Jonathan Blake grew up in a small seaside town in New Jersey called Rumson. He is the eldest of three sons. He attended the school where his father was the headmaster and spent his high school years at Deerfield Academy, a boarding school in Connecticut. He has been a communications lawyer at Covington & Burling in Washington, D.C. since 1964 when he started out as an associate. He remains physically active by playing in three to four tennis tournaments annually and since the first U.S. oil crisis in 1973, he’s been running to work. He has been described as one of the finest lawyers in America and “the most ethical person I can imagine in the law profession.”*
Tell me about your family background.
My father was a schoolteacher and headmaster of a school. My father was very strict, maybe feared, certainly respected and a highly valuable member of the community. My mother was the secretary, business manager and accountant to this school. She was maybe 12 or 13 years younger than he was. Being part of the headmaster’s family is both very insightful into the community in which you live and also a little isolating. It gives you early on a sense of greater responsibility than maybe kids feel comfortable with or is terribly natural for them. I have informally kept in mind how many revolutionaries are children of schoolteachers.
What drove you to excel when you were out of the nest?
You probably know this from your own makeup and interests; those influences become pretty deeply grooved. I don’t know if you ever really overcome them. I had gone to a prep school in New England where the headmaster was a lot like my father. He had been headmaster for 62 years and he had that native Yankee integrity, canniness and drive-to-success. I was very, very happy there. I surprised myself by how well I had done. I was always very young looking and grew very late. My brother was two years younger than I and at one point he was 70 pounds heavier and eight inches taller. We’re exactly the same height now. In some ways physically, it was like I was the younger, but with the added propulsion of having the formal position of being chronologically the older.
Outside of your parents, did you have anyone in particular that was a role model or a mentor?
My father’s school had some really remarkable teachers, so it would be hard to single them out. By not being able to single one out, I don’t want to suggest that they weren’t powerful influences. I had a lot of really, really demanding, caring, great examples for teachers both in grade school and high school years.
What was your parents’ philosophy in raising kids?
My father founded the headmasters’ secondary school association. He reached out to people of all walks of life. He was a true Democrat and people gravitated to him, so he and my mother saw lots and lots of headmasters. My mother said there is an inverse relationship between how good the headmasters are and how much jargon they use. I think she’s right. My father is very plainspoken. He taught literature. He always had one class he taught, at least, as headmaster. He taught it very straightforwardly and his insights were good, but they weren’t scholastic. It was straightforward values and character: work hard, study hard, play hard, be physical. My father was a real pioneer in emphasizing sports for kids. His theory was that it was another way for a kid to excel. The more ways kids had to excel, the better the opportunity they had to feel good about themselves.
Did you incorporate any of this philosophy in raising your own kids?
I hope so. My mother had a pretty unhappy childhood. She was valedictorian of her high school class and could not go to college. She’s 92 years old now. I think her sons were a little bit of vehicle for her to accomplish some of the things she might have liked to accomplish on her own. And it’s completely understandable. She was a very smart person, very able, very shrewd about things and people.
We lived in a very unusual community in which there were lots of really rich people, lots of quite poor people and not much of a middle class. She saw a lot of grandeur and wealth and things that she never had and financial security that she didn’t have. My father never earned more than ten thousand dollars and yet, they both rubbed elbows all the time with people, who were so fabulously wealthy they didn’t have to work. Her children were ways of getting ahead, so I think that was some influence, too.
How would you describe yourself as a young person?
I think your views change over time. I was likable. People liked being with me. I had enthusiasm. There were some divides that started to occur. When I was about 12, I worked full time in the summer; a lot of my friends didn’t.
What did you do?
Mow lawns. I actually worked at the racetrack for a year or two. I taught tennis. I did a lot of different things. During Christmas vacations, I would work in the post office. So that was a little bit of a dividing thing, but for a variety of reasons–financial background and being a schoolteacher or headmaster is like being a community servant. I think there was always a little sense of difference. I recently told my son this: it [being on the outside] can be a source of power and certainly a kind of intelligence.
How do you think being around all those wealthy people affected you personally? Did that drive you in any way towards material wealth?
There may have been a little bit of a reaction, “you’re no better than me” and maybe that drove, but I don’t think there was a sense of “I want to end up being as wealthy as you are.” [Laughs] I mean there’s two ways of answering that question.
Since you were sort of in this fishbowl kind of environment, did you still have a rebellious stage in your life, or did you pretty much stay on the straight track?
I think an outsider would say I pretty much stayed on the straight track. I admire the straight track, but I felt I had to stay on the straight track. I think I resented it. I would say actually one form of rebellion, which is pretty mild, is that when I got to Oxford and I knew things didn’t really count, I just had a great time. I played five sports; there were days where I played three sports in the same day.
You’re one of the few people I’ve met so far that really loved being at Oxford.
I know. Isn’t it interesting?
