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Profile in courage

Justice for All Earl Warren and the Nation He Made Jim Newton Riverhead Books: 614 pp., $32

October 01, 2006|Karl Fleming | Karl Fleming is the author of "Son of the Rough South: An Uncivil Memoir."

ON my office wall hangs a faded leaflet I picked up on a Dallas street the day John F. Kennedy was shot. It shows two police-booking-style photos of the president, beneath which blares the line "Wanted for Treason" and the accusations that he aided "Communist inspired racial riots" and "illegally invaded a sovereign state" when he sent U.S. troops to quell a riot that greeted a black student's entrance to the University of Mississippi in 1962.

Just weeks before Kennedy's 1963 murder, Ku Klux Klan bombers killed four girls in a church in Birmingham, Ala. Earlier, civil rights leader Medgar Evers was assassinated in Mississippi, and Gov. George Wallace defied court orders to integrate the University of Alabama. Segregationist Southerners blamed Kennedy and the allegedly Communist-backed Martin Luther King for all of it.

But the man behind the destruction of the century-old Southern system of racial segregation was not Kennedy or any Democrat at all. That man was Earl Warren, the former Republican governor of California who was appointed chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court by a Republican president, Dwight D. Eisenhower. By the late '60s, the solidly Democratic South had defected to the GOP because of Democratic support for civil rights legislation sparked by the Warren court's decisions.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 08, 2006 Home Edition Book Review Part R Page 10 Features Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
Supreme Court: An Oct. 1 review of "Justice for All," a biography of Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, said the high court rejected separate-but-equal schools and ordered them integrated "with all deliberate speed" in May 1954. Although the ruling was issued in 1954, the order to desegregate followed in May 1955.

A further irony is that Warren was an almost stereotypical Republican before joining the high court. As Jim Newton reveals in his meticulously researched and well-told new biography, "Justice for All," Warren was a zealous prosecutor, passionately anti-Communist, pro-business, anti-New Deal, anti-gambling, anti-pornography, tough on crime (his father was murdered in their Bakersfield home in 1938), and he favored interning California's Japanese and their American-born children after Pearl Harbor.

But Warren was no ideologue. Rather, he was guided by a strong sense of fair play and a fervent belief that the high court's mandate was to achieve the Founders' basic intent: All men are created equal. Sworn in as chief justice on Oct. 5, 1953, he would over the next 16 years "remake the nation's voting rights, empower criminal defendants, break down racial segregation, halt the demagogic pursuit of Communists, expand the rights of protest and dissent, embolden newspapers to challenge public leaders, and re-imagine the relationship between liberty and security in a free society," Newton writes. "[I]n the face of bitter opposition, the Warren Court imported the great values of America's Declaration of Independence and the promises of its Bill of Rights into the working life of the nation."

Newton, a longtime reporter, editor and now city-county bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, draws on a vast trove of academic, government and private materials, as well as the personal reflections of surviving relatives and associates. He traces Warren's path from young donkey rider and indifferent student through his World War I Army service, a UC Berkeley law degree and his ambitious rise from Alameda County prosecutor to state attorney general and governor in 1943. His ingratiating personal style and generally safe politics helped him win reelection twice more, with the enthusiastic backing of the state's business establishment and its two most influential conservative newspapers, the Oakland Tribune and The Times.

Not only were Warren's political acts mostly safe and circumspect, but he also was a Norman Rockwell-esque vision of the staunch Western Republican -- big, bold, blue-eyed. Born in 1891 to Swedish and Norwegian immigrant working-class parents, he was a dedicated husband and father of six, an avid hunter, camper and hiker, a Mason, a passionate baseball and football fan and a regular churchgoer who liked an evening drink or two and a good cigar -- in short, a real man's man.

As governor, Newton writes, Warren was hard-working and conscientious but always ambitious for higher office. He campaigned hard to win the GOP vice presidential nomination in 1948 and sought the top spot in 1952, only to see the winner, Eisenhower, choose Warren's main California rival, Richard Nixon, as his No. 2. Eisenhower later wrote that Warren's views "seemed to reflect high ideals and a great deal of common sense," but the governor was too much like himself, and he wanted balance on the ticket, including youth. (Nixon was 39, Warren 61.) Eisenhower also passed over Warren for a Cabinet post but, after several conversations with him, finally promised the first Supreme Court vacancy through his broker, Atty. Gen. Herbert Brownell. Eisenhower viewed Warren as a perfect counterbalance to the New Deal liberals on the court. Based on that assurance, Warren had announced in 1953 his resolve not to run for governor again when Chief Justice Fred Vinson died unexpectedly.

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