Lion of the Left

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WASHINGTON: William J. Brennan was a liberal. During his 34-year tenure on the nation's highest court, Brennan in more than 1,200 opinions was the architect of the individual-rights revolution in law in the 1960s. He opposed the death penalty, defended abortion rights, and consistently championed people whose rights he feared would otherwise be forgotten. When Brennan died of natural causes Thursday after living all but nine of this century's years, from opponents and admirers alike there was little but marvel at the career of one of the most brilliant and influential justices in America's history. But seemingly foremost among the characteristics his colleagues recalled was the formidable legal mind who was utterly lovable. "I was not what might be called a Brennan liberal," Justice David H. Souter, who replaced Brennan, recalled in 1992. "I did not know what kind of reception I would get from him. He saw me standing in the outer reception room and he came forward to greet me. I got ready for a handshake and what I got instead was a bear hug," Souter recalled. "Justice Brennan just threw his arms around me and he hugged me, and he hugged me, and he went on hugging me for a very, very long time." But the man whose writings made him a hero was characteristically modest in describing his own accomplishments. "I'd like to have it concluded that I had not only done my best but that my best was consistent with both our society's aims and with the court's responsibilities," Brennan said once. "I suppose that's it, that I did my end of the job." President Eisenhower reportedly once joked that appointing Brennan in 1956 was one of just two mistakes he made during his term -- the other being Earl Warren. Brennan went on to serve through eight presidencies, remaining a force on the bench till he retired in 1990, when its composition had been stacked against him. A tip of the hat, then, to President Eisenhower for his error.