So you just loved the freedom that you had.
You undoubtedly have formed your own opinions with a better base than I. I think the people that become Rhodes Scholars are used to climbing the rungs of the ladder and they were addicted to the gratification they got. At Oxford, there were no rungs. When I got there, I had two years. The only obligation I had was once a week (24 weeks a year) to go see my tutor. I didn’t have to go to lectures. I didn’t have exams. I didn’t have anything. At the end of the two years, we had an exam, which was really fun. You get dressed up in your white tie, your mortarboard and your black gown. You go for a three and a half hour exam in the morning and three and a half in the afternoon. You do that for six days straight. You come out and the underclassmen have hired a jazz band and there’s champagne. You dance down the streets. You wake up the next morning and that’s it. That’s the ball game.
So did you travel a lot when you were at Oxford?
What were the most exciting or exotic places you went to?
That’s so generational, because now they seem so tame.
Were you well traveled before you went to Oxford?
So where did you go?
I went with Leslie Epstein to Greece. I went mountain climbing in the winter in Wales where they trained to climb Everest. That was really fun. I went to Portugal and Spain.
Did the travel experience inform you in any way, or did it stick with you in any way for your future?
Two things. One is, again, you’re the outsider and you’re looking in. They say that if you want to write a book about a city, you ought to be a stranger. You have that heightened sensitivity by being an outsider picking things up. That’s what you are when you’re a lawyer. That’s when I counsel people. They [clients] don’t really want…sometimes they want, but what they really need is somebody coming in from the outside and saying, “Here is a different perspective.” It’s a huge analytical, or intellectual training to size things up from the outside in, hopefully, an innovative way. The other thing is I absolutely love traveling. I was talking to someone the other day and they said, “You talk about traveling differently from anybody else; for you, it’s kind of a pilgrimage.”
Let’s talk about being a lawyer. You’ve spent your entire career at Covington & Burling. Why is that?
There are several reasons. It [Covington & Burling] is that kind of institution. Law firms are changing very, very rapidly. A lot of people would say for the worse and they may be right. But by far and away, the vast of majority of people [at Covington & Burling] have been here their whole careers. That will not be true in 20 years. It may not be true in 10 years.
Second, because I’m a communications lawyer, it’s not the same. It’s always changing. I’ve been involved in the rollout of satellites. When I started, there were no such things as satellites, satellite communications. I’ve been involved in the roll out in first cellular phone service (all the authorizations, rule makings, legislation and the testimony on the Hill), the digital transition of television from analog to digital and the emergence of broadband. All those things, I was right there at the very beginning and it’s been extremely heady and ever fresh. It is new technologies, new culture, new societal trends, new ways people interact, new businesses, new industries. There are global aspects to it, too.
So what are the three things you love about being an attorney?
The thing that I find absolutely gratifying is seeing, observing and giving support to younger lawyers as they develop into more seasoned professionals. We hire better than anybody else, so it’s like starting out with cashmere for your wool. To see them get it and get to know how to practice, how to have an impact, how they develop their skills across the board is rewarding. One of the things about our education system, and I think it’s changing a little bit, is it rewards people who have wonderful, analytical skills, but abilities are far more wide-ranging than that. To be a good lawyer, you have to develop these range of skills rather than just one’s analytical ability. To see that emerge is very exciting.
Another thing I like about law is it’s basically about stories. They may be personal stories, or they may be history-in-the-making stories. Often, as in the case of history, the personalities and the social developments or business trends are very intertwined.
The third thing is maybe getting things done. Most people don’t normally associate that with lawyers. [Laughs] But that’s not the way I feel. I often feel like a factory worker.
Why do you feel like a factory worker?
Because I’ve created something. I did have a role in creating cellular industry, and it seems obvious now, but there would have been no industry if there hadn’t been any frequencies for them to operate on. There were no frequencies available. Those frequencies had to be freed up. For the television transition from analog to digital, I put my first witness on before the Senate Commerce Committee in 1989 and the transition will happen finally and for good on February 19, 2008.
Since you love the stories, can you tell me a story?
Cellular service had two waves. The first one was not very competitive. It had tremendous potential, but the government authorized only two operators, so it was a duopoly. It wasn’t very competitive which meant there wasn’t much innovation and prices were high. In the second wave, they authorized four more users, gave them spectrum. It is limited by the amount of spectrum. It’s not like setting up a gas station. And I represented an important player.
He was actually the first non-telephone company cellular operator in the country. He really did start the second wave when it was just a dream. He was a real character. He had been a football player at Johns Hopkins and he’d gotten this terrible injury playing football. He had nineteen operations in one year. He married his nurse. They’re a really nice family, very devoted. He had been in school administration for 30 years before he became a pioneer in cellular.
