- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 9, 2003

By Bruce Allen Murphy
Random House, $35, 716 pages

William O. Douglas spent much of his life wanting to become president of the United States, but he muffed his only real chance and thereafter was forced to settle for being the longest serving United States Supreme Court justice in the nation's history.
Which is probably a good thing. If his actions while on the court are any indication, a Douglas presidency would have rivaled Bill Clinton's in at least one way. Indeed, as a womanizer Mr. Clinton's antics in the Oval Office barely compare to those of Douglas in and out of his supreme court chambers.
William Orville Douglas (his mother called him Orville and he hated it) was a complicated man. He never really wanted to serve on the Supreme Court and initially remained on it because it seemed to him to be the best available road to the presidency. He was brilliant, ambitious, dishonest, a cheater on all four of his wives, a world traveler, a gifted and imaginative writer, a lover of the great outdoors, especially the mountains of Oregon and Washington, an environmentalist and a justice who, surprisingly, strove mightily to keep government out of people's lives.
He was arrogant, abusive to those who worked for him, often to the point of being sadistic, a hard drinker. His ethics, such as they were, came close to getting him impeached. Yet despite his legion of flaws, or perhaps in part because of them, Douglas is a towering figure in the annals of the Supreme Court and in the history of the nation.
Though he was hated by the conservatives of his day many of his decisions and his dissents looked on at the time as radical, have been embraced by today's conservatives because they defend many of the freedoms they hold dear. I suspect, however, that most conservatives have no idea who it is they should thank and finding out would not exactly make them happy campers.
Douglas was known on the court variously as "The Lone Ranger" and "The Great Dissenter," although as time went on he moved well to the left of dissenter, at least for his times. So far left, in fact, that he came to believe, in the words of his biographer, Bruce Allen Murphy, that "trees and other natural life-forms should have the right to sue in federal court."
Mr. Murphy, a professor at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, has written a definitive biography of Douglas' life titled appropriately "Wild Bill" and subtitled "The Legend and Life of William O. Douglas." The author spent nearly 15 years on what he calls "a journey to discover the real William O. Douglas." That Douglas, it turns out, is a far different man from the one described in Douglas' three autobiographical works. Despite his findings the book leaves little doubt that Mr. Murphy is an admirer of Douglas the Justice, though less of Douglas the man.
He was, Mr. Murphy quotes Harvard Professor Raoul Berger as saying, "the oddest duck ever to serve on the United States Supreme Court." He might have added that few justices have had the impact Douglas had on how the constitution should be and in many respects would come to be interpreted.
Two sentences, perhaps are the key to Douglas thinking as it evolved over the years. They might have been written nearly 200 years earlier by Thomas Jefferson or 20 years later by Ronald Reagan. They appear in Douglas' dissent in a case involving the use of the military by the Nixon Administration to spy on civilian anti-war protesters. Here, in part, is what he wrote: "The First Amendment was designed to allow rebellion to remain as our heritage. The Constitution was designed to keep government off the backs of the people."
Interesting words, indeed, coming from a man who earlier had whole-heartedly embraced the New Deal and who had made his initial national reputation terrorizing Wall Street and big business as the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.
As his philosophy gradually changed over the years the "right to privacy," though nowhere mentioned in the Constitution, became of primary importance to Douglas. He equated the right to privacy with another right also unmentioned in the Constitution, "The right to be let alone," which he called "the beginning of all freedom." Few conservatives would disagree with that today.
Initially Douglas hoped to win the Democratic presidential nomination in 1940. That dream vanished when Franklin D. Roosevelt decided to run for a third term, leaving Douglas instead to angle vainly for the vice presidential nomination, a slot that eventually went to Agriculture Secretary Henry Wallace. Then in 1944 Douglas' covert effort to replace Wallace as Roosevelt's running mate failed when Missouri Sen. Harry Truman was selected to replace Wallace.
Douglas made a run at the vice presidency in 1960, seeking to become the tail on Lyndon Johnson's political kite. Johnson, however, lost the nomination to John F. Kennedy and then accepted second spot on the Democratic ticket, once more leaving Douglas out in the cold, embittered and convinced probably rightly that Kennedy had bought the nomination.
It is probable that no Supreme Court justice has ever been as strong environmentalist as Douglas. He loved the great outdoors and the wilderness almost as much as he loved women, but women were Douglas' great weakness. He developed a reputation as a chaser, with an eye particularly for young blondes, well before divorcing the wife who had worked as a school teacher to put him through law school and who had born him two children. He was the first Supreme Court Justice to be divorced.
In quick succession he married three much younger women, divorcing two of them before old age and a serious stroke finally put an end to his philandering and eventually to his life. Mr. Murphy relates one instance where a young woman fled Douglas' office in tears with her clothing in disarray. Obviously the justice had made a serious pass at her.
The most serious effort to impeach him came about because his first and subsequent divorces left him in serious need of outside income, some of the sources of which bordered on unethical. Douglas refused to resign mainly because he was convinced that the person behind the effort was a man he hated, Richard Nixon. (Interestingly, while the effort to impeach Douglas was underway Nixon's chief of staff, Robert Haldeman, gave strict orders to White House staffers who dealt with the Congress to avoid being involved in it in any way.)
Fortunately for Douglas the House of Representatives, which under the constitution must bring impeachment charges, was controlled by Democrats. The effort never got out of committee.
Douglas' life, from growing up in Yakima in sparsely populated south central Washington, to his academic career at Columbia and Yale, to his service on the SEC, to his years on the court, intermingled with politics, travel, writing, womanizing and hiking and riding in the Western mountains, is tremendously varied and fascinating. But not so fascinating at he would have had the public believe. Mr. Murphy, who does not let his obvious admiration for Douglas the justice interfere with his determination to tell all about Douglas the man, relates a number of instances where the facts differ significantly from the legends that Douglas perpetrated.
For instance, Douglas is buried in Arlington National Cemetery in the belief he served in World War I his story. Mr. Murphy discloses he didn't, though he strongly believes Douglas belongs there. Douglas also founded it romantic to have claimed to have had polio just like Roosevelt. He didn't. He did have, however, what Mr. Murphy calls a "fertile imagination."
Mr. Murphy adds that "while Douglas' life was the stuff of novels" he found that Douglas had already written them in the form of his memoirs. Even so, and despite Douglas' character flaws, Mr. Murphy will not let him go without having us to know that this was a man of "vast intellectual vision" who was of "great service to the nation."
There will always be some argument about the greatness of that service but there can be little argument that Mr. Murphy has given us a Douglas, who as much as any justice, left an indelible mark on the nation's highest court.

Lyn Nofziger, a Washington writer was a political advisor to President Ronald Reagan.

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