Undercover: Portrait of the Justice as a Young Man (01/01/76)

A few days after William 0. Douglas resigned from the Supreme Court, I read the first volume of his autobiography, which has just been issued in paperback (Go East, Young Man: The Early Years, Delta, 493 pp., $4.25). Like others, I suppose, I had feared Douglas’s resignation for what I assumed were political reasons, but emotionally I had never really believed it would happen.

When Douglas did step aside, I realized that my idea of him, and my fear at his replacement, took in more than the 36 years he had served on the Court or the votes that would now be going the wrong way. Douglas had rarely determined a decision in recent years anyway; that, I began to understand, was not the point.

I never thought of Douglas as a “great man”; I thought of him, rather, as the very definition of certain things best understood by example: decency, civility, nerve, intelligence. More than that, he has been, not by some accident of birth but by intention, the surest link to the genesis of the American experience; he is a link to the Founding Fathers, and it is not hard to imagine him in their company. After so many years working to keep the republic they made, he must have imagined it himself often enough.

For all of that, Go East, Young Man, which covers Douglas’s life up to his appointment to the Court in 1939, made it clear that I knew almost nothing about the man. I had never wondered about Douglas’s life or the experiences that shaped him; I had simply assumed that he was the kind of man America is supposed to produce.

Douglas’s father, a minister, died when Douglas was six, shortly after the family had moved from Minnesota to California and finally to Yakima, Washington. The family grew up poor. Douglas spent most of his boyhood regaining the strength he had lost when polio afflicted him in his first years

He was, it seems, the kind of boy who misses nothing. He watched the townspeople of Yakima and saw the strictures of class and resentment and hatred that lay beneath their small-town smoothness. He climbed the hills and then the mountains that ringed the town, first to rid himself of physical weakness and self-pity, then out of delight and adventure. He learned how to make friends and how to keep them. He became alert to the small details that decide the outcome of a fishing trip, a hunt for a job, or a fight.

Working as a migrant laborer in his teens, he hung out with Wobblies in hobo jungles, sang their songs, rode the rails, and dodged the blows of yard bosses and the bullets of company police. It is all told in a plain, flat, unaffected manner: When someone shoots at you, you run, naturally.

And yet a good part of the story has great drama. Nothing could dim the awe I felt when reading Douglas’s account of his first trip across the country, leaving Yakima to enter law school in New York. He hopped a freight and made it as far as Chicago, where a conductor literally threw him off the train; he pitched into darkness and down an embankment. At the bottom he found a tramp who gave him food and warned him the East was no place for a western boy. It is a shining, beautiful moment, the two of them hunched around a campfire, taking in the scope of the whole country in their conversation, carrying, as it were, the great divide within themselves. Douglas kept on, and arrived in New York with six cents to spare.

Given tales such as this, I was puzzled when I came to a chapter titled “Fear,” which turned out to be the most important in the book. Douglas realized, as he began to gain success in the world, that for all his intelligence and self-reliance, his life had been governed by terror: that he had never really escaped the debilitations of polio and the overprotection that followed it. His debilitation had simply gone underground; having conquered the weakness in his legs, he began to suffer more mysterious afflictions, which finally led him to a psychoanalyst named George Draper, who became, Douglas writes, “the main seminal influence in my life.” What Douglas learned from Draper, I think, was that instead of living to prove himself, he could live to act for his own good, and for the public good; that he had the ability to judge others and had no fear of being judged by them. Out of this came an extraordinary capacity not only for action but for compassion; a capacity not only for friendship but for a fight.

Much of this comes through in the book’s scores of anecdotes—stories of hiking trips, of “those swashbuckling days” of the New Deal, of law practice, teaching, and Douglas’s tenure as chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. One story, from the days after Douglas had graduated from law school and was looking for a job in New York, is too good to leave out.

Douglas interviewed with John Foster Dulles, then a prominent Wall Street lawyer, a man of such insufferable piety that over the years Douglas came to despise him perhaps more than any other man on earth. But it is unlikely that Douglas ever handled Dulles any better than he did in this first encounter. “I saw John Foster Dulles,” Douglas writes in his unadorned way, “and decided against him because he was so pontifical. He made it appear that the greatest favor he could do a young lawyer was to hire him. He struck me like a high churchman out to exploit someone. In fact, I was so struck by Dulles’s pomposity that when he helped me on with my coat, as I was leaving his office, I turned and gave him a quarter tip.”

Thus, Mark Twain likely would have said from his lectern, Homo Americanus.

Rolling Stone, January 1, 1976

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