January 10, 2011
Some time ago I read the story of Fen-Phen, the dangerous drug that was eventually banned but not before it had destroyed many lives. The story was told by Alicia Mundy in Dispensing with the Truth. It was the story of brave attorneys taking on a powerful industry and lobby on behalf of victims who did not know each other and who only knew that their lives would never be the same again. The ‘class action’ lawyers were, for the most part a ‘class act’.
So it was with some dismay that I read Curtis Wilkie’s The Fall of the House of Zeus: The Rise and Fall of America’s Most Powerful Trial Lawyer. It is the story of Dickie Scruggs, a man who made many fortunes taking on asbestos and big tobacco and the like. Wilkie does not come across as sanctimonious about his subject, a man who was eventually sent to prison for attempting to bribe a judge. I was clear that Scruggs made enemies early on in his astonishing career and was frequently in court defending himself against charges that he had promised money to associates and then not paid them. Once the money started rolling in they all wanted what they thought was their rightful share. At the same time he did things that rich people do: gave large gifts in his community, to his university and to political candidates.
What brought him down, in the end, was not some dire and dastardly premeditated deed, but more a pattern of expecting that he could make anything happen, that he was golden, almost a sense that he was born to succeed in what ever he did. The bribery, according to Wilkie, was not Scruggs’ idea, but something he eventually bought into while an associate was wearing a wire provided by some very excited federal agents who saw a chance to bring down a rich man. It is a sad story with a large cast and no one comes out looking particularly good.
The phrase ‘banality of evil’ comes to mind. There was no decision to commit an unthinkable crime. There was, rather, a pattern of action and belief that supported acts on the edge, created in Scruggs a sense of invulnerability and eventually led to the commission of a great crime almost without thought or realization as to what was happening.
It all goes back to the idea that it is the little decisions we make that shape the big ones: that little fudging of the truth on our tax returns or expenses, that extra desert or glass of wine, that box of pens from the office all lead to that sense that somehow we deserve what we have. It is the affliction of embezzlers and, apparently, some people who accumulate great wealth without cultivating a kind of self awareness or spirituality that keeps them on a good path.