‘How I wrote the story’: Getting inside a character
Josh Getlin’s profile of a notorious lawyer shows you how to peel back the layers
This is the third “How I Wrote the Story” essay on newsthinking.com that breaks down a profile. The first two were written by Jennifer Warren (November 5) and Scott Kraft (November 26). Jennifer’s emphasized how work habits put you in position to succeed, while Scott’s was a lesson in capturing a man in the news.
This week’s profile is a 1994 piece about William Kunstler, who represented many political pariahs in a swashbuckling legal career. The story ran long after Kunstler had hit his prime, and barely a year before he died. The fact that it read–and still reads–so freshly is a testament to the author, Josh Getlin, my newspaper’s New York City bureau chief.
Josh is one of those writers whose style is shaped by his own impatience as a reader. You can feel, as you read both this profile and his essay, the intensity he brings to five primary stages: conceptualizing, reporting, organizing, writing and self-editing. This story feels so natural, so well-timed, when, in fact, there was no good reason to profile Kunstler at this stage in his life apart from the publication of his autobiography–and we’ve all seen how hollow those kinds of stories are. There are a lot of lessons here, and my favorite one is this: In addition to technical skill, to make a profile work you have to care a lot about what the hell you’re saying. You have to want to make a statement about your character–not by any single overt, judgmental sentence, but by the choices you make in the reporting, your determination to get close enough to the subject to watch his or her essence, and by the choices you make in juxtaposing those moments so that the reader feels what you felt. You usually won’t have as much space as Josh did (90 inches), but you can bring–you must bring–that same quality to a 20- or 40-inch profile. Otherwise you’re wasting the reader’s time.
Read the first 15 grafs and see if you feel like coming along:
THE KING OF CONTROVERSY
September 2, 1994
By Josh Getlin
The story starts with a four-graf anecdote that Josh will quickly turn into his story theme in the fifth graf:
NEW YORK–As he drove down a darkened highway into Manhattan one night, William M. Kunstler clicked on the radio and learned that he was dead.
“The body of famed radical attorney William Kunstler was found in his home this afternoon, an apparent suicide,” the announcer said. “We’ll be gathering reaction from the political world as this story develops.”
Intrigued, Kunstler turned up the volume and heard more details of his life and untimely death. The report was only corrected hours later, with the news that one of his nephews with the same name had killed himself instead.
“I guess they were guilty of wishful thinking,” Kunstler cracks, recalling the bizarre 1976 broadcast. “Some folks don’t hide it very well.”
It wasn’t the first or last time that America’s most prominent left-wing lawyer has been written off for dead. For years, his bushy sideburns and abrasive politics have seemed as dated as the 1960s themselves, his flamboyant courtroom style a throwback to earlier, more innocent times.
The then-versus-now treatment comes next:
Once, Kunstler was the king of movement lawyers. Brash, self-serving and often brilliant, he epitomized a generation of white, middle-class attorneys who raised hell over civil rights, police brutality and the Vietnam War. Best known for his role in the Chicago Seven conspiracy trial of 1969, Kunstler joined with such lawyers as Charles Garry, Gerald Lefcourt, Leonard Weinglass and Ramsey Clark in a saber-rattling crusade against Fortress Amerika.
Now 75, Kunstler hasn’t changed much. But his clients have. He used to represent people like Abbie Hoffman and Tom Hayden–radicals with national followings–yet lately he’s become the pariah’s attorney of choice. A man who turns terrorists, rapists and murderers into political causes celebres.
It’s brought him new life in the ’90s, as well as scathing criticism. Indeed, Vanity Fair dubbed him “The Most Hated Lawyer in America,” and there’s no shortage of pundits who call him a hypocrite. But Kunstler couldn’t care less.
“My agenda is the same as 25 years ago,” he insists. “It’s just that these are rougher times and the folks I deal with now aren’t the same.”
In recent years, Kunstler has handled clients ranging from El Sayyid Nosair–the man accused of murdering Rabbi Meir Kahane–to Larry Davis, a black man charged with killing four men and wounding six New York cops. He defended Yusef Salaam, one of several youths who participated in the rape and attack on the Central Park jogger, and he represented mob killer John Gotti.
Josh takes pains to point out the contemporary angle:
This fall, he’ll defend Colin Ferguson, a Jamaican immigrant who killed six people and wounded 19 in a wild shooting spree on the Long Island Railroad. Kunstler plans an insanity defense and has sparked a national controversy by suggesting that “black rage” triggered Ferguson’s attack.
“Ever since the Chicago trial, I realized that America’s criminal justice system is bankrupt,” says Kunstler, his trademark bifocals perched on a mane of unruly hair. “My focus is on people who can least defend themselves. On African Americans, on followers of Islam, who are on the margins of society. These folks have a constitutional right to a lawyer like anyone else.”
Until recently, he represented three of 13 men charged with plotting to blow up the United Nations and other New York City landmarks. Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman–the alleged ringleader–has sought his services, as have three of the four Muslims convicted earlier this year of bombing the World Trade Center.
