Saturday, January 28, 2012


Most Americans are at least dimly aware of Clarence Darrow as the lawyer who argued the side of evolution in the Scopes monkey trial nearly 90 years ago, and most people in my generation, at least in this part of the country, were given Inherit the Wind to read in high school and were made well aware that the Henry Drummond character was based on Darrow. But I did not know a whole lot about him other than that trial until I read Andrew Kersten's Clarence Darrow. And although there is nothing wrong with the writing or the book, I almost wish I hadn't read it, because Darrow embodied most negative stereotypes about lawyers.  He often claimed to be highly principled, but often either did not live up to them or bailed out when money came calling. His conduct during the First World War as the Wilson Administration's chief cheerleader concerning the suppression of dissent during that conflict was shameful. He was far from invulnerable in the courtroom; he actually lost as many as half of his high-profile cases.
And more than anything else, I was deflated, even though I should know better at this point in my life, by the revelation that he was, with rare exceptions, an asshole--cold toward his family, philanderer on his wives, jealous of those did not share his ideas and had some success with them. Few if any people had long-term relationships with him that did not go sour. Being an effective defense attorney involves, necessarily, having a huge ego--but this hardly makes them ennobling characters. Even his core beliefs underwent constant revision, and there was always an excuse in his mind when he did so...these are the kind of people I try to stay away from in real life. And as talented and important as Darrow was, he left a very mixed legacy of accomplishment and character mixed in with some very tawdry and, in the case of the Great War bombast, reprehensible conduct of his affairs.
It does make for an interesting read, though.

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