Evan R. Chesler, Chairman of Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP, delivered the following address at the Atlantic Legal Foundation's Annual Award Dinner on April 2, 2014, at which time he was given the Lifetime Achievement Award. The Editor is pleased to publish his acceptance speech here in its entirety.
When I was a young boy in the 1950s, my favorite TV show appeared on Saturday mornings at 11:00 a.m. It was the “Adventures of Superman,” starring George Reeves. The special effects were not very special, the acting was not of Academy Award (or even daytime Emmy) quality and the scripts were neither eloquent nor elegant.
But the hero was a singularly American, post-WWII brand of hero. He was modest, confident, brave, discreet, honest (but for the hidden uniform under his gray flannel suit) and tough (so long as there was no kryptonite in the vicinity).
At the end of each episode – as the credits for those who wrote and produced this masterpiece of the Eisenhower years rolled across my 12-inch Philco, black and white screen – Superman appeared, with the American flag waving gracefully behind him. And then a baritone voice recited the superhero’s credo, “Truth, Justice and the American Way.”
That was a long time ago. All of the actors from the original TV series are long gone. No one reads comic books anymore, except the collectors who show up at VFW buildings on Sunday afternoons to trade and sell them. Of course, the character lives on in the hearts and wallets of Hollywood studio executives.
And what has become of the America to whose 1950s values Superman promised his allegiance?
We lost a president in Dallas in 1963. We lived through the Civil Rights Movement; we endured the chaotic and tragic year of 1968 (when we lost MLK, RFK and our cities burned in anger); we survived the oil embargo, three recessions (including the worst in 80 years). We fought a war in Southeast Asia, two in the Persian Gulf, another in Afghanistan. And, of course, we endured the profound national tragedy of September 11, 2001. Most recently, we seem to be moving to a cool war against our former adversary in the Cold War.
Today, we seem to be an intractably divided nation. The 99 percent confront the 1 percent with anger and frustration at the growing divide between them. We still struggle with our ancient bedsore of race relations, even while our first African-American president sits in the White House. Our elected representatives have reduced to a sordid art form their apparent inability to communicate, much less legislate, for the common good. We seem not to trust our institutions or each other. Schools and movie theaters in tranquil, bucolic towns have become the scenes of senseless gun violence.
It can be painted as a bleak, dark picture. But I can still see the grainy image of the American hero, his flag behind him, his motto intoned by a voice of authority.
After all we have been through these past 50 or 60 years, we are still the team to beat. Much of the world still wants to buy what we innovate, to imitate us, even to be us. We still come to the aid of strangers devastated by natural disasters. We still send our young warriors into harm’s way, far from their homes and families, to protect what we often casually expect we will always have. We still protect the rights of the accused, make the state prove its case, harbor a healthy skepticism of power, applaud the underdog, admire self-made success, give our money to worthy causes, do our best to educate our children and, maybe above all else, believe that tomorrow is likely to be better than today.
We are probably less likely than our 1950s forebears to accept the truth of what the other guy says. But we can still be convinced.
We are probably less likely than our 1950s predecessors to assume justice will always be done. But we wouldn’t trade our system for anyone else’s.
We are probably less likely than our 1950s counterparts to agree on how to describe the American Way. But I suspect we all know it when we see it.
And what became of the little boy who watched his TV hero all those years ago? Personally, I am very grateful for the opportunities America has given me. I doubt that I would have had anything like those opportunities anywhere else in the world.
I have the honor to be the chairman of a great American law firm that has existed almost since the beginning of our republic. It has allowed me to do things, go places, meet people I would never otherwise have done, seen or met.
I am a trustee of the university that gave me a scholarship so that I could get a quality education. I am a trustee of our city’s public library, where I spent my childhood afternoons while my hard-working parents earned the money to pay the bills.
Only in America could someone like me have had this kind of life.
So, I believe that “Truth, Justice and the American Way” still exist. I am proud to accept this Lifetime Achievement Award, and I thank you for this honor.