INDEPENDENT JOURNEY: The Life of William O. Douglas by James F. Simon
Kirkus Star

INDEPENDENT JOURNEY: The Life of William O. Douglas

Email this review


That creaky assumption that the truth is achieved by setting forth all of a person's shortcomings, and giving due credit for good deeds, brings us, here, a portrait of William O. Douglas as a disagreeable individual who ultimately took some admirable positions. So we have young Douglas--poor, sickly, his widowed mother's pet--growing up determined to be tough (and intolerant of weakness); intensely, aggressively ambitious (and resentful of the rich); and, accustomed to adulation, impossible with women. Early on, when Douglas is scrambling at law school, starting out on a Wall Street firm, shining on the Columbia and Yale faculties, he's ""the opportunist"" (hardly granted any genuine talent). On the Securities and Exchange Commission, ""attacking the financial community and defending large-scale federal spending,"" he's buttering up FDR. On the Court, he's the people's champion who's a bastard in his office and a tyrant at home. But with the rash of warts, we also get a detailed description of Douglas' break with Frankfurter (over expanding the rights of defendants, over applying the guarantees of the Bill of Rights to the States); his alliance with Black and Murphy--and, in the Forties, his differences with Black (""pragmatism"" vs. adherence to precedent); and his achievement, finally, in substituting for Black's literal reading of the Constitution ""a more expansive libertarian creed"" attuned to ""the contemporary needs of the nation."" Simon also gives the unflattering particulars of Douglas' first three marriages (and a sunny picture of his fourth); indicates what he accomplished by his world travels (especially in regard to his understanding of the Vietnamese)', and exposes the impeachment threats for the political shams they were. In this, as elsewhere, he is seconded by Douglas' own testimony in The Court Years (above). Though this is shallow as biography and somewhat narrow as history, Simon, a lawyer, gives a fair, very informative account of Justice Douglas' stands, and their ramifications.

Pub Date: Oct. 29th, 1980
Publisher: Harper & Row