Clarence Darrow: American Iconoclast

On the first page of thisbiography, Andrew Kersten calls Clarence Darrow America’s greatest lawyer. That’snot quite right. The title cannot belong to a man who tried to bribe a jury,represented the mafia, and defended unrepentant murderers and terrorists forthe right fee—not when there are Thurgood Marshall, Louis Brandeis, and CharlesHamilton Houston to choose from. That said, it is beyond dispute that Darrowwas a master in the courtroom, particularly in cross-examination and closingargument. He married a skeptical intellectualism to the savvy of an expert huckster, resting his foot on the jury box ashe quoted Tolstoy and aimed for the spittoon.

Darrow had a talent for finding his way into casesthat combined great liberal principles with flashbulb publicity. He foughtcreationism in the Scopes monkey trial; defended labor leaders and anarchistsfrom conspiracy charges; and represented blacks in Detroit who fired back at alynch mob. He also served a term as a state legislator in Illinois, and madespeeches and wrote books espousing a surly, progressive, but unpredictablepolitics. Today we might call him a lefty maverick.

Mavericks make enemies, and Darrowhad plenty. The labor movement and its socialist captain, Eugene V. Debs, neverforgave Darrow for directing his clients to plead guilty in the Los Angeles Times bombing case. (A pairof labor activists dynamited the editorial offices of the anti-union paper,killing 21, and Darrow led the defense.) Civil rights leaders were appalledwhen he defended the white murderers of a native Hawaiian who had been falselyaccused of raping a white woman. And the women’s movement—which Darrow had oncesupported—watched him turn away during the debate and passage of the NineteenthAmendment, which gave women the vote. One of his most famous cases, the defenseof young murderers Leopold and Loeb, was on one level a struggle against thedeath penalty and a retributive system of criminal punishment. Closer to thepavement, Darrow defended the two sadistic killers because their families wererich and promised to pay handsomely.

ClarenceDarrow: American Iconoclast is, as Kersten admits,the umpteenth biography of the Old Lion. At under 300 pages it cannot competewith the comprehensive studies like Kevin Tierney’s Darrow: A Biography. Yet the book is ahighly readable survey of Darrow’s major cases and adventures, given from theperspective of a labor historian. It has two weaknesses. The first is theauthor’s tendency to give his subject a free pass. For instance, Kersten leavesintact Darrow’s absurd justification for abandoning women’s suffrage: “Hedoubted that widening the polity would have any effect on politics for averageAmericans.” Second, Kersten defines Darrow’s political and social missionso broadly that it becomes meaningless: an inconsistent civil libertarian,labor man, and civil rights advocate, Darrow always sought to advance “freedomand liberty.” Under this squishy definition, everycase Darrow took fits under the same enormous roof that also houses the JohnBirch society, birthers, and Jean-Marie Le Pen.

The attempt to label Darrow fails not only becauseof his unpredictability, but also because, like most lawyers, he was at bottoma hired gun, motivated less by right and wrong than by what his clientrequired. It is for this reason that few lawyers are remembered. Then again,few of them could put on a show quite like Darrow.