Brewer High School grad Jan Crawford Greenburg provides legal analyses for ABC News in Washington, D.C.
From Brewer to the Supreme Court
Morgan native makes name for self as journalist, author of bestseller
By Ronnie Thomas
As a 10-year-old on summer vacation with her family, Jan Crawford Greenburg visited the nation’s capital.
She returned to their home at the foot of Ryan Mountain in southeast Morgan County with no vivid remembrance of the Supreme Court building.
Years later, in October 1994, when she arrived to cover the court for the Chicago Tribune, she seized the moment, one she will not forget.
“I walked up to admire this beautiful, pretty ornate white marble building with columns and carvings, and all the marble work in the plaza,” said Greenburg, 41. “It was a glorious fall day, not a cloud in the sky. The sun was shining on the court as I looked across the street at the Capitol.
“I remember seeing the American flag in front of the court waving a little in the breeze. My heart just jumped. I recall thinking, ‘I can’t believe I’m here.’ ”
Greenburg stepped inside, carrying only a notebook and pen, surprised at how small and intimate the courtroom is. She took her seat in the press gallery, the justices only a few yards away.
“I felt so fortunate that I had ended up in this place, in a front-row seat to history,” she said. “It wasn’t fearful, it was more that I found it really thrilling. I had gone to law school and covered legal stuff, but I remember thinking this is an incredible opportunity. It was kind of hard to process my good fortune, to be able to do this.
“(The justices) are sitting there, and I’m watching their expressions, throwing questions at the lawyers, the lawyers struggling to respond. It’s such an incredible view. You never see that. The court isn’t televised.”
But Greenburg, a graduate of Brewer High School, opened the court to the world with her book from The Penguin Press, “Supreme Conflict: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Control of the United States Supreme Court.”
Jan Crawford Greenburg’s acclaimed book on the U.S. Supreme Court was on The New York Times bestseller list for three weeks.
One reviewer called it the “richest and most impressive journalistic look at the panel” since Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong co-wrote “The Brethren” in 1979, two years before Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman to join the court.
Greenburg’s book debuted in January on The New York Times bestseller list, where it remained for three weeks.
She spoke about her career Wednesday from her office in the ABC News bureau in downtown Washington, D.C. She has been the network’s legal correspondent since October, covering the Supreme Court and national legal issues.
She provides legal analyses for all ABC News platforms, appearing on “World News Tonight,” “Good Morning America” and “Nightline.” Previously, she was the Supreme Court correspondent for “The News Hour with Jim Lehrer” on PBS, and a legal analyst for CBS’ “Evening News” and “Face the Nation.”
It has been a busy time for Greenburg. In May, Manhattan College of Riverdale, N.Y., presented her an honorary doctor of law degree when she made her first commencement speech. It came during the 20th anniversary year of her graduation from The University of Alabama, where she earned a degree in journalism.
She had just rushed in for the Daily interview after speaking about her book to a group of lawyers at Mayer, Brown and Platt, one of several law firms she has addressed this summer.
Greenburg is at ease retracing the steps to her achievements, and she speaks about them with humility and humor. She never forgets her roots, and there’s no better example of that than when she spoke to about 700 graduates at Riverdale.
RC Colas and flies
She grew up without knowing a journalist or a lawyer. Her first summer job was working at a small gas station “down the road from the house” that her dad owned. But working there gave an early insight to her determination. Business was so slow that she and her younger brother, Ron, now an Atlanta architect, spent most of the days drinking RC Colas and killing flies.
“But because I’d always heard halfway is no way,” Greenburg said, “I got very good with that fly swatter.”
It was an attitude she began to mold during her formative years at Ryan School. She began sixth-grade at Cotaco School and later entered Brewer High. The school might not have had a newspaper, but it had teachers who made an everlasting impression.
Left accent at Brewer
“You might wonder what happened to my Southern accent,” she said. “I left it back at Brewer, where Ellen Langford was teaching us how to speak without an accent.”
Greenburg was yearbook editor under sponsor Susan Puckett, doing things that cultivated an interest in writing.
“Mary Thomaskutty was another wonderful teacher among many that I had,” she said. “She taught advanced sciences and made me think about a career in science. But I have a hard time even figuring out percentages.”
Greenburg also was a majorette for the Patriots’ band. Because “halfway is no way,” she twirled flaming batons.
But it was her involvement with the speech team Langford launched that earned her a scholarship to The University of Alabama. As a senior, she won the state tournament in Tuscaloosa with a speech on organ donors. She got a spot on the university’s speech team.
As she enrolled, she had never thought about journalism, although training to be a lawyer was an idea. It never occurred to her that journalism was a career. Then one day she walked into the offices of The Crimson White.
“I was excited the paper wanted me,” she said. “It became evident to me later that they’ll take anyone who walks in the door.”
