leak of Valerie Plame’s name in the 2003 “Mission to Niger” column written by Novak, and (5) Admiral Mike Mullen during the 2015 hearings before the House Select Committee on Events Surrounding the 2012 Terrorist Attack in Benghazi. On the last, Hamilton makes no secret of his view as to how “disgraceful” the committee’s questioning was of Mullen and others.
It is not surprising that Hamilton has thought long about what makes a career a success. “I think there are at least four important aspects of a successful career,” he says. Money is one, but he clearly values the others more: “work with people we like” “do things you’re interested in” and “do things that are worthwhile.” Measured against those standards, Jim Hamilton has had a remarkably successful career.