The New York conspiracy trial might have given him his biggest platform yet. But U.S. District Judge Michael Mukasey removed Kunstler’s law firm from the case last week, citing a conflict of interest. Two defendants he once represented in the matter now have different attorneys, Mukasey ruled, and it would be ethically difficult for the lawyer to cross-examine them as witnesses.
The opening segment of the story ends with a quote that lets you hear the profane conceit that is the essence of Kunstler
Kunstler, who expected the decision, blasted Mukasey for caving in to government pressure, adding: “The state has wanted to kick our asses off this case so bad, they could taste it. They just can’t keep up with me.”
Here’s Josh’s essay:
I enjoy profiles more than any other form of journalism. But it’s clear that no two people are the same, and I’d be hard-pressed to find any basic rules or guidelines that would magically apply to all pieces. The best I can do is relate my experience on this one story, which was quite rewarding.
At the start, I faced a problem of simple persuasion: Editors were somewhat skeptical about doing a piece on Kunstler, because (a) he was a known publicity hound, like Alan Dershowitz and (b) his era of relevance seemed to be in the past. Who cares about a ’60s icon holding on in the ’90s? You could spend a lifetime writing such stories, with increasingly fewer readers.
But I felt Kunstler was unique because he was anything but washed up. Here was a man who made a hard left in 1969 with the Chicago conspiracy trial and wound up defending the World Trade Center bombers in 1993–using the same militant rhetoric, the same ideological rationale. It seemed to suggest something larger about leftwing politics, and it went beyond one single man.
Also, I knew from the experience of living and working in New York that Kunstler was a colorful, even theatrical person who was hard to ignore. The Los Angeles Times had never done an in-depth piece on him, and I lobbied hard to do the story. Finally, I got the green light–and the time–to proceed.
I first met up with Kunstler in his office on the morning of Richard Nixon’s funeral. He was cracking one off-color joke after another. In the space of 15 minutes, he likened the former president to Hitler, speculated darkly on the real reasons for the Watergate break-in and told embarrassing stories about Phil Donahue. Then he began yelling at clients on the phone.
It quickly became apparent that my job would be to let Kunstler tell his own story, showing readers what his life had become, through one anecdote after another. Access would be crucial, because you could never get that information from interviews and prepared questions. You’d miss the spontaneity and sheer unpredictability of the man, not to mention his real character.
Finding that character was a challenge, because Kunstler’s rhetoric, biting humor and glibness cover up much of what’s inside. I’d have to watch him in action for a long time and wait for something deeper, some key nuance to emerge. Otherwise, the piece would be one-dimensional and predictable.
I hit the road with him, trying to be a fly on the wall for the better part of two weeks. He granted me extraordinary access, allowing me to visit clients with him and to sit in on strategy sessions. I traveled in a van with him up and d own U.S. Interstate 95, from one bizarre case to the next. I got a chance to watch him interact with his first wife–a key to his character, as it turned out–at the ACLU equivalent of a homecoming dinner for old liberals in Westchester County. There was no shortage of great material, and I took copious notes. The only major person in his life I didn’t get to interview was his current wife (she adamantly refused to be interviewed). But that didn’t figure as prominently in the story as I originally thought it might.
Throughout the reporting, I watched Kunstler on two levels. What he said and did was important, but the darker stuff–his selfishness, his tendency to embellish the truth and even demean his clients for the sake of a good joke–was equally relevant. He was a blur of motion, and the hits just kept on coming. After 10 intense days, I was overwhelmed with great material.
The challenge now was to write, and some problems quickly emerged. First, I didn’t know for whom I’d be writing the story. At first, it was headed for the Times’ feature section. Then, the Sunday magazine showed interest. A decision was made to re-tool the story for them, but my wife had emergency back surgery the week I was slated to deliver for the magazine, and their schedule couldn’t be stretched any longer. So I was back to writing for the feature section. It shouldn’t have made much of a difference, but during the previous weeks I had carefully sketched out a way to approach the Kunstler profile with the magazine’s editor. I’d hoped to duplicate that model for the feature section, but it was clear I’d have much less room to develop the material. The magazine would have taken as much as 140-150 inches, but the feature section would be stretched to the max at 100 inches. I know this sounds ridiculous, given the tight space we try to respect at the paper, but the difference became significant in the writing of a major profile. There would have to be major cuts at some point.
Rather than amputate the material in advance, I decided to write the piece as I would have originally submitted it to the magazine, and work from t here.
I hit on the lede early, because it focused so well on a main theme of the piece. Here was a guy who was constantly being written off, even to the point of hearing his own obituary on the radio. Yet he kept bouncing back. I also enjoyed the humor, because Kunstler’s overriding virtue is his ability to laugh at himself. I could picture him driving in the dark, incredulous at the news of his own death on the radio, so the anecdote fell easily into place.
Then came the hard part. There would have to be a lengthy set-up for the reader, establishing who Kunstler was and is. Why he’s important, why we should care. You always have to be mindful of the generational cut. The Chicago Conspiracy Trial seems as clear as yesterday to me, but others may draw blanks when it come s up for discussion. There had to be just the right mixture of explanation and color to tap t he heart and soul of this story.
