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So then, so now

June 24, 2007|Richard Rayner

"READING and experience have taught me that when governments prepare for war, the first unit they mobilize is the liar's brigade," wrote Clarence Darrow in "The Story of My Life," which is extracted in the new collection "The Essential Words and Writings of Clarence Darrow" (Modern Library: 256 pp., $14.95 paper). His remark rings truer today than when Darrow first made it in 1932. But then, Darrow's thought, like George Orwell's, reflects an always-purposeful and relevant moral compass, even if you happen to disagree with it.

Like Orwell, Darrow was a man of passionate contradictions, a pessimist who believed that the human spirit could overcome anything, a corporate lawyer who turned renegade and became the fiercest champion of the American labor movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Trouble, and a jury-tampering trial for Darrow himself, came when he defended the McNamara brothers in 1911 for dynamiting the Los Angeles Times building, a mistake that would have finished his career but for another legendary attorney, Earl Rogers, who concluded that Darrow loved the masses but didn't like people very much.

Maybe. That episode is only glanced at in this otherwise stirring collection, which focuses on Darrow's famous and controversial triumphs: the defending of labor leader Big Bill Haywood against a murder charge and the thrill-killers Leopold and Loeb against the death penalty in 1924, as well as the Scopes anti-evolution trial of 1925. His debates over the death penalty and the nature of evil, the existence of the soul and the literal truth of the Bible -- these seem central to the way America still thinks about itself. "History repeats itself and that's one of the things that's wrong with history," Darrow wrote. This book makes the gnarly and theatrical litigator seem very much our contemporary.

-- Richard Rayner

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