Devil or Angel? The Story of Clarence Darrow

Do the ends always justify the means?  That question is prominent in many military decisions in times of war, but it also can be relevant in far more personal terms when individuals feel compelled to turn on their own moral principles.  And in the most extreme circumstances, it can result in illegal conduct by those honor-bound to uphold the rule of law.

Clarence Darrow, the renowned criminal defense attorney, faced such a dilemma in his defense of the McNamara brothers in 1911.  The brothers were accused of murder in the terrorist bombing of the Los Angeles Times building the previous year.  Darrow, hired by the AFL to defend the brothers, had, by that time, gained a reputation for his zealous defense of workers in the labor movement.   He was also a supporter of the American Civil Liberties Union and a staunch opponent of the death penalty.

At some point during the McNamara case, Darrow apparently became increasingly concerned that his clients would be found guilty and sentenced to death.  (The bomb had killed 20 employees of the Times.)  Committed above all else to saving his clients’ lives, he first engaged in intense plea negotiations.  When those efforts fell apart, he faced the ultimate moral dilemma, to wit: attempting to bribe a potential juror in the pending trial.

The temptation became a turning point in Darrow’s life.  When the police got wind of the attempted bribe, they set up a sting and arrested a man who had just delivered $4,000 to the prospective juror as the prospective juror was about to meet with Darrow.  Darrow was charged with conspiracy to bribe jurors in two separate actions.  He was acquitted in one of the trials.  The other trial ended in a hung jury, after which Darrow accepted a prosecutor’s deal wherein he was spared a retrial in return for his promise never again to engage in the practice of law in California.

The ultimate verdict on Darrow’s alleged complicity in immoral and illegal conduct is mixed.  His early biographers (most notably Irving Stone in “Clarence Darrow for the Defense”) essentially gave him a pass on the charges.  But more recent and probing studies (especially Geoffrey Cowan’s “The People v. Clarence Darrow: the Bribery Trial of America’s Greatest Lawyer”) determine that Darrow did indeed attempt to bribe potential jurors in the McNamara murder trial.

This episode in Darrow’s otherwise laudatory career is the stuff of great human drama, touching on perhaps the innate hubris that is part of the human condition.  Judge Michael W. Jones (Placer County Superior Court) captures the intensity of the incident in his one-character play, “Clarence Darrow: Stories of a Trial Attorney.”  Judge Jones gave performances of the character in a production of his play at the Sierra 2 Theater in Sacramento two weeks ago.  The play presents Darrow in monologue at the end of his career, reminiscing about his major cases.

Much of the play’s second act is devoted to the McNamara incident.  The act opens with Darrow contemplating suicide.  (Whether this account is accurate is pure conjecture; I credit it as artistic license by Judge Jones.)  Judge Jones’s Darrow never admits his guilt; instead, his anguish is over the disgrace he feels at being charged.

And that part of the play feels like a cop-out, because surely Darrow would have felt emboldened, not defeated, if the charges were wholly false.  The more likely reason Darrow, or anyone in a similar position, would contemplate suicide would be the truth of at least some of the allegations.

The human conscience, that part of us that is the inner voice that only we know, is a complicated thing.  At its best, it is the regulator of our actions, keeping us centered on the moral path we most closely identify ourselves with.  Freud referred to it as the superego, that part of his troika of the mind that seeks to guide us in the battle between our id and our ego.  In more basic terms, it’s that part of us that gives us the ability to distinguish “right” from “wrong” in our actions and behavior.

But at its worst, the human conscience can be the source of deep-seated neuroses or even psychoses.  Freud believed that unlocking the superego could cure psychosomatic illness, and while his methods have been largely discredited, there is probably still much validity in his theoretical construction of the human mind.

In the case of one with a highly developed conscience/superego, the struggle with the kind of moral dilemma Darrow faced in the McNamara case could well be overwhelming.  On the one hand, we can assume Darrow knew that bribing a juror was, for a seasoned attorney, a venal kind of sin.  But he was also adamantly opposed to the death penalty, undoubtedly viewing it as immoral, and as the defender of two who were facing that penalty, he probably saw himself as the single individual “assigned” the responsibility to see that they were spared its impact.