To do this I decided on a two-part main structure, trying to write as tightly as I could. I’d give you a glimpse of the man and his changing world, fill in some vivid context, then barrel into a week in the life. Timing was important, be cause I could quickly lose readers if the opener dragged in any way. As a writer you always have to be mindful of that inner clock.
You’ve got to grab readers. You need transitions that sparkle and aren’t just servicable. Good quotes are like depth charges; they can rouse readers and keep your story rolling. I kept that in mind, and when I finally reached the mother lode of good material I’d been saving up, it was a relief.
The second half, by contrast, was a snap. More like storytelling than anything else. You saw the high points of Kunstler in action, his dark side, the ironies and humor. It became pure entertainment. For me, there’s nothing more enjoyable than writing a profile when you’re loaded with provocative material and you strongly believe in the story. Especially when you’ve been living with the material for weeks and it finally sees the light of day.
I was pleased with the final product, but there was one lingering problem that couldn’t be avoided: The story as written was much too long.
I sensed this while I was writing, but I had spent too much time developing contacts and refining anecdotes to simply trash good material at the start. I’d been writing for the better part of four days, living and breathing Kunstler, and wound up with a story of 150-160 inches. So where to cut?
This was a tale about a man caught between past and present, and I didn’t want to upset the balance between the two. For every anecdote I used about the Chicago trial or Kunstler’s involvement with Muslim defendants today, there were five or six more on the cutting room floor. An entire section about his painful reconciliation with a wife whom he betrayed years before had to be excised. Ditto for a marvelous vignette where he tried to win over a group of grieving black parents who had just lost their son to police violence. After 24 hours, the story was whittled down to 100 inches, and ready to be sent in.
Then came a last-minute dilemma which always surfaces with longer stories. Suddenly, I wasn’t sure about the top section. The rhythm seemed wrong. What worked before now seemed slow and sluggish. I was trying to capture a fast-moving, loose-lipped character who could easily disappear in too many boring, explanatory paragraphs. So it was back to the drawing board.
I needed the right mix and there’s no way to explain this process, because it’s all trial and error. You learn as you go along in this business, and an opening that would have seemed acceptable to me five years ago might not work for me now. It took me another two days before I was finally satisfied that the first 20 inches of the story worked well. Only then could I begin to let go.
During my reporting and writing on the profile, people asked me what I thought about Kunstler. My answers varied. At times, I felt he was a loose cannon, a lawyer seeking out controversy for egotistical reasons and hanging out with some dangerous folks. On other occasions, I felt protective toward him. He was, after all, a ’60s folk hero; someone who didn’t have much longer to go. He’d been associated with some amazing U.S. history, and you can argue that, through it all, his heart has been in the right place. Ultimately, I tried to banish both opinions when it came time to write. I hoped the material would take over and dictate its own direction. And I think that’s what happened, because the story became something of a political Rorschach.
I got phone calls from Los Angeles readers who thanked me for remembering Kunstler. One wrote me a thoughtful letter, angered that I had trashed the guy. Some colleagues thought the piece was exceptionally fair; others thought the lawyer looked like a fool. As for me, there’s one lingering thought: I’d give anything to have those extra 50 inches back. You can’t imagine the new stories I’d tell. There’s the one about Kunstler at Woodstock…the one about groupies in the civil rights movement…the time Kunstler swapped insults with Nixon when they got haircuts next to each other.
That’s the only bad thing about these assignments: They have to end.
Let’s return to the story. We’d left it at a saucy Kunstler quote in which he blasted a judge for caving in to the government:
…”The state has wanted to kick our asses off this case so bad, they could taste it. They just can’t keep up with me.”
After that, Josh presents a longer look at Kunstler’s contemporary importance, including his critics:
He’s come a long way from his days as a quiet suburban attorney, and Kunstler celebrates the odyssey in “My Life as a Radical Lawyer” (Birch Lane Press), a provocative new autobiography. As he sees it, there’s an ideological line running from the streets of Chicago in 1969 to the wreckage of the World Trade Center.
The argument baffles many friends, who view Kunstler’s evolution with dismay. Yet they seem just as concerned for the future of progressive politics. What happened to him, in a sense, reflects the lack of direction on the American left.
“He’s a mirror of the times, because the ’60s was an era of hope and change,” says Lynn Stewart, an attorney who’s worked with Kunstler. “As that disappears you get involved with things that aren’t as pure. You make excuses and see political righteousness in cases where it’s not quite so clear.”
It hasn’t made him rich. Kunstler could have cashed in on his celebrity but instead earns $100,000 annually, working out of an office in his Greenwich Village home. Along with Ron Kuby, a ponytailed 37-year-old disciple, he handles many cases pro bono and only rarely takes on cash-rich clients.
“There is no need to say, ‘Who is Mr. Kunstler?’ ” wrote Mohammed Salameh, one of four men convicted of bombing the World Trade Center, in a letter to the U.S. Court of Appeals asking that Kunstler be named his lawyer. “He is as a mountain on the ground. I think all lawyers are kids compared to him.”
