Where Are They Now?
Reporter's Notebook
By John Greenya
The Washington Lawyer
May/June 1999, pp. 6-7
[Copyright 1999 The District of Columbia Bar]

The Washington Lawyer likes to bring its readership up-to-date on the doings and whereabouts of lawyers who have already had their 15 minutes of fame. The choice for this issue is Nicholas Johnson -- Who is he? And what is he doing today? 


Nick Johnson on the cover of Rolling Stone. 

Broadcasting magazine called him the teenybopper on the FCC," which was bad enough, but what broadcasters called him can't be printed here. Superbly credentialed lawyer-turned-pro-consumer-bureaucrat Nicholas "Nick" Johnson cut his activist's teeth as Lyndon Johnson's 33-year-old director of the Maritime Administration, but it was during his term on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) from 1966 to 1973 that he really made his mark. 

"For seven years Johnson rained down on the broadcasters a plague of dissents," wrote Lawrence Learner in Harper's. "He became famous, much admired, the most celebrated advocate of citizen action in the federal government, but among broadcasters he was roundly despised, and Broadcasting, the industry trade magazine, predicted that when his term ended there would be 'dancing in the streets.'" However, John Kenneth Galbraith called him "the citizens' least frightened friend in Washington."

Retired MCI official and former FCC commissioner Kenneth Cox served with Johnson. "My wife used to ask me, 'How come your dissents aren't printed on the front page of the Washington Post?' and I'd tell her, 'Because they aren't written for that purpose."' Cox told The Washington Lawyer, "Nick simply refused to meet with broadcasters. I'd tell him, 'Nick, they aren't all bad guys. You could at least sit down with them.' But he'd say, 'I have no time for that. If they want to see me, they can come to my office."'

When his FCC term was over, Johnson, who clerked for Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black and had been an associate at Covington & Burling, could have commanded major fees as an influential Washington lawyer. But he hardly fit the conventional, establishment mode (his hair was long, his clothes hippieish, and he rode his bike to the FCC). "When people asked me why I looked and dressed the way I did, I told them I'd decided that since there were so many people in Washington who wanted to look like public officials and behave like bandits, there ought to be at least one who looked like a bandit and behaved like a public official." So, except for a 1974 run for Congress from his hometown of Iowa City (he lost the primary by six votes), Johnson stayed in the District and did public-interest work for the rest of the decade. Then, in 1980, he packed up his few worldly goods and returned to Iowa City, and the university, where he has been proving, ever since, that there is life after Washington, and that you can go home again, especially when all you really want to do is teach law, write, lecture, and promote the good of the commonweal.

The easily approachable Johnson says that while he didn't mind being famous for a while, he always knew it wouldn't last. "One of the things you find through working with the public-lecture bureaus is that what audiences are looking for is celebrities, rather than substance. So if you happen to be the anchor on a national news program or you've just climbed the exterior of the Eiffel Tower or thrown the winning pass in the Super Bowl -- or dropped it -- then there is a greater chance of getting booked to speak. When I was on the FCC, it was like being a TV anchor or a United States senator or a rock star -- in fact, I was on the cover of Rolling Stone. But once you leave a high-profile public position, well . . . I don't think I was noisy before or that I've been quiet since, it's just that you get your 15 minutes in the spotlight, and then the spotlight moves to somebody else."

Two years ago Johnson wrote a four-act play titled So You Want to Be a Lawyer? He says writing it was "half of the consequence of an epiphany I had as a result of reflecting upon the defects I thought I was finding in some of our law students. The other half was getting elected to the Iowa City School Board, and figuring that if I really cared about these law students, then I ought to get involved in kindergarten through twelfth grade and see if I could do something about the defects I was seeing." It will surprise no one who remembers Nick Johnson that his tenure on the board has been marked by a series of dissents to major actions of the board.

Johnson will be 65 on his next birthday, and he is still up-beat about most things in his life, but he bemoans his students' slim grasp of what he considers modern history. "I mention McCarthy to my law students and then I have to stop and explain the difference between Charlie, Joseph, and Gene!"

He isn't sorry to have left Washington behind. "My memory," he says, "is that back in the 1960s you'd overhear a conversation in an elevator or a taxicab and people would be talking about public policy. While you might not agree with them, at least they were talking about issues of substance. But when I came back in the 1980s, it would be, 'Why do you think a BMW is better than a Mercedes?' Or, 'Which fund should I invest in for my retirement?' That wasn't what brought me to Washington."

[This is followed by two sections of other news titled "Dep't of Good News (About Lawyers)" and "In re Books," and then . . .]

Web Watch

. . .

Speaking of Web sites, the aforementioned Nick Johnson ("Where are they now?") has a Web site that is, both literally and figuratively, HUGE. Check it out. "If you are wondering," http://soli.inav.net/~njohnson begins, "of all the wonderful Nicholas Johnsons in this world, which one this is, this Nicholas Johnson is the one who is . . . a former Commissioner of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, a school board member of the Iowa City Community School District, who teaches at the College of Law at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa, USA, provides videos, has humor breaks on his Web page [13; can you find them?], writes, lectures internationally, updated this page on [date], and provides you . . .." What follows is, literally, thousands of pages, including a 300-page bibliography of writings by and about him, the full text of two of his books (How to Talk Back to Your Television Set and Test Pattern for Living), as well as his school board writings. You can also find "subsequent updates," of his play, So You Want to Be a Lawyer: A Play in Four Acts. Whew!

John Greenya's e-mail address is authorx@aol.com.