Dwight Opperman: The Q&A
Dwight on trading wines with Warren Burger, breaking bread with Larry King, and offering an exhausted Bill Clinton a place to crash
Published in 2009 Minnesota Super Lawyers magazine
on July 17, 2009
Updated on May 27, 2022
I understand you knew Chief Justice Warren Burger very well.
Yeah, we were good friends. He was a lawyer in St. Paul before he went to Washington. He got appointed to the federal court of appeals in the District of Columbia. Then Nixon wanted a law and order chief justice, and he picked Burger. It was a great choice. I think it was a senator from Nebraska who said, “He looks like a chief justice.” He really did. He was big—he went to the ABA meetings and made a lot of speeches. And every time he made a speech, he called for something to be created, like a national center for the state courts. And a circuit court program. An institute for court management was one of his ideas. He also had an idea, which didn’t come to fruition, of having prisoners manufacture things. It would have kept them busy in prison and given them a trade when they came out. He tried to work something out with us [West Publishing] to do typesetting. But we didn’t do that.
Nixon chose him because he was a law and order man, but he turned out to be liberal in many respects, didn’t he?
They all do that. They are all so far different from what you expect. Like with [Harry] Blackmun. Blackmun was supposed to be a very conservative justice when he was appointed. He was appointed by Nixon, too, one year after Burger. And he got to be known as a very liberal justice. He gave an Opperman lecture at Drake, and he said he didn’t change, the Court had changed and shifted away from him. So he became left of the ones who were then on the Court, who were the strict conservatives.
What were they like, personally? Burger and Blackmun.
Well, I was very relaxed with them, more so with Burger, I think, than with Blackmun.
Did Burger have a sense of humor?
Yeah. Yeah, he did. Well, they both had a sense of humor. Not a ha-ha sense. But they would chuckle. And I never heard any of them say anything risqué. A risqué joke. They were always very proper, so far as I know. But I spent more time with Burger. He was interested in wine. And we exchanged wines. We’d have dinner together. He and his wife. I knew Vera very well. I knew Dottie Blackmun too.
When Burger came out here, you would spend time with him, right?
Oh, yeah. He’d come through the office [at West Publishing] and I wouldn’t be there yet. Eight o’clock a.m. He’d leave a note on my desk: “I was here at 8 o’clock. Where were you?” He liked to come here and walk around downtown St. Paul, his old haunts. And we’d try to keep track of him. The Court didn’t have the same security worries that you have today, so we at West would try to keep track of him and let them know. I remember one time we were walking from the Minnesota Club across Rice Park. And they have a water fountain there. And some guy was working on that, a plumber, I guess. And the guy calls out, “Hey, Burger.” He had gone to high school with him. And he liked that. He liked seeing his old classmates.
Where did he go to high school?
Burger went to Johnson High School in St. Paul. He was an outstanding student. He was very proud of the fact. Burger had a letter from, I don’t know, his second-grade or sixth-grade teacher, who spoke in such glowing terms about him. He wrote something that she was very proud of. And he always revered her. He could do a lot of things. He did that sculpture [on a wall in Opperman’s office] when he was 16 years old. After he became chief justice, the Franklin Mint wanted to cast it and sell it, which they did.
And that plush red thing [in Opperman’s office], that’s a carpet from the Supreme Court chambers.
He painted too. I think I saw one thing that he had [painted] in his chambers. There is a lot of tension to being chief justice. In one case, I saw him come off the bench. I was in the chambers waiting and he came in, and you could tell he had been under strain on that bench.
And he got into everything. You know, the chief justice is the chief justice of the United States, not of the Supreme Court. People usually make that mistake.
Anyways, I think I am the one that pointed that out, initially, because Lee Slater, who was then president of West, asked me to prepare background information for a dinner we were going to have for Burger. We were going to have St. Paul lawyers come to the Minnesota Club for the dinner, which we did. And a year later we did it for Blackmun. So I looked up everything. We didn’t have computers then, so I used the books. Good old books. And found out all the responsibilities of the chief justice. And they are many. They are head of the Smithsonian, and a whole bunch of other things.