After submitting a couple of stories, she was hooked and knew that she wanted to write.
“I saw it as the greatest job in the world, to go out there and ask people questions, find out the information before anyone else and get paid for that,” she said. “I still feel that way.”
During her years on The Crimson White staff, the newspaper exposed the campus political machine, how the Greek system dominated campus politics. Her junior year, when she served as editor, an African-American sorority, which had the highest grade-point average on campus, moved into a house on previously all-white sorority row.
“Some of the girls and others resisted, claiming there would be more noise and a need for more security,” she said. “We found out about secret meetings and covered them, too. Of course, we covered both sides. It ended up being a national story, on the heels of other things, such as the Greek system and cross burnings. We won a prestigious national award, the Pacemaker, for coverage of all those instances. We didn’t have a lot of friends in the administration.”
The summer before she graduated, Greenburg worked at the Dallas Morning News, where she thought she would begin her newspaper career. But she met a recruiter from the Chicago Tribune at a journalism conference in Dallas who changed her mind.
“I shared stories from The Crimson White and things we had been able to do there,” Greenburg said. “I met her again in Washington, D.C., and the Tribune offered me a three-month internship.”
Her parents wanted her to stay in Dallas, where there were relatives, but she wanted to work at a larger paper. Neither she nor her parents had ever been to Chicago. They helped her move. Her dad took the lead, while she and her mother rode in Greenburg’s old Toyota.
She recalls seeing the skyscrapers from a distance, reaching into the sky, her heart racing as they got closer. But then, she said, they got farther away. They passed Chicago by on the first try and spent the night out of the city because they couldn’t figure out which exit to take.
Greenburg has taken few wrong turns since.
The Tribune hired her full-time after the internship and she started out on the night beat, covering shootings, stabbings and fires. She later covered suburban politics and county government. After three years, she took a leave of absence from 1990-93 to get a law degree at the University of Chicago, where she met her husband, Douglas. They married in 1994.
“I was going to work for a law firm in New York, but at the last minute decided I couldn’t walk away from journalism,” she said.
“The Tribune welcomed me back, and I spent a year covering local legal affairs, the Illinois Supreme Court and the federal appeals court. The Tribune’s court beat opened up, and they sent me to Washington. Doug was finishing up a clerkship with a judge in Columbus, Ohio, and he landed a job with a Washington law firm.”
Greenburg spoke about the difference between writing for a newspaper and being on television.
“On television, you just get one chance to say it,” she said. “You can’t go back and rewrite it or say, ‘Let me say that a different way.’ You have to be as clear, direct and concise as possible. Your viewers can’t go back and reread it, as when you write something. On TV, you get one crack at it.”
But it’s evident the bright lights of a television studio and city streets have done little to take the country out of Greenburg.
“We come home as often as we can. Our kids spend summers with Mom and Dad,” she said. “We want them to feel like they’ve grown up in Alabama, too.”
The Greenburgs named their oldest child, Carolyn, 10, after her mother, and their youngest daughter, Page, 3, after her mother’s maiden name. Their other children are Louisa, 8, and Jack, 6.
All but Page are now visiting with Carolyn and Joe Crawford. Greenburg will fly in with Page on Friday night to get ready for a book signing at Brewer High School. Her husband will join the family Saturday.
Greenburg was in Alabama a couple of months ago for a story for ABC on the efforts of different states to restrict abortions.
“I met with Gov. (Bob) Riley and he said, ‘People up there probably don’t even know you’re from Alabama.’ And I said, ‘Are you kidding? All you have to do is come to my office.’ ”
1993 Sugar Bowl
There’s a deer head mounted on the wall above her computer that sings “Sweet Home Alabama.” Next to it is a framed photograph of Crimson Tide defensive back George Teague chasing down and stripping the ball from University of Miami running back Lamar Thomas, billed as “the fastest man in America.” The play came at Alabama’s 5-yard line in the Tide’s 34-13 win over the Hurricanes in the January 1993 Sugar Bowl, which gave the Tide the 1992 National Championship.
Also on the wall is a framed photo by Tuscaloosa native William Christenberry, a 1958 Alabama grad who has worked in the Smithsonian Institution and since 1968 has taught at Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington.
“I have all sorts of other Alabama memorabilia scattered everywhere else,” Greenburg said. “And there are other Tide fans around to keep me company. John Cochran, also an Alabama grad and a correspondent for ABC, is two doors down. And Joe Scarborough, of ‘Scarborough County’ on MSNBC, and I graduated together.”
Greenburg had one last thought.
“We’re going to beat Auburn this year,” she said, “and show that other coach, what’s his name, Tuberville? We’re going to show him how to win with class.”
Saturday from 3 to 5 p.m., on the concourse at Brewer High School, 1983 graduate Jan Crawford Greenburg will sign her book, “Supreme Conflict: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Control of the United States Supreme Court.”
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