Well, another month has passed and I’ve not updated the blog. Really that’s just because I’ve been slogging through John Farrell’s amazing biography of Clarence Darrow. The book is named after its subject, and the subtitle is “Attorney for the Damned.” The last Farrell bio I read was about Tip O’Neill, and it was equally remarkable. I would recommend it as well.
Many of us know Darrow because of his famous skewering of religious extremism in the Scopes Monkey Trial. The trial was dramatized in the play and movie, Inherit the Wind. Indeed, this may have been his most famous case and Farrell covers it well. But the book is notable because when held up against the rest of Darrow’s life, the Scopes trial is just another moment where Darrow’s intellect and courage helped someone who needed a defense. Farrell illuminates the complete Clarence Darrow—and spares no secret, exposing his free love philosophy, questionable (and likely illegal) breaches of ethics and his legendary ego. He was often a man ahead of his time, valuing above all a Jeffersonian philosophy that guided most of his decisions.
Darrow lived well into his seventies and touched some of the most important cases and legal issues around the turn of the 20th century. Highlights for me were two great chapters on the Haywood trial, a story that I read about in J. Anthony Lukas’s fantastic “Big Trouble.” Seeing the story from Darrow’s perspective was new and fascinating. That trial was bigger than the O.J. trial and Darrow’s eloquent closings and cross-examinations saved the labor leaders from the corporate interests that sought to kill them.
The book has a great chapter on Darrow’s defense of Leopold and Loeb, two celebrity killers, and a chapter on his defense of the Sweet family. The Sweets were new to me. They were African Americans who moved into a white neighborhood in Chicago. Racists whites surrounded their house and pelted the building with rocks, breaking glass. The Sweets fired shots from their house to protect their family, and a man was killed. Darrow defended their ability to protect their own home in a case that helped cement the NAACP as a crucial and effective civil rights organization.
Darrow was an agnostic, a radical, probably a socialist, and an opportunist. He wasn’t always consistent, but mostly he was. He cut corners, probably bribed a few juries, and even took a few cases he shouldn’t have. But he believed what he was doing was for a larger cause, so he excused himself. When he died, he was America’s most famous lawyer. What stands out in this book is the sheer volume of cases Darrow tried. It’s incomprehensible in today’s world–one famous trial may take years and require total attention of a team of attorneys. Darrow was the celebrity attorney who went all-in for famous clients and he was also the ham-and-egger defender who was there when a random prostitute or killer needed a defense attorney.
There are no Darrows today. We could use a few. Not that I’m advocating for all of his radical political views, but we could use someone who would regularly jump to the defense of the defenseless and not do it to win a Congressional seat. We could use someone who would instinctively run toward injustice and try to mount a good fight. And we could use someone who was effective enough that the American people would take note, and spend a moment reflecting on our actions, motives and laws. I don’t want to dwell on Scopes, but Darrow’s defense of evolution—of freedom of speech and freedom to learn—by and large changed the attitude of Americans. He exposed William Jennings Bryan’s foolishness, and shifted changed public opinion substantially. I’m not sure that’s possible today. Fox News and MSNBC would cover the trial from their usual frames, and Drudge and Huffington would exacerbate tensions and inflame passions. In the pursuit of fairness, Darrow and Bryan would be judged equally by newspapers that employ columnists on the left and on the right, so as not to offend readers. There would be, of course, no right answer, even though that right answer may be plain as day. (As I reread this, I think this is the point Aaron Sorkin is trying, and not always making in his new show “The Newsroom.”)
Anyway, we could use a Darrow. For a moment, we thought we might have had one. His name was John Edwards. He was plagued by the same vanity and, now we know, interest in free love, as Darrow was. But the big difference between the two men is that Edwards craved the power of the Presidency so desperately that he wasn’t satisfied being just an attorney in the pursuit of justice. Darrow never was ridiculously wealthy like Edwards, and at his own peril, Darrow would take grossly unpopular cases, something I doubt Edwards would have ever done. Whatever opinion Americans had of Darrow, they knew he would step up, no matter how unpopular the defendant. Now, to use Darrow and Edwards in the same paragraph just makes me sad.
We’re still drawn to the idea of a lawyer that fights for justice, even with long odds. How do you think John Grisham has sold so many books? But about 100 years ago, we had Darrow. And right now we should start taking applications for his successor.
Thanks for reading.