What about U.S. District Judge for Minnesota Edward Devitt? You knew him very well, right?
Very well. Oh, yeah.
What was he like?
(Laughter) You walked down the street with Judge Devitt and it would take you forever to get anyplace, because everybody was, “Hey, Ed! Hey, Ed!” And he’d stop to say a few words with them. He was very popular and very highly regarded. You know he was a congressman for one term.
Yeah. And then he got beat.
Yeah, you know how he got beat?
Well, Eugene McCarthy beat him. And McCarthy’s campaign made a point of the fact that Devitt’s wife had been married before. St. Paul is a Catholic town—he made some kind of allusion so that people thought there had been a divorce, he was marrying a divorcée or something, which wasn’t true. So McCarthy beat him. It’s a Democratic city anyway. So it was odd that Devitt ever won. But he did. And he became a good judge. Also, he told me—and he’s not the only one that has told me this, because Judge Murphy said something about it once, and so have some of the other judges—Judge Devitt told me that Vance [Opperman] was one of the four best lawyers that appeared before him in his career. And other judges have said similar things about Vance. And Vance would always say, “Well, what else are they going to say to you?”
Did you know William Rehnquist?
Yes, not warmly, but yes, sure. He called me Dwight. And I called him Chief Justice.
I’ve heard that he had more of a sense of humor than most people would have guessed.
He did. But he didn’t come off in public that way at all. But if you saw him in different smaller groups, he had a very fine sense of humor. And he had a very warm family. I went to his funeral, and they told so many stories there. He liked to gamble. He liked to bet on things. He’d bet on whether that fly was going to leave before that one. (Laughter) And he did a lot with his kids. The other justices thought very highly of Rehnquist.
Two of the other justices told me the lawyer that came before them who did the best job was Roberts, the current chief justice. That’s before he was named to the Court. They have a lunchroom and sometimes they get together in their lunchroom and they discuss, “What do you think of this lawyer, or that lawyer?” “Well, the best one that’s ever come here was Roberts.” So we’ve had good choices on chief justice. Actually, I think we have had good choices on all those people. And I think people tend to live up to their responsibilities anyway. No matter what judge you get. I think you can either live up to it or you fail. I think it is true of judgeships and I think that is true of business as well. I think it is true of presidents.
Did you know Reagan at all?
Well, I met him. I knew of him from Des Moines, Iowa. I was a kid, and he was a radio announcer. He’d announced baseball games. I went down to the station and watched him announce. He sat in a little booth. He had a hickory stick hanging down. And he’d crack it, and that was the crack of the bat. And then he had a mitt that he’d hit for the sound of the ball hitting the glove. But he was getting a wire—you know, a tape—from Chicago. They were announcing the Chicago games. He’d get this tape and read off it. He’d say, “So-and-so flew out to right.”
You had seen that?
Sure. I don’t remember how we arranged it. But it wasn’t hard. It wasn’t a big deal down there. I was just a high school kid.
He did his own sound effects.
Yeah. (Laughter) He embellished them so well. You know that one story—he told it about himself—about the football game. Well, he said, uh, Jones passes to Smith, and Smith is going down the field. And the tape came through and said that Baker had scored. So he said, ‘And Jones laterals to Baker!” (Laughter) He had a sense of humor.
And you knew President Clinton?
Clinton slept here in my office when he was president. I’ve got a bedroom back there, behind that wall, which is really a door. And I knew he was coming. Vance had Hillary here. Bill was coming back from Japan and he was going to stop here. And he came back and he was tired. I put some briefcases along the wall there to make it look even less like a door. The trouble is the building superintendent told the head of the Secret Service guys about that door. So they all got back in there and saw what was there, and they said I had to open up [and unpack everything]. But I didn’t do it. Still, when he got here, he was tired so he went back and slept in the bedroom.