How Darrow then happened upon the option of juror bribery (assuming for purposes of discussion that the charges against him were true) would be more a matter of happenstance than well-conceived planning.  Maybe someone suggested it to him, or maybe it came to him in a moment of panic as prospects for his clients dimmed.  However it happened, the likelihood is that Darrow then faced that battle with his conscience that all of us (perhaps not on so grand a scale) face any number of times in our lives.

And, like so many of us (again in much more pedestrian settings), Darrow made a choice that he would later regret (or so we can assume, even if his contemplation of suicide is only a playwright’s conceit).  Of course, the other choice available to him, if it led to the execution of his clients, might also have caused him regret.  And that paradox is what makes stories like Darrow’s so compelling.

Driven by conflicting moral compasses, we are all forced to make incomprehensibly difficult choices.  Evil, when viewed in this context, isn’t so easily identified.

The Armenian Genocide One Hundred Years Later

              Genocide (n.) – The deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular ethnic group or nation.

-UN Convention, Article II

If you’ve been following the coverage for the last week or so, you know that April 24 is the date Armenians mark as the centennial of the start of the genocide that resulted in the deaths of 1.5 million of their ancestors.  You may also be confused by the continued denial of the genocide by the current Turkish government, which claims that the loss of life occurred on both sides of the ethnic divide in the midst of a civil war that took place in the years of the First World War.

It can all be a little confusing, especially if you add the fact that the United States (through its succession of presidents) has never officially declared the killings as genocide.  If it was a genocide—the first of the twentieth century as most historians note—why hasn’t Turkey (or at least the United States) so declared it?

I’m a second generation Armenian-American.  My parents’ parents immigrated to the United States in the diaspora that resulted from the genocide or in the years of unrest leading up to it.  To be specific, my father’s father was sent to the U.S. with his brothers by their parents when things began to get scary in the late 1800s.  My father’s mother was an infant when her parents came to the U.S. around the same time.  My mother’s father and mother came later.  My maternal grandfather came just before the genocide began.  My maternal grandmother was orphaned by the genocide and got to the United States as a young woman during or shortly after the main period of the genocide (historians mark its years from 1915-1923, with the largest number of deaths occurring during the years of the world war).

So let’s understand this much: there is no historical issue regarding the deaths of over one million Armenians who had been living in Ottoman Turkey when they were killed (or deported to their deaths).  The events were documented by Henry Morgenthau, the U.S. ambassador to Turkey at the time.  He provided first-hand accounts as the atrocities were taking place and pleaded with the Turkish rulers to stop the killings (and deportations, which were death marches into the Syrian desert).  He then documented the genocide in a 1918 publication that was widely reported by the American press (and is available online—google “Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story”).  The post-war international criminal courts then prosecuted the Turkish leaders (in absentia, since they had fled after the fall of the Ottoman Empire) and found them guilty of the mass killings (genocide was not a recognized term at the time).

In the years following the genocide it was acknowledged as such by the United Nations, where the term was adopted officially through the advocacy of Raphael Lemkin, who first coined the word in 1944 and applied it to the Turkish plan to eradicate the Armenians (a plan promulgated by the Ottoman rulers, as documented by Ambassador Morgenthau).  More recently, every president has promised to recognize the genocide as such when he ran for the office, only to revert to less specific language on taking office.

Candidate Obama, for example, said in 2008, “The facts are undeniable.  As President I will recognize the Armenian Genocide.”  President Obama, however, has referred instead to “one of the worst atrocities of the twentieth century” on each April 24 anniversary since he has been in office.  He’ll have another opportunity to honor his 2008 pledge this week.

