Sol Linowitz

Diplomat and negotiator for US Democratic presidents from Lyndon Johnson to Bill Clinton

The term "Washington wise man" usually denotes a smooth fixer, ensconced in an opulent law practice a block or two from the White House, with a highly developed ability to extricate US presidents from messes of their own making. Not so Sol Linowitz. True, he was a lawyer by training, and a sharp-eyed businessman as well. But he was above all a gifted diplomat and negotiator for three Democratic presidents, from Lyndon Johnson to Bill Clinton.

Sol Myron Linowitz, lawyer, businessman and diplomat: born Trenton, New Jersey 7 December 1913; Chairman, Xerox Corporation 1960-66; US Representative to Organisation of American States 1966-69; US special envoy to the Middle East 1979-81; married 1940 Evelyn Zimmerman (four daughters); died Washington, DC 18 March 2005.

The term "Washington wise man" usually denotes a smooth fixer, ensconced in an opulent law practice a block or two from the White House, with a highly developed ability to extricate US presidents from messes of their own making. Not so Sol Linowitz. True, he was a lawyer by training, and a sharp-eyed businessman as well. But he was above all a gifted diplomat and negotiator for three Democratic presidents, from Lyndon Johnson to Bill Clinton.

His greatest achievement, arguably, was to hammer out the treaty that in 1977 ended the conflict over the Panama Canal. Linowitz had developed a deep interest in Latin America during his first important job in Washington, as President Johnson's ambassador to the Organisation of American States, the body through which the US handled its relations with that part of the world.

The post also gave him a deep sense of the region's grievances at how Washington over the years had dealt with it. Upon taking office in 1977, Jimmy Carter decided to resolve the most immediate of those grievances, and turned to Linowitz, along with Ellsworth Bunker, to negotiate a treaty that would turn the canal back to Panama.

Carter specified that whatever emerged must be acceptable to the Panamanians, fully protect US interests and be able to be ratified by the Senate. The last condition, predictably, was the hardest to fulfil. Linowitz later described the job as "the most exciting and challenging of my career", and the accomplishment of which he was most proud. Foremost among the challenges was vituperative opposition by domestic ultra-conservatives convinced that US national security was being sold down the river.

On one occasion, as the treaty was being debated, Linowitz saw an effigy of himself being hanged by protesters as he drove through central Washington. "My life was threatened, and my family was threatened," he said later. But the treaty was eventually approved by the Senate in April 1978. Barely a year later, Linowitz found himself in a scarcely less challenging job, as Carter's Middle East envoy, to build on the Camp David accords between Israel and Egypt. His effort was cut short by Ronald Reagan's election victory in 1980.

Linowitz was the son of Polish Jewish immigrants. After an outstanding scholastic career, he was torn between becoming a rabbi or a lawyer. "Be a lawyer," an old friend told him, "A lawyer needs twice as much religion as a minister or a rabbi." Heeding that advice, he graduated first in his class from Cornell University Law School, and took a law firm job in Rochester in up-state New York.

Prevented by an injured knee from active service, he spent much of the Second World War in Washington, working in the Office of Price Administration. In 1946 he returned to Rochester and the law, only to meet a young businessman called Joe Wilson. Wilson was president of Haloid Co, a photographic supplies company, and had got wind of a new copying process called electro-photography, patented by a local engineer. Wilson asked Linowitz to draw up the legal documents for an offer to acquire rights to the process - without allowing word to get back to Haloid's giant Rochester-based rival, Eastman-Kodak. The deal went through, and from it was born the mighty Xerox Corporation, of which Linowitz was general counsel, and then chairman between 1960 and 1966.

Then came LBJ's summons, and the job at the OAS. Linowitz placed his 35,000 shares in Xerox and went back to Washington, where he would spend the rest of his life. His diplomatic art lay in the ability tell his opposite numbers almost everything they wanted to hear, and then, as a biographer put it, "insert, with minimum discomfort, the needle of disagreement". The skill enabled Linowitz, a liberal Democrat by any standards, to do business even with fierce ideological foes.

Linowitz departed the government scene in 1981, but remained a "public man" in the deepest sense of the word. He served on many public committees and boards, and became a stern critic of his own profession. Lawyering, he argued in a 1994 book, The Betrayed Profession, had degenerated into a "huckstering business operation" in which a lawyer's prime concern "with the human and the humane" had been submerged by money.

But his greatest mark was as a diplomat. In 1998 Bill Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country's highest civilian honour. As Clinton put it in his speech that day, "Receiving advice from Sol Linowitz on international diplomacy is like getting trumpet lessons from the angel Gabriel."

Rupert Cornwell



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