A really interesting thing on Clinton. We were at a meeting at NYU, and they had a panel discussion—it was a big deal. They have a big meeting room there. And then they have a big theater, an auditorium. They put the students in there with closed-circuit TV. And I was the sponsor, so I sat in the front row. And Hillary was on the panel for two hours, from 8 to 10. And then in the afternoon from 2 to 4 there was Bill, on a panel. So after she was done she came and sat beside me. And I knew what the program was, and I asked her, “Are you going to stay all day?” And she said yes. Then they called me into the little anteroom there. And there was Bill, and Tony Blair, and a guy from Bulgaria. And she said, “Bill, this is Vance’s father.” That’s all she said to him. This was maybe a week after he admitted there was something about Monica Lewinsky. And the air was frigid. She came and sat down. In the afternoon, then, they went over to where the students were. They walked up on the stage separately. And then we went over to another building and he worked one side of the room and she worked the other. It was real frigid.
What about Larry King?
Well, I have breakfast every day with him, seven days a week, when I am in Los Angeles. He’s a warm guy, which you can tell from his show. He never puts anybody down. He’s very supportive of his friends, and very loyal to his friends. They say he has been married or divorced seven times. And then had some annulments in there too. (Laughter) Somebody says, “Well, he marries ’em instead of like you other guys. He marries ’em.” But he has two kids and the kids look up to him with great admiration.
What about some people you’ve known in Minnesota over the years. Rudy Boschwitz is one?
Yeah, yeah. Rudy. I was on his campaign, second time. I was on Durenberger’s campaign. They both ran at the same time [in 1978]. I was in Rudy’s office [during his second election] before they had nominated anyone to run against him in the Senate. And I asked him whom he thought they might nominate. He said, “I don’t know, but I sure as hell hope they nominate that Wellstone.” (Laughter) I reminded him of that later.
What was he like?
Oh, Rudy. You know Rudy. He’s happy-go-lucky. Likes to raise money. It’s a passion with him to raise money. He wanted to raise a lot of money because he wanted a post in the Republican Party. And he did raise enough so he got the spot he wanted—chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
And Durenberger. He was less of a money raiser, I would imagine.
Well, he raised money at the time when he needed it. Durenberger wasn’t very smart. You know, he went down to Miami and spoke to some people while he was still head of some important committee in the Senate. Republicans controlled the Senate for a while when Durenberger was there. And he gave away some national security matters when he talked to some supporters. A terrible thing to do. And then when he got defeated, he said, “Well, that won’t change anything. Being in the minority won’t make any difference.” The hell it doesn’t. It makes all the difference in the world.
I was on the campaign committees of both of them. I mean I gave money to each of them. And I went back when they first got in and I went into Rudy’s Washington office. And his chief person knew my name. And she came out and gave me the red carpet treatment. Introduced me to the other guys and ushered me over to see Rudy over in the chambers. They took me in the committee room where he was sitting.
He was so organized. And that woman—I don’t know if she should have done this—but she showed me the card file that they had. Some of them had a pink stripe at the top. Some of them had another colored stripe. So I asked what that was, and of course it meant what category of giving that guy gave.
And I went over to Durenberger’s office the same day. And jeez, they weren’t organized at all. First, they didn’t know my name. That’s all right. A lot of people don’t know my name. But they didn’t seem to know what the hell was going on. The staff didn’t. He called himself Minnesota’s next great senator, but he really wasn’t. I spoke with him just yesterday. I hadn’t spoken to him in two years. He called me. I like David, but I don’t think he’s a good politician.
I was going to ask you about the artist Everett Raymond Kinsler, with whom I understand you’ve spent some time.
Oh, yeah, he’s done a lot of portraits. Matter of fact, he did Ford and Reagan and Clinton. He did Katharine Hepburn. John Wayne. I know he did Blackmun’s official one, because I sponsored that.