When he started out on his own, he would get very nervous. He would call me at four o’clock in the morning. He was attacked on national television by Bob Dole. We solved a problem by getting a provision in the North American Trade Treaty, of all things. We finally got it done. It was a big success, and he threw a party in one of the theaters in Washington and had the Beach Boys sing. On stage, he was interviewed by Larry King. At the end of the interview in front of 3,000 people in the theater, Larry King asked what’s the one thing he really wanted to do that he hadn’t been able to do throughout the long effort to get the government approvals and withstand all the legal challenges. Wayne said, “I want to say something that my lawyer will never let me say.” I had told him never to celebrate, because then people will want to take things away from him. So he said, “Yabba Dabba Doo,” which was his way of celebrating. I know it’s kind of a weak punch line, but it’s such a great intertwining of policy and personal accomplishment.
How do you come to terms when a client isn’t thinking about doing the right thing? How do you deal with that, or rein them in?
There are a lot of techniques for that and I don’t think there’s a cookie cutter. Your ultimate weapon is you don’t represent them. A few times I’ve had to use that. There’s no formula. In the early days of cellular, we went 72 hours here straight putting applications together with clients. We had a very nice and a very attractive paralegal and I found one of the clients’ people was really sexually harassing her and I was really mad. I think it was about four o’clock in the morning. I called the guy into my office and I said, “Look, you know none of the windows in this office building open. I’m going to throw you out my window if you do that one more time.”
That’s very rare. [Laughs] I was probably tired and that’s why I was angry. I liked this paralegal a lot and I didn’t like this particular client person. I think the head person in the client [group] was too weak to deal with it, but was very glad to have me do it.
How do you handle failure? What’s your take on it?
It’s inevitable. It’s just part of the deal.
When it happens to you, how do you react to it?
One of the most important things to do is remember the real measure is how well you performed. You can win with dishonor and you can lose with honor. A very effective way to deal with failure is to look at it and success, too, as secondary things. I always feel most comfortable when I’m really in touch with humility. I can think of it as a reminder that will keep me on the appropriate path.
So what would you recommend to someone – no matter what age – about leading a fulfilling life, a life that means something?
It’s desirable to do things that you like. That is a nice piece of advice for people who have choices, and most people in the world don’t have choices. Just the fact that you have choices is a real blessing. If you’re lucky enough to have choices and you can make choices just for yourself, you really ought to choose something that you like and continue to keep making that choice. And you know, there’s also family, physical exertion, having lots of interests, reading. There are lots of things.
Is there anything you’d like to bring up that I haven’t asked?
You’re trying to come up with common denominators in the lives of people who have been successful using the Rhodes as a proxy for success. One of the things you said was very interesting. You said there were so many people who had some failure or went off the rails a little bit at some point. I do think it is true for me, but it is so mild as to be completely uninteresting.
I actually just finished…well, it was about a year ago, close to year ago…I’d worked for about four years on writing reminiscences just for myself and ending when I was 17 or 18, when I graduated from high school. Throughout I vowed never to show it to anyone, and then I decided I would show it to my wife. And she persuaded me to show it to my kids–the real grown up kids–and I haven’t shown it to anybody else. It was really fun and at the end it was really hard. The last day I was leaving from vacation to come back, I couldn’t figure out how to organize something and at around six o’clock at night I got it. It fell into place and I was very happy about how it turned out.
A key thing is I was very, very young physically, very, very small physically until the end of my senior year in high school. We had a great class at Deerfield. Deerfield was a very different place. We didn’t have fire escapes; we had ropes that you threw out the window. It was very, very basic. My group of kids was really close–wonderful diversity, not in the modern-world sense. The head master did not believe in student government, but at the end of the senior year, he had these elections of four officers, which were entirely titular. They had no responsibility, no function. I think it was about something he thought was trendy and ought to be done. Everybody thought I would be the elected to the fourth office. And it was very weird. A lot of strange things happened, but I missed out by one. Actually, if I had voted for myself I would have won. But that has nothing do with it. The fact is I came away from this enormously happy experience, where I made the closest friends of my life, feeling that I had failed. I’m sure that drove me harder and farther at college than would have been otherwise the case.
You thought you had failed, because you didn’t vote for yourself?
No, because I didn’t win the election. My mother thought I had failed, because I hadn’t voted for myself. [Laughs]
It was just something I should have gotten and I didn’t, without regard to whether it was my fault or anything. It was still a failure. Maybe not failure, but defeat.
At Yale, there are lots of intelligent people. How did you surpass them?
I couldn’t play soccer, because it just didn’t work out with my scheduling and my studies, so I did cross-country and track. I found out I had a talent for that. I’ve always done best if I just stick with what I’m supposed to do and work hard. People gravitate towards you or not. You have successes and they gravitate to the successes. The rest takes care of itself in a way.
So when did you start writing these reminiscences?
I started about five years ago and I’m done. I think people get less interesting. In my experience in reading biographies, [the story] is most interesting before people become successful.