Outside New York City, however, Kunstler has fallen off the media radar screen. These days, some folks are amazed he’s even alive when they run into him, reacting as if they’d seen a ghost. Tall, garrulous and still bristling with indignation, he remains every prosecutor’s worst nightmare: a smooth-talking lefty who gets maximum press for his political clients.
“Bill Kunstler has never been effective by the standards of the Harvard Law Review,” says Norman Dorsen, former chief of the American Civil Liberties Union. “He’s been very effective, however, as a radical lawyer. You just want to tell him that it’s not 1969 anymore. People can’t live in a time warp.”
Yet it’s unavoidable, when his very name conjures up a trip down memory lane: To the South, where he bailed out freedom riders. To Chicago, where his seven clients were acquitted of conspiring to disrupt the 1968 Democratic convention. To Attica, where he counseled inmates during the 1971 uprising. To Wounded Knee, where he joined Native Americans in a tense standoff with FBI agents.
His friends and clients in those years read like a Who’s Who of change and upheaval, including Lenny Bruce, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Stokley Carmichael, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the Berrigan Brothers and Jack Ruby. Even his worst enemies concede Kunstler’s place in the history books.
We begin to draw insights into Kunstler’s character through good observational reporting. Josh will tie this first example to a deeper conflict in Kunstler’s personality, and jump logically to the biographical section of the story–all in the service of describing a man torn between righteousness and vanity:
But he can never get enough recognition. By his own admission, the aging lawyer has an insatiable craving for approval, even from strangers.
“How did I do?” he asks a frail woman in a wheelchair, who’s just heard him talk about crime prevention at a Connecticut event. “Was I OK today?” Seconds later, he asks the same question of other startled listeners.
Narcissism is an occupational disease among lawyers. Yet Kunstler has a conflicting impulse as well–an instinct for controversy that offends many. The two spirits have been at war in him for years, with disastrous results.
“There’s an odd hunger in him,” says ACLU colleague Henry Schwarzchild. “I don’t think Bill has any ideology as such. But he has a powerful need to make waves, to constantly get in your face. And he pays the price.”
Since 1980, Kunstler has received a stream of death threats and obscene calls. Gunman have fired at his office and demonstrators have marched in front of his home. He’s been beaten up, jailed and cited by judges for contempt.
By now, friends wonder why he bothers. Kunstler is a cultured man who writes sonnets in his spare time and brings his wife breakfast in bed. He has two teen-age daughters from a second marriage, a busy lecture schedule and a film career with credits in movies by Oliver Stone, Spike Lee and Ron Howard.
Shouldn’t he begin to close down the office early and relax?
“It’s time to say goodby,” says a New York State Supreme Court judge, who dismisses Kunstler as an anachronism. New York Daily News columnist Jim Sleeper calls him a “public fraud” over the Ferguson case, and Bronx Dist. Atty. Paul Gentile attacks him as a racist for excluding whites from criminal juries.
“This man ran out of causes a long time ago,” says attorney Alan Dershowitz, a frequent critic. “And he’s veered into dubious areas.”
As the attacks mount, friends stress Kunstler’s integrity. Gerald Lefcourt, once a prominent left-wing attorney and now a criminal defense lawyer, says his colleague had it easier 30 years ago, when the issues were simpler.
“He was doing God’s work,” Lefcourt says. “It was important.”
But memories are short. Some Jewish critics suggest that Kunstler, who is Jewish, has deliberately sought out Muslim terrorists as clients. They’re angry that he got Nosair acquitted in the 1990 murder of Meir Kahane, suggesting he couldn’t possibly believe his client was innocent.
“Listen,” Kunstler snaps, “they called me a nigger-lover down south when I worked with civil rights activists, and now up north they call me a self-hating Jew. Believe me, this is one Jew who loves himself.”
On that much, most agree. Kunstler’s vanity is legendary, and it fills the chapters of his new book. For 609 pages, the author lets his enemies have it.
He calls Dershowitz reprehensible for representing Leona Helmsley, and criticizes John and Robert Kennedy as power-mad, saying their deaths were in some ways good for the country. Angered that Marlon Brando removed him from the legal team defending his son, Christian, Kunstler ridicules the Los Angeles attorney who replaced him–Robert Shapiro, now representing O.J. Simpson–as “a wheeler-dealer . . . not really a trial lawyer.”
Beyond gossip, the book relates Kunstler’s own story in rich detail. Born into a family of doctors, he grew up in Manhattan, the oldest of three children. Unlike his quieter siblings, he was always the extrovert.
Tellingly, the rebellious boy tried to befriend blacks, but was forbidden by his parents. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Yale, won the Bronze Star in World War II and got a law degree from Columbia University.
By 1948, Kunstler had married Lotte Rosenberger, a childhood flame, and the couple had two daughters. Soon, he formed a law practice with his brother, Michael, and the two made a living handling wills and estates.
It all changed in 1961, when an ACLU friend asked Kunstler to stop in Jackson, Miss., on his way home from a Los Angeles trip. Civil rights protests were erupting, and the Freedom Riders–a group of activists trying to integrate bus systems in the Deep South–were being sent to prison.