Obama’s reluctance matches that of his predecessors, all of whom are overwhelmed on taking office with the strategic importance of Turkey in the global struggle against whatever threats the U.S. would potentially be facing at the time.  (During the Cold War that threat was seen as Soviet hegemony; more recently the focus is on the “war on terror,” or the Middle East powder keg).  And Turkey adamantly refuses to recognize the acts of its Ottoman predecessors and reacts with righteous indignation when any government or world leader officially acknowledges and condemns the genocide.  Just last week, for example, Turkey angrily recalled its ambassador to the Vatican when Pope Francis recognized the genocide, saying that to do otherwise would be “denying evil.”

Why does Turkey persist in denying its predecessors’ evil?  On this point there are a bunch of theories.  None are justifiable, but the most practical is that surviving descendants with proof of their ancestors’ deaths could claim reparations or otherwise sue for the return of property confiscated during the genocide.  Other reasons could be national pride and religious identity.  (Turkey is a Muslim state; Armenians are Christians.  The nation of Armenia was the first to declare Christianity as its state religion in the year 301.)

Whatever the reasons, Turkey’s continued denial, to the point of offering a wholly unsupportable revisionist history, is shameful.  Imagine Germany refusing to acknowledge the Holocaust.  Imagine what the civilized world’s reaction would be.  To bring it closer to home, imagine the United States only referring to the Holocaust as “the worst atrocity of the twentieth century.”  Would the Jewish community understand the diplomatic wording?  Or would there be an outcry demanding full recognition of the Holocaust, with no mincing of words to appease the sensibilities of the current German government and its people, even if they don’t represent the Nazi ideology that killed six million Jews any more than today’s Turkey represents the Ottoman rulers’ genocide?

But even that comparison is less than accurate, because Armenians suffer the indignity of the Turkish denial in the continuing hostility of the current Turkish government towards neighboring Armenia, which Turkey denies trade with and which Turkey restricts from trade with neighboring states.

So to understand the commemoration of the Armenian genocide, you need to understand that the collective memory demands recognition.  Armenians everywhere continue to grieve the deaths of their ancestors.  And they grieve even more the continuing injustice of those who refuse to recognize the historical record or who seek to placate a government that “denies the evil” its predecessors promulgated.


Hillary’s Chances: Maybe Not As Good As You Think

It hardly came as a surprise when Hillary Clinton announced (via a web posting) that she is all-in for the 2016 presidential election.  Nor is it particularly difficult to envision her having the Democratic Party’s nomination wrapped up by this time next year.  Yes, she will have token opposition (Maryland’s Governor, Martin O’Malley, for one, is likely to give it a try), but it won’t take long for Ms. Clinton to eliminate any serious threat to her nomination.

(Talk of an Obama-like candidacy by Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Senator who is to the left of Ms. Clinton on most issues, is not going anywhere, since the Senator has done nothing but declare decisively that she is not a candidate.  Whatever misgivings the left wing of the party has about Ms. Clinton are not going to push Ms. Warren to get into the fray.  If she had such thoughts, we’d have seen activity by now.  Barack Obama, by comparison, had already declared his candidacy by this point in 2007.)

Ms. Clinton will be the nominee of her party, which will, in and of itself, be an oddly momentous achievement, marking the first time a woman has held such a position in American history.  Whether she will then win the national election and become the nation’s first female president, however, is a decidedly different question, one to which the answer is far from clear.

The first reason she might not win is that many will assume that she will, which will lead to voter apathy.  And, that fact, coupled with less than overwhelming enthusiasm from those lefties in her party who think she is just too conservative and too militaristic, may reduce the vote total she might otherwise secure.  It’s safe to assume that the call to arms among Democrats will overcome those potential problems, but they can’t be discounted at this early stage in the prognostication game.

The bigger threat to Ms. Clinton’s inevitability will come from the Republicans.  It’s true that they have tended to choose weak candidates recently, but the odds are that they won’t this time around.  Yes, they’ll have a primary season in which a bevy of far-right types will claim to be the heir to Ronald Reagan, but when was the last time one of them emerged with the nomination?  It certainly wasn’t in 2012, when Mitt Romney (the “moderate” in the GOP field) survived the onslaught of nut-jobs and clowns who ran against him.  (Remember Herman Cain, Donald Trump, and Michelle Bachman?)

