The problem with writing about Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, of course, is Dershowitz himself. He is impossibly, almost self-consciously annoying. As he writes in his latest book, “Taking the Stand,” he does “not hide behind the distorting shield of false humility.”
Quite the contrary; in the introduction he quickly says he has been called “the winningest appellate criminal defense lawyer in history.” In my pre-publication copy of “Stand,” that quote has a message from the fact checker: “ALAN: I COULD NOT FIND A SOURCE FOR THIS. DO YOU REMEMBER WHO CALLED YOU THAT?”
It could have been a host of people, I’m sure.
Dershowitz closely follows the “winningest” quote with a list of 29 celebrities he has advised, including Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Bill Belichick, etc. Remember that when Dershowitz later complains about being pigeon-holed as a celebrity lawyer.
If Dershowitz isn’t getting in your face about something, it’s as if he’s not doing his job. Which is too bad, because he’s a smart guy and a smooth writer.
“Taking the Stand,” out this month, is hardly Dershowitz’s first memoir — I wonder if he’s trying to break Willie Mays’s record of three autobiographies — but it does have a comprehensive, summing-up feel to it. The book begins with his Brooklyn childhood and ends with his posthumous letter to the editor, complaining about being called a pro-Israel patsy and a celebrity lawyer in his obituary.
Yes, you read that correctly.
Before I parse Dershowitz’s famous last words, I want to mention some delightful moments in this book. I love that Dershowitz credits the Classic Comics for his introduction to literature. “Don’t laugh!” he writes, “Classic Comics were marvelous.” I couldn’t agree more. Of course I savored the detail that he and his Israel policy bugbear Noam Chomsky attended the same Zionist summer camp.
And I loved that he included a detailed account of his defense of the once-scandalous movie, “I Am Curious (Yellow),” which reached the Supreme Court. Read this chapter, and you will have proof, if you needed any, that former Chief Justice Warren Burger was a narrow-minded jerk.
Here is an interesting admission from Dershowitz, concerning his successful defense of a Jewish Defense League bomb-maker: “This was the first time I had used my legal talents to help free guilty murderers. It would not be the last.”
In an amusing vignette, Woody Allen asks Dershowitz which dead person he might have represented.
Dershowitz replies: “Jesus.”
Allen: “Do you think you could have won?”
Dershowitz: “In front of a Jewish jury, maybe.”
Allen observes that “those Biblical Jews were tough. They didn’t tolerate troublemakers like Jesus.”
The Mike Tyson material in “Stand” is fascinating, and the Bobby Fisher anecdote alone is worth the $28 cover price.
Years ago, a friend of mine noted, admiringly, that no matter what the Globe wrote about Dershowitz, he followed up any article with a letter to the editor, doubling the publicity value of the mention. “I’m never satisfied unless I get the last word,” he writes in “Stand.” Then he provides the text of his letter to the editor, finding fault with the as-yet unpublished, indeed unwritten obituaries that he assumes will herald his passing.
It’s quaint that Dershowitz, for whom we all wish a long and healthy life, thinks there will be newspapers, and editors, if and when he crosses the veil, but let’s ignore that. In the letter, he frets that obituarists will paint him as an uncritical supporter of Israel. Not so, he writes; “I was critical when criticism was warranted.”
And heaven forfend that the galactically famous defender of Claus von Bulow, O.J. Simpson, and Mike Tyson should be remembered as a mere celebrity lawyer: “Your . . . emphasis on my high-profile cases distorts my record by downplaying the numerous pro bono cases I handled on behalf of obscure and indigent clients,” Dershowitz writes.
To which one can only respond: Oh, hush.
Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.