Kunstler went to offer moral support. But he stayed longer than expected, rocked by his encounter with racism. He drifted away from his law practice and became more politically involved. Eventually, Kunstler served as counsel to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and he helped form the Center for Constitutional Rights, a pioneering advocacy group in New York.
His star was rising, but the Chicago Seven case put him on the map. When prosecutors failed to win a conspiracy conviction, Kunstler got much of the media credit.
Remember Josh’s acknowledgement, in his essay, that some readers will regard the ’60s as ancient history? He uses the word “imagine” in the next graf to draw them in:
Imagine a trial where one defendant is gagged, another hurls Yiddish curses at the judge and the prosecutor attacks his rivals as homosexuals. It happened in Chicago, after Kunstler and others turned the proceedings into political theater. When the dust settled, there were contempt sentences for all, including a four-year prison penalty for Kunstler. He was later cleared.
“Bill’s always shown great courage,” says attorney Leonard Weinglass, who worked with Kunstler on the Chicago trial. “And when you think that he was once a Hubert Humphrey liberal who dabbled in politics, the change is amazing. His cases are the stuff of history.”
Kunstler’s autobiography lists them all, but its most revealing passages focus on his personal life. With painful honesty, he recounts the sexual infidelities that led to the breakup of his first marriage in 1973.
“Young women pursued me, most likely because I was something of a celebrity and, the more well known I became, the more aggressive the woman got,” he writes. “For someone with my vanity and ego, it was gratifying.”
Kunstler married his second wife, attorney Margaret Ratner, in 1975. He speaks effusively about her, saying she has made him more considerate. Asked about his first wife, Kunstler says he and Lotte have “a very decent relationship.” She, however, offers a different view.
“His belligerence on behalf of what he believes is sincere,” the former Mrs. Kunstler suggests. “But it’s also exaggerated, because he wants to impress people, too. . . . He has this incredible need to be understood and liked. And I don’t think he’s all that mature at 75. That part of him is suspect.”
So is his memory. In her introduction to Kunstler’s book, co-writer Sheila Isenberg says the lawyer told her stories about himself that turned out to be untrue. In many cases, she adds, “he is the principal embellisher of his own myth.”
And now we get to ride along and watch Bill Kunstler, in all his glory and fragility, in action:
At 6 on a cool Monday morning, Kunstler is heading for Hartford, Conn. It’s Law Day and the man who has been slapped with more contempt citations than he cares to remember will be a featured speaker before 22 judges.
“Can you believe this?” he mutters outside his office. “It’s kind of strange. But if they want me, they want me.”
They want him at 10 a.m. sharp, and Kunstler is known for being late. This morning he wants to be on time and his chariot awaits–a beat-up van with a canoe on top that looks like a hippie bus from 1967. Inside, it’s a mess.
The driver, a young law student and ardent Irish Republican Army sympathizer, has a bumper sticker taped to the roof that reads: “Strip Search the Queen.” Almost immediately, Kunstler starts yakking.
“Will you get to the goddamned point!” he barks, as the driver tries to cut in with a long, complicated joke. “We don’t have a lot of time.”
Not when Kunstler wants the floor. Seizing an opening, he starts a daylong, stream-of-consciousness rap that’s almost impossible to interrupt.
It begins with the Patty Hearst case, which Kunstler brings up for no apparent reason, then skips to the time he hugged Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun. Digressing altogether, Kunstler recalls a dinner with John Gotti and then describes the girls he made love to during a 1936 trip to Spain.
As the van chugs into suburban Westchester County, he complains about his former home, saying: “Not one black person lived in my town. It was unreal.”
When his van reaches the Hartford courthouse, Kunstler is greeted by John Brittain, a black law professor. He recalls how the New York lawyer helped bail out Freedom Riders. Long before most whites discovered civil rights.
“Bill is special,” Brittain says, hugging him. “We don’t forget.”
Inside, Kunstler sits on a dais in a courtroom. It’s a bizarre sight that grows more incongruous when 22 black-robed judges file in, solemnly nodding at the long-haired lawyer. Amazed, he nods back.
“No one here should dispute this man’s commitment to justice, even though we may not agree with him,” says Matthew Gordon, a local lawyer who helped select Kunstler as the day’s speaker.
Casing the crowd, Kunstler gives them a polite tongue-lashing. He notes that Law Day is a counterpoint to May Day in socialist countries. Then he blasts corrupt officials–including judges–who “set up” innocent blacks.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been in a room with so many judges without wanting to hide,” he jokes. “But it’s OK, I can get out of here fast.”
Kunstler rushes out of the courthouse when the speech is over, heading for his next appointment 50 miles up the road. He’s representing Moonface Bear, the Golden Hill Paugeesukq tribal chief, who is battling state officials over the right to sell cigarettes tax-free on a reservation.
“Wait!” says Gordon, running up to Kunstler. “Can I come too?”
