PENTIMENTO FOR ANGUS MACBETH

Posted on February 22, 2017 by Stephen Ramsey

In Scaramouche, Raphael Sabatini describes the hero of the novel as having been “…born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad”.

The Angus Macbeth I knew for 38 years had one of the best laughs of all time and a keen appreciation for the occasional absurdity of the world in which he lived. After all, how else to describe a man whose  life-long professional endeavor was to attempt to explain EPA to Industry, Industry to EPA, and NRDC to everyone.  A Sisyphean task which he approached with skill and aplomb and, above all, a boundless supply of mirth.

I met Angus in 1978 as an aspiring lawyer looking for work in Carter-era Washington. I remember almost nothing about which we spoke. What does stand out is a long conversation filled with loud talk, laughter, an endless stream of staff lawyers entering and exiting during my interview to discuss some issue or other ( think Court of Requests), and cigar smoke.  I am pretty sure I got hired because I demonstrated I could stay with the thread of our conversation regardless of the interruptions and, more importantly, my shared love of cigars. That was, truly the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

I watched and learned from Angus, not just then, but throughout our working lives.  I watched him mold a group of really smart, sometimes unruly and quirky lawyers at DOJ into an enormously effective team. He made everyone he touched better.

I was amazed as he cajoled and jawboned his primary client ,EPA, into coming round to his way of thinking by the sheer force of his intellect and charm.  Angus could quiet the most obstreperous US Attorneys, EPA Appointees, or opposing counsel by asking a few direct, innocent questions and waiting until they either got the lesson or felt the bleeding. In private practice Angus would patiently explain to the outraged client that yes, the government was not being logical; sadly, it didn’t have to be; however, here was a good path forward. It always worked. Angus combined a big brain, cold, clear-eyed analytical skills, and the integrity to tell clients what they needed rather than what they wanted to hear.

Angus loved complex problems and working with smart people to solve them as much as he hated typos (his biggest condemnation of a piece was that it was “riddled with typos”) and slipshod work. He could express convoluted concepts simply and was the master of the one word answer followed by silence and “the look”. Then, he would take over the room as he set out the issues and the answers. He led by his own example and had as little ego as any brilliant lawyer I have ever known. You just didn’t want to let him down or do less than your best. He was the gold standard for what a lawyer should be. And for what a colleague should be. And for what a friend should be.

I saw him angry only once, when a group of Louisiana lawyers thought they could pull a fast one on the government. They came to DOJ to complain about what we staff lawyers were doing and, thanks to Angus and Jim Moorman, left with their tails between their legs.

I traveled with him from San Francisco to England to Alaska. We toodled around Bath and the Salisbury plain and met his cousins who owned a book store and designed jeweled badges for HRH Prince Phillip. I marveled at how everywhere I went, everyone knew Angus or had an Angus story. He was equally comfortable with CEOs and London taxi drivers. His sartorial splendor was legendary. I did actually accompany him to Hackett’s in London where I saw him buy a new jacket which he wore for 30 years. I think he owned the same shirt for most of the time I knew him. It was never tucked in and the front buttons were on the verge of becoming projectiles.

He had perfected the stage whisper mutter which he used at the right time and place to effect. He loved to eat good food, drink good wine, and have the occasional drop of harder stuff.  He was, after all, a true Scot. Once, we both decided to do something about our weight and decided to play squash at the DC Y.  Truly.  Can you imagine?  Thank goodness there are no “Access Hollywood” tapes of those somewhat ponderous matches.  Think the hippos in Fantasia dancing to the Waltz of the Flowers.

Despite being always on the go and in high demand for his legal skills, Angus always had time for friends.  He was at the house with baskets of flowers when Ann and I got married; talked the Woodies store manager into selling him the rocking horse which was part of the seasonal display for Andrew when he was born; composed memorable toasts and through a thousand kindnesses let one know one was valued. And his cooking : fabulous.  Dinners at the Macbeths-particularly at Christmas or Thanksgiving- were true creative feasts. I kept a list of the words he used with ease which I had never previously heard. He could actually tell you who Lord Acton was and what he famously said.

He loved being a lawyer. It spoke to his view that the world should be fundamentally fair and that the cause of justice was important. This sense of fairness drove him in his work on the scandal of the incarceration and property seizure which befell Japanese Americans at the hands of their government.

He loved JoAnn and “the boys” beyond measure. 

If I had 2 lifetimes, I couldn’t recount every hilarious and touching Angus story I know.  I am sure there are hundreds of his friends and colleagues who feel the same.  What I know is that the luckiest thing that ever happened to me, professionally at least, was meeting Angus Macbeth.  The smartest thing I ever did was to convince him to bring Sam Gutter and join me at Sidley. The second smartest was to hire him to help on GE’s biggest environmental problems. That he was my friend is a blessing to me. That he is gone is heart-breaking. Angus is irreplaceable.

Angus was quite simply a wise and good man. His passing leaves a huge hole in the fabric of the lives of his family, those who loved and worked with him, and the history of environmental law. He was one of a kind and I do not think we shall see his like again.

Angus, ave atque vale.



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