So he did your portrait.
What’s it like sitting for him? Does he talk to you?
Does he talk to you? Yeah, he talks a lot! He told me—hah!—this goes against what I said earlier about risqué, I guess. But he told me he thought Blackmun was a warm personality. He liked him a lot. And Blackmun told him Thurgood Marshall’s sight failed him in the end, and when the Court had a pornography case, they had to watch the film that was part of the case. So they set up a separate room where the justices could go and watch it without the help around. So Marshall asked Blackmun to go with him because he couldn’t see. They got down there and he said, “What are they doing, Harry?” And Harry told him. And he said, “They’re doing WHAT?”
What about Ruth Bader Ginsburg. You know her too?
Yes. I know her quite well. She’s a frail little woman. She’s had cancer, you probably know, twice. She did and so did her husband, Martin D. Ginsburg. A very bright woman.
Scalia—do you know him?
Sure. [There are] a couple of pictures of him over here. That’s his wife, Maureen. He gave the Opperman Lecture twice.
He seems like a tough-minded gentleman.
Oh, he is. But he is a happy guy. A bouncy, happy guy. And he laughs a lot. But he cracks down on people. He has strong opinions. He really knocks the other justices once in a while.
I was going to ask you about Anthony Kennedy. You know him as well.
I know him very well. He dedicated the Opperman Hall at Drake in 1993, and spent three days there, and he gave the Opperman Lecture there. And we’ve traveled together. He and his wife, and Julie and me.
Well, what is Anthony Kennedy like?
Oh, he is more scholarly. He’s warm, but it’s a different type of warmth. Kennedy hardly drinks. He’ll sip a little bit of wine, I guess. But he won’t really drink. Scalia will.
Is Kennedy a good listener?
He’s more of a talker than a listener. Yeah, he likes to talk. I think they are all very bright. I think anybody that is nominated—either party is going to name somebody bright. They want to get them through. I thought Roberts was astounding on his confirmation. Kennedy didn’t have any trouble.
What do you make of what’s going on economically?
Ugh! It’s abhorrent! I think Bush—the second Bush—was certainly the worst president in my lifetime. But I’m wondering if he doesn’t break the record for all times. I didn’t think too much of the father either. Although Vance and I don’t agree very often on politics, and I did support this ass.
Yeah. I did. I didn’t like the other guys at all. My voting turns out be negative. Who do I like the least. Or who do I hate the least, I guess. And I think the guy we got in there now—my God, it’s terrible for him to say, “Oh, well, I inherited a trillion-dollar debt and it’s going to take a long time to pay that off. It’s going to be hard to pay that off. So I want another trillion dollars.” Jeez! Now we got two trillion dollars. I’ve become more skeptical of him as time goes by.
Because of the debt situation?
Sure. What he’s doing. I thought he was an intelligent guy. I’m beginning to doubt that he’s that intelligent now. I know his scholastic record. But he’s sure as hell not acting presidential. And I didn’t like McCain much. I liked Hillary better.
Well, it’s too deep for me to understand. But it’s too deep for the economists to understand too. They differ on it. And I don’t know whether they are differing on political grounds or on academic grounds. I hope that they are approaching it objectively.
You think it’s going to get deeper?
Oh, jeez. I hope not. It’s just terrible. I remember the Depression. I was a kid. I was born in ’23, so I knew the Depression well. We never suffered. We were very poor. Dirt poor. My folks didn’t let me know that. They took good care. My dad, he would get so mad. The neighbors would go down to the welfare office, and come with a little wheel wagon full of flour or sugar or something. My dad wouldn’t do that. We had it tough. He’d go shovel coal all day at the lumberyard, from the railroad cars into whatever. And then in exchange for that they’d give us a load of coal, to heat the house for the month. My dad worked hard. So did my mother. She didn’t have a washing machine. She had to scrub them until my sister and I bought her first washing machine. It was tough.