Harvey Silverglate interviewing Alan Dershowitz is ten pounds of lawyer in a five-pound bag. But that’s exactly what Ford Hall Forum presented Thursday night in its program Taking the Stand, which just happens also to be the title of Dershowitz’s new book.
Both men were in fine fettle for the evening’s festivities. In his introduction, Silverglate noted that Dershowitz is currently in his 50th year at Harvard Law School, has written 1000 articles and 30 books, and has earned a reputation as “America’s lawyer of last resort.” Silverglate started the interview by expressing some amazement at the back cover of Taking the Stand, on which “half the comments are about what a scalawag you are, and worse.”
Whose idea was that, he asked.
“Oh, it was my idea for the negative blurbs,” Dershowitz said offhandedly. One of them says simply: I don’t read Dershowitz. – Jimmy Carter. But, as it happens, both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are happy to reveal that they do. The blurbs are full of that kind of back-and-forth. “I love my enemies list,” Dershowitz said. “They’ve called me a war criminal, deranged, an enemy of Israel, not bright – my enemies list is one of my proudest possessions. I’ve earned them.”
As they talked about his book, Dersowitz asserted that he would never reveal details about his clients unless they wanted him to, and Claus von Bulow did. Von Bulow, it turns out, never intended to serve his sentence if his appeal failed. He would kill himself, he told Dershowitz. “So I approached his appeal as a death penalty case,” Dershowitz said. “Because it was.”
He also told of having a cup of tea with Leona Helmsley (he didn’t check with her “because she’s dead and this happened in a public place”) when his was served with a little bit of water in the saucer (“I didn’t even notice”). Helmsley took the up and saucer, threw them to the ground smashing them into umpteen pieces, then screamed at the waiter to “get on your hands and knees and beg me for your job.” Dershowitz: “I told her ‘I’m your lawyer, but I will never be seen with you in public again.'”
One of his nicest clients? Mike Tyson. Honest to God.
Silverglate asked him when did you realize you’d become a public figure and when did you become comfortable with it? Of course, Dershowitz said he’s never felt comfortable being a public figure. You could see that one coming a mile away.
Ditto for his riff on the legal talking heads that overrun TV. “Most people on TV know nothing about the law,” Dershowitz said. “Have a big case and really lose bad.” C’mon down Marcia Clark, Mark Geragos, and Mickey Sherman. The Trayvon Martin commentary was particularly bad. “They did not know what self-defense is.”
• “All of Eliot Spitzer’s problems were my fault. He was my researcher and he worked too hard and I said, ‘Eliot, Eliot – have some fun.'”
• Dershowitz was a terrible student early on. “My rabbi said, ‘Dershowitz, you have a big mouth and no brain. You can do one of two things with that: Become a conservative rabbi, or a lawyer.” We know how that turned out.
• As a law clerk in 1963, Dershowitz was the one who told the Supreme Court Justices that JFK had been shot. He was also invited to join the Warren Commission but declined because LBJ told the commission “I need the American public to know that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.” Dershowitz said he didn’t want to be part of something where the outcome was predetermined (“even though I believe they got it right”). “So they withheld information to avoid doubts, and it wound up they created more.” (This was part of the Alan Dershowitz, Legal Zelig portion of the program.)
• “I’ve never met a group of people less courageous than tenured professors.”
• Contrary to popular opinion, Larry Summers has actually “done great things for women – every time he’s had to give up a job a woman has succeeded him. [See Drew Gilpin Faust and Janet Yellen.] If I ever want to get my daughter a great job, I just have to make sure Larry Summers has it first.”
• Dershowitz’s book includes a Letter to the Editor correcting his obituary.
During the Q&A, there was a heavy-footed pas de deux with an audience member over the Israeli/Palestinian morass, which Dershowitz compensated for with a blistering monologue on Billy Bulger’s “reign of terror” (“William Bulger was the Godfather who ran the Mob in Massachusetts all those years; Whitey Bulger was the hit man”).
All in all, a most entertaining event. It should be posted on the Ford Hall Forum website sometime soon. Check it out.