It’s a painful moment: Gordon, a middle-aged lawyer with a ’60s hangover, would like nothing more than to climb into Kunstler’s magic bus. He’ll call his secretary. He’ll clear his schedule. He’ll get to touch Indians.
“Maybe I could follow you . . , ” he says, his voice trailing off. “Or maybe we can do it next time.” The two shake hands and Kunstler’s van rolls north.
Lost in thought, he begins shuffling anxiously through legal papers.
“Now what the hell are we doing up there on the reservation today?” he grumbles to himself. “I don’t really know what the program is yet.”
Watch the language (underlined) in the next 11 grafs that guides you through a surrealistic recollection, helping you decide how to think about it:
It’s a recurring complaint about Kunstler. During the conspiracy trial, critics say, his rhetoric was compelling, but he didn’t do his legal homework. The lawyer remembers it differently, and his war stories are surreal.
Like the time he called Paul Krassner, editor of the Realist, to the stand. Unbeknown to the defense team, the witness had taken a megadose of LSD before appearing. Here’s how Kunstler describes the encounter:
“Tell the jury when you came to Chicago in 1968,” he asked.
“I was born in Albany,” Krassner answered.
Perplexed, Kunstler asked: “What did you do in Chicago?”
“I was on the high school football team,” Krassner responded.
By now spectators were stirring. Kunstler asked a final question: “When did you leave Chicago?”
“I told you, I was on the football team,” Krassner answered.
At this, Abbie Hoffman whispered: “He’s freaked out! Sit him down!”
Thinking quickly, Kunstler slammed his hand down on the lectern and boomed: “Thank you, Mr. Krassner! No further questions!” As if his witness had delivered the most damning testimony in the trial. The prosecution team, which hadn’t been paying attention, impatiently waved Krassner off the stand.
It’s a great story. Except it’s not quite true.
In his memoirs, Krassner admits taking LSD, yet recalls a completely different exchange. The official transcript provides a third version.
“These are details,” says Kunstler, asked about the discrepancies. “I mean, the man was stoned out of his mind. That’s all you need to know.”
With a shudder, the van comes to a halt on a dirt road in rural Connecticut. Easing his big frame out, Kunstler greets Moonface Bear, an unsmiling, solidly built man who welcomes him to the small reservation.
Wandering down a forest trail, the lawyer outlines his client’s case. But then he’s overwhelmed by the past. There had been a tense confrontation here last summer between Native Americans and police, he explains, and violence seemed imminent.
“This place,” Kunstler says, “had the smell of Attica.”
In September, 1971, some 1,500 inmates at a prison in Upstate New York seized 42 hostages, demanding improvements in living conditions. Kunstler and others were called in to help mediate the crisis.
When talks stalled, state troopers stormed Attica, killing 29 inmates and 10 civilian hostages. It was the bloodiest prison disaster in American history.
The memory is crystal clear. Or is it? In Kunstler’s book, he recalls a dramatic moment when he told inmates that they weren’t going to get a better deal than the final offer made by state negotiators.
Tempers flared in the prison courtyard, then subsided. In the aftermath, he writes, New York Times reporter Tom Wicker–who was also called in to mediate–came up to him and whispered: “Bill, you’ve saved all our lives.”
Nice intentional echo:
It’s a great story. Except it isn’t quite true.
Wicker never said those words because he wasn’t in the courtyard at that moment. He was 10 miles away in a motel bar, according to his own book, “A Time to Die.” He does, however, credit the attorney with great courage.
“I thought we were in danger of dying at one point,” Kunstler says, heading for court with Moonface Bear. “That’s what I remember.”
The next morning, Kunstler is in Manhattan federal court. He’s seeking permission from a three-judge panel to represent three of the men convicted in the World Trade Center bombing. A trial judge had refused the request and Kunstler attacks his decision, saying: “It makes the law look like an ass.”
After a testy hearing, the panel also denies his plea, saying Kunstler could face a conflict of interest between these new defendants and others he represents. Angered, the lawyer strides outdoors to a phalanx of TV cameras.
“The United States government is putting Islam on trial,” he says. “We’re going to fight them all the way.”
Three hours later, he jets to Ohio for the 24th anniversary of the shooting of four students at Kent State University. It’s an emotional event, and Kunstler’s eyes fill with tears when he recalls how the families still grieve.
“They never got over this,” he says. “Neither did I.”
But there’s no time for nostalgia. As he speaks the next morning, Kunstler is in yet another courtroom, waiting for a client to be sentenced. Solomon Mengstie, a black Ethiopian Jew, was convicted of armed robbery and faces up to 25 years in prison. He and others robbed two people of $9.99, but friends say Mengstie is a soft-spoken man who simply fell in with the wrong crowd.
“I never saw a person who inflicted so little pain and is about to receive so much pain,” Kunstler tells the court. “To some he’s just another black man going in. But this system is filled with racism.”
The judge listens impassively, then gives Mengstie 5 to 11 years. Kunstler makes his way out of the crowded courts building, stifling a yawn.
“I’m beat,” he says, suddenly looking every one of his 75 years.
