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The Tragedy of William O. Douglas | The Nation

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The Tragedy of William O. Douglas

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Dagmar Hamilton noted in a 1990 review that Murphy's Fortas was "much more political than judicial" in its focus, with "a great deal more on his extra-judicial activities" than on Fortas's Court work as a Justice. Wild Bill merits a similar characterization. Murphy offers a comprehensive account of Douglas's early life, a highly detailed description of his incessant careerism as a young law professor and four full chapters on Douglas's work at the SEC. Even after Douglas ascends to the High Court, Murphy's most extensive treatments concern Douglas's unsuccessful effort to become FDR's 1944 vice-presidential running mate and Douglas's 1948 rejection of the vice-presidential nomination from the man who had joined Roosevelt's 1944 ticket, President Harry Truman.

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David J. Garrow
David J. Garrow is the author of Bearing the Cross (Morrow), a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Martin Luther King...

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To anyone who refreshes an acquaintance with Simon's Independent Journey, there are fewer surprises in Wild Bill than Murphy's publicists would like to acknowledge. Murphy does add substantially to Simon's account of just how many out-and-out falsehoods mar Douglas's own accounts of his early life. (Douglas published one autobiography in 1950, and the first volume of a second one in 1974.) Douglas did not suffer from polio as a child, nor did he live in a tent while an undergraduate at Whitman College in Washington State. While Wild Bill contends that Douglas's ten weeks of service in the Students' Army Training Corps at Whitman in late 1918 did not actually make him a "Private, U.S. Army," as is recorded on his Arlington National Cemetery tombstone, the Washington Post, citing more extensive documentation than that used by Murphy, has recently (February 14) challenged Murphy's presentation.

Douglas graduated from Columbia Law School in 1925 and became a junior professor there two years later, after several unsuccessful attempts at practicing law. He moved to Yale Law School in 1928 and remained there until he joined the SEC in 1934. His selection by FDR as the successor to retiring Justice Louis Brandeis owed as much to Douglas's western roots as to his public visibility as SEC chairman, but Supreme Court nominations were decidedly simpler affairs in 1939 than they are today. The Senate Judiciary Committee's hearing on Douglas took place just four days after the President's announcement, and the session itself lasted a grand total of five minutes.

Murphy's view that Douglas from the very outset of his judicial service was less interested in the work of the Supreme Court than in his own future political prospects goes a long way toward explaining, and justifying, Wild Bill's far more detailed treatment of Douglas's presidential and vice-presidential flirtations than of the Court's annual roster of important cases. To Murphy, Douglas's narrow failure to be named as Roosevelt's 1944 running mate was a defining experience and "helps to explain the rest of his life."

Roosevelt himself was exceptionally coy, even with his closest political advisers, as to precisely whom he preferred as a 1944 running mate to replace outgoing Vice President Henry Wallace. Yet shortly before the decisive Democratic National Convention FDR gave the party chairman, an avid booster of Senator Harry Truman, a handwritten letter saying he would welcome the selection of either Truman or Douglas. Much mystery surrounded Roosevelt's note, both at the time and for years thereafter, with some Douglas partisans suggesting that the letter had been doctored to show Roosevelt listing Truman first, rather than Douglas. Murphy concludes, after a painstaking examination, that no sleight of hand took place and that Roosevelt had indeed put Truman before Douglas; nonetheless, "Douglas lived the rest of his life believing that the names on this letter had been switched." Douglas thus thought that not only had he, rather than Truman, been FDR's first choice but also that were it not for the convention chicanery, he would have become President of the United States upon Roosevelt's death in April 1945.

Murphy contends that Douglas "never got over" that 1944 experience, and that Douglas's frustrated presidential ambitions contributed mightily to his less than half-hearted job performance on the Supreme Court in the years thereafter. Douglas and Truman's mutual confidant, Washington lawyer Clark Clifford, endorsed Murphy's view, explaining that such a narrow miss at the presidency "sort of takes some of the shine, I think, off the rest of your life."

But Clifford also addressed the fundamental enigma of Douglas as well as anyone Murphy interviewed: "To me it seemed as if he was searching for something--something more--all of his life. But he never found it, and I never really knew what it was. I'm not sure even he knew what it was."

Murphy's own answer to that enigma is decisive: Once Douglas's dream of the presidency dissipated (after the indecisive Justice refused to give up the financial security of his Supreme Court seat to accept Truman's offer of the vice-presidential nomination in 1948), the pursuit of women younger and more attractive than his first wife, who was six years Douglas's senior, became the recurring focus of his life.

Murphy stresses that "Douglas had always treated his family badly," but that his behavior became progressively worse during the 1940s. His daughter, Millie, told Murphy that her father "never talked to us like [we were] people" and that "when he got angry at us, which was often over the slightest things, he would simply not speak to us for days on end." Millie also added that "I didn't like him very much because of the way he treated my mother," and by early 1951 Douglas was in serious and open pursuit of Mercedes Davidson, a social acquaintance whom he wed in 1954.

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