Writing biography in the age of Wikipedia – removing a shadow from the life of Justice Tom Clark
on Sep 23, 2013 at 9:35 am
On the anniversary of Justice Tom Clark’s birthday (born Sept. 23, 1899), the author of a new dual biography on the Justice and his son, former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, unravels the mystery behind a controversial quotation that left an unwarranted blot on the life and legacy of Justice Clark.
One of the unanticipated challenges I encountered along the path to my recent biography on Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark and his son, Attorney General Ramsey Clark, was the shadow cast on the elder Clark as the result of an unverified and probably inaccurate, but still highly influential historical reference. It is an impact exacerbated by our Google-based world, where even erroneous references can create a lasting marker, repeated so often that both casual observers and scholars assume its accuracy. As Nora Ephron once quipped, “You can’t retrieve your life, unless you’re on Wikipedia, in which case you can retrieve an inaccurate version of it.”
The burden of biographical inaccuracies existed long before Google or Wikipedia, of course – think George Washington chopping down a cherry tree. But when these references undermine a subject’s character – and cannot be disproven – that can mean trouble for a biographer.
For instance, the biographer of Al Shanker, the famous teachers union president and education innovator, never could disprove the frequently cited (though never documented) quote purportedly made by his subject: “When schoolchildren start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of school children.” A similar question was faced by biographers of Justice William Brennan, who could neither completely confirm or refute an oft-cited comment said to have been made by President Eisenhower, to the effect that his appointment of Brennan and Chief Justice Earl Warren were the two worst decisions of his presidency.
All of which brings us to the story behind the purported disparagement of Justice Tom Clark by President Harry Truman, the man who appointed Clark as attorney general and later as Supreme Court Justice. The alleged controversial remarks, as well as a number of other provocative statements from the former president about other prominent subjects, derived from a series of conversations between Truman and writer Merle Miller as part of a television series that never aired and which subsequently were compiled by Miller for his 1974 best-selling book, Plain Speaking. According to Miller, Truman called Clark was “my biggest mistake,” adding, ”He was no damn good as Attorney General, and on the Supreme Court . . . it doesn’t seem possible, but he’s been even worse.” Asked by Miller to explain the comment, Truman stated further: “The main thing is . . . well, it isn’t so much that he’s a bad man. It’s just that he’s such a dumb son of a bitch. He’s about the dumbest man I think I’ve ever run across.” This is juicy stuff that, not surprisingly, has been included in various forms in nearly every subsequent biographical reference about the former Justice.
But as it turns out, Plain Speaking, which purports to be a transcription of Miller’s 1962 interviews with the former president, wasn’t everything it claimed to be. The book was contested from the start – by lawyers who questioned whether Miller even had the rights to publish the interviews, since he had been just a staff writer for the proposed TV show. More significant, however, was the serious doubt cast by historians who challenged the accuracy and even the existence of a number of quotes in the book, including the one about Clark.
Robert Ferrell, a Truman biographer who listened to all of the original interview tapes, noted that Miller was notoriously sloppy with the facts. He “changed Truman’s words in countless ways, sometimes thoughtfully adding his own opinions. He inserted his favorite cuss words, damning Truman for two generations as a foul-mouthed old man. . . . Worst of all, Miller made up many dates in his book, inventing whole chapters.” Perhaps most incriminating as it concerns the purported Clark comments is that, mysteriously, no tape of that interview (as well as a number of others) even exists. Miller’s brief comments accompanying the Clark quote only reinforce his heavy-handedness, attributing Clark’s “lack of distinction” to his wearing “outrageous bow ties under his judicial robes.”
One thing Miller did understand was timing; he waited more than twenty years, until after Truman died, to publish his book. This was more than coincidence. In 1963, Miller sent Truman a draft of an article he had sold to The Saturday Evening Post, to which the president composed a response saying “I am not in favor of such articles, especially this one which has so many misstatements of fact in it. I am sorry that that is the case and if you publish it I shall make that statement public.” The president subsequently retained a lawyer and threatened to sue, which led to the article being pulled.
Supreme Court scholars also have highlighted the inaccuracy of the criticism of Clark’s intellect or abilities. “To one familiar with Clark’s work, the Truman comment is ludicrous,” Warren Court scholar Bernard Schwartz has written. “Clark may not have been the intellectual equal of his more brilliant Brethren, but he developed into a more competent judge than any of the other Truman appointees. In fact, Clark has been the most underrated Justice in recent Supreme Court history.”
All of which leads to the question for the biographer: how — or whether — to write about such “facts.” An examination of the relationship between Truman and Clark reveals few episodes of discord. The most likely source for the offending quote, if true, was the Supreme Court’s landmark 1952 decision on executive power in Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, in which the Justices rebuffed the president’s takeover of the steel industry. Truman was especially surprised and upset by the vote of Clark, who was not just a friend of the president but had written a memo as attorney general outlining the President’s broad powers in just this kind of situation.
Though Truman was disappointed by the ruling it seems unlikely — and unlike Truman — that he would have made the comments to Miller a decade later, given the friendly relationship Truman and Clark maintained for the rest of their lives. A former Clark law clerk who saw the two men together the same year Miller interviewed Truman recalled, “it was obvious that any disappointment the President may have had with some of Justice Clark’s earlier decisions had long since been forgotten. There was a great warmth between these two great men.”
For his part, Tom Clark took the high road. Responding to a question shortly after the book came out, he commented that he didn’t know whether Truman had made the statement, but he still rated him as “as one of our great presidents.”
Miller’s book has been characterized as “a semi-fictional ‘oral biography’” that “brought an American original to life.” Perhaps, but it reveals how a book treated as fact can leave a permanent and undeserved stain on a reputation, in this case doing a disservice to both men and the institutions each represented.
Alexander Wohl is the author of Father, Son and Constitution – How Justice Tom Clark and Attorney General Ramsey Clark Shaped American Democracy (Univ. Press of Kansas 2013).