A tortuous tale: How a C-student from Brooklyn became a legal lightning rod

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— Courtesy Alan Dershowitz

Alan Dershowitz has written his 32nd book to put his legal work “… into the broader context of how the law has changed over the past half-century and how my private life prepared me to play a role in these changes.”

For brevity’s sake, we will not introduce Mr. Dershowitz here. If you don’t know about him, feel free to return to your video game. Knowing about him and understanding him are two different things, Mr. Dershowitz asserts in the introduction to this autobiography. He also pledges unswerving honesty in his life story, a quality found in few self-bios. For the record, he delivers, along with liberal plaudits for himself and others. He also pops a few mythic bubbles about well-known public and legal personages.

Whether he is painfully honest in describing “Dersh,” his public persona, or “Alan,” the person, is moot to those who have already made up their minds. He is either a savior of the human condition or a self-aggrandizing rascal. Proponents from both the left and right seem equally confused.

In “Taking The Stand” the back cover blurbs, usually reserved for love-bombs, are a riotous blend of smart people, sometimes sharing the same political camp, who love or loathe him in clearly-marked prose.

For example, you’d think Noam Chomsky and Henry Louis Gates would be fellow-travelers on the subject of Dershowitz and civil liberties. Here are their blurbs:

Chomsky: “Dershowitz is not very bright (and) he’s strongly opposed to civil liberties.”

Gates: “Astonishingly brilliant courtroom presence (and) a subtle and compelling theorist of civil liberties.”

A pride of similarly divergent views from presidents, prime ministers, and some really neat people complete the pastiche. Go figure.

When all else fails, we must actually read the book and decide for ourselves. What we learn is that the Dershowitz public persona — relentless, dramatic, with dollops of high-profile public rudeness — can overshadow the estimable legacy of important law he’s created over the past 50 years.

For example, I assumed that public defenders have always been available to indigent defendants. Not so. As a law clerk, Mr. Dershowitz worked on opinions that led the way to establishment of the public defender system in the mid-1960s. There are other substantial examples of his legal pick and shovel work that advanced justice for all.

However, as legendary pitching coach Johnny Sain said: “The world doesn’t care about the labor pains. It just wants to see the baby.” The image of Dershowitz defending O.J. Simpson, Mike Tyson, Claus Von Bulow, President Bill Clinton, and a bundle of other high-profile defendants defines and overshadows the work of a gifted legal mind.

“Taking the Stand” is tidily arranged around two themes. The first is a recounting of his early life, education, and career. The second arranges his public casework under topics named “The Changing Sound of Freedom of Speech” and “Criminal Justice” and a particular sweet spot, “The Never-Ending Quest For Equality and Justice,” dealing with human rights, race, and the division of church and state.

Mr. Dershowitz was raised in 1940s and 1950s Brooklyn, N.Y., by orthodox Jewish parents (and grandparents) whose lives spanned the Great Depression, World War II, the Holocaust, and diaspora. He was relentlessly reminded of the dictates and prohibitions of rabbinical law as well as interpretations of those laws. DVR setup instructions are child’s play in comparison.

He was a lousy student with a big mouth and an unbanked passion for being in the thick of issues that captivated him, evidenced by signing petitions as a pre-teen to working on Julian Assange’s Wikileaks defense last year.

He became a great student and Harvard Law School’s youngest-ever professor at 24. The big mouth and the unbanked passion? Not so much change. The record, as they say, speaks for itself.

What’s the greatest value we can take from a book? Self-knowledge, I think. Truth is, I didn’t want to review this book because I’ve never been able to figure out whether I admired this guy who I’ve never met. I would make a mitzvah for my pal, Peter Simon, no slouch himself at opinion-offering.

Peter and his wife, Ronni, are having a catered send-up for Mr. Dershowitz and his book at their Simon Gallery on Main Street in Vineyard Haven on Sunday, July 6, from 5 to 7 pm.

What I learned from my read is that objectivity effortlessly falls victim to opinion. Using a self-administered test, I asked myself about my opinion of three Dershowitz headline cases before the facts were in. The truth is I believed Mike Tyson did it because he’s a violent, asocial man. I believed Claus Von Bulow did it because he’s a rich aristocrat, and I believed O.J. didn’t do it because he was a gridiron artiste.

Try it. You may not like what you find, but you will think and learn. It made me feel better to know that great legal minds have also fallen prey to their belief systems. Mr. Dershowitz chronicles, by name, several legal luminaries who were misogynists or were devoted to civil rights law practice while belonging to private clubs that excluded African-Americans and Jews as members.

Mr. Dershowitz includes a lot of behind-the-scene dynamics in the process, including a hilarious bit of dialog between he and Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger on the cosmic subject of bear-baiting and obscenity.

Part of the confusion about Mr. Dershowitz, I think, is rooted in his commitment to argue both sides of a question. It seems inconsistent to us. So I’m going with the idea that the guy has been applying Newton’s Third Law of Motion for the past 50 years: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Author’s Talk with Alan Dershowitz, Sunday, July 6, 5–7 pm, Simon Gallery, Vineyard Haven.