A Grudging Admirer of Ted Cruz

Many moons ago, I clerked on the U.S. Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit. I worked for a wonderful man, a former U.S. Marine with a 1950s sense of humor, a Reagan appointee. While he has since died, I recently thought again… about one day in his chambers. A famous, irrepressible and ever-candid lawyer -- and Harvard Law professor – was preparing to present a case to the three-judge panel. He was -- and is -- a celebrated appellate litigator. His name was and is Alan Dershowitz. 

Dershowitz is a bit of a character, a noted scholar of constitutional and criminal law, but a rough and ready legal maverick, always candid. He is also a notorious political liberal. While I went to Columbia Law School, friends that knew him – and anyone who has ever read about him – know he is outspoken.   

So, I had read his briefs. They were, as expected, cogent. He had tried to squeeze too many words into them, and the judges had pointed that out. But otherwise, his voluminous written material had permitted an allowance of considerable time – which is rather rare – to present his case. I sat in the back of the room, wondering how he would tear through 20-some legal points in as many minutes. He would have to be a speed demon, and surely would lose his race with the clock. 

The proceedings commenced, and a funny thing happened. This legendary legal mind was ahead of us. In so many words, he calmly, and without the expected fanfare and fireworks, approached the bench and said – now set aside all my arguments, except this one. And he then used his entire 20 minutes to carefully articulate – with many questions coming at him – why this one argument should win the day. It was a brilliant legal maneuver, making the judges focus on one issue and what mattered most, although against a backdrop off many other options. My memory is that he split the bench, causing a 2:1 decision, although I believe against him not for him. Still, strategic.

I raise this example of how Dershowitz approached the bench long ago, because it illustrates his capacity to see beyond the expected, and – as usual – to say exactly what he thinks. He does not shrink from controversy or try to gild the lily. What is more, in the many years since, this Harvard professor has distinguished himself as a diehard Democrat, supporting both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. So, what relevance can such a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat – if also exceptionally successful litigator on constitutional issues -- have for us in this moment? 

Mostly none, except for this. He was forced – since professors are always forced – to teach a student that came his way. The student came his way about twenty years ago, almost exactly. The student did not share the liberal professor’s views.  He actually was, by all reports, an articulate unpacker of those views. The student was an attendee at Harvard Law School in the mid-1990s. And a standout. 

That student, who sparred and bravely spoke truth to power, who spoke as a young, principled mind to a professor already years beyond the day I had watched him court, was none other than Ted Cruz. Now U.S. Senator Cruz. 

What those classes must have been like! Here was Dershowitz, who has boldly, openly diminished, denounced and decried the Second Amendment, facing off against a young student who would later argue and help win the so-called Heller case, which preserved the Second Amendment. Here was the famed professor likely dueling with the young conservative student, who would later defend and win the “Ten Commandments” case at the U.S. Supreme Court as the Texas Solicitor General. What sparks must have flown in that classroom!

But here is the real point. Many candidates in this year’s primary cycle are pounding their chests or trumpeting their virtues of wit and vigor, resolve and ability to deliver. But Ted Cruz has been through a dozen crucibles, and emerged victorious from these varied fights. Some have been political, some legal, some simply tests of consistency, principle and stick-to-it-ness. He has won in the heat of battle, and is someone who -- in fact -- warms to the battle. 

But there is just this one last fact. Seldom does a conservative, in battle with a political and legal liberal, or as distinguished a litigator as Alan Dershowitz, win both the argument and a compliment. Usually, the reverse occurs, at least in the modern world. The victor is reviled and faces endless recriminations, complaints and allegations of this and that. But to the credit of the liberal Harvard professor, he paid young Ted Cruz perhaps the highest compliment he could muster. Asked by the National Review what Dershowitz thought of the young conservative -- now with a chance to become America’s level-headed president -- the esteemed litigator just this: “Cruz was off-the-charts brilliant.” 

So, as we go to the polls and think about the future, what about that? If Ted Cruz can not only win Iowa, and a healthy proportion of New Hampshire and South Carolina --- and can even earn the grudging respect of a senior adversary before the bench --- should we not be thinking hard about how he could serve America? Rebuild America? Win for America? Let me collapse 20-plus arguments, if I may, into one: Ted Cruz is the kind of leader that would bring respect to America, if we are ready for that. I am.

Robert Charles, a former Assistant Secretary of State, former litigator and former Harvard University extension school instructor on law and congressional oversight, writes regularly on constitutional law, national security, and foreign policy. 

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