academics of the past — they’re just like us!

So last week, for me, was the first week of classes. But the week before that, I was in Austin to use the LBJ archives.

The LBJ archives are awesome. Of the 15 or so archives I’ve visited over the last 10+ years, they had hands-down the most helpful archivist I’ve ever met. (Allen Fisher, if you’re taking notes.) I was also amused that they’re a little competitive with the other presidential archives. I received a meaningful look when they learned that no one at JFK explained the details of the archives’ shared cross-referencing system to me. (“You’d be surprised how often that happens.”)


LBJ didn’t believe in windows.

Anyway, the best find of the trip was the papers of Donald Turner, who was the first economist to run the Antitrust Division (1965-68). There were letters to all sorts of major players in law & economics, like Robert Bork. A letter of recommendation for Oliver Williamson, who very early in his career was Turner’s special economic assistant. A “P.S” on a letter from the Dean of Yale’s Law School: “Is Steve Breyer [then 27] as able as I think he is?”

But the most fun was the totally human part. The year before Turner became antitrust chief, he went on sabbatical at Stanford, where, as academics do, he rented the house of another faculty member who was also on leave — a young Bill Baxter, who would become Reagan’s antitrust chief some 15 years later. Turner kept a copy of his outgoing letters from that year, and they sound awfully familiar. Academics of the past — they’re just like us!

They complain about grading!

I’m not sure if these were left over from the fall semester at Harvard, or if Turner had to teach while he was on leave, but the 140 blue books staring him down in December caused a fair bit of grief. That one’s easy to relate to.

They complain about how their articles are going!

In 1965, Turner published a major article on conglomerate mergers, which caused him all sorts of anguish. The letters are full of agonizing over how hard he’s working on it, frustration with how long it’s taking, and the inevitable requests for deadline extensions. To top it off, there was a final kerfuffle over the copyediting. He sure must have been glad to see the back side of that one.

They take advantage of the bar!

Turner and Baxter, the two future antitrust chiefs, didn’t know each other well at the time that Turner rented Baxter’s house. In fact, it appears that they had never met in person. One of the funniest bits is the post-sabbatical correspondence tidying up the loose ends. Turner drank some of Baxter’s booze, and offered to reimburse him for it. Baxter had noted what they left on a card, but then misplaced the card. So he roughed it out: “[My] recollection is that you left about the same amount of gin and wine that we had left; but that about two fifths of bourbon, two fifths of scotch, and one fifth of cognac have not been replaced.” He called it $25, and Turner paid up. It’s always important to pay for your liquor.

Written by epopp

January 30, 2015 at 1:30 pm

Posted in academia, economics

2 Responses

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  1. Thank you for sharing. I spent a few weeks at the LBJ as well and they are some of the most professional people you will find. Also, I had the please of sitting next to Robert Caro as he silently worked on the most recent volume of the LBJ biography. And don’t forget to enjoy Austin itself – a great place.

    Liked by 2 people


    January 30, 2015 at 6:19 pm

  2. […] Elizabeth Popp Berman’s travels into the LBJ archives reveal that not everything was different back in the olden days. In the papers of Donald Turner she […]


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