Sidney Zion celebrates the courage and independence of the late Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas
There is a dream and a reality in America, and though they lie on the same bed they are never expected to kiss. The dream is Jimmy Stewart out of Frank Capra, and it says, Be True to Yourself. The reality is Sam Rayburn out of the World of Men, and it says, To Get Along, Go Along. As children we are instructed in the dream, as adults in the reality. We are never taught to forget the dream, but are asked instead to ignore the contradiction The end becomes a Rhinestone Mean: To get along with the dream, go along with the reality.
Bill Douglas treated the reality as dirt under his feet, and rode the dream straight to the top. That this made him a unique phenomenon is one of the more melancholy facts of the twentieth century. Surely nothing would have astonished and enraged the Framers more than that there was only one Bill Douglas — unless it is that there will probably never be another.
“I am really a pretty conservative fellow from the old school,” he said when FDR appointed him to the Court. The line was widely resurrected as irony when the stroke forced him to quit in 1975, after a record-breaking thirty-six years on the High Bench. Had he not, it was pointedly asked, become the most flamboyant liberal ever to sit there? It wasn’t Douglas who changed, but the meaning of words, which was distorted just as the Bill of Rights is today distorted by the Burger Court. The true meaning of conservative, the first dictionary definition, is a synonym for preservative. To conserve, to preserve, is to “keep from injury or destruction; defend from evil; protect; save.” What better way to describe William 0. Douglas’s glorious career on the Supreme Court than that it was fiercely dedicated against all the winds that blew to the conservation, the preservation, of the Constitution?
A conservative fellow from the old school. Philadelphia, class of 1776. Can’t you just see Bill there, trading ideas, swapping stories, passing the flask with Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Sam Adams? Now picture Warren Burger, William Rehnquist and the rest ol’ that passel of statists who make up the “conservative” majority on today’s Court. Is there anyone out there who thinks they would have been allowed past the rope?
Other modern day Justices would have been more or less at home in Philadelphia–Louis Brandeis, Hugo Black, Earl Warren, William Brennan, Frank Murphy, Wiley Rutledge, Harlan Stone, John Harlan, maybe another handful. But Bill would have fit best. He could sit a horse, fish a stream, climb a mountain with any of the frontiersmen. And looked the part–perhaps more as he aged, when the weathered, ruggedly lined face added rather to the impression of strength than years. He looked so much like his pal Spencer Tracy that he was often mistaken for him; later, Casey Stengel was mistaken for him. He was a lanky six-footer, with direct, bluegray eyes that seemed always to be taking the measure of pose and pretense; in other words, a straightaway guy you could trust but better not cross.