William O. Douglas -- an inspiring, maddening, American

March 16, 2003|By Daniel J. Kornstein | Daniel J. Kornstein,Special to the Sun

Wild Bill: The Legend and Life of William O. Douglas, by Bruce Allen Murphy. Random House. 688 pages. $35.

The character issue just won't go away. For 20 years, it has been the bane of every public person and the central theme of proliferating hatchet-job biographies. Now it is the core of this new book about the late William O. Douglas, who served as a Supreme Court justice longer than anyone else, from 1939 to 1975. As Yeats wrote, he "who has served the most is most defamed."

Douglas makes an easy target. Quite apart from his length of service, Douglas stood out. He had the most wives and the most divorces, and was threatened with the most impeachments. But quantity alone is not what makes Douglas outstanding.

A poor boy from Washington State, he loved the outdoors, was by turns brilliant, energetic, ornery, colorful, independent, odd, extraordinary and, most of all, complicated. He was a hero to liberals and environmentalists, and the Great Satan to generations of conservatives.

In describing Douglas' achievements and shortcomings, Bruce Allen Murphy seems in this new biography to be evenhanded, but in reality is anything but. Douglas' accomplishments are recounted in perfunctory, flat, non-revelatory fashion, while his character flaws take inordinate space and are explored in detail with brio and voyeuristic glee. The result is a cleverly disguised but nonetheless sustained assault on Douglas' reputation as a judge and a man. It sheds new light on Douglas' public and private lives, both of which are crucial to measuring the man, without necessarily linking the two.

It was in his public life, as Murphy shows, that Douglas first made his name. Appointed to the court at age 40 (after serving as chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission), Douglas eventually developed a memorably broad vision of civil liberties. A sometimes eloquent tribune of the people, he championed the rights of the poor, of minorities, of criminal defendants, of the politically unpopular, of children born out of wedlock. He found an implied constitutional right of privacy and challenged the constitutionality of the Vietnam War. Douglas did not feel inhibited by precedent.

Nor did he think the normal rules governed his personal life, which was reckless and a mess. He was gratuitously nasty to almost everyone, including his family, fellow justices (especially Felix Frankfurter), law clerks and court staff. He drank (sometimes heavily) and was constantly in financial trouble. He had big-time, much-publicized woman problems, with four marriages (two to women 40 years younger than he was), three divorces and numerous affairs (some trysts, says Murphy, even taking place in Douglas' Supreme Court chambers). His family relationships were so bad that his grown children did not even call him when his first wife died.

Douglas may have been famous, but he was neither nice nor happy.

Between Douglas' public and private worlds lies a gulf that may be explained by his apparent mid-life crisis, to which Murphy fails to pay enough attention. A serious horse-riding accident around age 50 left Douglas convalescing with plenty of time to think. Soon after, he divorced his first wife. He then became much more liberal on the court, abandoning his New Deal pro-government attitude. His judicial opinions changed from thoughtful, careful analyses to polemical aphorisms.

Murphy tells of Douglas' personal insecurities, his need to control people, and his paranoia about government snooping. Decisive and a fast worker, Douglas finished his judicial chores quickly, with few second thoughts. He wrote books and made speeches to earn extra money he desperately needed to offset the drain of his divorce settlements. Murphy reports that Douglas, toward the end of his tenure, snapped that he would "absolutely not" go on the Supreme Court if he had it to do over again. He felt the court was too peripheral, too far away from the action.

To Douglas, the action was politics. Murphy portrays Douglas as psychologically wounded by unfulfilled presidential ambitions. In 1944, Douglas came close to being FDR's running mate, which would have made Douglas, not Truman, president in 1945. In 1948, Douglas, fearing Truman would lose to Dewey, rejected Truman's offer to be his vice presidential running mate.

Murphy also underscores how Douglas fictionalized his memoirs and apparently lied about his military service and a supposed childhood bout with polio. But we are worldly enough now to know that autobiography is often fiction.

Like him or loathe him, Douglas is hard to ignore today, 23 years after he died. To good effect, Murphy quotes from some of Douglas' opinions that have eerie timeliness. What could be more prophetic right now than this comment by Douglas in a case about the Vietnam War: "The spectre of executive war-making is an ominous threat to our republican institutions. What can be done in Vietnam can be done in many areas of this troubled world without debate or the responsibility the public deserves."

With all his flaws, Douglas occasionally grasped and articulated something profound about American freedom and democracy. He is inspiring and maddening at the same time. That is why we should read, with all its flaws, this new biography of him.

Daniel J. Kornstein is a partner in the New York law firm of Kornstein Veisz Wexler & Pollard, LLP. He is the author of three nonfiction books, including Kill All the Lawyers? Shakespeare's Legal Appeal.

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