And it wasn’t in ’08, when John McCain bested a similar cast of characters.  Even George W. Bush, intellectually-deficient though he may have been, was not viewed as a far-right choice in the 2000 field he ran against.  No, the Republicans will nominate someone who can appeal to the middle of the electorate (which, in today’s America, is someone who would be to the right of Barry Goldwater in an earlier generation, but today is to the left of the likes of Ted Cruz and Rand Paul).

And the Republican ticket is also likely to include a woman, which is the obvious move to counter a strong female turnout for Hillary.  Several Republican women not named Sarah Palin are potential VP nominees.  New Mexico’s Governor, Susana Martinez, would be a good bet, since she would offer the ticket a two-fer, being Latina as well as a woman.  And if the top of the ticket nod goes to Jeb Bush, who is married to a Latina, even if he isn’t of that ethnic persuasion himself, the Hispanic vote that would otherwise be expected to tilt Democratic could be neutralized.

At this point, I would rate Bush as the odds-on favorite to get the GOP nomination.  The party will be fearful of Bush-fatigue, and nominating him will eliminate the Clinton-fatigue campaign line, but on paper Jeb Bush is the closest thing to a centrist in the party, and he, unlike his dimwit brother, can actually speak in complete sentences and sound intelligent while doing so.

But the Republican ticket won’t be Hillary’s biggest hurdle.  Instead it will be Hillary herself.  On paper, she looks great, with credentials that no other candidate can match.  But American voters don’t tend to base their votes on such things as “best qualified.”  If they did, Al Gore would have easily won the 2000 election, and Barack Obama never would have been nominated in 2008.

No, today’s electorate wants someone who either is likeable (Dubya) or has charisma (Obama).  In 2000, Gore was heavily favored until he showed himself to be stiff and awkward in the debates against Mr. Bush, who was the guy you would have a beer with.  Likeability, more than butterfly ballots and hanging chads, sent the 2000 election to the Supremes.

In 2008, Mr. Obama came across as the charismatic alternative to the stiff (and awkward) Hillary Clinton, and then took that charisma into the general election against a stiff and old John McCain.  On paper, Obama was as unqualified to be the president as Bush (perhaps even more so), but he was far more exciting, dynamic (and young) than either Ms. Clinton or Mr. McCain.

Hillary will have to battle herself to overcome the disadvantage she will have in the likeability and charisma departments next year.  She will need to show more natural humanity and somehow learn how to deliver an exciting speech.  Neither of those skills will be easy for her because she doesn’t project the every-woman persona that a Sarah Palin can in a blink of an eye, and she doesn’t electrify an audience like her husband can at the drop of a hat.

She’ll also have to counter a slew of scandal attacks that the Fox News folks will help to foment.  It will start with the Benghasi tragedy, which isn’t really a scandal at all, but will be cast as one (as it has been ever since the four Americans were killed in the raid on the consulate).  There is also no real scandal in Ms. Clinton’s use of her private e-mail account for State Department business while she was Secretary of State, but she’ll be lambasted for it nevertheless.  And then, too, there will be vague allusions to supposed scandals from her husband’s administration and from the Clinton Foundation’s record-keeping and fundraising activities.

The cumulative effect of these allegations will take a toll; how can they not with those in the electorate who get their “news” solely from the GOP mouthpieces on Fox News?  How much of an effect they will have will largely depend on how effectively Ms. Clinton’s campaign refutes them.  Ms. Clinton has a tendency to be petulant when pressed (as she became in her Senate committee Benghasi testimony).  If that side of her surfaces in response to the scandal charges, she’ll suffer electorally.

And then there’s the last potential barrier to Ms. Clinton’s election: the swing of the popular mood.  Consider the span of years the respective parties have held the presidency since 1952: Republicans – 1953-1961; Democrats – ’61-‘69; Republicans – ’69-’77; Democrats – ’77-’81 (Carter denied second term by Reagan); Republicans – ’81-’93; Democrats – ’93-2001; Republicans – ’01-’09; Democrats – ’09- you get the picture.