A nice scene in the office leads us to an ending in which the protagonist confronts his legacy. It allows Josh to end the story the same way he began it–Kunstler toying with the notion of his death:
Back in the office, Kunstler is on the phone with Ferguson, the Long Island Railroad gunman. The lawyer rolls his eyes, as partner Kuby watches intently.
“I know, Colin. . . . Listen to me . . . Colin, please,” he begs, as the client shouts about jail conditions. Soon, Kunstler loses patience and delivers his message: It would be good for Ferguson to appear on “60 Minutes” in the fall and speak to an audience of millions.
“Just be yourself, Colin,” Kunstler says. “That’s all you have to do.”
Kuby, in a playful mood, jumps to his feet.
“Yeah, Colin,” he says, spraying the room with imaginary gunfire. “Just be your usual wacky self.”
It’s getting late, and Kunstler steps outside for fresh air. He rubs his eyes and a visitor asks if he has a headache. The answer is automatic:
“When Charles Garry, the radical lawyer, was dying, they asked if he had a headache,” he says. “And he said: ‘I don’t have headaches. I give them.’ ”
Kunstler laughs, but he can’t steal another man’s epitaph. What he has in mind for himself is more cinematic: A dramatic trial summation, perhaps, then a fatal collapse at the lectern. He’ll breathe his last on the evening news.
“What a story!” he says, with a vainglorious grin. “Now that’s an obituary I can live with.”
RECOMMENDED READING I: The New York Times’ Felicity Barringer offered this look at the often-sloppy way the Olympic figure-skating pairs judging story was reported:
If a sporting event is rigged, that is news. The bigger the sport, the bigger the news. So when tens of million of people saw a sprightly Canadian figure-skating pair perform flawlessly in their Olympic event, only to be judged inferior to an elegant but wobbly Russian pair, the journalists’ task was clear: find out if the fix was in.
But was the ensuing coverage more scrupulous than the pairs judging? Or does figure-skating journalism, like figure-skating judging, have its own folkways and methods of attribution, inscrutable to those who report on government, business or other fraud-prone venues?
So it seems. For most of the week, the rule widely followed was: if you have heard it, report it. And while many early reports were borne out – the French judge in the competition was dismissed on Friday for failure to rule impartially – the sources that reporters used to look into vote-trading accusations seemed, at times, obscure.
Among them were:
–“Unsubstantiated reports” (Agence France- Presse).
–“Various reports, citing unnamed sources” (USA Today).
–“Speculation” (The Chicago Tribune).
Although some news organizations reported accusations that might have been justified, their origins were unclear. A neutral voice was used by NBC’s “Nightly News” (“Allegations focus on possible vote trading between the French and Russian figure skating associations”); ABC’s “World News Tonight” (“The controversy is growing in light of charges that the French judge voted for the Russian to avenge a loss by the French dance team to the Canadians last year”); and The New York Times (news/quote) on Friday (“The controversy centers on an allegation” that there was “a quid pro quo” between the pairs judges and their pair-skating peers).
The inescapable lesson seems to be that rigorous attribution rules are relaxed when journalists are reporting accusations of corrupt deals in a world like figure skating, which has a reputation for unsavory dealings. If that logic holds, many Washington reporters may ask their editors to lighten up.
As the anger over Monday night’s scoring grew, and the Canadian skating federation lodged an official protest, some organizations – most prominently NBC News, whose network is broadcasting the Olympics – reported that Marie-Reine Le Gougne, the French judge, had confessed to colleagues she had received pressure.
The newspapers and broadcast outlets seeking to match this report were tempted to do it source free. On Wednesday evening, USA Today briefly gave in to this temptation, posting on its Web site a column by Christine Brennan that asserted, without attribution, that the French judge had told colleagues she had made “a deal that would deliver a vote for the French team in the ice- dancing competition later in the games.”
The column continued, “There were also very credible reports that Le Gougne is trying to become a member of the important I.S.U. technical committee, and that it’s well known that Russian votes are needed to get yourself elected to that post.”
That column provoked its own minor controversy: shortly after it was posted, it was removed. When it reappeared, the unattributed material was gone. Bob Dubill, the executive editor of USA Today, said on Friday that he could not comment on any editorial decisions regarding Ms. Brennan’s column.
But after the posting, thinly attributed reporting of the rumor became rampant–which Mr. Dubill himself said was a defensible practice. “It’s part of a news story if there are a mountain of rumors,” he said.
Not all the reports were unattributed. The source named most often was Frank Carroll, a longtime United States figure skating coach. Until last year he coached Michelle Kwan, the gold-medal hopeful; a current student is Timothy Goebel, who won a bronze medal Thursday. In 1980, Linda Fratianne, his student, lost the gold medal to an East German skater, Annette Poetzsch.
It is not clear if that last detail – he has been there – makes him a better or worse source. If James Carville, who coaches many Democratic students, speculated that a Republican politician who stumbled at a public appearance was on drugs, would it be proper to print his speculation? For speculate was all Mr. Carroll did last week. Asked, the day after the controversial competition, for evidence of his suspicions, Mr. Carroll said: “You said there’s no proof? What happened last night? Does the I.S.U. think we’re stupid?”
