Sometime before midnight this Wednesday, 55-year-old William T. Coleman Jr. is committed to making some enemies. As Secretary of Transportation, he promised to decide by Feb. 4 whether the supersonic jetliner Concorde will be permitted to land in the U.S. Whatever his verdict, it is sure to be greeted with howls of betrayal. Concorde’s opponents view the 100-passenger aircraft (cruising speed: 1,350 mph) as an ear-shattering environmental disaster, whose exhaust may deplete the earth’s ozone sun-shield. The plane’s anguished Anglo-French builders, however, regard environmental objections as a political smokescreen. The U.S., they suggest darkly, may be more interested in protecting its own aerospace industry from foreign competitors.
There is no evidence that the self-confident Coleman resents being cast as the heavy in I’affaire Concorde. Instead of reaching his decision in solitude, he chose to put himself on the griddle by presiding over a contentious public hearing. “I learned a lot,” he confided later. “As a Cabinet officer, you can get away with not doing too much work on many things because you’ve got lots of good people to draw up documents for you. But if you go out and expose yourself to the public, you’ve got to know what you’re talking about.” A lawyer by training, Coleman has adroitly parried any questions about his deliberations on the Concorde. “If by ‘agonizing about it,’ you mean am I thinking about it, and do I change my mind from time to time, then the answer is yes,” he observes.
Only the second black ever to attain Cabinet rank, Coleman is a lifelong Republican who resigned a $250,000-a-year law practice to accept the secretary’s job last year ($63,000 in salary and a chauffeured car). He was born and reared in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, where his father was a social worker. He remembers wanting to be a lawyer even as a child. “When other kids begged to go to baseball games, I’d beg my father to take me to court.” He went on to graduate first in his class at Harvard Law School, where his closest friend was Secretary of Commerce Elliot Richardson. (“He’s a fighter, but a fair fighter,” says Richardson of Coleman.) Later Coleman became the first black law clerk at the Supreme Court, where he and Richardson served in the office of the late Justice Felix Frankfurter. “Those were wonderful days,” Coleman recalls. “I got paid $5,500 a year, and I feel I owe Uncle Sam that money. Frankfurter knew and talked with everyone, and by the time he arrived in the office at 9 o’clock, he’d be ready to give us a seminar on government.”
Although Coleman claims to have been largely unaffected by bigotry as a youth, officials at his high school did disband the swimming team rather than let Coleman join. Later he was co-author of the brief that helped convince the Supreme Court to outlaw public school segregation in 1954, and he served as president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. He repeatedly turned down federal judgeships offered by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, but did serve on the staff of the Warren Commission. During the Nixon years, Coleman opposed the Haynsworth-Carswell Supreme Court nominations (“So what if I’m a Republican? I’m a human being and a citizen too”). He also refused the job of Watergate special prosecutor. “Elliot [then attorney general] and I agreed it wouldn’t be appropriate,” he explains. “He’s godfather to my daughter, and we felt complete independence was necessary.”
Finally, after becoming a senior partner in one of Philadelphia’s most prestigious law firms, Coleman was persuaded to enter the Cabinet. “The country has been good to me, and I figured it was time I paid my dues,” he says. Among those who were delighted by his appointment was Rep. Andrew Young of Georgia, a Democrat. “Coleman is the most powerful black person ever to hold office in the federal government,” declares Young. “He uses his power with a kind of compassion that makes me proud of him, even though I don’t always agree with him.”
Coleman and his wife, Lovida, live in an exclusive section of McLean, Va. and also keep a vacation house in Vermont. Their son William T. III, 28, and daughter Lovida, 26, are lawyers in Philadelphia, while son Hardin, 24, teaches at a Quaker school there. Always conservatively tailored in vested suits with a gold watch chain, the short, paunchy Coleman relaxes by sailing, playing tennis and reading—particularly volumes of biographical letters. “I guess I’m just a gossip,” he says. He beams at the suggestion of an eventual appointment to the Supreme Court. “Obviously that’s the one thing every lawyer aspires to,” he admits. “There are few who would turn it down.”