Book Review: The Fall of the House of Zeus: The Rise and Ruin of America’s Most Powerful Trial Lawyer, by Curtis Wilkie
As I mentioned in my review of another book about Scruggs, Kings of Tort , I’m going to read and review this book as well. But I get bored doing things the same old way, and so I’m going to try something new: live blogging a book. As I read along in the book I’ll make observations and comments on the pages I’ve read, and bump this post up to the top of the blog with new updates.
I’ve stayed away from reading other reviews of this book to try to come at it uninfluenced by the opinions of others, although of course some people have expressed orally or in email some of their general opinions, favorable and unfavorable.
Notes on the title, preface and first few pages of Chapter One
Fall of the House of Zeus? Right, I know, Dickie Scruggs was called Zeus in college because of his amazingness, or some such. I thought the book’s title might be ironic, but after reading this far, I’m guessing it’s not. Right before the preface, there is a quote from The Iliad about Zeus the cloud-gatherer laying on invincible hands, and his queen being afraid, and the rest of the gods being troubled in the House of Zeus. Now, Zeus wasn’t above engaging in a few capers himself and shared much of the cupidity and caprice of humans, but with about a billion times more power. So it’s not as if Scruggs is being promoted as a candidate to expand the Holy Trinity to a foursome. Still, I’m getting a strong vibe here that the Zeus metaphor isn’t contrapuntal.
The preface, in fact, sets out on a pro-Scruggs track that suggests a title for the Latin edition of this book might be Summa Apologia Scruggsicum. Or possibly a sequel to Milton’s Paradise Lost, where the author this time "attempts to justify the ways of Scruggs to men." Whereas, the whole Scruggs saga suggests to me a different sets of gods: the Gods of the Copybook Headings versus the Gods of the Market Place. Indeed, I think the Gods of the Copybook Headings were decidedly unamused with Scruggs.
The preface sets out a world in which little people are in essence yoked up to pull sledges while top-hatted swells with Mr. Peanut monocles and walking sticks crack whips on their backs, and it is necessary for trial lawyers to graciously step up and do their stuff to stop the victimization because of a "vacuum created by a lack of government regulation." Why, if only government were larger, more intrusive and more intent on controlling every facet of life, then it would be unnecessary for folks like Scruggs to bring down Big Tobacco. Except that he didn’t. All Scruggs and others, including Congress, did was to give the tobacco cartel an iron grip on the market by creating barriers to entrance, and in return the tobacco companies forked over protection money to trial lawyers and set up slush funds for use by state politicians. All of which they get back through customers in cooperation with those wondrous government regulators. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss; four legs good, two legs better, and all that. Scruggs as the best friend of the helots since the great liberator, Epaminondas, is a bit hard to read without tasting a little bit of throw-up in the back of your mouth.
That taste grows stronger at the end of the preface with this passage that describes a conversation between the author and Scruggs (I haven’t mentioned yet that Wilkie is an unabashed friend of Scruggs):
As I was leaving the room where we met, he folded his hands and asked, "When all this is over, are you going to be able to tell me how I got mixed up with these guys?"
I have tried.
Excuse me? How did Scruggs get mixed up with all these bad boys? Let me check the title of the book again. Oh yeah, Rise and Ruin of America’s Most Powerful Trial Lawyer. I thought we were talking about Zeus here. Just a few pages earlier, didn’t it say this: "Scruggs first drew blood from the asbestos industry and then brought Big Tobacco to its knees . . . . he was locked in an epic struggle with his most formidable opponent to date — the American insurance industry . . . ."
Um, how come one minute he’s the most powerful trial lawyer in the country and is up on Olympus kickin’ some tobacco, asbestos and insurance a$$, but then the next minute he’s a victim? Isn’t the better question how "those guys" got mixed up with him? Now, let me make a guess here — we’re going to hear some Poorer-Than-Thou talk. That is, we’re going to read a fair amount about Scruggs’ being poor when he was a kid and consequently he overcompensated about money and control and winning at all costs. With the point being the same one as in the great line in West Side Story: "Hey, I’m depraved on account I’m deprived!" If so, try and sell that to Officer Krupke because I’m not buying.
OK, we’re off to an inauspicious and ill-omened start. I hope I’m wrong about what else the book is going to say — or leave out. But I bet I ain’t.