Some editors, like Terry Taylor, the sports editor of The Associated Press, argue that it is impossible to ignore Mr. Carroll’s stature. Yet some news programs, like NBC’s “Nightly News,” did just that. As for attribution, Steve Capus, the broadcast’s executive producer, said, “I can tell you unequivocally that our sources are within the investigation” being conducted by the International Skating Union.
Gene Myers, the sports editor of The Detroit Free Press, said that failing to report Mr. Carroll’s accusations “would be like putting your head in the sand, because it’s widely out there.”
“It’s out there,” of course, was the defense for some erroneous reporting initially in the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal. Tom Rosenstiel, a co-author of “Warp Speed,” a book criticizing that coverage, said that last week’s skating reports featured “a lot of rumors in the raw.”
But the rules in sports are different, no? Ms. Taylor of The Associated Press paused before reluctantly responding, “They may be.”
RECOMMENDED READING II: Continuing, from Josh Getlin’s story, the subject of revealing character, watch how much a writer can reveal about herself if she’s brave enough. This is L.A. Times columnist Sandy Banks’ Feb. 17 column:
It is the latest in an endless series of skirmishes that seem to mark our Sunday nights at home.
My fifth-grader is rummaging through her backpack, looking for a missing assignment … the homework I’ve been asking about all weekend, the homework she insisted she didn’t have. It is already 9 p.m. “How does this happen?” I ask, irritated. “You’re old enough to keep up with your work.”
She slams her notebook on the table and glares back. “Stop bothering me about it,” she says, her voice defensive and sharp, as if I am somehow to blame. “I just forgot, OK? Don’t make such a big deal of it, OK?” I glance around the kitchen at dirty dinner dishes, unread newspapers, two hungry dogs waiting to be fed. Upstairs, her sisters are fighting over the shower, complaining that there’s only one clean towel left.
“No,” I yell, in a voice loud enough for all three to hear. “It is not OK! None of this is OK!” And I launch into a tirade about undone homework and unfolded laundry and an inconsiderate trio of daughters who know nothing about responsibility. I stomp off and up the stairs and hear their muffled complaints through my bedroom door. “So mean … always grouchy … why did she even have kids?”
Why indeed, I wonder. I lie in bed and flip through a magazine, nursing feelings of anger, failure and betrayal. I push, I prod, I set examples, I lecture them about responsibility. If they’re not learning it, am I not teaching? I feel disappointed in them, and in me.
Later that night she slinks into my bedroom to kiss me and to say good night. “Did you find your homework?” I ask her. She shakes her head, and I see tear stains on her face. “Well, it’s time for bed. You’ll just have to live with the consequences. Maybe a few zeros will teach you about responsibility.” I wave her off and turn away.
But I can’t sleep, and hours later I slip downstairs and leaf through her notebook, searching for the assignment she needs. I’m weary of the effort of training children, tired of trying to calculate the long-term costs of every gesture. I simply want to rescue my child; that feels like my motherly duty too.
I fail to find the missing homework, but deep inside my daughter’s English folder I come across an assignment I am drawn to read: “Things My Parents Taught Me,” it is titled. Below, in her unsteady cursive, are a list of lessons I never even tried to teach:
How to share
That I can’t have everything I want
To have manners and to use them
To forgive people
To try my hardest
To be strong
That not all people are nice
To respect your elders
To be loving
To love and respect God
There are certain times when I can’t talk
To pray every night before I go to bed.
Almost every successful man or woman seems to have some story to tell about the lessons Mom or Dad conveyed, and how those messages helped shape their lives. I imagined I’d guide my daughters, as well, through earnest talks and morality tales reflecting the values I held. But it turns out that the most important lessons I’ve taught them may not have come in lectures or “When I was your age …” bromides.
I think of that later, when my best friend calls from Atlanta, disconsolate and blubbering. Her son has decided to drop out of college. It’s his junior year, his grades have fallen, he’s been reassigned to second-string on the football team. And he’s just realized that the average salary in his chosen field–journalism–is about $30,000 a year. So he’s quitting school to become a rap star. He’s already recorded his first CD; before long, he says, he’ll be touring the country.
“He won’t listen to reason,” she says through tears. “All I’ve taught him doesn’t seem to matter.”
I know the struggles she has faced. A single mother raising two sons, she’s moved back and forth across the country, pursuing better jobs and more opportunity. She earned her college degree at 40, juggling work and classes, PTA meetings and football practice. At 45, with both sons in college, she launched her own computer training business.
Now she’s crying because “I spent all their lives talking to my boys about perseverance and discipline, so they’d be prepared, so they wouldn’t have to struggle like me.”
That may be what her sons heard, but what, I wonder, did they see? Perhaps a fearless woman unbowed by defeat, always willing to take a risk, unable to resist following her dreams. Sometimes what we live is what we teach.
And I pull out my daughter’s list and read it again, understanding now that what she says she’s learned is what raising children has taught me:
To forgive people. That I can’t have everything I want. To be strong. There are certain times when I can’t talk. And to pray every night before I go to bed.