Here’s the bottom line: Hillary Clinton may become the nation’s first female president, but don’t bet the house on it.


E. Haig’s Review of Lang Lang’s Mondavi Recital

Lang Lang, the rock star pianist, is now the pre-eminent virtuoso soloist on the classical concert scene, and he provided ample proof of that fact in his bravura performance at the Mondavi Center (on the campus of U.C. Davis) last month.  Performing a program of Bach, Tchaikovsky, and Chopin, he electrified his instrument and his audience by seeming to have choreographed every pose and arpeggio as he flew through the demanding works he chose to play.

This was the third recital at Mondavi by Mr. Lang.  The first was in January, 2007, when he had just burst onto the scene as a brash 24-year old.  He returned in October, 2012, at the top of his game, yet still working on his “shtick.”

In his performance last month, he showed that he has put it all together, right down to his post-performance bows.  Now a mature 32, he is the complete consummate performer, with as much pure skill and mastery of his instrument as anyone has ever had and with the charisma and celebrity status that few would ever hope to have.

His program opened with Bach’s “Italian Concerto in F Major.”  It is a challenging enough work in itself, but Mr. Lang played it was if he owned it, not even breaking a sweat as he moved through the difficult sections in the first movement (marked Allegro).  In the second movement (Andante), he hardly ever looked at the keys, instead appearing to strike scripted poses as he evoked, in his facial expressions, the emotion undoubtedly intended by Bach.  At this point, you realize that the artist has developed a complete understanding of the work and of how he wants to convey it to his audience.  It is a real show, art in its most fully realized form.

As easily as he played the second movement, the third, despite being a Presto, and maybe even a quicker tempo as he played it, was seemingly no more difficult for him.  He did occasionally glance at the keyboard, but, again, it appeared to be all scripted.  It was a captivating performance of a work many soloists would not dare to attempt.

But it wasn’t the highlight of the evening.  That point came during Tchaikovsky’s “The Seasons,” which is rarely played for the obvious reason that it is exceedingly demanding, both for its length and its complexity.  The title of the work is misleading, since it consists not of four movements representing the year’s seasons, but of twelve representing the year’s months, from January to December.   Each one is an intricate, complex statement, running from three to six minutes.  And each is entirely distinct, with no single theme uniting all of them.

Lang played them all with the same kind of choreographed precision.  And by the time he had finished the eighth, “August: The Harvest,” which included a placid central portion surrounded by high energy segments, the audience could not contain its applause.  Lang broke for just a moment to nod his appreciation and then resumed his command of his instrument with an equally stirring movement entitled, “September: The Hunt.”  Its theme was a march with echoing horn calls, and it could have elicited applause as well, since it was a matrix of complexity that he played with the same intensity.

In sum, the work was a marvel to experience, the young master performing it so powerfully and perfectly.

For the second half of his program, Mr. Lang chose to play Chopin’s four Scherzos, which the composer completed in the period from 1830 to 1842.  It was a real treat to hear all four played in succession, with the first fiery and of relatively simple construction, and each succeeding one developing more complexity and nuance.  The third struck us as the most dynamic and memorable, but the fourth may be the best in terms of showing Chopin’s unique use of the Beethoven model (A-B-A), adding his own sensitivity and range of expression.  Lang played them all with the same flawless technique, while delivering a sense of the emotion contained in each.

When he had finished, he accepted the standing ovation with humble bows and appreciative nods to the left, right and center of the hall.  He returned to the stage a second and third time, with more acknowledgements to each section of the auditorium.  Then, finally, he came out yet again and, this time without announcing his selection, he picked up where he had left off with a delightful encore.  It was Chopin’s “Grande Valse Brillante,” which he had also used in his 2012 Mondavi recital.

It was a fitting way to end a triumphant return by a superstar who is a great master of his craft and a superb showman.