Was Bill Douglas as Bad as Bruce Murphy's New Biography Makes Him Out to Be?

Culture Watch

Mr. Citron is an attorney in Washington, D.C.

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Bruce Murphy's biography Wild Bill has attracted considerable attention for its warts and all treatment of William O. Douglas. Through extensive research, Murphy presents a detailed picture of the Justice's private conduct - in which Douglas terrorized his law clerks, skipped from wife to wife while romancing other young women, and paid attention to his children only when a photographer was present - and argues that much of Douglas's public persona was embellished, if not fabricated, as part of his restless campaign for the presidency. With a cascade of favorable reviews of Wild Bill pouring in - including one in the New Republic from the Hon. Richard Posner, the prolific federal court of appeals judge - will no one defend Douglas?

Actually, someone already has, and he appears several times in Wild Bill: former Yale Law School Professor Charles Reich, who first met Douglas in 1953 when he was a law clerk for Justice Hugo Black, and remained friends with Douglas throughout his tenure on the Supreme Court.

Biography, to oversimplify, is a combination of interpretation and fact. Murphy appears to have his facts straight, but his interpretation is - dare I say it - somewhat severe in light of Douglas's remarkable intelligence, extraordinary accomplishments, and compelling charisma. Murphy interviewed Reich for Wild Bill, and he includes several quotes and anecdotes from Reich extolling the Justice's greatness. Reich's comments are accompanied by much longer descriptions of Douglas's personal misconduct, however, and do not fully convey how compelling Douglas was to Reich - and to others as well.

The more generous view of Douglas is set out in Reich's Sorcerer of Bolinas Reef, and is confirmed in the correspondence between the two men found in Douglas's papers in the Library of Congress. (More recently, Reich has defended Douglas in a letter to the Nation in response to David Garrow's review of Wild Bill. Reich maintains that "No Justice in the Court's history cared more about the protection of the powerless, the protection of the environment, or the protection of individual liberty versus the state.")

Murphy reports that it was Reich who was sent to Goose Prairie in 1975 in an effort to persuade Douglas to retire from the Court after his stroke. Murphy describes Reich as a San Francisco attorney, but that is not quite right. Although Reich lived in San Francisco in 1975, he did not practice law; he had moved to the city after resigning from the faculty of Yale Law School the year before, and his work in San Francisco was personal rather than legal. At the time, he was writing The Sorcerer, a memoir of sorts.

Although Sorcerer never attracted the following of Reich's controversial bestseller The Greening of America, it is worth revisiting to see another side of Douglas, one that reveals his capacity for loyalty and sensitivity, even to someone as lowly as a law clerk.

Reich describes Douglas as loyal and supportive, even though he was only a young lawyer and unlikely to advance the Justice's presidential ambitions. On their walks along the C & O canal towpath (described in both Sorcerer and in Wild Bill), Douglas never pried into Reich's personal life even though he remained single - something of an oddity for a successful young man in the 1950s. As Reich recounts, Douglas "never made inquiries into my personal life - who my friends were, whether I had a woman friend, what my family was like. At the same time, I felt he was extremely loyal and devoted to me, that he would have done anything for me if I needed it, and would always have praised me to others."

Although one could view Justice Douglas's failure to inquire as mere indifference, Reich makes clear in Sorcerer that he welcomed the respite from the oppressive domesticity of the 1950s that his time with Douglas offered. (Sorcerer describes, among other things, Reich's sexual awakening well into his adult life; during this time, for a young man who saw a psychiatrist five days a week to discuss why his homosexual feelings were a sign of "immaturity," Douglas's failure to pry demonstrated sensitivity.)

After his clerkship with Justice Black, Reich remained in Washington and worked at Arnold Fortas & Porter until he left to return to Yale Law School as a professor in 1960. The correspondence between Douglas and Reich set out in Douglas's papers provides a sense of the genuine warmth to and growth of their friendship. The two men shared a love of the outdoors, a concern for individual rights, and an appreciation of political gossip - both nationwide and at Yale Law School.

The early letters are typical of a mentor-protégé relationship. A message from the Justice's secretary, dated May 25, 1956, reads: "Charles Reich called inquiring whether you might be going for a walk on Sunday." Douglas's handwritten note replies: "Yes - ask him to call @ home about 9:30 AM Sunday." Another letter from Douglas, sent shortly after Christmas in 1957, thanks Reich for a pair of salt and pepper shakers.

In the late 1950s, Douglas offered Reich encouragement as he contemplated teaching; a letter dated January 6, 1958, reads: "I think I have been wrong in advising you not to return to Yale to teach. I think that is an attitude of retreat. I think it's time to seize some of the ramparts. The intellectual life at Yale will not be particularly exciting. But there is great challenge in that citadel of reaction."

After Reich returned to Yale to teach, his letters to Douglas display the enthusiasm of a young academic. In several letters from October 1960, Reich praised his constitutional law students and asked the Justice for suggestions on paper topics in the areas of public law and "resources" (environmental law); Douglas responded promptly with a number of suggestions.

Their friendship and correspondence continued through the 1960s and into the 1970s. While Douglas remained on the bench, Reich obtained tenure, taught undergraduates as well as law students (the classes are memorialized in several "Doonesbury" comic strips), and wrote The Greening of America, which made him a best-selling celebrity author. Reich also helped several Yale Law students start the Natural Resources Defense Council, and received assistance from Douglas on this project.

In the early 1970s, Reich became disenchanted with Yale Law School, and decided - over Douglas's contrary advice - to resign from the faculty. Douglas nevertheless offered his support; in a May 1974 letter, Douglas wrote: "It is [sad] to think of Yale as being in the downward spiral and I can imagine how dreary the place must have become . . . . I of course regret your resignation from the faculty but I understand completely and I hope in the years ahead you can find a more rewarding and satisfying life on the outside . . . ."

After leaving Yale, Reich finished Sorcerer in 1976. Paying tribute to Douglas after his resignation from the Court, Reich describes vividly the Justice's charisma. To Reich, Douglas "stood out among the bland figures of Washington like a sun among plastic reflectors. He seemed like a person from the wilds while others came from a habitat of cocktail lounges." In Douglas, Reich found an "electrifying" person, a "figure of towering greatness" who "cared not a bit for manners, convention, amenities." Indeed, Reich believed that "Justice Douglas was the Sun God himself, radiating energy in all directions. He was the traveler, the ultimate explorer; he would go farther to the edges of the universe than all but a few individuals could go."

Not that Reich was blind to his Sun God. He acknowledges in Sorcerer that Douglas could be unpleasant, to say the least: "[O]ur relationship was unequal. He could be totally insensitive to someone else's feelings - childish, impatient, inconsiderate, angry, selfish. Compared to his treatment of others, he treated me well." Reich speculates that "[p]erhaps I instinctively recognized all of his flaws as like parts of the bad destructive child inside myself, saw that his loneliness was ultimately similar to mine, and I was more, rather than less, his friend because I knew how isolated he really was. And so I could allow him his full greatness."

It may seem difficult to see Douglas as lonely and isolated given Murphy's account of the Justice's marriages and girlfriends. But one need not agree with Reich's speculation in order to appreciate his view of the Justice, one that may be eclipsed by the rush to embrace Murphy's account of the Sun God.

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dec - 5/24/2003

See http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2003/0304.lane.html and


Howard Bernstein - 5/7/2003

A compelling look at two fascinating thinkers -- well done!

Alan Paul - 5/5/2003

Thank you for an intiriguing, insightful look into two of the centuries' most keen legal minds.